Early Sightings

In late 1954, the CIA began to work with Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works to develop a high-altitude experimental aircraft, which later became the U-2, and by mid-1955 it was testing the craft at altitudes that were three times as high as those flown by commercial airliners of the time. UFO sightings, which had first emerged in mid-1947 and mounted steadily since then, suddenly spiked and a high percentage of these sightings were from commercial pilots or air traffic controllers. [Pedlow. Gregory W. & Donald E. Welzenbach. 1992. The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974. CIA History Staff Publication, p. 24.]









Government Response

A little more than a year earlier the first high-level, government-wide study of UFO sightings was started and, to insure objectivity, H. P. Robertson, a noted Cal Tech physicist, was commissioned to head the effort and to include the best civilian scientists available. The panel concluded unanimously that the greatest cause for concern was not in the objects sighted but in the gullibility of the public and its mistrust of government statements on the subject. The Robertson report "recommended that the National Security Council debunk UFO reports and institute a policy of public education to reassure the public of the lack of evidence behind UFOs. It suggested using the mass media, advertising, business clubs, schools, and even the Disney Corporation to get the message across. [Haines, Gerald K. 1997. CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90. Studies in Intelligence, I/1:4, <http://www.odci.gov/csi/studies/97unclas/ufo.html>] Psychological warfare was the only way to prevent mass UFO reporting from tying up communications and obstructing "the orderly functioning of government." [Haines, 4-5]






"Tell Us the Truth!"

In 1956, just as production and use of U-2s was being stepped up, a well organized, creditably-led, non-governmental initiative was having a major impact. Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe's 1955 book, The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, became a best seller and it argued forcefully for immediate release of all government information and action relating to UFOs. Continuing pressure in this direction came from a civilian group called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, which included on its governing board a former head of CIA, Vice-Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter. In addition, Edward Ruppelt, former head of an early Air Force UFO study team, revealed the existence of the Robertson panel plus its report and recommendations. Finally the CIA was directly and publicly challenged to disclose the U-2 as a major source of UFO sightings by Dr. Leon Davidson, a chemical engineer who seems to have stumbled by accident upon the truth and who, along with Major Keyhoe, proved relentless in confronting the CIA with demands for disclosure. [Haines, 5-6]






Half Truths

A debate within the CIA ensued, with predictable opposition to disclosure coming from the operations and assessments directorates, but any chance of real disclosure was doomed by the civilian scientists on the Robertson panel, who were very concerned that their participation remain secret. These civilian scientists, who might reasonably be expected to feel an obligation to the public, instead urged Philip Strong, Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Scientific Intelligence, to preserve secrecy. As a result, only a "sanitized" version of the Robertson report was released and this version deleted all references to the U-2, to psychological warfare, to the CIA and to civilian scientists who worked with the agency.







Public Doubts

From then until now, vast public distrust of government and of the scientific community on this issue has persisted. A huge, 95% majority of all Americans are interested enough in UFOs to follow media coverage on this issue and 57% believe they are real [Haines, 1] If anything, distrust seems to be growing, as suggested by high ratings among viewers for July 1997 TV network coverage of the 50th anniversary of the supposed government seizure of extraterrestrial aircraft and beings near Roswell, New Mexico. [New York Times, August 3, 1997, p. 12]







Recovering Credibility

Leading figures in government and science have made major efforts to undo the damage caused by earlier duplicity. Since 1993, the CIA has not only combed its files for anything relating to UFOs but has also chronicled government programs that had an impact on UFO sightings and detailed the succession of government efforts to mislead the public. Scientists have been no less forthcoming. James E. Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, has joined the successors of Keyhoe and Davidson in pressing for full disclosure of Federal projects involving advanced aircraft. "The flying-saucer community is definitely onto something," Mr. Pike reportedly said to the New York Times while challenging the Pentagon to address public doubts. [NYT, 7/3/97]

Can all such efforts after 1955 be dismissed as too little attempted to late? Was there a moment in 1955 when full disclosure, at least by civilian scientists, could have strengthened public rationality on UFOs and saved the government decades of deception and embarrassment.