Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

UFOs Were Born Among America’s Cold War Fears

The Pentagon’s latest report is unlikely to shift an old story.

By , a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Protesters at a demonstration against conspiracy theorists in Berlin on May 30, 2020.
Protesters at a demonstration against conspiracy theorists in Berlin on May 30, 2020. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Senate is currently awaiting an official report detailing everything the government knows about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). The report is the result of a provision in the $2.3 trillion 2020 appropriations bill that provided coronavirus relief to Americans and avoided a government shutdown. It is expected, among other things, to address the now infamous Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), made famous by reporting in late 2017.

The current UFO-mania centers on a series of sightings made by U.S. Navy pilots or appearing on their sensors in 2004, 2014, and 2015, the video and reports of which were leaked by former U.S. Defense Department official Luis Elizondo. Elizondo’s alleged credibility derives from his claim to have served as director of AATIP. He described the program as “understandably overstretched” and without “the resources that the mounting evidence deserved.” His effort to ignite interest in un- or underreported military sightings has been bolstered by the creation of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science (TTSA), a research institute co-founded by UFO true believer and former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge, and former CIA official Jim Semivan. Elizondo now works with TTSA in the company of another former U.S. intelligence official, Christopher Mellon. The credentials of both the Navy pilots and the former government officials involved in TTSA have kept these sightings, and the controversy around them, in the public eye for more than three years.

Amid the breathless media reporting and calls for transparency, accountability, and the American people’s “right to know,” it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and mystery. Why are the Pentagon and the respective branches of the U.S. military investigating UFO/UAP sightings? Will we finally receive confirmation that aliens are real and visiting us? Or that we’re being surveilled by some advanced aerial Big Brother technology? What is the government hiding from us?

The U.S. Senate is currently awaiting an official report detailing everything the government knows about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). The report is the result of a provision in the $2.3 trillion 2020 appropriations bill that provided coronavirus relief to Americans and avoided a government shutdown. It is expected, among other things, to address the now infamous Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), made famous by reporting in late 2017.

The current UFO-mania centers on a series of sightings made by U.S. Navy pilots or appearing on their sensors in 2004, 2014, and 2015, the video and reports of which were leaked by former U.S. Defense Department official Luis Elizondo. Elizondo’s alleged credibility derives from his claim to have served as director of AATIP. He described the program as “understandably overstretched” and without “the resources that the mounting evidence deserved.” His effort to ignite interest in un- or underreported military sightings has been bolstered by the creation of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science (TTSA), a research institute co-founded by UFO true believer and former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge, and former CIA official Jim Semivan. Elizondo now works with TTSA in the company of another former U.S. intelligence official, Christopher Mellon. The credentials of both the Navy pilots and the former government officials involved in TTSA have kept these sightings, and the controversy around them, in the public eye for more than three years.

Amid the breathless media reporting and calls for transparency, accountability, and the American people’s “right to know,” it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and mystery. Why are the Pentagon and the respective branches of the U.S. military investigating UFO/UAP sightings? Will we finally receive confirmation that aliens are real and visiting us? Or that we’re being surveilled by some advanced aerial Big Brother technology? What is the government hiding from us?

Yet while Elizondo’s 2017 leaks may have come as a revelation to some, the U.S. military complex has been investigating reports of strange aerial phenomena for almost 75 years. Understanding UFOs and UAPs as historically embedded in airborne global war and U.S. national security concerns explains why they are an object of investigation and inquiry, why those investigations continue, and why sightings and witnesses maintain a persistent power to keep the U.S. public engaged and questioning—as it has several times in the past.

U.S. military involvement with the “UFO question” (What are they? Where do they come from?) dates back to the summer of 1947 and the birth of the modern UFO. We can track the modern UFO or “flying saucer” to the pilot and UFO godfather Kenneth Arnold’s ur-sighting in late June 1947. While assisting in a search for a missing military transport plane over the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, Arnold reported seeing nine discrete flying objects zipping about the mountain peaks. He described them as silvery or metallic, fast, and appearing to be intelligently controlled. Arnold made note of the weather, the time, and used objects in his cockpit to estimate size and speed. When he landed, he told his colleagues. Then he told the press.

Arnold’s sighting was followed by a series of copycat sightings. The sightings were first localized in the Pacific Northwest but quickly spread across the continental United States and then around the world. The U.S. Air Force, then the U.S. Army Air Forces, took serious interest in the sightings, given the descriptions it was receiving—that these were aerial technology, metallic, intelligently controlled, and terrestrial.

That Arnold’s sighting takes place and receives the attention it does is no mere fluke of history but rather a deeply contingent event that hinges on its postwar moment. The modern UFO brought together and embodied three specific characteristics of the tensions of 1947.

First, the flying saucers of 1947 represented the technoscientific developments of World War II taken to the extreme. The world wars, and the second in particular, had led to unprecedented developments and progress in the technology and science of warfare. Major breakthroughs were made in submarine technology, aerial technology (manned and unmanned), cybernetic command-control technologies, computing technologies, medical technologies, surveillance and sensor technology, and weapons technology. The appearance of strange, and potentially deadly, objects in the skies was a resonant idea in the wake of the V2 rocket attacks on London and the unleashing of the atomic bomb. These flying disks, many believed, could just be the next step in bomber technology.

1947 was also a pivotal year in the development of the Cold War. Though once allies, the spring of 1947 saw the American-Soviet friendship collapse, articulated in the Truman Doctrine of March 1947, which presented communism as a threat to the American way of life and pressed the need to contain that threat geopolitically. Americans were faced with, as they saw it, a new and alien challenger.

The summer of 1947 also witnessed the creation of the Air Force as an independent branch of the U.S. military. The Allied forces had won World War II thanks in large part to U.S. military support, especially superior U.S. air power. As a result, the U.S. Army Air Forces understood itself as not only the critical element of the Allied victory over fascism but as the foremost offensive power and first line of defense in future wars, which would certainly be airborne.

The Army Air Forces leveraged its military successes and philosophy of aerial warfare to lobby for its existence as an independent branch of the U.S. military (successfully achieved in July 1947) and for the ongoing support of a substantial research budget, meant to contribute to the cutting-edge research and development required to keep the newly created U.S. Air Force the global leader in aerial offensive and defensive capabilities.

The next war, fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, would be airborne and its threat existential, thanks to the newfound power of atomic weapons and the advance of aerial martial technology.

Humanity had been seeing strange things in the sky since the beginning of recorded history, but these developments transformed the UFO into a national security threat—and gave it a catchy acronym to boot. In its earliest days, it was understood to be terrestrial in origin and most likely Soviet. It distressed Air Force command greatly that the Soviets would have a technology so far advanced beyond its own; not only would this present an existential threat to the American public, but it also indicated that the Air Force was no longer the global leader in air power. The Air Force set out to identify (and one day, it was hoped, capture) these unknown aircraft invading American skies.

Over the next two decades, the Air Force would operate a series of investigatory projects meant to respond to sighting reports and identify the potential dangers posed by these objects. When Project Blue Book, the longest and most well-known of these projects, concluded in 1969, the Air Force did not stop investigating sightings made by its personnel. It merely folded those investigations into normal intelligence procedures. It is safe to presume that investigations of credible sightings by its pilots and other staff continue to this day.

The U.S. defense complex’s concern with UFOs has always been one of national security. Given the ongoing pace of development in aerial technologies—surveillance, weaponry, aircraft, and so on—it should be unsurprising that the 21st-century Navy, Air Force, Pentagon, and U.S. intelligence community continue to investigate reports of strange aerial phenomena made by their personnel.

Indeed, even the current centering of Navy pilots as highly reliable witnesses has a historical precedent. Many of the cases investigated in the Air Force’s early projects came from pilots and other military personnel. And reports that came from pilots were treated with a heightened degree of seriousness: Pilots were men, professionals who were experts in their skillset, serious-minded, sober, calm, even-tempered, and not prone to hyperbole or fanciful storytelling. Pilots have historically been treated as among the most credible witnesses. That standard remains in place and supports the ongoing controversy today.

As the release of the new report approaches, the public should temper its expectations about the contents. Similar reports have been organized and released before. Judging by the past, the report will recount the number of cases over the years, their location and frequency, who made them, and what evidence exists. Where cases can be “solved” and the phenomena identified, we should expect detailed accounts; where insufficient data exists to make a positive or “highly likely” confirmation, we should expect to see these phenomena remain “unknown” or “unidentified.” That is not an endorsement of any theory about their origins, alien or terrestrial—simply an acknowledgement of the lack of clear evidence.

And the American public should not expect to see a full, unredacted version. U.S. military investigations have always been matters of national security. Where objects or phenomena have been identified as belonging to foreign nations or adversaries, the defense establishment will keep these cases hidden from view.

Historians are fans of Nietzsche’s principle of eternal recurrence—put more clearly by True Detective’s Rust Cohle: “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done, or will do, we’re going to do over and over and over again.” The pattern of public excitement about UFOs certainly repeats itself. But regardless of what the upcoming report holds, the U.S. defense and intelligence complex has always understood UFOs and UAPs as a national security matter. In a world of aerial surveillance and drone warfare, this won’t change anytime soon.

Kate Dorsch is a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specializes in expertise and scientific knowledge production during the Cold War.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.