Take a moment this week to look to the skies and celebrate the anniversary of one of America’s most enduring conspiracy theories: the 1947 crash of a military surveillance balloon on a ranch near Roswell, N.M. The federal government has only itself to blame if millions of people around the world believe the incident was proof that U.S. officials covered up the truth about extraterrestrial life.
The military in later years maintained that what was recovered at Roswell was a balloon launched by Project Mogul, once a hush-hush surveillance effort using high-altitude microphones to listen for sounds of Soviet atomic bomb tests. But at the time, U.S. officials were loath to admit they were keeping an eye (or high-flying ear) on their former World War II allies.
So it probably seemed like a good idea when Walter Haut, public information officer at the Roswell Army Air Field, issued a press release July 8, 1947, stating that the 509th Operations Group had recovered a “flying disk” at a ranch. Not surprisingly, the news made headlines around the world since, it seems, the military was confirming the existence of flying saucers.
The Army almost immediately changed its story — although still avoiding the truth — by claiming a “weather balloon” had crashed in New Mexico. But the damage had been done.
What followed over the next six decades was a prime example of modern myth-making in American culture. Dozens of books, documentaries, science fiction movies and television shows all celebrated the incident. The town of Roswell has tried to cash in on extraterrestrial tourism, with only modest success. But the real lesson of Roswell is the unintended consequences that ensue when governments refuse to level with their people.