Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Reflections on the Roswell UFO Incident -- 61 Years Later

Dear Tiki Lounge Blog Pals,

Last year about this time, I wrote a column for the Waterloo Region Record (you may recall that in an earlier Blog I mentioned I'm a regular Record columnist) about the 60th Anniversary of the alleged Roswell UFO Incident. It turns out that I scrapped the column and wrote something else instead (I can't remember why I decided not to run it -- maybe I thought readers would think I was a crackpot if I weighed in on the Roswell UFO Incident.) At any rate, I re-read the column the other day -- it being the 61st Anniversary of the UFO Incident and all (I know 61st does not carry the same well-rounded meaning as 60th, but hey, go easy on me). I know this sounds self-promoting and self-congratulatory, but liked the column and I regret not running it. Oh well. What better place to put it than Andrew's Tiki Lounge? I hope you enjoy it!


Above: Roswell alien autopsy film.

Sixty years ago, something happened in a lonely stretch of desert near Roswell, New Mexico. Even though nobody knows exactly what happened to this day, a legend was born.

Since then, Roswell has become a household word. The so-called Roswell UFO Incident continues to stir the imaginations of millions of people worldwide. It has become a staple of modern popular culture. Countless books and numerous feature films, documentaries and television shows have focused on the alleged UFO crash that occurred sixty years ago. And the legend shows no signs of fading away.

As a general rule, academics are loathe to comment on the incident. For the most part, they’ve consigned it to the realm of supermarket tabloid sensationalism. Yet the mystery of what happened in the New Mexico desert remains potent, still prompting widespread curiosity and speculation.

The legend of Roswell began sixty years ago, when W.W. “Mack” Brazel, a ranch foreman in rural New Mexico, went out to check on some sheep following an intense thunderstorm and found metallic debris scattered across the landscape. Word of the discovery quickly reached the authorities at the Roswell Army Air Field, and within days, the normally quiet ranch near Roswell was crawling with military personnel.

On July 7, 1947, Brazel went on a local radio and told an interviewer about finding “little bodies.” Coincidentally, the Roswell Army Air Field released a statement that it had found pieces of a “crashed disc” (pictured right) at the ranch outside of Roswell. The revelations caused quite a stir. By July 8, newspaper headlines across the country told of a crashed “flying saucer.”

The drama proved short-lived, though. Within days, the Army revised its story. The debris came from a downed weather balloon, insisted top Army brass at a press conference. The dramatic newspaper headlines abruptly ceased. The story faded. People stopped talking about crashed “flying saucers” and moved on. And for more than thirty years, the Roswell UFO Incident was largely forgotten.

The legend of Roswell was reborn – with a vengeance – in 1980, with the publication of Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore’s bestselling account, The Roswell Incident. Over the past 25 years, the Roswell incident has gone from being a forgotten occurrence to a worldwide phenomenon. Larry King, the late Peter Jennings, and many other television news personalities have hosted specials on the incident. Living witnesses told of seeing alien bodies and strange, metallic debris with hieroglyphic-like symbols on it.

Before long, the word “Roswell” became shorthand for a sinister government conspiracy. Reflecting post-Watergate sensibilities, stories soon spread of federal agents orchestrating a massive cover-up. The Air Force fanned the flames when it reiterated in 1994 that the UFO crash site debris came from a weather balloon, and the “alien bodies” were actually “anthropomorphic dummies” placed inside the balloons for testing purposes.

The Roswell Incident has also found a prominent spot in pop culture. The 1996 blockbuster Independence Day referred to it repeatedly. The cult television hit X-Files contained Roswell-related plotlines. When Fox television aired grainy, black-and-white footage allegedly showing a Roswell alien autopsy (pictured above), it proved to be a ratings bonanza for the network. The short-lived 1996-97 NBC series Dark Skies upped the ante, linking John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to the Roswell aliens.

The city of Roswell (dubbed “the Alien Capitol of the World”) has successfully capitalized on the craze. Tourists from around the world flock to Roswell in droves, filling the local hotels. Sixtieth anniversary celebrations are already underway. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the community, as alien-themed museums, hotels, bookstores, gift shops and restaurants thrive along the main drags.

“Little green men” are everywhere, including towering inflatable aliens at car lots, waving greeters in alien costumes, and toy aliens sold by street vendors. Each year, geeky UFO researchers invade the city to butt heads, holding roundtable discussions and attacking each other’s research and conclusions. In 2010, a multimillion dollar, alien-themed amusement park will open in the town.

The actual Roswell UFO Incident remains shrouded in mystery. We’ll never know what happened sixty years ago. But the lasting popularity of the legend highlights some important truths about contemporary society.

It’s no surprise that Roswell went from being a forgotten episode to occupying a central place in the popular imagination. It is really a tale for our times, more so than it was at the onset of the Cold War, when it actually happened. Roswell’s continuing international appeal points to a deeper, collective yearning by people around the world to find out whether we share the universe with life forms on other planets.

But there’s also a dark side to the tale. Stories of a government cover-up, of alien bodies being whisked away to secret locations and dissected, and of malevolent government agents in suits intimidating eyewitnesses, are also key elements of the narrative. If the enduring Roswell story underscores a widespread hunger to know what else lurks in the heavens, it also highlights a pervasive lack of faith in governing institutions to help solve this most profound of riddles.

Andrew Hunt is the Chair of the Department of History at the
University of Waterloo.

1 comment:

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