- Courtesy Of Elman Studio
- Garrett Graff
In 1947, a pilot spotted a fleet of strange objects traveling in the skies over Mount Rainier at speeds between 1,200 and 1,700 miles an hour, unthinkably fast by the day's technological standards. In 1997, a huge triangular craft glided over Phoenix without making a sound, spooking thousands of people, including then-Arizona governor Fife Symington. Two decades later, a Tic Tac-shaped object with no visible means of propulsion appeared off the coast of Baja, Mexico, accelerating and changing altitude in a way that confounded the U.S. Navy pilots who saw it.
Burlington author Garrett Graff's latest book, UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here — and Out There, chronicles nearly 80 years of federal and scientific research into these sorts of mysterious sightings. It arrives at a moment of renewed public and government interest in UFOs, recently rebranded by the Pentagon as UAPs, or "unidentified aerial phenomena." In July, three former military officials testified before a Congressional subcommittee about their encounters with airborne objects whose movements couldn't be explained by any known technology; in September, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration designated a head of UAP research, giving new legitimacy to the study of strange objects in the sky.
What makes these episodes so unsettling isn't just the possibility that we might not be alone in the universe. As Graff explores in his book, part of the allure of modern UFO mythology is the great mystery of what top government and military brass really know — and what they've been concealing from us.
An accomplished journalist and historian, Graff, whose 2022 book Watergate: A New History was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, specializes in wringing all that can be wrung from government documents. In UFO, he attempts to piece together the knowable truth by drawing on decades of declassified reports, mountains of scientific papers and the published writings of some of the biggest names in ufology, including astrophysicist Frank Drake, astronomers J. Allen Hynek and Carl Sagan, and U.S. Air Force officer Edward J. Ruppelt, who led two of the government's inquiries into UFOs in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But this picture, as Graff warns in the book's introduction, is almost certainly incomplete. "The government is absolutely covering up the full extent of its interest and investigation into UFOs," he writes. What is less clear, he continues, "is whether the government is covering up meaningful information about UFOs or UAPs."
- UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here — and Out There, Avid Reader Press, 544 pages. $32.50.
In Graff's view, whatever the government might be hiding, its vast bureaucracies lack the cunning to pull off the grand bamboozlements of the American people with which they have sometimes been credited. "It's not that the government knows something it doesn't want to tell us; it's that the government is uncomfortable telling us it doesn't know anything at all," Graff writes. "It's a bafflement that hints at a much more exciting and intriguing truth: there is something out there, and none of us yet know what it is."
Graff presents the seminal events in modern UAP history in more or less sequential order, beginning with pilot Kenneth Arnold's 1947 sighting of strange lights over Mount Rainier and bringing us up to the present moment of increasing government transparency. He weaves in colorful and eerie accounts of some of the most famous UFO incidents of the past half-century, some of which remain unresolved to this day. He details the pass-the-buck attitude of the various authorities tasked with investigating reports of mysterious phenomena, to the chronic frustration of the few stalwarts who remained committed to finding answers. And he brings in geopolitical history and the paranoid insecurities of the Cold War era, providing important context for the paroxysms of UFO mania in mid-20th-century America. He also gets into some tantalizingly weird stuff; one of the book's chapters is titled "Sex With Aliens."
Graff ventures no conclusions about whether any of the bizarre happenings he describes are proof of intergalactic visitation or total bunk, but he offers ample evidence that the government's efforts to investigate them have often been tainted by political pressure. The Robertson Panel, one such effort that convened over four days in 1953 to review 75 UFO sightings that the Air Force had deemed worthy of serious scrutiny, determined that the only major cause for concern was the potential for mass hysteria, which could, according to the panel's report, "result in a threat to the orderly functioning of the protective organs of the body politic."
The problem, in other words, wasn't UFOs, whatever they were or weren't; it was that people were claiming to have seen them. The panel recommended that the military enlist airline personnel in a public education campaign aimed at quashing excitement about weird stuff in the sky.
These kinds of episodes abound. Attempt after attempt to get at the true nature of UFOs succumbs to bureaucratic torpor, a tale as old as the galaxy itself. A number of fascinating individuals populate these attempts, but Graff's chronological structure and exhaustive aims leave room for only cursory psychological development. It rarely bodes well when a book begins, as this one does, with the big bang.
Graff has given himself so much ground to cover that he can hardly pause to tell us what he makes of it, which gives this 544-page doorstop an oddly hurried feel. The reader of UFO is like a person on a speed-walking tour of a strange and enormous house, led by an unflappable docent: "And here is the room where the livestock were mutilated ... Quickly, now, on to the master suite, where the thing happened with the orbs..." The subject matter is objectively fascinating, yet a feeling of inert muchness prevails.
And there is so much muchness in here — the search for water on Mars, the psychology of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, the long and mostly futile hunt for extraterrestrial radio signals, the origins of life on Earth, the UFO-obsessed lead singer of Blink-182 — that Graff can't quite coax a coherent thesis out of it beyond the obvious: Yep, there's probably something out there.
Despite the widening circles of global interest and the increasingly illustrious scientific names associated with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, J. Allen Hynek still found the hunt for UFOs here on Earth an isolating experience — the subject still raised more eyebrows and snickers from "serious" scientists than Hynek felt he deserved, and, too often, he wasn't even sure how he felt about the entire phenomena himself. Whatever brusque dismissals he'd once been inclined to make at the start of his work with the air force had faded into more uncertainty as the years passed. It really seemed to him that there was something out there, mysteries he couldn't explain — "UFOs had been reported in more than 140 countries," his biographer later noted, "and there was confoundingly little variety in the types of objects reported: what witnesses described seeing in the skies above Rio were essentially identical to what was being reported by witnesses in Turkey, Canada, France, and Japan, as though they were all manufactured on the same UFO assembly line."