Roswell: The Birth of a Myth

Flying saucer, weather balloon, or...?

Sign pointing to an alien parking lot in Roswell, New Mexico
Jerry Gay/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Though it was not to be dubbed an "incident" until long afterward, an unusual series of events unfolded in early July 1947, the details of which have become so obscured by more than a half-century of mythologizing that even the mainstream press has difficulty distinguishing the truth from the fiction of it anymore.

In the public's mind, the so-called Roswell Incident now occupies that same curious limbo between belief and disbelief that was once the sole domain of conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. 

Suppose there were indisputable evidence that extraterrestrial beings visited this planet at some point in the past century. That discovery alone would be among the most significant events of all time, forever changing humankind's view of itself and its place in the universe.

Suppose further that it could be proven, as some people claim, that the U.S. government purposely withheld this profoundly important information from the public for some 60-plus years. The social and political fallout would shake the country to its core.

Of course, nothing of the sort has been proven, not even remotely, yet 80 percent of the American public admit to believing these things to be true. Why? The answer may be that in Roswell we've found the ideal myth for our age, replete with supernatural beings whose elusive comings and goings hint at an unseen world beyond everyday reality and a struggle between forces of good and evil that mirrors our gravest concerns about modern life.

The mythopoeic elements of the Roswell story are more compelling than the facts, which, when given their due, only lead back to what is ordinary and familiar — that which we yearn to transcend.

The making of a myth

Anthropologists tell us that myths can be born from simple errors in observation or misinterpretations of mundane events. With that in mind, perhaps it would be productive for once to review the basic facts — the few that remain undisputed, in any case — with a folklorist's eye; to look at Roswell as a myth in the making.

Let's begin with an observation: We would not be referring to Roswell as an "incident" today if the Air Force had not made a public pronouncement based on the discovery of unusual debris in a remote pasture on July 8, 1947 and then reversed its story 24 hours later. So much hinges on a few conflicting statements.

The "incident" had actually begun two days earlier when a rancher named William "Mac" Brazel drove to Roswell with two cardboard boxes containing what appeared to be aircraft wreckage — albeit made from strange materials and decorated with even stranger markings — and showed the contents to the local sheriff. The sheriff called officials at the Roswell Air Army Field, who dispatched intelligence officers to scoop up the debris and ship it off for analysis.

Twenty-four hours later, the Air Force issued a press release declaring it had come into possession of "a flying saucer" 

Later that same day, in a statement made on a radio news broadcast by Brigadier General Roger Ramey, the Air Force retracted its previous announcement, now declaring that the debris found in Brazel's pasture was the wreckage of "an ordinary weather balloon.

Here's a bit of historical context: No one had ever heard of "flying saucers" until just two weeks earlier when the phrase was first coined — in a newspaper headline.

Kenneth Arnold's "flying saucers"

Rewind to June 24, 1947. A businessman named Kenneth Arnold, while piloting his private plane near Mt. Rainier in Washington state, clocks nine glowing objects streaking across the horizon at a speed beyond the capability of any aircraft in existence. He is so stunned by the experience that he immediately calls a reporter and describes what he saw: "boomerang-shaped" flying objects that moved erratically across the sky, "like a saucer would if you skipped it across water."

The story is picked up by wire services and published in newspapers across the country. Newspaper editors wrack their brains for a snappy catch-phrase. "Flying saucers" enter the national vocabulary.

More to the point, for a three-week period beginning with Arnold's sighting on June 24 and ending in mid-July, flying saucers become a national obsession. The initial publicity touches off an avalanche of similar reports — hundreds in all — across 32 states and Canada.

It was no coincidence, then, that the announcement of the Roswell find came on July 8, precisely at the peak of the nation's saucer frenzy. One rarely reported detail of the case is that the infamous wreckage had lain undisturbed in Mac Brazel's pasture for the better part of a month — with his knowledge — until he became so spooked by rumors of a flying saucer invasion that he decided to report it to authorities.

Project Mogul

Which leads us back to the central question. Given this atmosphere of near-hysteria, why would military officials have done something so reckless as to announce to the entire world that it had found a flying saucer, and then deny it? In hindsight it seems like an extraordinarily harebrained, irresponsible thing to do.

Yet there's also an extraordinarily simple and plausible explanation: human nature. In 1947, the United States was in the grips of something approaching a panic. People were seeing flying saucers everywhere and demanding an explanation. It stands to reason that Air Force personnel were just as caught up in it as everyone else — perhaps even more so, given that it was their job not only to explain it, but to do something about it. But they had no more idea what was going on than did the man in the street. The hard evidence provided by the Roswell wreckage must have seemed like manna from heaven. "Yes, America, we can now tell you what flying saucers are. We have one in our possession!" Conclusions were drawn. Assumptions were trumpeted in haste. It was an all-too-human blunder, and one whose evident naivete counterbalances all subsequent accusations of cover-up and conspiracy.

Yet, as we have learned from declassified government documents, there really was something to cover up — other than aliens, I mean — hence the eleventh-hour "weather balloon" deceit. We now know that the U.S. government was engaged at that very time and place in a top secret project, code-named "Mogul," designed to detect atmospheric evidence of Soviet nuclear testing. Part of this covert operation entailed the deployment of a set of surprisingly low-tech airborne instruments described by witnesses as "modified weather balloons."

Based on information in formerly secret files (e.g., the military's own summary report on Project Mogul), it appears more likely than not that what Mac Brazel actually stumbled across in 1947 were remnants of one of these balloon-like instruments. The investigators who analyzed the debris after it was erroneously described as a "flying saucer" either recognized it for what it was — a top secret instrument package — and lied to the press to maintain secrecy, or they genuinely mistook it for a weather balloon. Based on the evidence at hand, either scenario is vastly more plausible than hastily-conceived conspiracy to cover up the discovery of an alien spacecraft with extraterrestrial beings aboard.

Innocence lost

What has come to be called the Roswell Incident was likely little more than a comedy of errors inflamed by Cold War secrecy and paranoia. Nevertheless, the groundwork was laid for the formation of an enduring national myth. Very few eyebrows were raised in response to the government's actions at the time, but some 30 years later, in the wake of our loss of innocence due the Vietnam War and the disillusionment brought on by Watergate — Roswell was set to become a symbol of everything we fear has gone wrong with modern life.

At bottom, our fixation on Roswell is not really about little green men or flying saucers, or even vast conspiracies in high places. It's about our deep yearning to plumb the mystery of our own flawed nature, to recapture a sense of innocence, and perhaps to glean some fleeting insight into the rightful place of human beings in the larger universe. These yearnings arouse precisely the sorts of questions for which we will never find simple, concrete answers, which is why we make myths in the first place, and why the events at Roswell will continue to obsess us for a long time to come.