I first met my friend Mark Pilkington, the UK journalist and publisher of Strange Attractor Press, a few years ago when he was visiting San Francisco researching a new book about UFOs. Mark (smartly) wasn't trying to find out if UFOs are "real" in the extraterrestrial sense. Rather, he was exploring what I think is much weirder territory: the story behind the UFO story — a history of disinformation, paranoia, hoaxers, espionage, and weird psy-ops. Mark interviewed dozens of characters across the country, from kooky ET enthusiasts to former air force officers whose truths, if you believe them, are far stranger than the fictions you'll get from most UFO books. The result of Mark's intrepid reporting is Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs. It's a provocative, informative, freaky, entertaining, and often damn funny book. For a taste, you can read a bit of a Fortean Times cover story adapted from Mirage Men after the jump.
America's relationship to the flying saucer changed dramatically between 1949 and 1953. After two years of intermittent "UFOria" sparked by Kenneth Arnold's original 1947 sighting, by late 1949 it looked as if the public might finally be losing interest in the elusive intruders. This was largely thanks to the Air Force's Project Grudge, which had spent the year doing its best to play down public enthusiasm for the phenomenon – largely by ridiculing it – and, most importantly, inoculÂating its own pilots against the UFO bug.
In late December 1949, however, all Grudge's hard work came undone thanks to an article in the hugely popular men's magazine True. "Flying Saucers are Real" by pulp author Donald Keyhoe, a retired Major from the US Marine Corps naval aviation division, was a shocking exposé of the Air Force cover-up of the awful truth – that flying saucers were real, and they were from Outer Space.
Although the Extraterrestrial HypoÂthesis (ETH) had always been a contender for the discs' origin, until then most people, civilian and military, thought the saucers were American or possibly Soviet in origin. Even Kenneth Arnold had spoken publicly of his belief that what he saw were experimental US craft, perhaps powered by atomic energy. It was these comments that caused him to be drawn into the Maury Island UFO affair in July 1947, a bizarre honey-trap involving Air Force IntelliÂgence, the FBI and, possibly, the powerful Atomic Energy Commission. Arnold was lured to Tacoma, Washington, by the promise of UFO debris, but his investigatÂion inadvertently led to the deaths of two Air Force intelligence agents (the newly-formed USAF's first ever casualties) in a plane crash and a lucky escape for Arnold in his own aircraft.
Although Arnold wouldn't have known it, the Air Force did have a nascent atomic aircraft project at the time – Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft – so it's not surprising that he became the subject of an intense investigation, especially given how seriously the US authorities took the threat of Soviet infiltration. It was only eight months since the Venona intelligence decryption project – so secret that not even Presidents Roosevelt and Truman knew of its existence – had made its first breakthrough, and the situation it unravelled was nothing short of devastating. Venona identified Soviet moles inside the ManÂhattan Project and in government bodies including the Office of Strategic Services (which became the CIA in 1947), the Army Air Force, the War Production Board (chief spymaster Victor Perlo headed the Aviation Section) the Treasury, the State Department, and even amongst President RooseÂvelt's trusted White House administrators. The United States was paranoid, and with good reason: there really were Reds under the bed, including the four-posters at the White House.
The strange brew of technology and paranoia that led to the first outbreak of the UFO bug was fomented by the breakdown of relations between the US Air Force and the Navy. As they fought over post-war funding, each side accused the other of corruption in pursuing government contracts and leaked one another's internal documents in what was described by some as a civil war. Things deteriorated so badly that a chronically depressed Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who had previously headed the Navy, leapt to his death from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, an incident that has launched a thousand conspiracy theories.
"Weapons of Mass Deception: Mirage Men" (Fortean Times)