Flying Saucers and the Nuclear Menace

Today, it's taken for granted that UFOs are interested in nuclear weapons, but the idea's origins are less about national security than Martian space bees.

Earlier this week, NBC Nightly News ran a story about UFOs keyed to the controversy over the Pentagon confirming that night-vision video of a triangle apparently in the sky had been taken by Navy personnel. In the story, reporter Gadi Schwartz interviewed ex-Pentagon functionary and ex-To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science security official Lue Elizondo, who told Schwartz that UFOs had been involved in compromising American nuclear sites. “We’ve actually had some of our nuclear capabilities disabled by these things,” he said. Schwartz tweeted his suggestion that Navy ships encounter UFOs because of the nuclear issue as well. “As for the nuke question, may or may not have any bearing... but worth noting that our carriers and subs are nuclear powered. Which would mean any carrier group is likely traveling with several nuclear reactors,” he wrote.

The only publicly available claims to the effect that UFOs compromise American nuclear weapons, claims typically seen on Ancient Aliens, Unexplained Files, etc., involve the Malmstrom Air Force Base incident from 1967, which believers say involved UFOs taking some ICBMs in Montana offline for a few minutes. Skeptics say it was due to an unrelated electrical failure. In 2010 Robert Hastings made much hay out of assembling 120 military personnel who claimed to have seen UFOs near nuclear facilities, though only the Malmstrom incident was offered as evidence of flying saucers’ interference with military readiness.

Schwartz did not apparently press Elizondo on his claims, but given Elizondo’s past statements that he would not discuss anything not already publicly known, it seems logical that he can only be referring to the 1967 event, or else he would be violating the NDA he claims restricts his ability to share new information.

But it’s worth considering where the idea that flying saucers were interested in nuclear weapons came from in the first place. Within days of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine objects skipping like saucers in June 1947, members of the public hailed them as prophets warning of the dangers of nuclear war. In July 1947, someone pretending to be a space alien sent out over ham radio a coded message that read “Tired of human nonsense. Won’t await atomic war disturbing solar system so sent flying discs and will set up world under Martians late this year.”

Such ideas had clear antecedents in science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, and would form a key element of classic science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s, where nuclear bombs and UFOs were all but inseparable.

As early as 1949, the U.S. government was already trying to link flying saucers to nukes, but in a very different way. In a 1949 FBI memorandum, a U.S. Army technician working for a program examining how to use nuclear power for aircraft propulsion told the Bureau that UFOs were probably nuclear-powered experimental craft created by the Soviets with the help of captured Nazi scientists. A series of other memoranda provide slightly different accounts of the same basic claim. It is not a coincidence that this speculation coincided with the last stage of the Soviets’ actual atomic bomb development program, which succeeded in developing a bomb in mid-1949. American officials, getting half-understood reports about what might be happening in Russia, fantasized ahead of the evidence, paranoid about Soviet nuclear parity and worried that the Soviets could outstrip American capabilities. Reportedly, the Air Force used Geiger counters to check planes sent to track alleged flying saucers for radiation.

But, overall, there was remarkably little discussion of flying saucers and nukes before 1950.

Then, everything changed.

In the last weeks of 1949, former pulp writer turned UFO obsessive Donald Keyhoe published a major article in True magazine, dated January 1950, about flying saucers. Coinciding with the government’s sudden interest in whether UFOs were Soviet nuclear-powered weapons, Keyhoe picked up on the secrecy involved in discussions of Soviet nuclear capabilities and instead decided that it was really all about UFOs. He wrote that “The sudden spurt of sightings in 1947 might indicate that we have attracted attention with our V-2 rockets, A-bomb explosions, and other experiments, and that an orbiting satellite base has been established or re-established after an absence.” He also heavily implied that the Air Force was conspiring to hide the truth about the flying discs.

And that opened the flood gates. By the end of the year, the FBI was compiling a report about claims that employees at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee facilities had seen flying saucers buzzing the secret location where uranium was purified for atomic bombs from July 1947 to October 1950. Both the FBI and the Air Force concluded that the sightings were the result of misidentification of natural phenomena and weather anomalies causing false radar signatures.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of evidence, the intimation of UFOs’ interest in the nuclear continued.

Keyhoe’s implication that UFOs were attracted to atomic bombs sparked a mountain of speculation, but his idea came in parallel with an important book that is today now obscure but helped solidify Keyhoe’s idea as part of the UFO mythos. The science writer and philosopher Gerald Heard also believed that UFOs had a connection to nuclear power. In his 1950 book Riddle of the Flying Saucers: Is Another World Watching?, known in America as Is Another World Watching? Riddle of the Flying Saucers, Heard developed a bizarre idea that flying saucers were small—a real detail from early reports now forgotten—and piloted by hyper-intelligent “super bees” from Mars who were deeply concerned that nuclear explosions on Earth would create sun spots.

I only happened to run across Heard’s bizarre book due to research for my new book on midcentury UFO and sex panics, because an earlier volume of his, Pain, Sex, and Time (1939) was a favorite of James Dean’s, and Dean would quote extensively from its speculation about consciousness, teleological self-actualization, and humanity’s supernatural destiny right up until his death. Even at an early date, UFOs were intimately tied to proto-New Age quasi-supernatural belief, and as I have learned so many times, everything is connected the weirdest and usually stupidest of ways.

Anyway, the famed psychiatrist Carl Jung read Keyhoe and then developed a passionate enthusiasm for Heard’s Riddle of the Flying Saucers, writing a letter to a friend in 1951 about how endlessly fascinating he found the claims that Heard had made. And we all know how Jung’s ideas about the mythic aspect to the flying saucer mystery went on to influence UFO mythology for decades to come.

The long and short of it is that fantasy and speculation had created the context for believing that flying saucers would actively interfere with nuclear systems long before anyone began asserting that space aliens actually had. Jung himself would have understood that the psychological precursors to the story need to be examined before concluding that aliens are after our nukes.