Flying saucers over Washington
UFOs are back in the news again. Paul Demarty explores the cold war background and its exotic leftwing offshoots and variants
It seems America is in the grip of one of its periodic manias about unidentified flying objects.
This month, the Pentagon is due to finally release an extensive report on its investigations of what it - like many others who look into these matters who do not want to appear cranky - calls ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAPs). A segment on the CBS 60 minutes news programme trailed the report heavily, and interviewed a retired navy pilot who claimed that he had seen UFOs “every day for a couple years”. Barack Obama recently mentioned in an interview that there were a large number of such UAPs that had not been satisfactorily explained. On the right, the eccentric, reactionary cable news host, Tucker Carlson, and Floridian senator Marco Rubio both expressed their concerns over what these encounters mean for national security.
We await the Pentagon’s report with some interest, but do not expect that it will resolve things satisfactorily. This is merely because it will not blithely reveal that the government is in contact with space aliens, but probably will not declassify everything; so the UFO enthusiasts can always project their fantasies onto this remainder. What will be discussed? The more general formulation - UAP - is probably helpful, since some UFO-type sightings turn out to be meteorological effects or misidentified heavenly bodies rather than ‘flying objects’ of any sort. But the latter account for their fair share too - weather balloons, spy aircraft and today perhaps drones. Something like 90% of reported sightings are quickly explained - satisfactorily or otherwise.
The remaining 10% exercise a powerful pull, especially over the American imagination. Polls routinely suggest that around half the population believe that first contact has in fact been made, or will be in the next 100 years. Those who, like the X files’ Fox Mulder, ‘want to believe’, are growing rather than shrinking in number and proportion.
There are two kinds of explanation for this enthusiasm, which you could crudely call political and cultural - though, of course, the two interpenetrate.
On the political and especially geopolitical side, it is worth noting the effective birth date of the UFO craze: it was 1947. That year, the reports by military pilots of ‘foo fighters’ - objects that appeared to be flying with exceptional manoeuvrability and speed - started to bubble up in the public mind. There was also the notorious ‘Roswell incident’, when a high-altitude balloon belonging to the airforce crashed on a New Mexico ranch and spawned one of the first and most enduring UFO conspiracy theories.
This all coincided with the outbreak of the cold war and the beginning of the nuclear era, and so there was naturally an interest on the part of the American deep state on the real nature of these reports - not, of course, the hysteria over Roswell or cattle mutilations, but apparently sane navy and airforce pilots. The US government well knew that it had not got hold of all the Nazis’ scientific experts: many were in the USSR, speeding along the Soviet rocket programme and just maybe pursuing some of the Third Reich’s more outré aeronautical conjectures (which included at least one design for a round, flat aircraft).
In the 1950s, the US military made things worse by commissioning a super-high-altitude spy plane, which became the U-2. Civilian airline pilots, observing these craft flying far higher than any pre-existing planes, were repeatedly spooked out. A new department - Project Blue Book - was spun up to deal with the volume of sightings. It cross-referenced with known U-2 test flights, which accounted for the majority of reports; but the true cause could not be revealed publicly without alerting the Soviets to the new plane’s existence.
The first UFO craze, then, coincided with the outbreak of the cold war; the second with what you could call its climax - the period between the Cuban missile crisis and the American evacuation of Saigon. Popular anxieties about global enemies were displaced onto imaginary threats. As a Marxist periodical, we could hardly avoid mentioning the peculiar case of Juan Posadas in this connection. Posadas was the leader of the Latin American bureau of the Trotskyist Fourth International in the 1950s, and though himself an Argentine, had particular influence over the Cuban section, which played a small, but not trivial, role in the revolution. Initially tolerated by the Castro regime, the Posadists found themselves suppressed after a series of provocations: they denounced the USSR’s climbdown in the Cuban crisis, arguing that if a nuclear war was to come it would only hasten the revolution, and later demanded the government kick the US out of Guantanamo Bay, allegedly organising nearby workers to march on the base and take care of things themselves. The Posadists turned to guerrilla struggles, which did not go well for them: much reduced, the group became more dependent on its leader.
Posadas himself noted with interest the revival of the American obsession with UFOs, and suggested - initially half in jest - that, if they really were visitors from far-off stars, then they must surely be communists, since capitalism could not develop the productive forces far enough to develop faster-than-light travel! This jeu d’esprit hardened into a dogma, and the group became a peculiar hybrid of Trotskyist sect and new-age cult; it still exists here and there, but has its greatest prominence as a source of memes for snarky online leftists.
The end of the cold war had a peculiar effect on American ‘ufology’. On the face of it, you would expect it to have dire consequences: military competition with the USSR had produced not only several of the ‘flying objects’ themselves, so far as they were more than optical illusions: it had provided the bass-note of paranoia in post-war American life. ‘Ordinary folks’ could fear communist agents, or the deep-state apparatuses set up to fight them - or both.
The effect of ‘the end of history’ was to resolve that tension, but not the underlying anxiety; so it became wholly introjected. The concomitant defeat of the workers’ movement tended to increase atomisation throughout society, leading to greater credulousness. Religious and even paramilitary movements sprung up, whose notional enemy was ‘the government’ - increasingly viewed not merely in national but in global terms. Older paranoid obsessions, like UFOs, fused with ‘new world order’ conspiracy theories. David Icke discovered his lizards; and it was not uncommon in the first years of this century to find insinuations of extra-terrestrial involvement in the supposed controlled demolition of the twin towers. The efforts of the Trump administration to declassify some of this material plays on precisely this primarily rightwing account of deep-state conspiracy.
Deus ex machina
So much for the directly political side of the question. Posadas’s conjecture about space communism is, in a sense, a good way into the cultural side. It is the mirror image of the Tucker Carlson treatment of the question as essentially a matter of ‘national security’; supposing that ‘they are out there’, the ‘they’ we imagine is implicitly very much like ‘us’, and so either running on the same rails of universal history (Posadas) or similarly paranoid and warlike, and therefore a threat (Carlson).
If we think of these conjectures as essentially science-fictional, then it is a particular sort of science fiction at work: basically the pulp franchise, like Star wars or Star trek, where the universe or the galaxy is populated by humanoid alien species which offer in archetypal (or stereotyped) form of identifiable aspects of human species being - or even just ciphers for national and political tendencies of very obviously terrestrial origin. Star trek is the more interesting case here, in that it presents - in the form of the Federation - a society that is simultaneously a communism of abundance and somehow also an imperialist security state. Both sides of the cold war sit in the same franchise in sometimes bizarre contrast, and sometimes fruitful interplay (as in the Deep space nine sub-franchise).
There exists also a radically different tendency in science fiction that deals with extra-terrestrial life: the attempt to push at the edges of what contact with a radically different alien species would mean for humanity. Many of the important names in this tradition, oddly, hailed from the Stalinist countries, though they were not necessarily happy campers - Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside picnic imagines human scavengers finding bizarre artefacts from the site of an earlier visitation by aliens, who seem to have no interest in us at all; and Stanisław Lem’s Solaris imagined contact with a planetary sentience. Both were, of course, adapted into classic films by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. The novel and film of 2001: a space odyssey fits into this category. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, based on a story by Ted Chiang, is a more recent exploration of similar territory.
There is, finally, the most obviously relevant subgenre - the UFO/alien invasion conspiracy thriller. There are older examples: the various Invasion of the body snatchers movies; Gerry Anderson’s live-action series UFO and, for that matter, Captain Scarlet. (UFO’s leading man, Ed Bishop, later trod the boards for our Workers Theatre Movement.) Its peak came in the 90s, however, with The X-files, whose overarching plot is like a geological stratum with every survivalist fantasy of its era fossilised within it - alien abductions, cattle mutilations, vaccination programmes hiding government malfeasance, deep state operatives whose cover is so elaborate they have long forgotten their own names, false-flag terror attacks, killer bees … the gang’s all here. (This plot eventually became so overcomplicated that it was effectively abandoned around season 7.) There followed a spate of imitative series, some better than others, like Roswell and The 4400.
For all the diversity in tone and intended audience here, there is something common to all, which is the function of the alien encounter. The alien disrupts human normality; the communist utopia of Star trek must nevertheless stand ready to repel invaders; the bland bureaucracy of the state core at the end of history, in The X files, must somehow contain and hide a vast conspiracy to collaborate with alien colonisers. At the same time, what the alien interrupts us with is - as with all fictions - essentially ourselves. The alien stereotypes of the space opera (the warlike Klingons, ultra-rationalistic Vulcans and what have you) allow us to project, in condensed form, recognisable features of human societies. Fredric Jameson argued that the original model of the science-fiction text is the utopia, and indeed the society described by Hythloday in Thomas More’s Utopia may as well be an alien planet.
In the more ‘philosophical’ fictions of alien encounter - Solaris, Arrival and so on - it is usually our own ‘failures of communication’ that are staged: the fear of the epistemological gap between one subject and another. The radical difference of the alien species discloses the sins of human societies to us, and perhaps - as in the final act of Arrival - offers a kind of redemption we could not obtain by ourselves. Fear and hope commingle in our fantasies of alien contact. We hope that our mess can somehow be sorted out by a deus ex machina, but fear that there is merely an even bigger mess, a more powerful elite to enslave us; perhaps even the cosmic indifference of the visitors of Roadside picnic.
So far as the present excitement goes, however, we seem to be strictly in fear territory. Endless hints are dropped that some UFO sightings might be experimental Chinese craft; American culture, especially on the right, is in the grip of ‘declinism’ and, just as in the cold war (and, for that matter, in the lead-up to World War I) the advances of rising powers are exaggerated by panicked ideologues in the hegemonic metropolis, so successive administrations obsess over the new rival in the far east. It is manifestly implausible that China has somehow, in total secrecy, not only caught up with American military technology, but surpassed it; but then it is also implausible that we have made contact with intelligent alien species, and people are happy to believe that too.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that these two great paranoid obsessions should find a meeting point. We await, with morbid curiosity, the consequences.