Across the 75 years since something—something—crashed outside Roswell in early July 1947, the very name itself has taken on a life of its own: Today, it’s shorthand for UFOs, extraterrestrials, and a vast government conspiracy, perhaps even where the very idea of the deep state itself was born. The city of 50,000 in southeastern New Mexico, about three hours from Albuquerque and El Paso, has leaned into its infamy: There’s a UFO museum, a space walk, and even a flying-saucer-shaped McDonald’s, not to mention any number of kitschy souvenir stands.
Untangling what exactly happened there, though, was a half-century journey through secret government programs, the Cold War, nuclear secrets, and the rise of conspiracy theories in US politics. We know something did crash in Roswell in late June or early July 1947, just weeks after the age of the flying saucer dawned. The modern age of UFOs began on June 24, 1947, when a 32-year-old Idaho businessman named Kenneth Arnold, an experienced rescue pilot with some 4,000 hours of mountain-high-altitude flight time, noticed a bright light out the window of his CallAir A-2 prop plane while flying near Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest.
At first, Arnold assumed it was just a glare from another plane—but then he realized he was looking at as many as nine objects, seemingly in formation and moving at tremendous speed through the air, stretched out over perhaps 5 miles. “I could not find any tails on these things,” Arnold later recalled. “They didn’t leave a jet trail behind them. I judged their size to be at least 100 feet in widespan. I thought it was a new type of missile.” As the lights continued to move together “like the tail of a Chinese kite, kind of weaving and going at a terrific speed,” he used his dashboard clock to time how long it took them to fly from between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. It was astonishing. According to the measurements, these things—whatever they were—were moving somewhere around 1,200 to 1,700 miles per hour, far faster than anything known at the time. Altogether, Arnold watched the objects for about three minutes, during which time he even opened his airplane window to make sure he wasn’t catching a reflection off his windshield.
When he landed, he told friends at the airport about the strange sighting, and a day later, repeated the story to reporters at the East Oregonian. The first version of the article referred to the objects as “saucer-like aircraft,” and headline writers across the country subsequently shorthanded the label to “flying saucers.” The reports and interviews Arnold gave after he landed ignited national interest and made headlines across the country. Week by week, dozens more “flying saucer” sightings were reported in what ultimately totaled more than 34 states.
It was against this backdrop that some wreckage found outside New Mexico was delivered and shown to the commander of the Roswell Army Air Field. From the moment he saw it, Colonel William Blanchard knew something was odd about the wreckage spread out before him. The jagged wooden pieces and scraps of reflective material, hastily gathered from a crash site discovered a day earlier, were not from any aircraft he could identify, and the strange symbols weren’t any language he recognized—they looked, if anything, like hieroglyphs.
It had been found, he had been told, by a local rancher named Mac Brazel. The local sheriff, guessing it was military, had sent Brazel onward to the nearest air base to report the find, and soon after, two military intelligence officers, Major Jesse Marcel and another anonymous man whom Brazel would describe as being in plainclothes, had traveled back with him to investigate, wandering around the field and gathering up the fallen “rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper, and sticks” before transferring them back to the headquarters of the 509th Bombardment Wing.
The United States military had designed and produced a wide variety of aircrafts—as one of the most respected and decorated airmen in the Army Air Forces, Blanchard knew this for sure—but this definitely wasn’t one of them. It also didn’t seem to resemble anything atomic-weapon-related, another area with which he had deep experience. The idea that it was an amateur inventor’s design was unlikely, given that the base was in a relatively remote area of New Mexico. Maybe it was some kind of test. Maybe it was Russian.
Or, maybe, he thought, it was something else.
The commanding colonel, known by the nickname Butch, had a longstanding reputation as a bold, decisive man with a reputation for pushing the envelope (a fact his detractors would sum up more negatively as a “loose cannon”), and to this particular moment, he applied his trademark decisiveness. He knew exactly what he was looking at.
This wreckage, he thought to himself, was one of those things that everyone was talking about.
He ordered his public affairs officer, Lt. Walter Haut, to put out a press release: The US Army Air Forces at Roswell, it announced, had captured the first flying saucer. Under a two-level banner headline declaring “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region,” The Roswell Daily Record noted how “the disk was recovered on a ranch in the Roswell vicinity, after an unidentified rancher had notified Sheriff Geo. Wilcox, here, that he had found the instrument on his premises.” Major J. A. Marcel had then inspected the recovered craft and it was taken onto “higher headquarters,” but he had thus far refused to release any details about the saucer’s construction or appearance.
By 2:30 pm local time, Blanchard’s statement was picked up by the Associated Press, prompting reporter visits to Roswell and a bombardment of telephone calls from across the country, and even around the world—one came, very long distance, from the London Daily Mail—upon Sheriff Wilcox’s office.
Amid the bedlam, the San Francisco Examiner reached Blanchard’s boss, Brigadier General Roger Ramey, the commander of the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas, where the debris had been subsequently moved. Ramey quickly refuted the reports of unidentified material, claiming that his base experts had examined the debris sent from Roswell and easily identified it as belonging not to any foreign or unknown craft, but to a lowly weather balloon instead. At 5:30 pm New Mexico time, the AP put out an updated story, datelined Fort Worth: “Roswell’s celebrated ‘flying disk’ was rudely stripped of its glamor by a Fort Worth army airfield weather officer who late today identified the object as a weather balloon,” it declared. From there, the military continued to double down on the assertion that nothing had happened out of the ordinary at Roswell, culminating in an appearance by Ramey himself that night on the local NBC station in Fort Worth. Once again, the general explained that the crash debris was “a very normal gadget,” one that upon examination appeared to be little more than “remnants of a tinfoil-covered box kite and a rubber balloon.”
The nation’s interest quickly moved on—there were so many other sightings to cover and whatever had landed in Roswell clearly didn’t solve the mystery. Roswell was quickly, and almost entirely, forgotten. It was mentioned over a handful of times in UFO literature over the next 30 years and never as part of a government conspiracy covering up alien bodies or crashed spacecraft.
In the wake of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate, though, a more sinister and conspiratorial edge of the UFO phenomenon emerged from another strain of ufologists—a darker trend that began most notably with the publication of Leonard Stringfield’s Situation Red: The UFO Siege, a book that alleged that the country was in the midst of a wave of increasingly violent UFO encounters, incidents that had led to physical injuries and abductions—and that a US government cover-up was not only alive and well, but far bigger, deeper, and more nefarious than anything the enthusiasts of the ’50s and ’60s had ever imagined. “For too long, the general public has been misled by official denials claiming that a real UFO—a ‘nut and bolt’ alien craft—does not exist,” Stringfield wrote. Not only, he claimed, did such crafts exist, but the US government possessed some of them.
At a 1978 UFO conference, Stringfield presented a paper called “Retrievals of the Third Kind,” alleging that the military had aliens and alien craft in their custody. Altogether, by his count, there had been 19 such cases, and nearly two dozen witnesses had already filled him in on the government’s darkest secret. In a stunning twist, he also alleged that there was a special Air Force unit, known as the Blue Berets, solely dedicated to UFO retrieval and security duty.
In the years ahead, Stringfield became infamous for his too-good-to-verify stories, which always seemed to emerge from anonymous sources through a game of telephone. The tales were often long on detail, short on evidence, but created a new narrative. “More than any other single ufologist, Stringfield was responsible for restoring credibility to the notion that saucers from spaces had crashed and, along with the bodies of their crews—and maybe even a survivor or two—had been scooped up and secreted away by the US government,” ufologist James Moseley recalled in his memoir.
The theory laid the groundwork in many ways for seemingly blockbuster reporting in 1980 by Stanton Freidman, Charles Berlitz, and William Moore that the US government had long covered up the truth about that 1947 crash in Roswell. The New Mexico event had been almost entirely forgotten when Berlitz and Moore published The Roswell Incident in 1980.
The Roswell Incident was largely built around testimony Friedman had obtained from Jesse Marcel, the long-retired Air Force intelligence official who had retrieved the crash wreckage from the New Mexico ranch. Now, though, Marcel had a very different story to tell: What he’d taken from the ranch three decades before was no ordinary weather balloon, but exotic materials from outer space, dotted with hieroglyphs and possessing properties unlike anything known on Earth. The debris he’d posed with for news photographers back then had been a ruse. (This claim, alone, was easy enough to disprove: There were seven photos taken in 1947 at the airbase, two with Marcel, and the wreckage is the same in all images.)
To bolster their argument, Friedman and Moore cited witness testimony from a long-dead civil engineer named Grant “Barney” Barnett, who had recounted stumbling upon the crashed disc in the desert, surrounded by archeology students from an unnamed eastern university who had chanced upon the wreckage. Together, they had examined the alien bodies—hairless, with round heads and small, oddly-spaced eyes.
The book sold widely, and while the initial evidence Berlitz and Moore offered was thin, it didn’t stop Roswell from catching the public imagination anew as it grew into the ultimate deep-state conspiracy. In the years ahead, the story grew until it encompassed multiple alien spacecraft on multiple crash sites scattered around Roswell as well as the recovery of multiple bodies—perhaps even some living creatures, as the 1996 movie Independence Day starring Will Smith and Bill Pullman playfully suggests.
By the 1990s, the conspiracy and pop culture references to Roswell, like Independence Day, had taken such hold in the public imagination that the Clinton administration felt necessary to debunk it. The government announced that yes, there had been a cover-up at Roswell—just not the one that the UFO conspiracists wanted to believe.
In two voluminous, exhaustive—and, frankly, peevish—reports, the Air Force and the US government announced that the mystery around Roswell stemmed from two secret but mundane Cold War–era projects that Brazel, the Roswell Army Air Field officials, and local residents had confused with flying saucers. The thing that had crashed on Brazel’s ranch was a secret Air Force effort called Project Mogul that had been trying to develop balloons to identify and track possible Soviet atomic tests. “Determining whether the Soviets were testing nuclear devices was of the highest national priority; it demanded the utmost secrecy if the information gained was to be useful,” the Air Force later explained. “Mogul’s objective was to develop a long-range system capable of detecting Soviet nuclear detonations and ballistic missile launches.” A joint effort by the US military, New York University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Columbia University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, the initiative sought mainly to develop sensors—including microphones—that could be used to detect signs of a Soviet atomic test over long distances. It was considered such a critical program that it shared the nation’s highest priority designation, 1A, with the Manhattan Project.
New Mexico had been the central location of the Mogul test flights. There, researchers launched the giant balloons and then technicians at the White Sands Proving Ground detonated bombs to test their detection capabilities. It was hard to exactly keep a 600-foot-tall train of 30 balloons secret, and so the military did what it could to keep civilians away; when one prototype crashed, the B-17 bomber acting as a chase plane buzzed nearby oil workers who had seen the landing and started to move toward it, driving the curious away and circling at a low altitude until military personnel arrived on the grounds. While two other Mogul flights in early June had unfolded normally—the balloons ascending to high altitudes and then crashing between three and six hours later, after which the military recovered the devices—a third had gone missing: NYU Flight #4 had been launched on June 4, 1947, from Alamogordo Army Air Field, and teams had tracked it as it flew north-northeast to within about 15 miles of the ranch, where Brazel found it before the tracking team lost contact.
It was not surprising that neither Brazel, nor intelligence officer Jesse Marcel, nor the officials at the Roswell air base immediately recognized it as a standard weather balloon—because it wasn’t. The Mogul balloons were enormous; as the Air Force’s 1995 debunking attempt, The Roswell Report: Fact Versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert, United States Air Force, reported, they were “giant trains of balloons—over thirty of them, plus experimental sensors, strung together and stretching more than 600 feet,” and the one lost in June 1947 was 100 feet taller than the Washington Monument. Of course, it made a big mess when it came down—a larger-than-normal wreckage field filled with all sorts of gadgets, gizmos, metal, and debris.
While Mogul had been declassified decades later, the program had remained obscure in part because it never went anywhere: The balloon rigs were too large and conspicuous, and there turned out to be simpler ways to monitor far-off atomic explosions, including both through downwind airborne testing and through ground tremor monitoring systems. In 1949, when the first Soviet atomic test happened, it was ultimately detected by Air Force weather reconnaissance planes outfitted with special radioactive sensors and announced by Harry Truman to the world. The odd behavior and security that accompanied the wreckage discovery stemmed from the program’s underlying secrecy requirements that had been so severe that no one at Roswell would have been able to identify the mix-up. (In fact, the possible tie of Mogul to Roswell and UFOs was already an active area of investigation by a ufologist named Robert G. Todd, who deserves historical pride of place for sleuthing out the balloon project as early as 1990.)
The Air Force report even had an answer for one of the strangest reports to trickle down through the history and mythology of Roswell: The “hieroglyphic-like” characters and small pink or purple flowers that had appeared on some of the wreckage were not an alien language, but a random side effect of limited engineering materials. Amid the post-war shortages, the New York contractor who made the targets also made toys, and had used plastic tape with pink and purple flowers as well as geometric designs from the latter line to seal the target seams. The absurdity of the tape on such a sensitive military project had stood out to project veterans, which is why they could clearly remember it decades later. “It was kind of a standing joke,” one project worker recalled.
Then there was the question of the reports, filtered down to writers like Berlitz and Moore, of local New Mexico residents remembering the government retrieving alien bodies from the deserts near Roswell. That too had a boring explanation: parachute dummies. As another peevish and exasperated 230-page Air Force report, entitled The Roswell Report: Case Closed, outlined, there had also been a series of ejection-seat and high-altitude parachute tests conducted in the New Mexico desert around the White Sands Proving Grounds, euphemistically called “high altitude aircraft escape projects.” In order to design safety systems for high-flying pilots or returning astronauts, the military had dropped hundreds of humanlike dummies over the country in the late 1940s and 1950s; the two operations, known as High Dive and Excelsior, had featured one figure nicknamed Sierra Sam, who was about 6 feet tall and weighed some 200 pounds. In 1953, the military had released 30 into the desert around the east side of the military range near Roswell alone from high-altitude balloons up to as much as 98,000 feet; they would free-fall for several minutes before a parachute deployed and, theoretically, ease them down to the ground. The Air Force revealed that it could trace at least seven of those landing sites to the area around Roswell and the other supposed “crash sites” in eastern New Mexico.
At the time, dummy-recovery operations would have looked highly suspicious to anyone who chanced upon them. As the Air Force wrote, “Typically, eight to twelve civilian and military recovery personnel arrived at the site of an anthropomorphic dummy landing as soon as possible following impact. The recovery crews operated a variety of aircraft and vehicles. These included a wrecker, a six-by-six, a weapons carrier, and L-20 observation and C-47 transport aircraft—the exact vehicles and aircraft described by witnesses as having been present at the crashed saucer locations.” Amid the flat desert of New Mexico, such a large military presence—and the colorful parachutes on their way down—would no doubt attract locals. The dummies had to be transported in wooden shipping containers or black or silver insulation bags, precisely like the “caskets” or “body bags” that witnesses reported. Plus, often enough, the dummies weren’t found immediately, were found damaged, or never found at all—one languished in the desert for three years before being located. It was entirely possible, the military said, that a witness could have stumbled upon a damaged test dummy and truthfully reported it to be an odd-looking humanlike body in the desert. “Dummies with missing fingers, appears to satisfy another element of the research profile—aliens with only four fingers,” the Air Force argued.
Dozens of pages of the Air Force report were also given over to dissecting the witness accounts that permeated the Roswell mythology—pointing out the similarities between words and descriptions and the facts of the dummy recovery operations, with the final argument that the people who said that they’d seen something odd in the New Mexico desert were entirely correct—they had seen something extremely unusual, but it had nothing unusual to do with aliens. Add that to the passage of decades and they’d likely forgotten when precisely they saw what. Was it really crazy to think someone might imagine, upon being asked in the 1980s or 1990s, that something they’d seen in 1949 or 1953 was actually seen in 1947?
Altogether, the historical record of the Roswell-related files amounted to about 41 documents that had been declassified across decades—seven Top Secret, 31 Secret, and three that were either Confidential or Restricted. The documents had been authored by officials long before the Freedom of Information Act, with little indication that any ordinary citizen would ever read them, and spanned the government security apparatus, from the military to the FBI to the CIA. As Karl Pflock, the “pro-UFOlogist” but “anti-Roswellian” skeptic wrote in his definitive book on Roswell put it, “[The documents] were created by those whose job it was to crack the flying saucer mystery, who wrote and spoke with the certainty that no unauthorized person would ever be privy to their words … top-notch professionals who sat in the highest ranks of American intelligence and official science.” Not a single such document lends credence to the idea that a UFO or alien bodies were recovered in the New Mexico desert.
The debunking efforts, though, were mostly for naught—an early example of how “truthiness” would capture the American consciousness. The world believed. Roswell was now internationally synonymous with aliens and government cover-ups, whether or not anything had ever actually happened there. As the UFO prankster James Moseley gleefully said at the giant 50th anniversary party the city of Roswell threw itself, “It’s the greatest celebration of a non-event I’ve ever experienced.”
And yet even as the conspiracies around Roswell and the crash of an alien spacecraft grew, they failed to connect what is probably the single most conclusive piece of evidence that exists that proves precisely nothing of interest happened there in 1947: In theorizing about the most famous UFO incident of all-time, they ignored the implications of most famous single conversation about extraterrestrials ever.
That discussion occurred sometime in the summer of 1950, as scientist Enrico Fermi and three colleagues—Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York—were walking to lunch at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As anyone who watched the summer’s blockbuster Oppenheimer remembers, Fermi and Teller were two of the paramount scientists of their age, driving forces behind the Manhattan Project and the atomic age, and both York and Konopinski, who was portrayed in the movie too, were hardly slouches when it came to brains and brilliance.
The men were in New Mexico preparing for the latest set of the nation’s nuclear tests in the South Pacific’s Enewetak Atoll, a critical part of the march toward a full thermonuclear device—but that day, interest had shifted to an amusing cartoon that Konopinski had seen in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Referencing a spate of unexplained trash can thefts that had bedeviled New York City, the illustration by Alan Dunn showed a flying saucer landing on a faraway planet and a stream of aliens carrying off their souvenirs from Earth: wire trash cans with the New York logo on them. None of the men took seriously the idea of alien visitors—as physicists, they knew the speeds necessary for interstellar travel were unachievable—but that didn’t stop curious minds from playing out the puzzle before them.
Fermi turned to Teller. “Edward,” he asked, “what do you think—how probable is it that within the next 10 years we shall have clear evidence of a material object moving faster than light?”
Teller considered, then answered: “10 to the 6th.” One in a million, in scientist-speak.
“This is much too low,” Fermi scoffed. “The probability is more like 10 percent,” odds that he usually referred to as a miracle. Neither Teller nor Konopinski could argue. The debate was settled—one in 10—and moved on.
The intellectual challenge—if life was so prevalent in the universe beyond, why didn’t we see more of it?—came to be known as Fermi’s Paradox, and gave way to more questions that would define the new scientific era of the UFO age: Was interstellar travel too difficult, too far, or too advanced? Was visiting Earth or our solar system not worth the effort? Or, perhaps most haunting of all, was life on Earth in fact alone?
Later, at lunch in Fuller Lodge, the group was deep in a new conversation, when, seemingly apropos of nothing, Fermi chimed in to ask: “Where is everybody?”
The group all laughed heartily. “In spite of Fermi’s question coming from the clear blue, everybody around the table seemed to understand at once that he was talking about extraterrestrial life,” Teller later recalled. Intrigued by the idea, the table discussed the subject for a moment or two longer, eventually agreeing that “the distances to the next location of living beings may be very great and that, indeed, as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center.”
The larger significance of the conversation happening in 1950, though, is usually lost to Roswell believers: The fact that Fermi and Teller were speculating about why aliens had never visited Earth that summer makes clear that they weren’t aware of any crash, alien bodies, or retrieved extraterrestrial technology from 1947. And the fact that they didn’t know seems dispositive that there was nothing meaningful to know at all about whatever emerged from the New Mexico desert in July 1947.
Understanding how the two events connect, though, requires untangling how the US government operated and what facilities were available to it in the years after World War II. One of the long-standing misconceptions around Roswell conspiracies is the theory that any crashed spacecraft would have been taken to what’s now known as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the headquarters of the Air Force’s technical intelligence unit and where it collected crashed, stolen, and captured enemy aircraft and technical documents through and after World War II. (The US military that summer was in the midst of a massive bureaucratic overhaul as the country prepared for the Cold War, and the National Security Act of 1947 established the CIA as the nation’s first peacetime intelligence agency. It also created the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council, and broke the Air Force off from the Army as its own service branch.) But an alien spacecraft—an actual or suspected out-of-this-world extraterrestrial craft with unknown technology and propulsion systems—would have never been transported all the way across the country to Ohio, to a base that at the time lacked anything close to the cloak of secrecy necessary to protect such a rare find.
Nor, of course, would the crashed spacecraft have ended up at the highly classified test facilities now known as Area 51, since the desert test site north of Las Vegas wasn’t even created until 1955. Instead, a crashed spacecraft from Roswell in 1947 would almost surely have ended up just a few hours up the road from Roswell at Los Alamos National Laboratory itself—the secret, closed city in the desert where for most of the decade the US government had carried out its most secret nuclear and technological development efforts. Los Alamos was already where the US government had assembled the brightest engineers, physicists, and military thinkers—and due to the existing cloak of security and its conveniently proximate geography, it was already perfectly situated to hide a secret like an alien spacecraft.
And, regardless of where the craft ended up, the US government would have surely asked the opinion, help, and analysis of Teller and Fermi—scientists already trusted with the biggest secrets the US government held, men already at the forefront of thought on physics, new technologies, the atomic age, and the burgeoning space and arms race with the Soviet Union. In fact, almost no matter how small you draw the circle of experts the government might have consulted in 1947 about a crashed spacecraft—whether you think it was a hundred people, 25, or even 10, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Fermi and Teller wouldn’t have been on that short list.
To me, the fact that they’d been wandering around Los Alamos three years later wondering why aliens hadn’t visited is the most compelling single piece of evidence we have that absolutely nothing of interest happened outside Roswell in July 1947.
Garrett M. Graff