Jeffrey LewisKlaatu Barada Nikto

The nutjobs at it again, suggesting that aliens — extraterrestrials, not undocumented workers — are monitoring US “nuclear sites.” Lee Speigel of AOL’s Weird News Team offers a nice summary:

UFOs have monitored and possibly tampered with American nuclear weapons, according to a group of former Air Force officers who will make their claims public next week at a Washington, D.C., news conference.

“While most of the incidents apparently involved mere surveillance, in a few cases, a significant number of nuclear missiles suddenly and simultaneously malfunctioned, just as USAF security policemen reported seeing disc-shaped craft hovering nearby,” says Robert Hastings, author of “UFOs and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites.”

On Monday, at the National Press Club, Hastings will present six former Air Force personnel who will break their silence and disclose dramatic first-hand experiences with UFOs at nuclear weapons sites.

No doubt, the aliens downloaded the US Additional Protocol declaration like everyone else.

But seriously, what is it about aliens and nuclear weapons that seem to link the two in the popular imagination?

This is not the first time ’round the mulberry bush for this crowd.  Retired Air Force captain Robert Salas claimed in 2001 that UFOs disabled some ICBMs in 1967.  Salas is apparently realistic about the prospect of securing an official inquiry after his 2001 appearance, claiming he’s “not as naive as I used to be.”


I have to say, though, the idea of ET disabling nuclear-armed ICBMs is wonderful.

“Hey Zorg, what did you do last night?”

“Oh, I downed a case of beer, then drove the saucer over to Earth where I disabled some ICBMs to see if I could start a nuclear war.  Delicate balance of terror, my ass.”

“Zorg, that’s awful.  You know you shouldn’t drink and drive.”

Right, so. What is it about nuclear weapons and aliens?

I suppose part of it is that both nuclear weapons and space travel became realities at the same time, during the Golden Age of Science Fiction to boot.  I should be surprised if the “Roswell” incident happened anywhere other than New Mexico.

But I think the connection is deeper, and suggests something about the profound intellectual dilemma posed by nuclear weapons, as well as how Americans use science fiction to ponder unpleasant thoughts.  Our civilization  defines itself in terms of scientific and technological progress, but that very progress also opens up the possibility that our civilization might ruin itself.  That’s sort of heavy.

But nuclear weapons are heavy.  So, while some people think nuclear weapons are just a bigger bomb; there is an alternate view.  Nuclear weapons threaten destruction on such a scale, and at such speed, that they are profoundly different.  In this view, we ought not think of nuclear weapons as  just another munition in a modern armory nor should we conclude that ours are good and theirs are bad.  The very existence of nuclear weapons poses a  shared danger that compels us to cooperate with the bad guys.  Which is not how one thinks about a tank.

In France, you might imagine debate such a question in a cafe, surrounded by a haze of smoke.  In the United States, we leave these conversations to Science Fiction.   That is, perhaps, because outer space is a safe distance from our own lives.  Berthold Brecht coined the term Verfremdungseffekt, or alienating effect, to describe the stage device of distancing the audience from the narrative in order offer critical perspective. He wasn’t thinking about science fiction in particular, but that’s because he’s German.  In America, we prefer our allegories to play out a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.

Among the many sci-fi efforts that tried to tackle the danger posed by nuclear weapons, I think the best is The Day the Earth Stood Still — a 1951 film ostensibly about an alien named Klaatu who has traveled to earth to warn human beings that if they do not eliminate war, then the rest of the universe will eliminate them.

The proximate cause of Klaatu’s visit is humankind’s development of nuclear weapons and space travel.  Now that human beings have the technological prowess to export our warlike ways off our home planet, the rest of the universe has decided to take action.

You can see where this is going.  Klaatu is a metaphor — nuclear weapons have brought to the earth a danger that compels us to rethink our bellicose habits.  This is a cinematic representation of Albert Einstein’s famous remark about nuclear weapons having changed everything, save our modes of thinking.  If it is hard to see the abstract principle of shared danger in the existence of nuclear weapons, it is easy to understand Klaatu’s ultimatum.

So, the alien is a metaphor — and a pretty effective one, at that! Ronald Reagan, who liked B movies (and not just the ones he starred in!) remarked on a couple of occasions who our differences would fade if confronted by aliens — much to the chagrin of his staff.  A lot of people, including Colin Powell, concluded Reagan was thinking about The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It seems Klaatu made an impression on at least one statesman, after all.

We may have forgotten what a good metaphor aliens make, now that we have terrorists.  I suspect much of the contemporary discourse about the threat from nuclear terrorism is really a debate about the need to cooperate to preserve shared interests, with Osama bin Laden serving as the other who compels us to find common cause with our erstwhile adversaries.

Of course, the important part about Verfremdungseffekt — whether the metaphor is an alien or a terrorist — is that the audience not get lost in the narrative.  The point is to offer the viewer objectivity and the opportunity for critical thought, not to put one over him.  That’s hard for some people who don’t intuitively grasp allegory or metaphors.  As a result, there are always some people who get a little lost in the fantasy world of science fiction.  I am reminded of my favorite story involving Sir Alec Guinness:

Then I began to be uneasy at the influence [Star Wars] might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

`I would love you to do something for me,’ I said.

`Anything! Anything!’ the boy said rapturously.

`You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,’ I said.

`Anything, sir, anything!’

`Well,’ I said, `do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. `What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

Without distance, some people will live in the fantasy world.  Eventually, all perspective may be lost.  An unfortunate byproduct of the conceptual link among nuclear weapons, space travel and aliens  in popular culture are the handful of nuts who really believe aliens are hovering over our nuclear sites, or slowly moldering in a morgue at Area 51.  Think of these people as the detritus of our popular discourse. These are, after all, the sort who don’t quite grasp metaphors.

All of which is to say that some things are completely predictable.  People who see little green men inspecting missile silos, for example.  And the press conference ending with lots of snickering. There other questions though.  For example, how does the story end about the civilization that acquired the means to its own destruction?

Well, you’ll have to watch to the movie!


  1. FSB (History)

    Oh Please! Pick me! Pick me! Let me guess — these UFO’s have been traced to Iran.

    We must recruit terrorists to fight these UFO’s from Iran:
    — and pronto:


    Jeffrey what you see happening overall in the US is that our lack of investment in education is coming home to roost.


    Just sayin’….

    • shaheen (History)

      From Ahmadinejad’s draft speech at the UNGA (check against delivery) : “There are no UFOs, no homosexuals and no nuclear weapons programs in Iran.”

  2. steeljawscribe (History)

    “— these UFO’s have been traced to Iran.”
    What? No — I have it on good authority they’re from the secret nazi base in Antarctica…
    w/r, SJS

  3. shaheen (History)

    UFO scares began as the Iron Curtain was drawn. The “Roswell incident” is supposed to have happened in New Mexico. Coincidences? I think not. Be very afraid.

    PS: Jeff, cafes are non-smoking in France. The country of Descartes and rational thought bien sur, where they love all things nuclear.

  4. archjr (History)

    I wonder how Klaatu, or the Iranian aliens, would interpret the CSA and the NPT?

  5. P.E.T. (History)

    In the 1960’s a Pantex security guard reported a UFO landing near a weapons componet warehouse on the Pantex Plant site. He was known to take a nip or two tho.

  6. Alex W. (History)

    Something I ran across in my research: in July 1950, the Admiral Hillenkoetter and some other CIA folk met with the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in an executive (“Top Secret”) session to give their latest estimates on the Soviet stockpile size and the Soviet progress on the H-bomb.

    At one point the discussion turned to CIA methods of intelligence gathering. An excerpt:

    Sen. Brien McMahon: “Have you given any consideration lately to getting high level photographs?”

    Admiral Hillenkoetter: “We are working on that, sir.”

    McMahon: “I won’t got into any further detail on it. I assume you will do it if you can.”

    Hillenkoetter: “We would like to do so if it is possible.”

    Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper: “I suggest you get hold of Al Capp. He has a flying saucer going around.”


    Rep. Charles Elston: “On that flying saucer idea — when people like Eddie Rickenbacker say there is such a thing, I begin to wonder. Do you know if there is anything like that?”

    Hillenkoetter: “We haven’t been able to find out, the Air Force hasn’t been able to find out, and neither has the Navy.”

    Rep. Henry Jackson: “If they are coming from Mars, maybe that would be one way to unify the whole world. They would get together to fight the invader.”

    Rep. W. Sterling Cole: “Is your answer to Mr. Elston a straight, clear, open answer?”

    Hillenkoetter: “Yes, sir.”

    … In particular I like “Scoop” Jackson’s musing. Things have to be pretty bad in the world when the top Congressional committee on atomic energy matters is contemplating how much better it would be if Martians were invading.

  7. Gridlock (History)

    Not to appear quick to try and support these guys, but

    1) When you have 7 ex-forces guys willing to stand up and court ridicule, and one of them was a Lt Col, you either have a problem with UFOs or a problem with the armed forces…

    2) I double checked and nobody is talking about aliens over there, that’s some world-class projection on your part. UFOs are just what they sound like, unexplained aerial phenomena. Could be space aliens, could be the 4th Reich, could be Red China, could be lenticular clouds.

    • Inst (History)

      It’s also possible that the US air force derives utility from the UFO myths as a way to cover up for prototype or next-generation systems, so these guys need a quick buck and their ex-boss comes down to them with a request to re-fan the conspiracy theories.

      Or maybe the US air force isn’t doing anything and these guys just need some publicity and a quick buck.

  8. Karee (History)

    THANK-you, Gridlock, you took the words right out of my mouth. I started reading this expecting to hear these “nutjobs” were UFO fanatics of some kind and was shocked to hear this word being applied to Air Force officers who didn’t even allude to “aliens” (from what I’ve seen, please correct me if I’m wrong). These aren’t hilljacks saying they saw little green men headin’ towards the nuke base. These are trained dudes who clearly saw SOMETHING they couldn’t explain. Wouldn’t 7 ex-AF men FROM the base be nothing less than expert witnesses to unusual events? As a pilot’s daughter even I know how modern aircraft functions, their patterns in the sky, their speed capabilities and their maneuverability. I would know if I was looking at something out of the ordinary in the sky and I’m nowhere NEAR as highly trained and attuned.

    Whether it’s a flying saucer, space debris or the classic “weather balloon”, the testimonies of the AF officers show there just might be SOMETHING that should be looked at. Let’s not resort to name-calling and a condescending attitude before WE get all the facts too.

  9. FSB (History)

    I wish people would take my theory of these being Iranian UFOs more seriously.

    Those people are known to have flying carpets and small technical modifications can lead to flying saucers. Can anyone really prove that these aren’t oval shaped carpets with Iranians on board? OK, then. When do we nuke Iran?

    • shaheen (History)

      At last we now know the true meaning of the expression “carpet-bombing”.

  10. Jeffrey (History)

    To all the UFO enthusiasts out there, don’t bother posting your rants along the lines of “How much more evidence do you people need?”

  11. bradley laing (History)

    —I suspect that whoever is apointed to run the head of the FBI office in Los Angeles, California, inevitably is asked about the death of Marilyn Monroe, the 1940’s Black Dahlia murder, and other things. I suspect that within a few days of being appointed, the new person in charge either asks for the files on these things, or has them placed on their desk unasked.

    —In the same way, the Air Force cannot escape the 1950s “Flying Saucer” idea, nor can it escape the 1950s fear of nuclear weapons, things that happened at the same time. The events of those times linked UFOs to nuclear weapons, and the fear of those times left an imprint on the present, much as the current FBI Office in L.A. will never escape Monroe and the Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short).

  12. Pat Flannery (History)

    If there is any truth to the theory that some UFO sightings may be due to seismic activity causing electrical emissions into the atmosphere as quartz-containing rocks are put under stress (“earthquake lights”) and that those emissions can create luminosity as atmospheric gases get ionized, then you could picture something along this line causing electronic malfunctions at a ICBM complex, like a form of EMP effect.

  13. colonel bat guano (History)

    I only saw “Star Wars” once or twice, but I’ve seen “Kind Hearts and Coronets” a bunch of times. Should I be worried?

  14. VS (History)

    You think UFOs are messing with nukes on Earth? Wait till you see what the folks from the Q continuum are about to embark on!

    • Inst (History)

      You’d think with near omniscience and omnipotence they’d have better things to do than mess around with a little blue planet, or Captain Picard, for that instance. It’s also somewhat disturbing that the generally humanist Star Trek needs to inject trickster gods into their universe.

  15. Nick Robson (History)

    Given the size of the universe, and the fact that humans exist, is it not possible that other planets have evolved intelligent life?

    And it would not be difficult for another race to be more intelligent than us given our love of war and the unsustainable rate at which we are depleting our planetary resources.

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