Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A UFO (Book) Report

Flying Saucers Over America by Gordon Arnold, (2022)

McFarland, $29.95 softcover, $17.99 ebook. 

227 pages and 17 photos, including chapter notes, a bibliography, and index. 


When a scholar or journalist takes a serious look at UFO history, it’s always interesting to see how they approach the topic and present their views and conclusions. Before discussing this book, it’s important to know something about the author, his background, and perhaps his purpose for writing it. From the Montserrat College of Art site, “Gordon Arnold is Professor of liberal arts… He teaches courses in film history, animation history, and the social sciences. Arnold’s research has resulted in a series of books that explore the history and social contexts of U.S. film and culture.”

Professor Gordon Arnold

Subtitled, The UFO Craze of 1947, Flying Saucers Over America, contains a preface where Arnold tells the reader that the book takes no position or promotes any particular UFO belief or agenda. Instead, he states, “…something unusual happened in the [1947] skies… but the jury is still out on what it was. …perhaps it is time to revisit what we do and do not know about these initial events and rethink whatever conclusions we may have drawn.” The author respectfully sets out to do just that, focusing on the foundational events of 1947 and the subsequent UFO investigations and events of the early 1950s, and the evolution of beliefs that sprung up about them. 


Chapter one opens with a quote from Carl Jung’s 1958 book, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. My hunch is that Arnold’s book began as a college course and that Jung’s book was required reading for it. Luckily, for those who haven’t read it, Jung’s classic is freely available at the Internet Archive. Arnold follows Jung’s lead that while UFO sightings are not purely psychological, our attempts to understand them often are. “In very short order, then, the public interpreted UFO sightings in light of what people already knew, or thought they knew, based on previous reports.”


The strength of Flying Saucers Over America is that it provides excellent historical perspective on the early flying saucer events and documents how the media and public reacted as these series of events unfolded. Typically, UFO books neglect to present anything but the sensational highlights like Kenneth Arnold’s historic sighting and the Roswell incident. Arnold covers those but examines the events in between, the reaction of the public and press, as well as the incidents that followed. He also touches on an important issue that’s often overlooked, how UFO activity and public interest seems to come and go, pointing out that after a few weeks in the headlines, flying saucers faded “into the background for a time” but would be rekindled by further events or newspaper stories.


Most of the book’s chapters focus on a single case or topic, so it reads like a collection of short essays or classroom lectures that, while thematically connected, can stand alone. The essays are not always presented in chronological sequence; Chapter 20, “Life on Mars” seems far out of place, as it describes 19th century beliefs that paved the way for notions of little men in flying saucers. Arnold returns to the role of imagination in the UFO topic in the chapter “Going Hollywood,”  discussing how motion pictures featured tales of alien invaders in spaceships before 1947, but by 1950 Hollywood science fiction was rebranded as flying saucer thrillers. He says, “As time passed, it would sometimes be difficult to sort out which ideas about unidentified aerial phenomena referred to actual events versus those originating in fiction.”


In chapter 28, “The UFO Myth” Arnold discusses how decades after 1947, the narrative of the Roswell incident came to encapsulate flying saucer beliefs into a single package. Arnold again seems to turn to Jung for perspective, saying, “In their compelling stories, myths reveal much about the society in which they thrive. Thinking of things as right or wrong in absolute terms may be a mistake.” 


Several chapters focus on the US government’s attempts to wrestle with the UFO problem and examines several aspects of the approach such as in “National Security and the Culture of Secrecy,” “Unknown Knowns,” and “The Bureaucratic ­Merry-Go-Round.” In “Visitors from Mars,” Arnold reminds us that the Cold War with the Soviets had the US in a state of agitation and paranoia, fearful of aerial invasions and of security leaks about their own military aviation weapon developments. This real policy of secrecy fueled the belief in a government UFO cover-up.


The focus of chapter 14, “A Laughing Matter,” is on the toll of ridicule and “jeer pressure” from the press and public towards witnesses. Arnold states, “It surely seems likely that some unknown number of sightings was never reported officially to anyone. Whether any of those would significantly alter our understanding of the phenomenon remains unknown.” 

Readers may be disappointed in the lack of examination of the flying saucer photographs of 1947. The 17 photos and illustrations in the book provide a bit of historical flavor, but they are more decorative than evidentiary, mostly stock photos of locations, aircraft, sample documents, etc. In that sense, it was a poor choice for the publisher to use a UFO photo for the book’s cover rather than a more atmospheric illustration of the author’s exploration of the cultural aspect of the UFO enigma.


Is Flying Saucers Over America a good book? Yes, but not a perfect one. It would be a good choice to read and then share with friends and family who are unfamiliar but curious about the UFO topic and its history. You might bookmark it for them and suggest your own chapter order for optimal enjoyment. For example, if you know they’d be more interested in the US government’s involvement, have them read the chapters on Project Sign, Grudge, Blue Book before some of the other "lectures."


Even a UFO scholar is likely to benefit from Arnold’s perspective as he presents a mosaic of the flying saucer age, the big picture of how UFOs affected our culture, prompted governments to react, and stirred belief in many people.

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