The Lost Opportunity: 1966 in Retrospect
by Richard M. Dolan
copyright ©2001 by Richard M. Dolan. All rights reserved.
There are quite a few UFO researchers and lobbyists who believe they are thisclose to ending UFO secrecy sometime soon. As far as I can tell, they are good people, and I wish them success. It may be that within the next few years I may lend a voice to help.
Right now, however, all I can see is how past efforts have failed.
The struggle to end UFO secrecy has produced several still-borns. In 1947, a report of a crashed disc at Roswell survived for three hours before being snuffed out by the Air Force. During 1952, that amazing year of UFOs, a small faction of military insiders tried to end secrecy. They, too, were thwarted.
Each time, however, the struggle became more intense. By the late 1950s, a private organization entered the fray, dedicated to ending UFO secrecy. This was the National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP). With three admirals on its executive board, and led by retired Marine Corps Major, Donald E. Keyhoe, the organization gained the ear of several leading members of Congress. For several years, it appeared that NICAP was on the verge of gaining open Congressional hearings on UFOs, each time to experience disappointment at the eleventh hour. In late 1961, it looked like NICAP might go all the way. Its most prominent member was Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, formerly the director of the CIA. Hilly believed in UFOs and had agreed to appear before Congress in the spring of 1962 to talk about the secrecy. Everything was set until February, when Hillenkoetter, clearly under pressure from someone, resigned from NICAP and bailed out of UFOs altogether.
NICAP had given it a good effort, but by the early 1960s it appeared to be spinning its wheels, with the Air Force getting the final word on the matter of UFOs. Then, something happened: UFO sightings across the United States increased to a crescendo that equaled the great wave of 1952, and surpassed it in duration. By 1966, as Vietnam and the civil rights movement pushed the United States toward a boil, the fight to end UFO secrecy reached its great crisis. That year, many amazing sightings had taken place, and UFOs were being discussed on the floor of Congress!
It was all for nothing, for 1966 was a year of failure. It was the turning point in which Ufology failed to turn. The great Japanese kendo master Miyamoto Musashi once wrote: ""when the enemy starts to collapse you must pursue him without letting the chance go. If you fail to take advantage of your enemies’’ collapse, they may recover.""
NICAP had been pressing for almost 10 years to force open congressional hearings on UFOs. They had quite an organization, and some real guts, I think, to challenge every year the Air Force on this matter. But in 1966, at the moment of peak crisis, the enemy did recover.
What follows is the story of how that happened.
During the 1960s, a period of tremendous challenge and change, many things were up for grabs. The fight to end UFO secrecy was one of those things. The enemy did start to collapse. Already, even during the 1950s, the Air Force had been trying to unload Blue Book to such agencies as the National Science Foundation and NASA. Good luck. It could more easily have sold Communism to J. Edgar Hoover. No one wanted Blue Book. It had a typical staff of one or two low-level personnel, a typist, and an officer. It was never a competent investigative body. To be fair, it was never intended to be one. Blue Book’’s real job was to appease the public with statements about a topic that the Air Force would rather have buried.
Unable to unload Blue Book, the Air Force also looked into disbanding it. This was a problem, too. Essentially, the Air Force had backed itself into a corner. Despite all the loaded statistics and all the heavy handed rhetoric, they continued to associate Blue Book with part of the overall effort to defend American air space and national security. So they really needed to prove to the public that all was solved, in some way that would be seen as plausible. By the time the great wave of the 1960s hit, they still hadn’’t figured it out.
In fact, the very existence of Blue Book was doing more damage than good, from the point of view of the Air Force. It was lending credibility to UFOs. It enabled UFO believers to ask ""if UFOs exist solely in the imagination, as the Air Force claims, why does it bother to investigate them?"" I think most basic of all, the Project heightened awareness of the very phenomenon the Air Force was trying to dismiss. Blue Book after all, was a government office which enabled UFO witnesses to feel credible and patriotic when they reported what they saw. That there was such a place at all encouraged people to look at the skies and notice such odd things.
A greater problem was that the public stopped believing the absurd explanations that the Air Force doled out. Jokes were becoming common. In the long term, the erosion of credibility threatened to become a big problem. Of course, military people had other pressing matters, such as Vietnam, to worry about. But being laughed at over flying saucers was not something the Air Force planned to accept for the long term.
All this had been manageable as long as the UFOs themselves –– or their reports –– remained scarce. That had generally been the case through the late 1950s and into the 60s. But sightings spiked upward in 1964, then increased again during the following year. The UFO wave of 1965 was a major global event. In fact, America’’s share was not even the most extraordinary. Even so, the tiny operation at Blue Book took in nearly one thousand reports that year. It boldly explained all but 16. Many of these explanations were labored, and it showed. That summer, for example, thousands of Midwesterners saw UFOs for several consecutive days, which the Air Force first explained as Orion (which was not visible in the northern hemisphere). After that explanation fell flat, Jupiter became the answer.
Thus, the intensity of the UFO wave, combined with Blue Book’’s lame explanations, caused a serious problem. UFOs were becoming a public burden the Air Force could neither carry nor throw off. Newspaper editorials ripped the Air Force and demanded better investigations. A couple of good jokes came in, too: one editorial asked ""do you ever get the feeling that ... the Air Force makes its denials six months in advance?""
As sightings continued at an amazing pace in 1966, a new person entered the fray. That was James McDonald, a man of tremendous scientific accomplishment who made it his business to get to the bottom of all this. In 1966, McDonald got hold of a copy of the Robertson Panel Report, which he was not supposed to have seen; found himself at the office of Blue Book consultant Allen Hynek slamming his fist down on the table demanding to know why Hynek had sat on so many tremendous UFO reports without saying a word; reinvestigating many old UFO reports; meeting with researchers. McDonald could stir the pot well, and was the best catalyst Ufology has ever had. By the end of 1966 he was prominent in the news, making public statements about the UFO coverup in his particular forthright manner. There was nobody quite like James McDonald.
McDonald was devastating, and it was not simply because of his personality. It was also because of his expertise. He was an atmospheric physicist. Not an astronomer like Hynek or arch-debunker Donald Menzel. It’’s interesting how astronomers so easily are given special status as evaluators of UFO reports. Yes, there’’s the assumption that if UFOs are from other planets that means they’’re from outer space, and we all know that astronomers look at outer space. But no matter where UFOs are from, they are usually observed within our atmosphere, which was McDonald’’s domain. Frankly, many of Blue Book’’s or Menzel’’s threadbare explanations could not withstand the scrutiny of James McDonald. And from all accounts about him, the man was fearless, and knew his stuff. That’’s potentially dangerous combination.
The UFO wave became a major media event in March of 1966. Heavy activity was being reported that month in Michigan. Civilians, police, and military personnel reported disc-shaped UFOs, and Selfridge AFB confirmed that they tracked amazing objects on radar. On March 20, a man and his son saw an object with lights hovering over a swamp. It made a whistling sound as it left. The following night, more strange lights were reported near Hillsdale, which many people watched for hours.
These last two sightings received national attention. The rest is well known. The Air Force sent Hynek in, and he gave that disastrous press conference with a quote about ""swamp gas."" His actual statement was actually rather nuanced, but it didn’’t matter. To the rest of the world, the Air Force never looked so incompetent and duplicitous on the matter of UFOs as it did at that moment. Project Blue Book’’s image was destroyed.
So here was the opportunity –– the chance for open congressional hearings on UFOs. On March 25, Congressman Gerald Ford called for an inquiry, and within two weeks, Congress held its first-ever open hearing on UFOs. Unfortunately, it was an exclusive, one-day-only affair. Three people were invited to testify: Air Force Secretary Harold Brown, Blue Book Chief Hector Quintanilla, and Hynek. This was not exactly an open hearing, and the results were predictable. Quintanilla and Brown said in effect there was nothing to it; Hynek said it demanded more study. Note that NICAP, which had pushed for ten years for a congressional hearing on this topic, had not even been invited.
All through the spring and summer of 1966, the Air Force hunted for a university to take the problem of UFOs far away from Blue Book. By the middle of summer, they had settled on the University of Colorado. There’’s been some great writing about the Colorado Project lately. We all know that, from the point of view of science, it was a disaster. And one whose conclusion appears to have been foregone.
On August 9, several months before the Air Force contract was announced, an infamous memorandum was written by a person at the University of Colorado who soon became the number two man of the UFO project. Although he was no scientist, Robert Low was a senior university administrator. He was also a former intelligence officer who appears, from at least one independent source, to have performed some serious work for the CIA in Albania twenty years earlier. In his 1966 memo, Low addressed some senior university officials and laid out the strategy for handling the UFO problem. ""The trick would be,"" wrote Low,
"... to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective study, but to the scientific community would present the image of a group of nonbelievers trying their best to be objective but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer..."
The memorandum blew up a year later, after project members found it and leaked it. Some have argued that this statement is not as incriminating against Low as it seems. Well, that’’s not how people interpreted this 30-plus years ago. It seemed pretty straightforward to them.
The dice were loaded from the beginning. The project director, Edward Condon, knew nothing about UFOs, didn’’t want to know anything about UFOs, and in fact was deeply and emotionally invested against an ET answer to the issue. There was no way it was going to happen.
Here is the heart of the matter. What the Air Force –– or the CIA for that matter –– absolutely would not abide was a true, open, independent congressional hearing on UFOs. They had thwarted NICAP in this matter for ten years. And for good reason. There was a real danger that this was a problem that could easily evade their control. That was not an acceptable option. So at the moment of crisis in 1966, when the situation appeared that it might be up for grabs, the Air Force and its allies did not panic, but maintained the initiative. By selecting –– and paying –– a university to conduct a study on UFOs, the Air Force stood a much better chance of dealing with a known quantity. They could get a sense of who was going to be conducting the study. If I were in the position of the Air Force at that time, I would certainly rather have the chance to select the organization that would solve this problem, rather than to hand it to Congress, where anything could happen.
In October 1966, the Air Force announced it had awarded a contract to the University of Colorado to conduct a scientific study of UFOs. The effort, it was said, would be independent and serious. For the moment, all sides of the UFO debate were satisfied that, finally, someone was doing something about this. But it was a false satisfaction, and a grave illusion.
The Colorado study, better known as the Condon Committee, was a scientific disaster that had one overriding virtue: it came to the exact conclusion the Air Force needed to dispose of Blue Book. By the end of 1969, Blue Book was closed. NICAP met its fate, as well. The month that the Air Force closed Blue Book, a group of men we now know were closely associated with the CIA wrested control of NICAP away from Major Keyhoe. The organization immediately began its spiral into oblivion.
Oh, and James McDonald? He was dead by 1971, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
As we look back at 1960s ufology standing at the city gates, we might ask ourselves: was there ever a true chance for success? The military and intelligence "handlers" of the UFO problem had resources and capabilities far beyond that of NICAP or any civilian researcher. Fifty years of ufology have shown time and again how civilians have underestimated the resources and resolve of the military-intelligence community to manage this problem. If we today cannot be confident that even the president is fully informed of UFO reality (who can say how much he really knows?), is it realistic to think that private organizations in the 1960s could have done any better? And what about today?
Ever since, people have met this phenomenon –– that is, UFOs –– on their own. There is no longer a government office where people can make reports. This is important for several reasons, and in my next article I will discuss the implications of this phenomenon not for the military, but for ordinary people.
 See Robin Winks, Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961 (William Morrow and Company, 1987), pp. 396-397.