Defense and Debunking
The Robertson Panel's startling recommendations
By late 1952, the CIA's science officials had resolved to form an expert panel to come up with policy recommendations on how to minimize public concern about UFOs and prevent panic during large national flaps. More memos passed between various defense and intelligence agencies until December, when the members of the proposed panel were finalized. These men were:
Dr. H. P. Robertson, California Institute of Technology: Dr. Robertson, a renowned physicist, had worked for the Allies during World War II, evaluating intelligence reports about German V-weapons. He determined that the Germans were capable of developing long-range rockets and using them against
Dr. Samuel A. Goudsmit, Brookhaven National Laboratory: Dr. Goudsmit, a nuclear physicist, had served on the Alsos Commission, the secret group created after the war to find out how far
Dr. Lloyd V. Berkner, Associated Universities, Inc.: Dr. Berkner was a noted geophysicist.
Dr. Luis Alvarez,
Dr. Thornton L. Page,
Frederick C. Durant III: Durant was president of the American Rocket Society and the International Astronautical Federation. An "associate member" of the panel, he served as secretary and wrote the report.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek: An astrophysicist, Dr. Hynek had worked as a consultant on UFO issues for the Air Force since 1948. He also served as an "associate member" of the panel. (Hynek would later found the Center for UFO Studies.)
The CIA-assembled group, officially titled the "Office of Scientific Intelligence Advisory Panel On Unidentified Flying Objects," was known ever after as the "Robertson Panel." The experts convened in
The Robertson Panel report contained some fascinating observations and recommendations. Among the conclusions:
distrust of duly constituted authority? Because of UFOs? The scientists on the CIA
panel weren't kidding. Though they did not elaborate
as to how the
As an antidote to the widespread worries over mysterious sightings, the report makes a lengthy argument for an "educational program" with two primary aims: "training and debunking." As for the training, such instruction would focus on developing "proper identification of unusually illuminated objects (e.g., balloons, aircraft reflections) as well as natural phenomena (meteors, fireballs, mirages, noctilucent clouds)."
The debunking effort would "result in reduction of public interest in 'flying saucers,' which today evokes a strong psychological reaction." Using "mass media such as television, motion pictures, and popular articles" that recounted "actual case histories which had been puzzling at first but later explained," the education campaign "should tend to reduce the current gullibility of the public and consequently their susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda."
Elaborating on the public information effort, the report advises that "psychologists familiar with mass psychology should advise on the nature and extent of the program." Who could offer such expertise to an official UFO debunking program? The members of the Robertson Panel had several suggestions. Among the names mentioned were:
Dr. Hadley Cantril, Princeton University: Cantril, a pioneering public opinion researcher, had authored Invasion from Mars, a study of the panic that broke out during the famous 1938 radio drama, "War of the Worlds," which was produced by Orson Welles and fooled at least some listeners into believing that the planet was under alien attack. Cantril was one of many leading scholars in communication studies who contributed his talents to various government psychological warfare initiatives. In 1956, the CIA would secretly fund a $1 million survey research project run by Cantril that measured political opinions in several foreign countries and in the
The Robertson Panel suggested using Disney cartoons to popularize the debunking program, among other means:
"Dr. Hynek suggested that the amateur astronomers in the
The panel predicted that the debunking campaign "might be required for a minimum of one and one-half to two years. At the end of this time, the dangers related to 'flying saucers' should have been greatly reduced if not eliminated."
The public anti-UFO program was not the only extreme measure the panel recommended. The report mentions two private groups of UFO researchers, the California-based Civilian Flying Saucer Investigators and the Wisconsin-based Aerial Phenomena Research Organization. Such activism by concerned citizens was also viewed as a potential threat that deserved attention. The report warns: "It was believed [by the panel] that such organizations should be watched because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking if widespread sightings should occur. The apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind."
No evidence has emerged that the Robertson Panel's outlandish recommendations were put into action. Yet the report has had a significant, if unintended, influence on the UFO debate in the
Peebles, Curtis, Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (Smithsonian Institution, 1994).
Simpson, Christopher, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960 (Oxford University Press, 1994).