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
England -- which they did, with deadly effect, late in the war.

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
Germany's atomic weapons program had developed.

Dr. Lloyd V. Berkner, Associated Universities, Inc.: Dr. Berkner was a noted geophysicist.

Dr. Luis Alvarez,
University of California: Dr. Alvarez was an expert in electronics, especially radar.

Dr. Thornton L. Page,
Johns Hopkins University: An astronomer, Dr. Page was chosen partly for his expertise and partly because he was a good friend of Dr. Robertson. Page would later report the stipend he was paid for his work on the CIA's UFO panel: $50.

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
Washington, D.C. on January 14, 1953. ATIC provided 75 UFO reports from 1951-52, considered the most significant unsolved cases in its files. After reviewing a number of cases and viewing film footage of UFO incidents in Utah and Montana, the panel was briefed on ATIC investigations. The next day Hynek presented a statistical study done by the Batelle Memorial Institute. More cases were discussed, along with additional Air Force testimony. At the last meeting, held January 18, a draft of their report was read and finalized.

The Robertson Panel report contained some fascinating observations and recommendations. Among the conclusions:

  • "That the evidence presented on Unidentified Flying Objects show no indication that these phenomena constitute a direct physical threat to national security." While the report notes that "none of the members of the Panel were loath to accept that this earth might be visited by extraterrestrial intelligent beings of some sort, some day," it explains that "they did not find... any evidence that related the objects sighted to space travelers."
  • "That the continued emphasis on the reporting of these phenomena does, in these perilous times, result in a threat to the orderly functioning of the protective organs of the body politic." The UFO incidents, the panel warned, could lead to "the cultivation of a morbid national psychology in which skillful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority."

Harmful 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 Soviet Union or another enemy might use notions about UFOs for psychological warfare purposes, the panel was clearly alarmed that such unusual propaganda could be launched against U.S. citizens.

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
United States.

Don Marquis,
University of Maryland: Marquis had served as chairman of both the American Psychological Association and the Defense Department's Committee on Human Resources, one of the earliest official efforts to apply the expertise of social scientists and psychologists to Cold War foreign policy aims.

The Robertson Panel suggested using Disney cartoons to popularize the debunking program, among other means:

"Dr. Hynek suggested that the amateur astronomers in the
U.S. might be a potential source of enthusiastic talent to 'spread the gospel.' It was believed that business clubs, high schools, colleges, and television stations would all be pleased to cooperate in the showing of documentary type motion pictures if prepared in an interesting manner."

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
United States. It is often cited as proof of the government's intention to hide the truth about UFOs -- ironically, it has encouraged more of the fear that the panel sought to dispel.


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).