‘What types of superstitious appeals will be best adapted to the various audiences to be propagandised?… A study of local supserstitions as relected in popular folk lore might be profitable in providing answers to these questions.’
When they weren’t designing rocket ships or calculating how long it would take to cook the world with nuclear warheads, the RAND Corporation kept themselves busy working out how best to scare the hell out of ‘peasants, old people and… ignorant workers’, particularly in the Soviet Union. That anyway, was the aim of this fascinating 1950 paper, The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare (PDF here).
‘It seems likely that superststitions flourish in an atmosphere of tension and insecurity’, writes its author, Jean Hungerford, and her timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The paper was published for the US Air Force on 14 April 1950, just as Cold War tensions were first reaching levels of serious discomfort. In the previoust six months, the Soviets had detonated their first atom bomb, China and the USSR had signed a pact of allegiance and Los Alamos physicist Klaus Fuchs had confessed to passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviets. While, curiously, no mention of it is made in Hungerford’s paper, America’s enthusiasm for flying saucers was also ratcheting up to dizzy new heights, one sighting at a time.
The previous December had seen Donald Keyhoe’s electrifying ‘Flying Saucers are Real’ article appear in True Magazine, just as the USAF, doing its best to keep the lid on a boiling pot of saucer stew, had published its own internal Project Grudge report, which recommended seriously downplaying flying saucer reports and keeping military sightings out of the public domain. The critical point, the Air Force realised, was to halt the spread of exactly the kinds of superstition and fear-mongering that Hungerford was writing about before things got out of hand.
Although Hungerford doesn’t mention flying saucers directly, her discussion of the use, or abuse, of superstitions in psychological warfare (or Pyschological Operations, PSYOPS, now MISO), is critical to understanding the role that PSYOPS played in the development of the UFO mythology, and recognising the phenomenon’s potential operational value to the military and intelligence agencies.
The paper discusses PSYOPS missions that successfully exploited local superstitions; for example in the 1920s on Afghanistan’s Northwest Frontier, the British planted loudspeakers in planes warning tribal peoples that God was angry with them for breaking the peace with India, while in World War II the Germans projected imagery (though it doesn’t say what) onto ‘drifting clouds’. Hungerford goes into some detail on the use of chain letters to clog up enemy communications networks (does this sound like the SERPO spam attack?), and the use of bogus fortune-tellers and false astrological data to dampen morale amongst both civilians and their leaders, a technique used extensively by both Allied and Axis powers during WWII.
Hungerford also references the activities of Captain Neville Maskelyne, the wartime illusionist most famous for his inflatable tanks and making the port of Alexandria ‘invisible’ to German bombers. In his 1949 book Magic Top Secret, Maskelyne gleefully describes other devilish antics that he and his team got up to:
“Our men…were able to use illusions of an amusing nature in the Italian mountains, especially when operating in small groups as advance patrols scouting out the way for our general moves forward. In one area, in particular, they used a device which was little more than a gigantic scarecrow, about twelve feet high, and able to stagger forward under its own power and emit frightful flashes and bangs. This thing scared several Italian Sicilian villages appearing in the dawn thumping its deafening way down their streets with great electric blue sparks jumping from it; and the inhabitants, who were mostly illiterate peasants, simply took to their heels for the next village, swearing that the Devil was marching ahead of the invading English. Like all tales spread among uneducated folk (and helped, no doubt, by our agents), this story assumed almost unimaginable proportions.”
Researcher Nick Redfern, who first drew my attention to the RAND paper, wonders whether Maskelyne’s scarecrow was an ancestor of the 1952 Flatwoods Monster. I would also suggest that famed cold warrior Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale, a former advertising executive turned intelligence operative, read the RAND paper before being deployed in the Philippines to quash the Communist uprising there in the early 1950s. As well as broadcasting the ‘Voice of God’ from a plane (as the British had done in Afghanistan), his team exploited local superstitions about a vampire-like demon called the Aswang, a ploy that successfully drove the Commie guerrillas from their jungle stronghold.
Hungerford advises PSYOPS operatives to research the superstitions prevalent amongst their intended targets to learn how best to scare the crap out of them:
What superstitions are peculiar to Eastern Europeans, to Russians, to the various nationalities of the Soviet Union. What superstitions are prevalent amongst peasants, among combat troops or airmen, among civilians? What evidence is there that given members of the enemy elite are addicted to certain types of superstitions? What evidence is there that some types of superstitions lose their credibility after enjoying a brief vogue?
While the paper makes no explicit mention of flying saucers, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the craze that the USAF optimistically thought it had put a cap on. The saucer problem would soon flare up again in spectacular style, reaching its first climax with the July 1952 Washington DC ‘overflights’ that, I suggest, appear to have been a staged operation. Could Hungerford’s paper have played a role in changing the USAF’s mind about how best to deal with those unstoppable flying saucers?
Air Force attitudes towards UFOs changed dramatically between 1949’s Grudge report – which advised a strict lock down on media and internal military reports – and the famous LIFE magazine article of April 1952, in which the Air Force told America’s most popular magazine that UFOs could not ‘be explained by present science as natural phenomena — but solely as artificial devices, created and operated by a high intelligence.’
By the time that the CIA got involved with the UFO problem in 1952, they focused almost exclusively on the psychological warfare implications of the phenomenon. Surprisingly, given that UFOs were by now a top level concern for both the CIA and the Air Force, the CIA’s own 1953 summary makes no mention of Hungerford’s paper. Had her RAND report just not been read by the right people, or was it one of the secrets that the canny Air Force was keeping from the Agency for reasons of their own?
Whether the Air Force and the CIA were aware of it at the time or not, flying saucers proved to be the answer to two of Hungerford’s key concerns: they provided a superstitious framework that could be deployed to potent effect anywhere in the world and one that, 60 years later shows no signs of losing its credibility, despite the occasional dip in its profile. From a PSYOPS tactician’s perspective then UFOs were a gift from the gods as great as the fabled purse of Fortunatus – a gift that has never stopped giving.
However, before we crack open the PSYOPS champagne (or MISO soup?) we should remember that UFOs come bundled with their own unique set of problems. As I show in Mirage Men, the potential for ‘blowback’ from what we might call ‘lore operations’ gets stronger the more deeply and successfully the seeds of superstition are planted. And UFOs are in deep. Hungerford is fully aware of the issue:
It should be pointed out that democratic as well as totalitarian elites may be susceptible to superstition. Various American generals and admirals are noted for their stock of superstitious notions…
and ends her paper on a prescient note of caution:
What may be the boomerang effects of attempts to exploit popular folklore?
As the media is once again deluged with reports of UFO encounters from US military whistleblowers and intelligence insiders, some of them no doubt sincere, we would do well to consider this last question rather carefully.