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The Uniquely American Intrigue Around UFOs


UFOs aren't supposed to be bound by national borders, but for a while now, there have been a lot of sightings in the U.S. The report from the Pentagon released last Friday acknowledged more than 140 of what officials called unidentified aerial phenomena just since 2004, although historian and University of Pennsylvania professor Kate Dorsch says the rest of the nine-page document was unsurprising.

KATE DORSCH: It very much mirrors similar reports that have come before throughout the 20th century.

CORNISH: There's an emphasis on national security risk. There's a request for more funding, but there is no mention of aliens. But Dorsch says this moment still says something about America's unique obsession with visitors from other worlds. Kate Dorsch joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

DORSCH: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, there isn't a definite global databank on UFO sightings, but is it fair to say that Americans kind of see more than their fair share, so to speak?

DORSCH: It is fair to say that. Of course, we will never have complete sighting data because not everyone reports. But it is fair to say that Americans seem more willing to talk about their experiences than people in other places in the world.

CORNISH: Can you talk more about that? Why do you think that is?

DORSCH: I think that it is in part because we have created a culture around civilian defense, right? If you see something, say something. Americans also - we're a very individualist country, and so we're more willing to share the things that we've seen and heard and done.

CORNISH: Is there any intersection with our embrace of conspiracy theories?

DORSCH: I think so, yes. Our culture embraces conspiracy theories in such a impassioned and robust way that that creates a really great space for UFOs to continue having a sort of cultural relevance as a way to stand in for all kinds of concerns - political, religious, sort of existential sometimes.

CORNISH: What do we know about other countries, maybe Europe and elsewhere, where there have been similar kinds of sightings? How do they talk about them?

DORSCH: The way that they are interpreted in other places in the world does not always align with how we interpret them here in the States. For example, UFO sightings in the '50s and '60s in Germany very rarely had the sort of alien-extraterrestrial bend. Instead, Germans saw things they couldn't explain and assumed that they were American or Russian technology, that the global superpowers were testing new kinds of war technology over their skies. In the '40s and '50s, there were a series of sightings in Sweden, the ghost rockets - again, quickly interpreted to be a new Russian technology.

CORNISH: That's interesting, though, because if you believe you're in a country that has superior technology, then you don't necessarily think to point to another country when you see something unusual.

DORSCH: Correct. Correct. You know, for a long time, because we were the dominant techno-scientific nation on the planet, we had to look to the stars for an explanation for a technology that seems so far past us.

CORNISH: Do you have any ideas about why the U.S. government is choosing this moment to open up about this topic?

DORSCH: Part of it is that they had to. There was a rider in the COVID relief bill requiring a report from the Pentagon about the current state of the unidentified aerial phenomenon investigations inside the Pentagon. Why the government is taking interest now, I think, has a lot to do with the political moment, given the deep state charges that were so popular among a certain group of people throughout the Trump administration and the fact that a lot of Americans feel like we don't have as much visibility into our government as we would like. It causes these stories about cover-up and obfuscation to really gain traction.

CORNISH: Do you think that this is enthusiasm that will last - right? - like, now that this report is out?

DORSCH: It would not surprise me. This is what UFO interest does. It goes through these sorts of peaks and valleys. There will always be an enthusiastic community, regardless of how visible they are in the media. But I would not be surprised if in the coming months, the story dissipates and, like a UFO does, disappears sort of back into the stars for the time being.

CORNISH: That's Kate Dorsch, science and technology historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thanks for being with us.

DORSCH: Thanks, Audie. It was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.