UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There by Garrett Graff

Review by Chris Saunders

UFO: "Unidentified Flying Object". Recently rebranded “UAP” for “Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon,” or “Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon.” Apparently “UFO” had some marketing problems.

As proud Pacific Northwesterners know, the first official sighting of otherworldly aircraft didn’t happen at Roswell, New Mexico, but rather, near Mount Rainier on June 24th, 1947, by a 32-year-old rescue pilot named Kenneth Arnold, who landed in Yakima later that day and told a lot of people about the “saucer-like craft” he saw. (I never knew any of this until I went off to college, and I’ve always wondered why stick-in-the-mud Yakimites don’t talk about this at all, while other communities are quick to cash in on the notoriety associated with UFO sightings. Even if it’s too late to attract tourists at this point, how about a plaque or a mural on the airport wall, or just something commemorating it?)

For what it’s worth, Yakima is first mentioned on page 4 of UFO, the 518-page book by investigative reporter Garrett Graff, whose previous subjects have included Watergate, September 11th, and the Cold War. Shortly after Arnold’s story appeared in newspapers, it seemed like everyone was seeing glowing aircraft everywhere during the Summer of ’47.

Spoiler alert: Graff doesn’t uncover any evidence that we’ve been visited by intelligent alien life. The purpose of the book isn’t to champion the existence of extraterrestrials or to make fun of those who have claimed to have seen them, a group including Jimmy Carter in 1969. (Eight years later, Carter would, as President, inscribe a message to alien civilizations on a golden plate contained in the Voyager 1 spacecraft.)

Rather, Graff’s purpose is to try and construct a timeline of modern ufology and chronicle it all in one place: the government investigations, the amateur sleuths with their newsletters, the culture in which all of this flourished. Refreshingly, the author approaches the whole thing with a skeptical, but open mind. It’s a constant tension: While some stories are clear hoaxes, and some are probably military aircraft on maneuvers or some kind of space debris burning up in the atmosphere, there are also so many sightings from otherwise credible people with no reason to lie who adamantly stand by their stories, that something has to be going on; but on the other hand, if something were going on, given the volume of sightings, you’d expect some kind of tangible evidence to have emerged by now.

It’s probably not an accident that the modern incarnation of UFO sightings converged so closely with the dawn of the Cold War and the Atomic Age. After all, as the author reminds, us, two thousand years ago, UFOs were called “angel sightings.” What the mind can’t explain, it will fit into a larger context of the times. At the end of the day, the most important letter in UFO, or UAP, or whatever we’re calling it now, is the “U” for “Unidentified.”