UFOs - Past, Present, & Future
The Robertson Panel - 1953
by Robert Emenegger
The following year, in 1953, the official government interest was to change dramatically.
The CIA now would enter the picture, by convening a panel of top scientists to examine the UFO phenomenon. The CIA's concern was that recent waves of sightings might constitute a threat to our national security - the thinking was that the "enemy" could exploit UFOs as a decoy in preparation for an attack on the United States.
Five outstanding scientists and various Air Force and CIA representatives were to meet on Wednesday, January 14, 1953. Among the panel members was one associate member, who was destined to have more experience with the UFO phenomenon than any other American scientist to date: Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astrophysicist and now head of the astronomy department of Northwestern University.
I sat across from Hynek at the studio where the UFO television special was being prepared. Hynek likes to play with his pipe and had just finished filling it. He began in a high, thin, broken voice, which is a mannerism of his. After a minute or two he settled down into less professional tones and got into his recollections of the Robertson Panel:
"I can remember that day very well....I had very mixed feelings, being among such a group of highly respected and high-power scientists: Dr. Robertson, Chairman of the panel; Samuel Goudsmit, an associate of Einstein; Louis Alvarez, later to win the Nobel Prize; Thornton Page, astrophysicist; and the distinguished Lloyd Berkner."
"At that time, I was somewhat a newcomer and a junior - an associate member of the Robertson Panel. I guess I was somewhat nervous and apprehensive - but also quite interested in UFOs, having spent some four years, at that time, working with Air Force officials investigating sightings."
"I was called in Thursday to that room. The members were seated around a table, a conference table like this one. I sat in the back until it was my turn to speak. During the meeting there were two films of UFO sightings that were of great interest to everyone at the time. One was shot by a Navy officer in Utah1 and another shot in Great Falls, Montana. The Utah film was to result in over a thousand man-hours of analyzing the phenomena captured on the film. Oddly enough, there wasn't any movie screen, so these films were projected right on the wall."
"After one-thousand hours of analysis on the Utah film....the Navy photograph interpretation labs....concluded that what we saw was not birds, balloons, aircraft, or reflections, but that these were 'self-luminous' unidentified objects. In spite of this conclusion, the panel rejected the Navy's findings and decided that it must have been birds."
After four days of testimony, evaluation, and recommendations, the panel concluded that "the evidence presented on Unidentified Flying Objects shows no indication that these phenomena constitute a direct physical threat to national security." It went on to suggest that a public educational program be initiated to help people identify natural phenomena thought to be UFOs. This program would be "designed to reassure the public of the total lack of evidence on inimical forces behind the phenomena." This would cut down the number of reports to the Air Force, reports which could potentially jam the phone lines to the Pentagon.
I asked Dr. Hynek if the Robertson Panel seemed like a whitewash - was it purposely out to debunk the UFO phenomenon? "If the whole Robertson Panel was a put-up job," Hynek replied "then one could argue that they deliberately chose high scientific - establishment men, men who were terribly, terribly busy could not obviously spend a lot of time examining things and had no intention of doing their homework, but of simply passing judgment on the basis of their previous scientific experience in, and only in, their present scientific framework. And, it would have been just as difficult to express a different idea as it would have been to convince a physicist in the year 1880 that matter and energy are interchangeable. The law (in 1880) said that matter was conserved, no matter what, and that was that! And, you just don't come around with this nonsense about matter being changed into energy. I mean, it was that sort of attitude that I sensed all throughout."
"In view of that attitude," Hynek continued, "it would have been difficult to convince the panel that they were mistaken." "Do I have any outstanding evidence to present to the contrary? Well, I thought I might have had, but in the face of that onslaught, I wasn't about to bring it up; and furthermore, the data at that time was not convincing in the sense that a physicist wants something to be convincing...."
"And when the report finally came out, that is, the recommendations, I was not overly surprised to find the tack they had taken of the general need for debunking."
"Now, it's true that....described during the meetings (were) the military implications of the flap of 1952, the crowding of military wires, so that if some enemy, for instance, had wanted to perpetrate a Pearl Harbor, let's say, all they would have needed to do was to get their agents to spawn a whole bunch of UFO reports at the right time, and it's quite true that the military wires would have been so clogged, that one wouldn't have been able to tell a UFO from a missile from a hole in the ground. So, I recognized the....danger that UFO reports....could be at critical times." He paused for a moment and I commented, "It sounds like they generally had a very closed-minded attitude."
Hynek looked up and leaned over in a confiding way. "Another way to describe their basic attitude....was very clearly an attitude of 'Daddy knows best, don't come to me with these silly stories, I know what's good for you and don't argue.'
My experience with the Robertson Panel stayed with me, and years later, when I wrote a strong recommendation to the Air Force that a scientific panel should be set up to study the whole situation,2 I specifically said that although good scientists should be chosen, they should be those who had sufficient time to do their homework and not expect to conduct a scientific investigation in a few days by, you might say, taking a vote on it rather than studying.
"If I had known, or even thought, that the UFO problem would still be with us in 1974, bigger than ever, I certainly would have taken greater note of what went on in the Robertson Panel, and this true all throughout, even in my years of Blue Book....I didn't keep the notes or wasn't aware of the politics behind the whole business as I certainly now realize I should have been."
"Weren't they intrigued by the film shown to them?" I asked.
"The viewing of the two films is the incident which remains by far the most vivid in my mind," Hynek replied, "the rather informal attitude at the time. The men had left their austere positions around the conference table and were sort-of crouching around and leaning over each other's shoulders watching the films. There was a whole interplay of comments. Not exactly wisecracks, but 'Well, it certainly looks like seagulls to me,' and, 'You can't convince me that that's not birds, it's gotta be birds,' and words to that effect. Some people expressed a little dismay at the Tremonton films that they didn't realize that birds could reflect that much and someone would say, 'Oh, yes, if the light's right, sun's right,' and I believe that I mentioned that the change in light was too rapid for it to be birds in flight, but that got nowhere."
"Certainly, throughout the whole meeting, I did not feel at all like a colleague of the panel, but rather as one of the witnesses brought in for certain evidence or comments, and then dismissed as a witness would be when he's asked to step down from the chair."
"Well, I guess that's really all of the impressions I have. It's been nearly twenty-one years since then. I do remember the room quite vividly. I don't remember the building, but the shape of the room and particularly the showing of the films on the wall, this I do remember, and also the rather unctuous and self-important bearing of one of the members who was really terribly impressed with his role in this thing [and the fact that] it was a CIA meeting. I was not impressed with their results or with their manner of going about it; in fact, I was rather disappointed."
1 Here is the Navy Officer's description of taking the film:
2 Described in Hynek's book, The UFO Experience, Ballantine, 1974.
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