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J. Robert Oppenheimer to Eleanor Roosevelt, May 19, 1950. Box 62, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Of Note: Eleanor Roosevelt, Alien Investigator

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In summer 1947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold spotted nine bright objects in the sky over Washington State flying, he said, “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” Reporters shorthanded the description of these objects to “flying saucers.” Sightings proliferated, and Americans fell into breathless speculation. Three years later, an unlikely investigator was on the case: Eleanor Roosevelt.

Or at least, Roosevelt was on the case long enough to ask a few questions, and as a former first lady, diplomat, and activist, she was able to direct those questions to a noted scientist of her acquaintance, former Los Alamos Laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer. A brief exchange in the Oppenheimer Papers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division offers a sidebar on the nature of evidence and mass hysteria at an odd moment in the nation’s history, one when Americans of many stripes suddenly found themselves unsure whether aliens were among them.

For Roosevelt it started in March 1950, when she came across a story in the newspaper. A pair of Chicago and Southern Air Lines pilots reported seeing a 100-foot disc whipping across the Arkansas skies, its peak blinking with the “strangest, strongest blue-white light” and its underside ringed with glowing windows. Roosevelt, then host of a short-lived NBC television program called Today with Mrs. Roosevelt, had the pilots, Jack Adams and G. W. Anderson, in her New York studio within a week. They brought along a hastily built model of the flying saucer to display on air.

Transcripts of the program suggest Roosevelt listened politely. The pilots, she said, were “really qualified people to know what they were looking at,” and “pretty sure now that [they] have actually seen something quite different and new.” Adams was elated. Neither man mentioned extraterrestrials directly. The segment concluded with Roosevelt shaking her head, as one reporter put it, in “laughing bewilderment,” declaring, “I will say I’ve been a little skeptical before: I thought people were seeing things.”

Was Roosevelt convinced? Probably not, but she at least seemed confounded. That was enough to get the attention of a fringe group called the Borderland Sciences Research Associates, which made a habit of spamming the nation’s VIPs with its literature. One of their representatives, Edward S. Schultz of Buffalo, New York, dropped Roosevelt a line. His letter apparently referenced the group’s belief that flying saucers were piloted by interdimensional beings called Etherians, “‘little people,’ ‘dwarfs’ about 30 inches in height” who inhabited the spaces “along-side, inside, “outside our world.”

Cover of a publication with title Flying Discs in red.
A self-published Borderland Sciences Research Associates volume on flying saucers dating from 1950, which can be found in the Library’s general collections. Edward S. Schultz, who attempted to recruit Eleanor Roosevelt to ufo-ology, contributed an essay on the “home plane of the ether ships.” Schultz apparently had a science background of his own. A 1931 article called him a “radiotrician,” and claimed he had once worked with Thomas Edison.

Roosevelt wanted to know: Could Oppenheimer share what he knew about the group? He could not. “The only honest answer,” he replied, “is that I know nothing whatever.” Oppenheimer expressed more confidence about flying saucers. He didn’t believe they existed, nor had Schultz’s explanations convinced him.

He did, however, offer a story about a tense morning at Los Alamos, atop New Mexico’s remote Pajarito Plateau, when scientists busily creating the world’s first atomic bombs poured out of their laboratories to gaze at a “bright object in the sky,” one which also confounded nearby military personnel. Then, when an astronomer “and a man of some human wisdom” intervened to ask “whether we would stop trying to shoot down Venus,” the tension lifted. The lesson, for Oppenheimer, was that “arriving at the truth can often be a more difficult and troublesome thing than we like to think,” and that “even a group of scientists is not proof against the errors of suggestion and hysteria.”

The point was well taken. But unsaid, and perhaps unknown to Oppenheimer, was that some of America’s flying saucer hysteria was rooted in anxieties about the very atomic weapons he had helped create. When asked why the saucers hadn’t visited us before, some early saucerians claimed the extraterrestrials had seen our atomic blasts from afar and come to warn us of the imminence of our own destruction. In their wisdom, the aliens were only trying to save us from ourselves.

There seems no reason to believe that Eleanor Roosevelt pursued her flying saucer inquiries any further. We do know, however, that she was “highly amused” by Oppenheimer’s story.

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“…breathless speculation.” David A. Clary, The Flying Saucer in America, 1947-1999 (Philadelphia, Xlibris: 2000), 36-37.

“…flying saucer to display on air.” “Air Force to Probe Story by Two Pilots of ‘Flying Saucer,’” The Dothan (Ala.) Eagle, March 23, 1950; Ed Creagh, “A.P. Staff Writer Tells of ‘Flying Saucer’ Tales,” Monroe (La.) Morning World, April 2, 1950.

“…seeing things.” “Today with Mrs. Roosevelt” transcript, March 26, 1950, Box 2, Richard F. Haines Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming; Ed Creagh, “A.P. Staff Writer Tells of ‘Flying Saucer’ Tales,” Monroe (La.) Morning World, April 2, 1950.

“…outside our world.” Meade Layne, The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution (San Diego: B.S.R.A., 1950), 4, 6.

“Schultz apparently had a science background…” George McMichael, “Buffalo Man Wins Third Prize in Contest, So 25th Will Be Christmas,” The Buffalo Times, December 24, 1931.

“…errors of suggestion and hysteria.” J. Robert Oppenheimer to Eleanor Roosevelt, May 19, 1950, Box 62, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“…Oppenheimer’s story.” Eleanor Roosevelt to J. Robert Oppenheimer, May 25, 1950, Box 62, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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