The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. worries about space aliens and UFOs are older than you think

UFO fears have long exposed humans’ terrestrial concerns

This image from video provided by the Defense Department, from 2015, shows an unexplained object as it soars high along the clouds. (AP)

The Defense Department is poised to release an unclassified report on unidentified aerial phenomena. News outlets and online commentators openly discuss whether these UAPs — more commonly known as UFOs — are visitors from space. Some want to believe. Others are deeply skeptical. And the Biden administration is reporting that it has no evidence of alien visitors, although it cannot explain about 120 mysterious contacts.

Credulous reporting about space aliens from the highest reaches of the government might make it seem as though we have entered a new phase of U.S. history — but we haven’t. In fact, since the early republic, U.S. officials have been worried about space aliens.

Their concerns exposed contested ideas about race, national security and universal rights. Then, as now, observers wondered whether different people could coexist in a community. Space provided a means of thinking about the challenge of pluralism and the promise of bestowing universal rights because, after all, nobody is more alien than a space alien.

The story begins like this: John Adams (1735-1826) helped to pay for a publication announcing the appearance of a comet during the month he was to be sworn in as the first vice president of the United States. That publication, “A Short Account of the Solar System, and of Comets in General” (1789), was written by an acquaintance from Massachusetts. No known document explaining Adams’s motivation survives, but the future of the new United States was clearly on his mind.

The “Short Account” not only predicted that a comet would appear, it also considered what we might call the national security implications of its appearance. Could the comet strike Earth, causing fires and floods? Yes, although it probably wouldn’t, the book explained. Were comets inhabited by intelligent beings? Quite possibly, the book continued. In fact, these intelligent beings might be a problem because they were almost certainly more knowledgeable about the universe than people on Earth. The inhabitants of a comet could see the entire solar system as they passed through it on their long, elliptical orbit. People on Earth remained in a single, narrow neighborhood, unable to study the solar system in great detail.

Of course, this particular comet did not deliver a natural disaster or invaders from another world. In fact, it never appeared. Astronomers today think that this celestial body, observed by humans in 1532 and 1661, broke apart well before the United States existed. The remnants are still out there, although they are too small to see with the naked eye.

Fears of aliens persisted, though. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, European philosophers such as Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), James Hervey (1714-1758) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), had discussed the possibility of life on other worlds. But their discussions had generally been hypothetical thought experiments. In the early United States, writers and publishers began to repurpose those discussions in political disputes.

Supporters of manumission, or the gradual elimination of slavery, fired some of the first shots in these debates. And they used the work of the Black astronomer Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) to do so. Banneker was largely self-taught. In the 1790s, he calculated ephemerides, predictions about the future positions of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars over the course of the coming year. Essentially, he produced the building blocks for almanacs that when published would become among the most popular and accurate in the United States. But Banneker did not choose the articles, poems and illustrations that would appear in his almanacs. His White promoters, who were in several cases members of manumission societies, made those selections.

And Banneker’s White publishers chose to include a story about extraterrestrials in one of his earliest almanacs. The account itself had come from Hervey, an English philosopher and theologian. But it was edited selectively to send a message to Americans. The essay cautioned that the planet Venus was essentially Earth’s twin and that it could easily have “all accommodations for animal subsistence” — in other words, life. Hervey’s point was that human politics and human events should be considered in relation to an abundant and varied universe, a living cosmos.

In the hands of Banneker’s promoters, this argument about a universe inhabited by living creatures was an argument against slavery. Americans, Banneker’s publishers insisted, were merely the momentary masters of a political regime that was smaller and more fragile than they realized. And if the United States did not soon end slavery — the subjugation of equally precious and equally intelligent living beings — then the nation would ultimately sow the seeds of its own destruction. One Banneker almanac warned that the United States would not survive past its third president.

That third president, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), was himself an enslaver. He might also have been abducted by aliens — at least in fiction. The author Washington Irving (1783-1859), famous today for writing such stories as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle,” wrote a story in which moon people kidnapped “our worthy President” — possibly Jefferson, who was president when the story was conceived, or James Madison (1751-1836), president when it was published in December 1809.

Irving’s point was that thinking about an alien invasion might help those in the United States to understand the importance of peace. He asked readers to imagine moon people kidnapping the president along with other political leaders. Then, “returning to their native planet,” the aliens carried the president “to court, as were the Indian chiefs led about as spectacles in the courts of Europe.” Irving suggested, in other words, that if you create a vast arsenal of weaponry and use it to subjugate your neighbors, you should probably be concerned that someone else might come along and try to subjugate you. Thinking about space aliens, ultimately, provided Irving with the means to think about the behavior of American and European settlers.

As government officials release the report on UAPs, their central concern is with national security. An alien technology, or even hypersonic Russian or Chinese drones, could pose extraordinary risks to the United States. But, as is often the case, discussions of alien technology reveal a great deal about the people doing the discussing. Do we fear difference or welcome it? And does our performance of technological mastery reveal a deep fear about our own vulnerability?

When we are faced with the unknown, our assumptions reveal a lot about us. We should certainly look up at the sky and wonder about alien life. But we should also look around and wonder about ourselves.