Here in Washington we like to think that we are pretty sophisticated. After all, we are the best educated big city in the country. And, goodness knows, we have plenty of experience deciphering spin from our friends on Capitol Hill.
So, you'd think we might be more able than most to identify a hoax when we hear one, especially if it involved an story about an alien landing... As it turns out, this isn't really the case -- or at least it wasn't in 1938.
On the evening of Sunday, October 30, 1938, Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theater On the Air program aired “War of the Worlds,” a dramatization of H.G. Wells 1898 book about an alien invasion. Breaking “news” of the Martian landing was heard on locally on WJSV, which became WTOP in 1943. While there were periodic mentions during the broadcast that the events being portrayed were fake, a lot of listeners did not get the joke and took the story seriously… very seriously. As the Washington Post described it:
Federal, State and municipal officials were hard put to it calming frightened thousands. At police headquarters here, in every precinct, in offices of the Park Police, morning newspapers and Station WSJV, switchboards blazed with insistent lights. Terrified, tearful voices asked, “What’s it all about? Is it safe to stay here? Have they called the Army, the Navy, the Marines?”…. For an hour hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself.
The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone company reported that its circuits were overwhelmed during the broadcast. Apparently even some police officers were duped as the Post reported that the Washington Detective Bureau called WJSV to get the latest news on the invasion. (Sorry, officer, there are not really any aliens attacking earth right now. Now, sit back and enjoy the show.)
But, while the news was fake, there were some real-world consequences. In the days following the broadcast, FCC Chairman Frank McNinch called the heads of the three major networks to D.C. to discuss restrictions on the use of terms like “flash” and “bulletin” in fictional programming. In true Washington fashion, the broadcast also gave new fuel to discussions about the role of government in regulating radio programming as some called for more oversight.
Away from Capitol Hill, the “War of the Worlds” broadcast remained a popular topic of conversation for weeks. Letters poured into the Washington Post as area residents offered theories on why the broadcast had gotten such a reaction. Here are a few choice excerpts for your reading pleasure:
The cause of Sunday night’s hysteria is not difficult to find. The all-night life, the senseless barbaric swing music, questionable songs, drinking parties, wild, drunken driving and other poise-wrecking activities have brought forth so many disgraceful and tragic results that in a great number mental stability has been almost destroyed.– I.L.G., Washington
The real instigators of this panic of fear were in Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. For they are the "Martian apparti" that raze cities, wipe out civilization, destroy culture and compel races of people to wander over the face of the globe like hunted animals. The world has nothing to fear from an “extra terrestrial’ invasion. It has plenty cause of alarm, however, from those terrestrial monsters, euphemistically called Hitler, Hirohito and Benito.– Morton Jerome Jacobs
I admit that I am one of the many thousands whose (to quote a famous newspaper writer) "incredible stupidity, lack of nerve, and ignorance" found cause for alarm while listening to Mr. Orson Welles’ radio-dramatization of the "War of the Worlds."…. If I had met Mr. Orson Welles a few moments following the broadcast, I would have been inclined to take a “swing” at him. Now I would like to congratulate him for what I consider one of the greatest radio presentations ever heard on the air. It was a darn good show. – T. Owen Miller, Washington
Pretty interesting commentary about American culture and world events, don’t you think? Who knew fake aliens could elicit such a response?
- ^ Andrews, Marshall, “Monsters of Mars on a Meteor Stampede Radiotic America,” The Washington Post, 31 October 1938: X1.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Secrest, James D. “F.C.C. Actions May Lead to Congressional Investigation Next Session,” The Washington Post, 20 November 1938: B7.
- ^ “Reactions to the Radio Panic,” The Washington Post, 3 November 1938: X10.
- ^ “The Real ‘Monsters’,” The Washington Post, 10 November 1938: 11.
- ^ “’Good Show,’ Anyhow,” The Washington Post, 10 November 1938: 11.