While the rest of the nation celebrates its independence with fireworks, folks in Roswell, NM, will commemorate July 4 as the day when something other than bottle rockets fell out of the sky.
No one is sure what crashed in the pasture of rancher Mac Brazel that summer of 1947. The Air Force claims it was a weather balloon, while so-called 'UFOlogists' believe that whatever Brazel found originated on another planet.
One piece of evidence alien aficionados use to justify their position is a press release the military issued, then quickly retracted on July 8, 1947.
Some of the nation's most confidential defense research took place at New Mexico military installations. Scientists at the White Sands Missile Base developed the atomic bomb, and the 509th Bomb Group stationed at Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) dropped two on Japan. The Balloon Branch at Alamogordo Army Air Field sent aloft hi-tech devices designed to spy on the Russians.
'We may not ever find out what Albuquerque was doing,' says Air Force historian Bruce Ashcroft. Some of the experiments were so hush-hush that bases didn't share information with each other. Inevitably, devices drifted over to other facilities or onto private property.
The term 'flying saucer' was new to the American vocabulary in the summer of 1947. A rash of sightings had been reported around the country, and rewards were offered for photos or other evidence of their existence.
One day in early July, Mac Brazel brought his strange metallic debris into the Chaves County Sheriff's Office. Maj. Jesse Marcel was sent out from RAAF to investigate.
Walter Haut served as the PR officer for the 509th at the time. On July 8, Col. William Blanchard told Haut to write a press release stating that the unit had gained possession of a crashed disk. 'You didn't ask why, you just went ahead and did it,' recalls Haut, who in 1991 helped found Roswell's International UFO Museum and Research Center.
Haut hand-delivered the press release to Roswell's two newspapers and two radio stations. When he returned to the office, phones were ringing with calls from every corner of the globe. Reporters asked Haut to describe the disk, but he only knew what Blanchard had told him to write. 'If he wanted me to have more information, he would have given it to me,' Haut says.
Within a few hours, Brig. Gen. Roger Ramey conducted his own press conference in Fort Worth and identified the mysterious wreckage as the remains of a weather balloon. That explanation satisfied reporters. The story died a quick death, or so it seemed at the time.
As the Cold War's cloud of suspicion settled over the country, UFO sightings continued and prompted the Air Force and CIA to investigate. The Air Force found that most of the reports were the product of misinterpretations, hoaxes or hallucinations. It launched an education campaign to dispel public fears about flying saucers, and the Department of Defense refused military assistance to any motion picture project that depicted extraterrestrial life.
The CIA went to great pains to conceal its interest, afraid its investigations might be seen as confirming the existence of UFOs. Officials feared that alleged flying saucer sightings were psychological warfare tools being wielded by the Russians to create mass hysteria or overload the US air warning system, according to a 1997 CIA report authored by Gerald Haines.
In 1953, the CIA funded a panel study of UFOs, which found that UFOs posed no threat to national security and recommended another public education effort. The CIA instead chose to classify the panel's report and forbade any mention of the agency's involvement. 'This attitude would later cause the agency major problems relating to its credibility,' Haines wrote.
By the mid-1950s, rumors surfaced about the CIA's clandestine panel. The Air Force repeatedly encouraged the CIA to release the report. When the CIA finally did make it public in 1975, the agency inaccurately claimed to have never 'engaged in the study of the phenomena.'
Meanwhile, the Roswell story lay relatively dormant until the late 1970s, when Marcel was quoted as saying he didn't believe the wreckage he recovered was 'of this world.' Ashcroft says, 'Before that, the Air Force had never considered Roswell a UFO incident.'
UFOlogists turned their attention to Roswell, and by the end of the 1980s, a former funeral home employee claimed a mysterious nurse told him about an alien autopsy performed at RAAF. A steady stream of information requests prompted the Air Force to search its archives and issue extensive reports in 1994 and 1997. Although the Air Force couldn't supply a definitive answer, it implied that hazy memories of weather balloons, crash test dummies and aircraft accidents coalesced into the 'Roswell incident.' Still, the Air Force refuses to grant official interviews regarding the reports, but its spokespeople will provide some background information, explains public affairs officer Gloria Cales.
'From the public affairs side, it's an impossible situation,' Ashcroft observes. 'Regardless of what you bring forward, people always say, 'But yeah, tell us what you haven't told us.''
The government undoubtedly lost control of the story, Haines agreed in his CIA report: 'No matter how much material the agency releases, and no matter how dull and prosaic the information, people continue to believe in an agency cover-up and conspiracy.'
Roswellians made lemonade out of what could have been particularly sour fruit. The UFO Museum now hosts about 200,000 visitors a year. The city puts on Roswell Encounter festivals around July 4. Three new hotels and several souvenir businesses have cropped up.
'I'm always thrilled to death when the government changes its story, because we make another three or four million dollars,' laughs Johnny Johnson, who runs the city's convention and visitors bureau. This year, the festival featured its first intergalactic food and fashion show, and organizers plan to add a sci-fi film festival in 2000.
Lingering questions about the 52-year-old desert crash keep conspiracy theories alive and Roswell on the map. The most perplexing PR puzzle is why the military issued that first press release. 'I think there's not a good answer to that question,' admits Ashcroft.
'No matter what the Air Force tries to do, people who believe in conspiracies will always go back to the initial report.'