What was the Roswell incident?

In late June and early July 1947, “flashing lights” and “flying saucers” were reportedly seen dancing in the skies over North America. And on 7 July, William “Mac” Brazel delivered to the authorities strange metallic debris he’d found strewn across the desert near his ranch in New Mexico. The following day, the nearby Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release announcing that they had recovered a “flying disc” from near Roswell.


A follow-up retracted those words, saying that the debris had been identified as a lowly weather balloon – but the original story refused to die.

What conspiracy theories resulted?

The Roswell legend resurfaced in 1980 when the authors of a book called The Roswell Incident interviewed former intelligence officer Major Jesse Marcel. Marcel said: “It certainly wasn’t anything built by us, and it certainly wasn’t a weather balloon.” As the story grew, some UFOlogists claimed that the US government had recovered the wreckage of an alien craft and its alien crew, conspiring to hide the truth for decades.

Some UFOlogists claimed that the US government had recovered the wreckage of an alien craft and its alien crew, conspiring to hide the truth for decades

How has it influenced UFO lore?

Writer Jerome Clark has described Roswell as “the most important case in UFO history”. Public interest in the story has overshadowed all other such episodes, including the first sighting of “flying saucers” on 24 June 1947, when pilot Ken Arnold spotted batwing-shaped objects flying at supersonic speeds over Washington state. Roswell features in pop culture – in movies, documentaries and dramas such as The X-Files – and has become the focus of a UFO museum and an annual festival in the town.

What was the official explanation given by the US Air Force for the Roswell incident?

In response to pressure from Congress, in 1995 the USAF published a report that found “absolutely no evidence of any kind that a spaceship crashed near Roswell or that any alien occupants were recovered... in some secret operation”. It said the debris found on Brazel’s ranch was most likely from a top secret Cold War project, code- named Mogul, which involved sending balloons high into the atmosphere to monitor Soviet nuclear testing.

Why should we remember the Roswell incident today?

A CNN/Time Poll in 1997 found that two-thirds of Americans believed a spacecraft crash-landed at Roswell. It also found that 80 per cent believed that their government was hiding knowledge of the existence of extra- terrestrials. What began as a “silly season” story has become as much a part of the US cultural imagination as the assassination of President John F Kennedy. The longevity of the Roswell legend makes it impossible to forget.

David Clarke is co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University


This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine