Stephen Mihm: US government has been dancing around UFOs for 75 years

NEW YORK — The spectacle of the U.S. military shooting down three unidentified objects in the space of a week has opened the door to baseless speculations and conspiracy theories, thanks in part to the government’s contradictory messaging, which has toggled between genuine alarm and casual dismissal.

Sadly, this looks a lot like what happened 75 years ago, when sightings of what became known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, led to a media circus that undermined legitimate inquiry into what is now known simply as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP.

This legacy of hype and fraud is with us today. That’s unfortunate, given that more recent sightings — many recorded by decorated combat pilots — prompted Congress to pass legislation that seeks to get to the bottom of the mystery. Doing so will require that we avoid the rank silliness and deliberate obfuscation that defined our first major engagement with the issue.

Though sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena date back centuries, our collective obsession with flying saucers, aliens, “little green men” and other now-familiar tropes arguably began on June 24, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a businessman and pilot, spotted nine objects flying at unfathomable speed near Mount Rainier in Washington.

Arnold dutifully reported these to aviation officials. When pressed to describe the movement of the curious craft, he likened it to “a saucer skipping across the water.” This initial report went out across the news wires. Bor