"War of the Worlds" broadcast monument, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Photo by Flickr user slgckgc, licensed under CC BY.
I first heard the story from my parents, about the autumn night during their childhoods when bright blue flashes were reportedly seen emanating from the surface of Mars.
News bulletins soon interrupted the radio’s evening programming of dance music from New York City. A strange cylindrical object had landed in a field in central New Jersey. The gathering crowd saw a tentacled creature emerge. Police tried to approach peacefully, but the alien unleashed a heat ray that decimated the spectators and incinerated nearby woods. Soon the airwaves filled with reports of aliens attacking New York City and other communities, repulsing all military efforts to stop them. There was panic across America as hordes of terrified citizens sought safety that was nowhere to be found.
Of course none of this ever happened – except that there was, in fact, a broadcast. It was the famous adaptation of “The War of the Worlds,” a turn-of-the-century novel by H.G. Wells, on the Mercury Theatre on the Air. The CBS radio network aired the program from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 30, 1938.
It’s not just the invasion from space that was fictitious, though. Much of the news reporting about the supposed mass hysteria that accompanied it was also, to put it kindly, somewhat exaggerated. “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” The New York Times declared in a front-page headline the next day. “Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid From Mars’—Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells Fantasy.”
The program made clear that it was a drama at four points during the broadcast, although there was a gap of roughly 40 minutes between the first notice and the second. Only a small fraction of Americans heard the program at all. Those who were listening to their radios in the first place were mainly tuned to “The Chase and Sandborn Hour,” a higher-rated variety show airing on NBC. We can assume that at least a few who heard the reports of carnage on CBS would have noticed that on the rival network, the show just went on.
Listeners who missed the announcement that the program was fiction and who didn’t compare coverage with NBC might still have noticed that an entire interplanetary war was fought in the space of one hour. Troops and aircraft were mobilized, deployed and defeated within the confines of a single broadcast. New Yorkers hearing that their city was under attack could have looked out their windows and seen that it was not. Research both at the time and since has showed that the number of people fooled into thinking the broadcast was real was small. The number who actually panicked and could not be calmed was even smaller.
It reminds me of another story I heard from my mother about her father, who had emigrated from Poland. He could neither read English nor speak it well. One day the newsboys on the street hawked a special edition, shouting “Extra! Earthquake kills thousands!” My grandfather, very excited, shared the news: “Rose! Rose! Okie killed Tarzan!”
So why all the fuss about the broadcast that a 23-year-old Orson Welles feared would end his career? Some commentators observe that newspapers, already starved for advertising in the Great Depression, had a vested interest in portraying the new medium of radio as untrustworthy. And of course it was a Sunday night, not long after fears of an outbreak of war in Europe had been relieved (for the moment) by capitulation to Hitler in the Munich accords. The news that remained was pretty dreary. The Times headline about “The War of the Worlds” was sandwiched between a story about an upcoming Senate race and another on the travails of Jews seeking refuge in Poland after being forced out of Germany. In 1938 America, Martians made better copy than either politicians or Jews.
Recent nonstory stories about the theft of the 2020 presidential election made me think of the War of the Worlds contretemps. There was no theft of the election. Neither Martians, nor poll workers, nor Democrats, nor aliens – in both the acceptable and intolerant uses of that word – deposited tens of thousands of votes for Joe Biden in swing states. Nobody used a heat ray to incinerate votes for Donald Trump.
Trump’s refusal to concede the election, his Twitter claims that the results are a fraud and his legal actions to prevent the final counts from being certified are just theater – political theater, in this case. I expect there are a few gullible people who may believe sinister forces prevailed on our fall election night a couple of weeks ago. Not many, though. The story continues to get more attention than it deserves from a press that, once again, finds itself struggling to maintain revenue and audience against new competition.
It makes no difference if, or when, a candidate concedes electoral defeat. None of the challenges to the recent presidential election have any prospect of changing the result. The vast majority of those who voted for Trump have moved on, and a similar majority would easily recognize claims of electoral theft for the fantasy that they are.
Spoiler alert: Humanity lost to the Martians, but Earth did not. It was saved by microorganisms for which the invaders had no immunity. The Martians sought a planet but got a pandemic. It is one more reason Trump’s War of the Worlds reminds me of the original.