If you’ve been diddling around the World Wide Web this morning as I have, you may have seen reference to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast on the Columbia Broadcast System 75 years ago today. The radio broadcast was based on H.G. Well’s (1898) novel of the same title and was largely a series of “news alerts” on the evening of October 30, 1938 describing the invasion of Earth by Martians. Legend has it that zillions of people wigged out over this and large parts of the nation were in a total panic!!!!
The recent PBS documentary on the broadcast and ensuing hysteria apparently took the “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” perspective. And this has some folks’ knickers in a knot:
Tonight’s snoozy PBS documentary about the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds not only was tedious fare — it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.
PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show, which aired 75 years ago tomorrow night on CBS, really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.
The PBS documentary embraced the conventional wisdom.
But a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary utterly ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative: The War of the Worlds program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm.
Let me stipulate that I have far more important things to do today than to diligently research this most important question. For example, when I was taking out the trash this morning– it’s trash day– near the wastebasket in the garage, I found a cardboard box containing 14 coffee mugs most of which say, “hand wash only.” Wonder how those got there?
That said, we happen to be in the enviable position of getting to the bottom of this quite quickly. We’ll make two assumptions: if there was mass panic and hysteria it would be 1) news, and 2) history.
We turn first to Lowell Thomas’ History As You Heard It (1957) and see that in the days following October 30, 1938 there’s no mention of Martians or of mass panic related to a Martian invasion. There are some problems in Palestine. The House of Commons is overwhelmingly confident in PM Chamberlain. A German diplomat who’d been shot by a 17 year old Jew dies. And the American Government’s attitude is “exceedingly clear– outright indignation toward Nazi Germany for the persecution of the Jews.”
But no mass panic.
Checking the same time frame for 1939 we find things heating up a bit in Europe. The French are “going to the limit to wipe out the Communist Party.” A bomb explodes outside a beer hall in Munich. “The Fuehrer himself escaped.”
But no mention of the mass panic that occurred the year before.
The one and only mention of the War of the Worlds I can find in my
crappy old books is in Bennet’s American Patriot’s Almanac (2008). It is a sidelight.
The main story is the birth of John Adams, October 30, 1735.