From Munich to the planet Mars

There's an interesting article on the rise of radio news in the United States in the late 1930s, in the February 2006 issue of History Today: "On the right wavelength" by David Culbert. One thing I learned from this article was that it was the Munich crisis in September 1938 which made radio news reporting respectable (not unlike how the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War made CNN's fortune). Before that it seems that in America, radio news was not taken very seriously; but CBS's virtually round-the-clock live reporting of the events in Europe was listened to by millions, and for the first time radio became the preferred news source for most people.

Then in a throwaway line, almost, Culbert links this to the famous Orson Welles broadcast of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which took place at the end of the following month. This was done as a mock live newscast, reporting the news of the Martian invasion of New Jersey, and "Some listeners, presumably those who tuned in late, apparently ran from their homes in complete terror. It was felt by many that such fears were related to residual concerns about radio's round the clock coverage of the Munich story". (It should be noted that many accounts exaggerate the degree of panic that occurred -- it's not like millions or even thousands of people headed for the hills. That some people did panic, however, is undeniable.)

This suddenly made the usual explanations for the panic that I've read a lot more sensible. It has often been suggested, for example, that the people scared by the broadcast didn't actually think that the Martians were invading, but rather that the Germans were, and the Mars thing was a mistake or a subterfuge. As one of the listeners reported:

The announcer said a meteor had fallen from Mars and I was sure he thought that, but in the back of my head I had the idea that the meteor was just a camouflage. It was really an airplane like a Zeppelin that looked like a meteor and the Germans were attacking us with gas bombs.1

But I could never understand quite why Americans would have such an intense fear of Germany -- it's not like the situation in Edwardian Britain, where the German threat was an order of magnitude more plausible at least (though still exaggerated), and was intensively rehearsed in the media for a decade.2 From my admittedly limited knowledge of US history, there was no comparable perceived threat to the American homeland in the late 1930s. That the Munich crisis took place only a month before the Welles broadcast does help make sense of this, to a degree. That there was massive interest in the US in following the course of the Munich crisis helps more. That radio news broadcasts were the favoured means of doing this helps even more. And that the popularity of radio news was very recent, so that more people than ever before were listening to it, trusting it as a reliable source of information, and yet were perhaps not completely familar with its conventions (indeed, those conventions were still evolving) -- that helps the most to explain how it was that the War of the Worlds broadcast caused a limited, localised but briefly intense panic about a German/Martian airborne/spaceborne assault upon New Jersey.


  1. Quoted in Robert E. Bartholomew and Hilary Evans, Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion (Stroud: Sutton, 2004), 54-5. Italics in original. 

  2. And leading to the phantom airship scares, a phenomenon somewhat comparable to the War of the Worlds panic. 

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8 thoughts on “From Munich to the planet Mars

  1. Chris Williams

    Yeah, but . . . although we know that in 1938 the CONUS was invulnerable, they didn't. Surely this is a fear of _secret_ weapons. After all, in 1908, witnessed only by Bert Smallways, an entirely secret German airship fleet managed to get over the Atlantic, destroy the US Navy, and level New York. Meanwhile, in real life, German U-Boats made it into Chesapeake Bay in 1918, and their merchant submarines had navigated all the way to New York several times.

    I think that the potential use of gas against civilians also provided a 'terror variable': nobody was quite sure just how nasty it was going to be, or how easy to use. As it happens, we now know that the answers are 'pretty nasty' and 'very hard' - but they didn't.

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yep, merchant submarines! Strange but true.

    Actually, the U-boat activity off the US east coast in WWI is one reason why I was sceptical of the "Munich" explanation. In the spring of 1918, New Yorkers were warned (by government officials and eminent authorities) that German subs might be used to launch aeroplanes which would bomb New York. A blackout was instituted, and AA guns set up, etc. But no New Yorkers were nervous enough to think they saw or heard anything suspicious, nor was there evidence of anxiety in general (at least if the New York Times is to be trusted) in complete contrast to the British phantom airship scares before and during WWI. I think this is because, despite Wells, there was no real tradition of scaremongering about aerial threats in the US: the groundwork had not been prepared for a proper scare by the media, the way it had been in the UK. Ah, you ask, but what about the American phantom airships? The exception that proves the rule: they were overwhelmingly interpreted as the inventions of lone American geniuses, aerial Edisons, not as foreign threats. Americans just didn't feel threatened by airpower, and a single threat coming out of the blue, like the U-boat air strikes of 1918, weren't enought to send them into a tizzy over the possibility.

    Skip forward to the 1930s, and my understanding is that, Billy Mitchell aside, there was nothing like the intense fear of the bomber that existed in Britain, far fewer novels, articles, solemn prognostications of doom. I just don't think an air panic can be generated out of nothing -- Munich + Welles + long-standing fears might have done it, but not just Munich + Welles, especially when the US was not apparently threatened by Germany at this stage. As Chris says, it's probably about fears of gas and secret weapons and not what we now know to be Germany's actual capabilities and intentions at the time. But to me this just goes back to the question of preparing the ground, it's not my perception that there was any substantial literature etc about gas attacks on the US to generate such fears. (Maybe there was and I'm just ignorant of it.) That's why the new-found reach of radio news seems to me to supply a missing piece of the puzzle. Missing to me, anyway!

    Wow, all those words and I didn't even mention the Battle of Los Angeles or the Mad Gasser of Mattoon ...

  3. Chris Williams

    I've got a copy of Popular Mechanics from the spring of 1940, featuring an article _Outwitting the Air Raiders_, which deals with USAAC (F?) exercises on the west coast. It's very 'We're ready for them', but 'they' are definitely there. This is post Guernica and Warsaw but pre Rotterdam.

    More to the point, it has a photo of The Streamlined Tractor of Tomorrow, which you couldn't make up.

    As for the relative fears in 1918 and 1938, when a war has been going on for some time, we know what they are like, largely. If they could do X, they'd have done it already. After a period of peace, though, they could be getting up to all sorts of Riddle of the Sands (or missile gap) stuff, and we'd be none the wiser. So watch the skies, etc.

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Ah, but if it's on the west coast then presumably it's about defence against Japanese air raids. Again, the exception that proves the rule, because there was an existing literature of Japanese invasion/war predictions and fantasies going back to Homer Lea and beyond, and also because in the 1930s, war with Japan always seemed a lot more likely than war with Germany. There was more paranoia about Japan than I think was the case for Germany. So the Japanese invasion literature + long-standing pre-war tensions + Pearl Harbor yielded the Battle of Los Angeles. That seems plausible to me.

    Your second point is a good one, and it's probably part of the answer as to why there was no panic then. But note that the US had only been at war for a year, and the German submarines attacks off the coast were a new phenomenon. (And the German spring offensive in France was only just in the process of being contained, so jitters would have been understandable.) So New Yorkers couldn't have been sure that such an attack wouldn't take place, especially when the government and learned professors were telling them that it could, so a panic would have been understandable had it occurred ... so, to me, it's the relative lack of air-scare propaganda that is the other part of the explanation.

    Anyway, I'm not saying that Munich and fears about surprise German attacks have nothing to do with the Welles panic, far from it. Clearly it's part of the story. It's just that it's not the whole explanation, or at least the way it is usually framed in the accounts I have read is unsatisfactory (often written by sociologists, which may be why ...) As I said in the post, I like it better now.

    And we are still waiting for our streamlined tractors!

  5. I think there's a case that radio plus aviation plus "the proletariat" adds up to a sort of common view of the near future for the period you're discussing. On the optimistic side, Orwell's new-town democracy in The Lion and the Unicorn, on the pessimistic side, the knock-out blow nightmare.

    I think there's also an argument that the KOB is an essentially right-wing concept. It wasn't so much the bombing itself that was meant to do it, it was fear of the mob. The Bomber Command staff were convinced that "dehousing" would lead to the German working classes rebelling against Hitler (or indeed everything). The British Communist Party was one of the first institutions to start propagandising for civil defence/ARP. (they got JBS Haldane to act as scientific adviser)

    In this view, radio and aviation are closely connected as the technological keys to the future mass society. The US (at least the New York conurbation and a few others) was probably closest to that at the time of the Wells panic - Brecht and Lenin were both fascinated by the States.

  6. Brett Holman

    Post author

    I used to think the knock-out blow was basically right-wing, but now, not so much (this is what I am researching now). Most writers on the left who considered the idea of the knock-out blow accepted its premises, including the fear of the mob: L. E. O. Charlton most prominently, others like McIlraith and Connolly who I've discussed here before. Labour and Communist MPs regularly lined up in Parliament and laid out the horrors of the knock-out blow for all to see. And H. G. Wells, of course, was a socialist (if an idiosyncratic one). So it was widely accepted across the political spectrum; the difference was in the response, how the knock-out blow was used. Bigger air force, international air force, no air force, ARP and deep shelters. That sort of thing. (There were critics of the concept itself, particularly among navalists, but they were in a minority.)

    I definitely agree that there were more hopeful and optimistic visions of the influence of technology ... I haven't got into that side of things yet. I'll have to read The Lion and the Unicorn now, thanks!

    I think New York being the most modern and therefore representing the future of cities is exactly why Wells chose to smash it (and not London) to pieces in The War of the Air ...

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