Orson Welles's War of the Worlds Broadcast Might Not Have Caused Mass Panic

By Acme News Photos, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Acme News Photos, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

It was 80 years ago today that War of the Worlds—an Orson Welles-directed episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air—made history for inciting mass hysteria with its mock news bulletins detailing a Martian invasion. Or at least that has long been the story. But some say that the broadcast's effect on the public has been largely exaggerated—and that few people even heard it at all. So why does it have such an infamous legacy? 

According to Slate, the newspaper industry was competing with radio for advertising dollars, and they wanted to make their rival medium look bad. So reporters exaggerated listeners’ reactions, trying to make it seem as though radio news wasn't a legitimate source of information.

“The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove ... that it is competent to perform the news job,” wrote the industry trade journal Editor and Publisher. Sooner or later, more and more people started reporting that they’d heard the broadcast. The tale eventually swelled into a legend, which still persists today.

National ratings, however, tell a different story. Only two percent of people who were surveyed via telephone said they were listening to anything resembling War of the Worlds; most of them were tuned in to popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s variety show at the time.

While some sources, like PBS, say people dial-surfed and stumbled onto War of the Worlds during a musical break, there’s no hard evidence to support this claim. And thanks to local commercial programming, War of the Worlds didn’t air in many places at all.

Learn more about the radio show’s dramatized history over at Slate, or listen to the original broadcast in the video below.

[h/t Slate]

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Vermont and Maine Are Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images

The narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus has shifted in recent years, leading some U.S. states and cities to reconsider glorifying the figure with his own holiday. If the governors of Vermont and Maine sign their new bills into law, the two states will become the latest places to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, CNN reports.

In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Bill went into effect, officially designating Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October. The holiday was originally meant to recognize the "discovery" of America—a version of history that erases the people already living on the continent when Columbus arrived and ignores the harm he inflicted.

As Columbus's popularity decreases in the U.S., some places have embraced Indigenous Peoples' Day: A day dedicated to Native American culture in history. The holiday is already observed in Seattle, Washington; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Alaska. Earlier this year, Sandusky, Ohio announced they would swap Columbus Day for Voting Day and give municipal workers the election Tuesday of November off instead.

Indigenous Peoples' Day has been celebrated in place of Columbus Day in Vermont for the past few years, but a new bill would make the change permanent. The Vermont state legislature has voted yes on the bill, and now it just needs approval from Governor Phil Scott, which he says he plans to give. If he passes the law, it will go into effect on October 14, 2019 (the date Columbus Day falls on this year).

Maine voted on a similar bill in March, and it gained approval from both the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Like Governor Scott, Maine governor Janet Mills plans on signing her state's bill and making the holiday official.

Regardless of the legal status of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations take place across the country every October. South Dakota hosts Native American Day festivities at the Crazy Horse Memorial each year, and in Seattle, Indigenous Peoples celebrations last a whole week.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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