Ultimate Fake News in 1938 Papers? On Welles’ “War of the Worlds” Broadcast

Orson Welles during (or rehearsing for) the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. At 23 years of age, he co-wrote the brilliant adaptation from H. G. Wells’ novel.

By Vicki Priest (any opinions are her own)

Having no occasion to re-familiarize myself with the panicked results of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast that I was taught in school decades ago, I had no idea (until recently) that the reported “panic” has lately been claimed to be a fabrication.  History.com still covers the subject as I recall learning about it–that many people tuned-in to the (brilliant) program late because of a different station’s popular program, and thought the “news” announcements of a Martian invasion in the radio play were real.  There had never been an audio play like it before and people just heard what sounded like a regular news story, albeit a very disturbing one.  The broadcast was on October 30th, in time for Halloween.  So are the editors at History.com wrong (the article was last updated in June 2019)?

Not having lived through that time, it would be near impossible to completely assess the veracity of either the “traditional” or the revisionist view of “the panic.”  However, the issue points to the need to use a variety of sources when doing historical research and, further, considering them with a detective’s eye.  Even so, if many newspapers reported the phenomenon–which a great many did–why would someone question the basic validity of it (it was reported in our local paper that the Federal Communications Commission chairman was going to look into the broadcast right away, as it caused “general panic and fear”; Times Herald, October 31, 1938, page 1)?  We all know that “you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” but would all those papers be that deceptive?  And certainly there are other contemporary sources to help anyone interested enough understand what people went through, and the magnitude of the event.

The first part of one of the Port Huron Times Herald articles on the reaction to the War of the Worlds broadcast. October 31, 1938, page 1.

The History.com article mentioned above stated that “perhaps as many as a million” people believed Martians had invaded earth.  A number of other sources, including a viewable Smithsonian article from 2015, goes with a safer “thousands” number.  A video on the subject from 2016 claims very few people indeed were actually panicked (the text version of the video was made earlier, in 2014).  The video claims the panic is a made-up myth, and it relies on recent sources that say the same.  Some of their sources, at least, do not cite sources themselves and simply make claims, such as, a lot of things in the newspapers were false.

Looking over various sources, both primary (from the time it happened, witness testimony, etc.) and secondary (what non-witnesses wrote or researched about it), it seems the video and all those who claim that there was no mass panic are mistaken.  That newspapers printed a lot of supposed falsehoods about the panic may be the biggest culprit in people leaning toward the panic not ever really happening.  There also seems to be a problem with the meanings of the words “mass” and “panic.”  It’s really odd that those who claim that the mass panic is a myth don’t actually deny there was . . . widespread panic, or at least a lot of panic that was perhaps not widespread.  The motivations for pushing a revisionist view on this event in history–which indeed had a long-term impact on not only people but on other aspects of our country–are unclear.  It may be a matter of perspective and word definitions.  At least some people don’t seem to agree that “mass panic” means 1000s to a million or so affected persons.  Apparently the figure should be bigger.

Here, anyway, “mass panic” simply means a lot of people in a large area were afraid and reacted to their fear in some way. It doesn’t mean the majority of people panicked, or that people jumped out of windows, or that the fear went on for a long time.  It doesn’t mean people killed themselves or others.  The “panic detractors” bring up the death factor, as if panic equates with people dying somehow.

The context of the broadcast is important to the understanding of the panic.  It includes the 9th year of the Great Depression, as well the armed conflicts that had been going on which eventually bloomed into World War II.  Because of the broadcast, there were people who thought the U.S. was attacked in some manner, if not by aliens (they might not have heard the “martian” part, or heard of the attack from neighbors).  “Beth Bob” commented online (at the 2016 video):  “. . . my mother, my grandmother both ran.  Wet handkerchiefs and towels in hand.  It was the fear of gas.  They didn’t hear the whole program.  They laughed later (relief), were pissed later.”  The gas she is referring to is most likely mustard gas (not martian gas), used during World War I and by Mussolini and the Japanese afterwards.  The reaction by Beth’s mom and grandmother was not unusual, according to other online comments that I’ve read.  Many people remained “pissed” and Orson received death threats.  (Below the main part of this article is a timeline of the broadcast, so you may get a better idea of why many listeners thought the “news reports” were real.)

So, aside from newspaper articles–which skeptics want to dismiss as inaccurate–what is the evidence for a mass panic?  Well, included among the evidences below is a small amount of news reporting anyway.

(1)  Even though it’s short, there is enough anecdotal evidence in a video produced by AT&T in the 1980s (released 2012) to convey the sense and reality of a nation-wide panic.  In the video, still-living AT&T operators from different states who answered calls during the panic were interviewed.  People were definitely panicked, not just calling for information.  No doubt more operators would provide similar tales if they were available for an interview.

(2)  For a BBC show In 1955, Orson Welles talked about some of his experiences regarding the day of the broadcast and the subsequent fallout (Orson Welles’ Sketch Book: Number 5).  He said that not just a few, but many police had arrived at the radio station by mid-show, and that many more continued to arrive.  There was a nationwide panic, he learned; and if there wasn’t, why would all those police bother showing up at all?  Orson recounted a number of panicked reactions, and one quite interesting (stoic) reaction, to the 1938 broadcast.  Was he lying?  If people weren’t “panicked,” why did some have such a mental scar that they did not believe the announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (as Orson recounted)?

(3)  While sources point out that newspaper articles reported fake injuries and deaths, and printed staged photos, perhaps not all the content was made up.  I doubt if anyone has actually looked at newspaper articles country-wide and tried to quantify how many stories are true. That would be a huge undertaking.  A New York Daily News article from October 31, 1938, stated that “thousands” (not millions, so apparently not a stretch) “created almost unbelievable scenes of terror” in New York, New Jersey, the South, and west to San Francisco. So, yeah, that second part appears to be an exaggeration.  But it goes on to say that “Eleven Hundred calls flooded the switchboard at The News–more than when the dirigible Hindenburg exploded.”  Was the paper’s author lying about this?  If not, that is only one local source of people’s call-making.  “The telephone company was also deluged” seems to be a fair statement based on the AT&T research.

In our local paper, the Port Huron Times Herald, an article section from Detroit (page 1, Oct. 31, 1938) stated:  “Police today reported their switchboard was lit up like a Christmas tree as thousands of persons, terrified by a radio dramatization of a fictitious Martian invasion, called for verification.”  Was this a lie, or a bit of an exaggeration?  I doubt if it was a lie.  And did all the papers in the U.S. call each other all of a sudden, conspiring to make fake news, to drum up business by fabricating this event?  Revisionists say that many calls don’t mean people were panicked, and that is fair enough, but it does indicate the huge number of people who didn’t understand that the radio play was not news, and many people in the U.S. indeed acted on their panic instead of calling the police.  As well, in our local paper the police described callers as “panic-stricken.”  So, the people who lived through it, including the police, viewed even inquiring callers as panicked.  To put different words into their mouths or thoughts into their heads is to not only disrespect witnesses but to change history.

(4)  The studio was sued by some people after the broadcast (I haven’t researched these lawsuits, but for this information one source cites a “Scams” book sold on Amazon).  The suits were dismissed, but it shows what people were willing to do to deal with their emotions over the perceived deception.  One man only wanted an award equal to the savings he spent on a new pair of shoes, which he purchased so he could flee, and Orson Welles insisted that the man be given what he asked for.  Remember, the Great Depression was still in effect, which is something that may have contributed to the level of panic, according to Hadley Cantril. 

(5)  The author just mentioned in #4 was one of three Princeton researchers who conducted a study of the panic shortly after it happened (The Invasion from Mars, 1940, by Hadley Cantril et al.).  They wrote that at least 6 million people listened to the broadcast and that at least 1 million of those were frightened, with thousands being “panic-stricken.”  It seems History.com and other sources you can find out there which don’t espouse the revisionist “myth” were right after all.  I guess my past education wasn’t so bad.  Skeptics may criticize the Princeton researchers, but historically speaking, contemporary sources are usually the best sources.  It would be fun to have time to look into this subject more, but at present I’m going to afford the three researchers some respect and believe they did a good job analyzing the information available to them–including their own observations while living through the event.

I’ve read elsewhere (where, I can’t say right now) that there are many people who believe in statistics/the large scale to such a degree that smaller numbers–individuals–don’t really matter.  Your “small scale” opinion, knowledge, or personal experience doesn’t really matter.  What the police reported about “panic-stricken” callers doesn’t matter.  I in fact just read an online commentator (at the 2016 video site) who said as much.  It’s the large collective number that matters, as somehow after the information is gathered from individuals and enmassed, it has become scientific evidence.  I have the suspicion that those people and organizations that claim that there was no “mass panic” from the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, despite the 1940 Princeton study and lots of other information, are such people.  There would have needed to be millions of panicked people for “mass panic” to be true for them.  But even if they interpret the information in that way, these revisionists pretty much ignore the real consequences from the broadcast in history.  So, the meaning is ignored at the expense of just getting the numbers right (in their minds), it seems.  They may have some other motive, like getting attention, clicks for revenue, etc. (this is not a new thing with the internet, however–those who need grant funding have been at it for a long time), which would benefit them while decreasing historical knowledge or relevant interpretation.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with “questioning everything,” but there is a problem when that equates to “dismissing everything.”  (Some questions comes to mind:  If the Daily News and the Detroit Police Department together received over 3,000 calls, how many were made in the entire country?  Apparently a very impressive number over a radio broadcast!  And how many more people simply panicked and didn’t call the police or anyone else?  How many who panicked would later deny it out of embarrassment?  And how many witnesses can you ask about it now?  Conveniently for some, basically none.)

Question Everything ≠ Dismiss Everything

*             *              *

Timeline of the War of the Worlds Broadcast (primarily from War of the World radio broadcast causes panic and listening to the broadcast).  The times are somewhat approximate as seconds are not given.

8:00 pm   War of the Worlds is announced by CBS, and the show starts.  Orson Welles gives an introduction to the story.

8:02 pm   After the introduction, the play is presented as a music broadcast.  First it is interrupted by a seemingly normal weather announcement, but then the music is interrupted a number of times by real-sounding special news segments about a meteorite crashing in New Jersey.  Then by the discovery that the crashed thing is not a meteorite.

8:12 pm   This is when many people normally switched from listening to the popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” because of the show’s musical interlude, to other stations.  Many listeners of the War of the World broadcast only started listening at this time, when “eyewitness news accounts” of the crashed thing started to get intense.

8:13 pm   Description of the object as extraterrestrial, and the terrifying opening of the thing to reveal monstrous things.

8:18 pm   Forty people are reported dead in Grovers Mill, the location of the Martian landing.

8:22 pm   The reporter who had been on for awhile, then stopped, was identified among the dead at the hospital.

At some point police started coming into CBS.  Orson Welles recalled that by half-way through the program there were many police already there, and more continued to arrive.

8:26 pm   A man sounding just like the current president gives a presidential announcement.  Before and after the announcement, the man was said to be the “Secretary of the Interior,” but some listeners didn’t hear that part and thought they were listening to Franklin Roosevelt.  Perhaps the voice got their attention while they were doing other things.

8:30 pm   After hearing military personnel for a bit, gas masks are mentioned–they are put on at about this time.  Men start choking, then dying.  A military pilot describes what is happening, and not being able to drop his bomb he dives into the enemy. There is deadly black smoke moving everywhere, and the gas masks are useless against it.

8:35 pm   Evacuations ordered.  Military force wiped out.  More Martians moving in, people running, people dying.

8:38 pm   Announcer dies.

8:39 pm   CBS finally comes on to announce that the broadcast is a play.  This is about 40 minutes after the play started, and 27 after many of the listeners actually tuned in.  An intermission of unknown length occurs.

~8:42 pm  Survivor Professor Pierson narrates what the world around him was like after the attack was over.  Some time has passed and he describes his venturing out of his place of safety, until he discovers that the aliens are all dead.  They died from disease that they were not immune to.

~8:55 pm  Orson Welles makes an announcement that the play was their way of doing Halloween, and the studio and everyone was fine.

Comment in response to video promoting the “myth” of 1938 mass panic. Found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7amqdrVO-E0 (video posted in 2016, comment accessed July 2019).

A portion of one of the articles from the Port Huron Times Herald, page 1, October 31, 1938, indicating the weirdness that can come of mass hysteria.

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