Culture in World War II: Home Front
On the evening of 30 October 1938, Americans listening to CBS drew close to their radios. A news flash interrupted the Spanish-themed music program. A reporter announced that a professor at an observatory in Illinois had spotted several strange explosions on the planet Mars. The bulletin ended just as suddenly as it began, returning listeners to Ramon Raquello and his orchestra's performance of "La Cumparsita."
Moments later, the news announcer again broke through the broadcast to offer more information about the odd outer-space phenomena. While reporter Carl Phillips conducted an on-air interview with astronomer Richard Pierson at the Princeton Observatory in New Jersey, seismographs registered an earthquake nearby. Phillips pressed the astronomer to explain any possible connection between the Mars explosion and the quake. "This is probably a meteorite of unusual size," the Pierson stated, "and its arrival at this particular time is merely a coincidence." Pierson promised to investigate the quake in the morning and Phillips ended the interview. CBS returned listeners to the music.
"Someone or... Something."
Suddenly, the announcer returned. "A huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey." Carl Phillips, the announcer said, was on his way to the scene. "In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music." The music returned, leaving listeners bewildered.
Seconds later: "We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey." Carl Phillips described the scene amidst the commotion of sirens and crowd noises. It seemed that the fallen object, half buried from the impact, looked nothing at all like a meteor, but was, instead, cylindrical and sheathed by some sort of brightly-colored metal. Hundreds of vehicles full of spectators crowded the scene, hoping to catch a glimpse, or even to touch the spectacular "thing."
"Just a minute! Something's happening!" Carl Phillips declared. "The top is beginning to rotate like a screw and the thing must be hollow!" Americans all over the nation paused, awe-struck. "Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow tip. Someone or... something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks... are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be..." The hulking, snake-like creatures, Carl Phillips told listeners, emerged, saliva dripping from their "V"-shaped mouths. Suddenly shrieks and screams, and a terrible explosion! Then, silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen," an announcer returned, "due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill." Assuring listeners that scientists in California had dismissed the explosions on Mars as simply "volcanic disturbances," the CBS announcer switched back to the orchestral performance.
A Martian Invasion
By this point, those Americans tuned in to the broadcast had contacted friends and family, urging them to switch on their radios. The listening audience, which had grown to several million, waited for the next flash. When it came, they learned that events in New Jersey had grown out of control. The "heat rays" deployed by the "creatures" had killed 40 people, including six state troopers and reporter Carl Phillips, whose body had been charred instantly by a blast. Some 7,000 armed militiamen had been unable to prevent the monsters from taking control of communication lines and railroad tracks from New York to Philadelphia. Roads all over the Northeast were clogged with people attempting to flee the region, and martial law had been declared throughout New Jersey and much of Pennsylvania. The United States Secretary of the Interior addressed the nation, urging Americans to remain calm and place their faith in the military.
New reports flooded the airwaves. Martian ships were spotted in Virginia, New York, in the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Newark, and Buffalo! Hundreds of people lay dead. The end of the human world seemed eminent.
But it was all an elaborate hoax, a perfectly orchestrated Halloween prank. Radio personality Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre group had delivered a startlingly realistic performance of H.G. Wells's The War of the World. It was intended to be, as Orson Welles explained at the end of the broadcast, "Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!"
Many Americans didn't quite grasp the joke. The vast majority of listeners had missed the very brief program introduction, which cited the story as Wells's fictional novella. Historians report that, for a few hours, at least a million Americans panicked, some packing their things and preparing to flee from an alien attack, others reporting smoke, explosions in the distance, and the scent of poison gas. The front page of the New York Times proclaimed the following day, "Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact."22
A Harbinger for Total War
Perhaps it's difficult to imagine why so many ordinary people were genuinely alarmed by a farfetched tale of flying saucers, slithering aliens, and death rays, but in 1938, few things seemed implausible. Amidst mounting anxiety surrounding reports of crises abroad, the recent memory of world war and economic catastrophe at home, Americans had grown conditioned to believing the unbelievable. Just about anything could—and had—happened in recent years, and this terrifying incident—a Martian invasion!—seemed no more fantastic than any other dilemma.
In fact, the dramatic radio broadcast was, in many ways, a harbinger for the near future. During the 1940s, in the real life war of the world, civilians would become victims of violence on a scale unimagined even by science fiction authors like H.G. Wells.