The War of the Worlds That Wasn't


Never mind that “apples-full-of-razor-blades” moral panic that was debunked way back in 1985.

Tireless “media myth” buster W. Joseph Campbell proposes a better candidate for the title of “Halloween’s greatest media myth”:


The notion that [Orson Welles’ October 30, 1938 radio production of] The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria.

Americans will get to relive the famous incident on Tuesday, October 29, when PBS airs its new “War of the Worlds” episode of American Experience.

Campbell, an expert on Welles’ infamous broadcast, expressed wariness as soon as PBS announced the project:

A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.

As Campbell goes on to demonstrate in some detail, those reports of mass hysteria induced by a radio play on the eve of World War II have been greatly exaggerated.

Campbell explains:

In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

I also note that had panic and mass hysteria swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.

And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.


The notion that “millions” of Americans were duped into believing that a radio play was really a news broadcast persists for the same reasons similar myths persist:

That myth is useful to progressives.

Like other overblown liberal fairy stories — the murder of Kitty Genovese; that “Super Bowl Sunday wife-beating epidemic;” “the Milgram experiment; imaginary “No Irish Need Apply” signs; and other instances of make-believe “racism” — the “War of the Worlds” “panic” is cited as proof that the average American is an impressionable bumpkin, poised to bully, mob and riot at the slightest provocation.

Progressives believe that only they — the enlightened, educated elite — can possibly keep their fellow citizens’ baser instincts in check, through regular scoldings from on high, through “better education,” through bigger government, and cradle-to-grave “protection.”

Edward R. Murrow was delighted to pile on the elite disdain for his fellow Americans in his 1957 documentary “The Night America Trembled.”

Naturally he expects you to equate the imaginary hysteria prompted by “The War of the Worlds” broadcast with McCarthy’s “communist witch hunts” — which, we now know, weren’t as absurdly pointless as Murrow famously made them out to be.


As long as the Left controls pop culture, the rest of us will be obliged to debunk their dangerous myths from the sidelines, year in and year out.

It’s a bit like puny humans trying to fight off all-powerful Martians, I know.

But what choice do we have?


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