I came across this article from a literature compilation book, “Popular Writing in America”. It was written by Dorothy Thompson in 1938 for the New York Herald Tribune. I wasn’t able to find a full copy of it online, only seeing it referenced in journals and blog posts – really, I believe the article should be posted in its entirety to stand on its own, so I have taken the liberty of transcribing it.
Dorothy Thompson, New York Herald Tribune, 1938
All unwittingly Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time. They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can so convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create nation-wide panic.
They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.
They have cast a brilliant and cruel light upon the failure of popular education.
They have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands.
They have proved how easy it is to start a mass delusion.
They have uncovered the primeval fears lying under the thinnest surface of the so-called civilized man.
They have shown that man, when the victim of his own gullibility, turns to the government to protect him against his own errors of judgment.
The newspapers are correct in playing up this story over every other news event in the world. It is the story of the century.
And far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important contribution to the social sciences. For Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men. They have made the reductio ad absurdum of mass manias. They have thrown more light on recent events in Europe leading to the Munich Pact than everything that has been said on the subject by all the journalists and commentators.
Hitler managed to scare all Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words.
But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all.
That historic hour on the air was an act of unconscious genius, performed by the very innocence of intelligence.
Nothing whatever about the dramatization of the “War of the Worlds” was in the least credible, no matter at what point the hearer might have tuned in. The entire verisimilitude was in the names of a few specific places. Monsters were depicted of a type that nobody has ever seen, equipped with “rays” entirely fantastic; they were described as “straddling the Pulaski Skyway” and throughout the broadcast they were referred to as Martians, men from another planet.
A twist of the dial would have established for anybody that the national catastrophe was not being noted on any other station. A second of logic would have dispelled any terror. A notice that the broadcast came from a non-existent agency would have awakened skepticism.
A reference to the radio program would have established that the “War of the Worlds” was announced in advance.
The time element was obviously lunatic.
Listeners were told that “within two hours three million people have moved out of New York” – an obvious impossibility for the most disciplined army moving exactly as planned, and a double fallacy because only a few minutes before, the news of the arrival of the monster had been announced.
And of course it was not even a planned hoax. Nobody was more surprised at the result than Mr. Welles. The public was told at the beginning, at the end and during the course of the drama that it was a drama.
But eyewitnesses presented themselves; the report became second hand, third hand, fourth hand, and became more and more credible, so that nurses and doctors and National Guardsmen rushed to defense.
When the truth became known the reaction was also significant. The deceived were furious and of course demanded that the state protect them, demonstrating that they were incapable of relying on their own judgment.
Again there was a complete failure of logic. For if the deceived had thought about it they would realize that the greatest organizers of mass hysterias and the mass delusions today are states using the radio to excite terrors, incite hatreds, inflame masses, win mass support for policies, create idolatries, abolish reason and maintain themselves in power.
The immediate moral is apparent if the whole incident is viewed in reason: no political body must ever, under any circumstances, obtain a monopoly of radio.
The second moral is that our popular and universal education is failing to train reason and logic, even in the educated.
The third is that the popularization of science has led to gullibility and new superstitions, rather than to skepticism and the really scientific attitude of mind.
The fourth is that the power of mass suggestion is the most potent force today and that the political demagogue is more powerful than all the economic forces.
For, mind you, Mr. Welles was managing an obscure program, competing with one of the most popular entertainments on the air!
The conclusion is that radio must not be used to create mass prejudices and mass divisions and schisms, either by private individuals or by government or its agencies, or its officials, or its opponents.
If people can be frightened out of their wits by mythical men from Mars, they can be frightened into fanaticism by the fear of Reds, or convinced that America is in the hands of sixty families, or aroused to revenge against any minority, or terrorized into subservience to leadership because of any imaginable menace.
The technique of modern mass politics calling itself democracy is to create a fear – a fear of economic royalists, or of Reds, or of Jews, or of starvation, or of an outside enemy – and exploit that fear into obtaining subservience in return for protection. I wrote this column a short time ago that the new warfare was waged by propaganda, the outcome depending on which side could first frighten the other to death.
The British people were frightened into obedience to a policy a few weeks ago by a radio speech and by digging a few trenches in Hyde Park, and afterward led to hysterical jubilation over a catastrophic defeat for their democracy.
But Mr. Welles went all the politicians one better. He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the danger is not from Mars by from the theatrical demagogue.