Most of you will want to click on to the next blog, but a few of you might be interested in this. Yes, it's piffle. Yes, piffle might seem an indulgence at a time when so many serious problems face the world. But it's Christmas, and I'm in the mood for something light-hearted.
About eight years ago, I embarked on a book -- never finished -- on the dangers of conspiracy theories. My intent was to investigate certain widely-distributed documents considered gospel truths by believers. A large segment of the populace went conspiracy-mad during the Clinton years; this project was my small attempt to help restore some sanity.
Perhaps the time has come to continue that book. The controlled demolition beliefs of today bear no small resemblance to the nonsense in circulation a decade ago.
That's why I've decided to pull this items from the files. I doubt if it will have a restorative effect on the nation's mental health, but it may bring a smile to those who can recall the madness of yesteryear.
Our subject today is the great "Alternative Three" conspiracy -- a hoax which still lives on in some quarters. Believe it or not, many people were once just as passionate about A3 as are today's preachers of the gospel of controlled demolition.
This yarn certainly seems quite silly after 9/11 and the Iraq debacle. But in the 1990s, the real world gave us fewer reasons for paranoia, so those who got a junkie's rush from fear scrambled for an armload of this
Near the end, I will present a previously-unpublished item which still somewhat mystifies me. But I'm saving that for the grand finale. The beginning comes after the jump. (Do forgive the lack of footnotes, but I'm pressed for time and formatting these things can be a bother.)(To read the rest, click "Permalink" below)
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Alternative Three: Apocalypse Then (and a Sequel)
Lies live many times before their deaths. Sometimes they seem indestructible: Like some malign Tex Avery character, the Protocols myth keeps popping back up no matter how many anvils drop on it. Fortunately, fear-marketeers can peddle a bogus apocalypse only so many times. Life goes on, the planet refuses to cease spinning, and the naive finally realize their naivete.
Case in point: Alternative Three, a British hoax famed through print and cathode ray tube.
In recent times, the work has lost a good deal of its former popularity — though less than a decade ago, conspiracy lecturers routinely proffered it as evidence that global warming had doomed the earth, prompting the secret government to engineer a covert escape plan. As end-of-the-world yarns go, A3 had a good run — and although the glory days have passed, the thing still finds new gulls via the net, where the text has a new home, copyright be damned. A follow-up volume by conspiracy writer Jim Keith helps keep the legend alive.
Die-hards continue to cite this “suppressed” book and video as proof that the U.S. government hides its real space fleet, designed to ferry the elite from a denuded and doomed Earth. Also under wraps, according to the legend: Collusion with the Soviets, electronic telepathy, mass kidnappings to Mars, and death-from-above satellite zappings (known as hot jobs) aimed at those pesky bean-spillers.
The hoax began life as a 1977 pseudo-documentary on the U.K.’s Anglia TV, broadcast as the final offering in a series called Science Report, hosted by newscaster Tim Brinton. (Previous episodes of Science Report were serious efforts.) Audiences in Canada, Australia and elsewhere saw the show at the same time the British public did.
Tellingly, the episode’s writer and producer — David Ambrose and Christopher Miles — have not spent their post-A3 careers warning the world about approaching doom; rather, they’ve established impressive resumes in the entertainment industry. Ambrose’s screenwriting credits include the 1980 time travel epic Final Countdown, the 1985 science fiction fable D.A.R.R.Y.L., and a well-regarded miniseries called The French Revolution (which deserved, but never received, an American airing). Christopher Miles, brother of actress Sarah Miles, has had a respectable career as a director, writer and producer in television and films.
The televised Alternative Three remains officially unreleased on home video, although tapes circulate underground. A synopsis:
The ersatz documentary begins with a news team’s investigation into the mysterious disappearances of several British scientists. Among the vanished: William Ballantine, a specialist in climate patterns. Our narrator and host, veteran newscaster Tim Brinton (the one real individual in a sea of fictional characters), presents evidence that worsening drought conditions have caused emergencies throughout the world; Ballantine had warned that this situation would soon ripen into a cataclysm.
Following a tip, our tireless reporters interview one of Ballantine’s colleagues, Cambridge professor Carl Gerstein, who, we learn, admonished world leaders back in the 1950s that industrial pollution would soon cause the phenomenon now known as global warming. When the investigators uncover evidence of a grand secret behind project Apollo — a secret somehow related to the foregoing — Brinton tries to interview, via satellite, an astronaut named Robert Grodin, one of the men who walked on the moon. Mysterious forces cut the interview short the moment Grodin lets the name “Ballantine” slip out.
Intrigued and undaunted, the reporters track Grodin to his New England home, where he spends his days in an alcoholic haze. The sloshed spaceman admits that NASA set up the entire Apollo program as a public relations exercise: “You think they need all that hardware down in Florida just to get two guys to ride a bicycle on the moon?” Back in the U.K., a political analyst named Broadbent reveals that the Americans and Soviets have cooperated on unrevealed space projects. Brinton announces that “our researches” (marvelous phrase, that!) indicate that the Russian/U.S. alliance has made many unannounced landings on the dark side of the moon.
The investigators return to Cambridge, where Professor Gerstein confesses the full truth. Back in the 1950s, Soviet and American policy makers faced up to the fact of environmental annihilation. They weighed two solutions: A drastic decrease in population, and a drastic decrease in consumption. Both proposals were deemed unworkable. Hence, Alternative Three — transporting earth’s best and brightest to colonies on Mars, where the missing scientists now reside. The rest of us must fend for ourselves on a dying planet.
The show concludes with the unveiling of footage smuggled out by Ballantine — video allegedly depicting the clandestine first alighting on Mars by an un-manned space probe, on May 22, 1962. As Russian and American mission controllers fill the soundtrack with technical chatter, we see an aerial view of a barren, red desert landscape. The illusion is persuasive, until the producers of Alternative Three go one step too far: Immediately after touchdown, the probe’s camera zooms in on movement just beneath the Martian surface. “When they take the wraps off this thing, it’ll be the biggest day in history,” an American scientist announces. “We’re on Mars, and we have life!”
The World Reacts
Although Alternative Three premiered on June 20, 1977, it was originally scheduled for broadcast (or transmission, as Brits say) on April 1, 1977 — at least, so reads a title card at the final fade-out. One would think that even the dimmer audience members would have needed no further clues. Nonetheless, nearly 10,000 panicked viewers tied up the network’s phone lines, demanding to know the planet’s fate. The hoaxers had conjured up the U.K. equivalent of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. (Christopher Miles had, in fact, once discussed radio’s infamous “Martian invasion” with Welles himself.) When the next day’s newspapers assured the public that the show was just an elaborate sham, most felt relieved.
Most, but not all. The attempts to placate the public only made the “green inkers” (as British editors refer to the crackpot legions) see red.
A Canadian UFO newsletter, Cosmology Newslink International expressed its outrage thus:
Since this documentary was aired in Canada, there has been such a DESPERATE PROGRAMME on the part of the ignorant media to debunk the whole thing that they have actually raised the suspicions and the ire of the most hard-nosed skeptics.” [One wonders how many hard-nosed skeptics this writer polled.] “If the makers claim that it was all fiction, then THAT’S what the public will, like a lot of cabbages, SWALLOW... Poor public, how easy we are to be brainwashed! I.e., with either lies or the truth. It’s only when investigators start probing the hidden meanings behind such ‘science fiction’ that eyebrows are raised.”The wording here offers rare insight into the conspiracy buff’s mentality: The writer plainly states that the truth can brainwash us; therefore, we should study science fiction. Alternative Three marks the intersection of paranoia and “postmodern” literary analysis.
Proving the fictional nature of the broadcast never required much Sherlock Holmes-ing. Many journalists have pointed out that the individuals interviewed in the pseudo-documentary were actually actors, recognizable from other performances. Astronaut “Robert Grodin” was actor and novelist Shane Rimmer, best known to Americans as the voice of “Scott Tracy” in the Thunderbirds TV series. (If you don’t recognize Thunderbirds, ask virtually any male who grew up in an English-speaking household during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Mention the episode where they move the Empire State Building. Watch for the wistful grin.) Scientist “Carl Gerstein” came to us via character actor Richard Marner, Britain’s answer to Werner Klemperer; Marner is best-known for his role as Colonel Von Strohm in a rather annoying 'Britcom' called Allo, Allo. A North African desert, I understand, played Mars.
Even for those unable to recognize the performers, the fake documentary contains many tells. In the finale, the “Soviet mission controllers” speak actual Russian — but their lines, I am told, sound like the work of a first-year student of the language. The film never explains what makes the arid Martian desert, with its unbreathable atmosphere, more livable than any place on a globally-warmed earth — wouldn’t it be easier to set up a habitat in a de-iced Antarctica? Anyone with access to an encyclopedia can quickly determine that no man named Robert Grodin has ever walked on the moon. (The character was obviously inspired by Buzz Aldrin -- who, incidentally, was one of my Mom's old drinking buddies.) My favorite moment in the show occurs during the visit to alcoholic astronaut’s sprawling home: The film-makers can’t resist giving us a glimpse of his ditsy blonde girlfriend, jiggling and oooh-ing like Jayne Mansfield. This, I presume, must be how jealous Brits envision the swankpot lifestyle enjoyed by the undeserving Boobus Americanus.
One subtle give-away appeared in several newspapers on the morning before the program’s first airing. A brief article hyping the broadcast did not disclose the premise, but promised a “scientific puzzle” with an “amazing” finale. Asked about that ending, newscaster Tim Brinton would only say: “I have spent the last six or seven years teaching businessmen the way to appear confident and at ease during television interviews. And applying those same techniques to this programme was fascinating.”
A rather odd statement, coming from a TV journalist supposedly sitting on the scoop of the century. One can only presume that by “techniques,” he meant the ability to spew hooey with a straight face. Brinton later became a Member of Parliament.
The 1978 book version of Alternative Three kept the myth alive — especially in the United States of America, where few knew about the original television program or the furor it engendered.
The book was packaged by British literary agent Murray Pollinger, who recruited Leslie Watkins, a Fleet Street journalist with an occasional interest in the paranormal, and best-known for an unfortunate encounter with Ugandan dictator Ida Amin. Watkins, who wasn’t in on the original hoax and hadn’t even watched the broadcast, initially turned down the job. His agent eventually talked him into writing the manuscript, which was published by Sphere books (the paperback division of Thomson publishing). Sphere’s editorial director, Nick Austin, had motives beyond the financial: He drew inspiration from Terry Southern’s satirical novel The Magic Christian, about a billionaire with a fondness for elaborate pranks. Austin put the label “speculation” — as opposed to “fiction” — on the cover, a puckish gesture which buttressed the myth and nearly cost him his job.
These men midwived a literary leg-pull that would bamboozle readers in more than a dozen languages throughout the next two decades — even though the book, unlike the pseudo-documentary which begat it, doesn’t even try to pass as real. In a reasonable world, no-one would ever have viewed it as anything but a work of imagination.
Watkins nowadays classifies the piece as a “novel.” While some would disagree with his definition of that word, no-one can deny that novelistic dialogue fills many pages. Unfortunately, many non-fiction writers in the 1970s had a bad habit of juicing up accounts of historical events with “reconstructed” conversations, a technique which obscured the division between reportage and fiction. Readers intent on taking A3 as factual could therefore rationalize the book’s more obviously literary sections as examples of “new journalism” or something similar.
More difficult to explain away is the inappropriate use of British slang — as when Grodin exclaims: “How they’ve got the bloody neck!” Putting a phrase like that into the mouth of an Apollo astronaut takes bloody neck indeed.
The book modifies the A3 mythos with replacement versions of Alternatives One and Two. The real Alternative One, we now learn, involved the use of nuclear devices to blow holes in the ozone layer, allowing carbon dioxide to escape through “chimneys” in the sky — a suggestion which might surprise those of us who thought industrial emissions cause holes in the ozone layer. Alternative Two was the standard “underground civilization” scenario, familiar from the finale of Dr. Strangelove. Watkins never explains why the televised version gives a differing account of the first two alternatives. Neither does he explain a couple of other changes (presumably imposed for legal reasons): Anglia TV — the real-life network behind the documentary — becomes “Sceptre TV,” and narrator Tim Brinton turns into “Simon Butler.”
Watkins introduces a major new character, a whistleblower known only as “Trojan,” who provides transcripts of secret meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders. These conferences, we learn, occur in submarines beneath Arctic ice. Conveniently, the conspirators never use names: The Americans participants are listed as A1, A2, A3 and so forth, while their Russian counterparts are labeled R1, R2, R3, etc. Unfortunately, Watkins gives his submariners the same sort of veddy English dialogue favored by his astronauts. At one point, A8 says: “Right now, there’s a Secrecy Bill being scrambled on to the Statute Book, and I promise you that’ll close every worrying mouth.” All the American and Russian insiders come off as Machiavellian schemers, and only Brits like Ballantine and “Trojan” ever feel troubled by conscience.
The book expands the basic A3 scenario in imaginative ways. We discover that the U.S. government keeps its real gravity-defying hardware a well-guarded secret; if any civilians spot Uncle Sam’s space patrol, the mythology of alien-piloted UFOs keeps the truth hidden in plain sight. When the Russo-American overlords order an “expediency” — i.e., the murder of a whistleblower — they call for either a “hot job” or a “sleep job.” The former phrase refers to satellite-based laser incineration, thus explaining the phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion. The latter involves telepathic commands to commit suicide.
Worst of all: Trojan discloses that a slave race serves the elites within their Martian stronghold. “Batch consignments,” consisting of abducted earthlings, are taken off-planet and given “scientific adjustments” (presumably a form of lobotomy) which render them servile. Until recently, the plotters often fetched their batches from — you guessed it! — the Bermuda Triangle. Thus unfolds the answer to still another mystery.
The mass-market paperback of Alternative Three became an underground legend, especially when rumors reached the American market that “they” had tried to suppress distribution. Why did so many take this fanciful tale as gospel? Probably because the A3 mythos tapped into a number of hidden anxieties, and provided a unified field theory to explain many disparate mysteries. Despite his difficulty with American idiom, Watkins displayed a true talent for the jargon of techno-tyranny (“expediencies,” “batch consignments,” “scientific adjustments”) and an instinctive ability to give fear-junkies their fix. For the many readers who wanted the book to be true, rationalization eclipsed rationality.
Take, for instance, the A3 view of the UFO mystery. Within the subculture of ufology, a sub-subculture has long maintained that flying saucers are actually covert terrestrial devices, a theory which has the advantage of explaining why so many sightings occur near military bases. “If that’s so,” skeptics traditionally respond, “why keep such an advanced technology hidden?” Alternative Three provides an answer.
Or consider the concept of hot jobs, which riveted the attention of American conspiracy queen Mae Brussell. She had carefully studied Clarence Lazby’s earlier book Project Paperclip, which concerns the (very real) post-W.W.II importation of Nazi scientists into the U.S. scientific establishment. Lazby mentions, en passant, a proposal by German scientists to install orbiting “death ray” devices, similar to those described in Alternative Three. To Brussell’s mind, Watkins’ text had to be the capital-T Truth, because it described the fulfillment of a longstanding fascist scheme. She told her radio audience that the book gave her “the shakes” for a week, an announcement which surely aided the paperback’s sales.
The very phrases “sleep jobs” and “scientific adjustments” speak directly to those conspiracy consumers who view aluminum hats as an important fashion accessory. America hosts a horde of unhappy souls who consider themselves guinea pigs targeted by CIA mind controllers. (In previous centuries, such folk would have considered themselves assailed by demons, not spies.) Watkins, perhaps without realizing what he was doing, gave these people the verification they craved. His descriptions of electronic telepathy proved invaluable to schizophrenics desperate to blame an outside force for the voices within their heads.
Political extremists of both the right and the left found choice material in this book. Far Rightists fixated on the book’s tableau of Soviets and Americans — ostensible enemies — colluding on the highest level of conspiracy. Ambrose, Miles and Watkins had unknowingly stumbled onto the John Birch Society’s foundation myth. Warnings of planetary doom appealed both to fundamentalist Armageddon aficionados weaned on the works of Hal Lindsey, and to the environmentally-fixated folk on the left side of the ideological aisle. Anyone awake during the 1970s will recall how certain ecologists of that time boomed their predictions of planetary collapse by the year 2000 -- an apocalypse that humankind could avert only if it abjured the internal combustion engine. Alternative Three confirmed these well-loved fears. [Note from 2006: I wrote the preceding words some years ago. Planetary collapse is, of course, now beginning to look like a very real possibility.]
Finally, the concept of batch consignments hyperbolizes our anxieties about that great unmentionable, the class system. Alternative Three shouts what other conspiracy books only hint at: The Ruling Elite wants to take us from the world we love, rob us of our identities, and force us into lives of dead labor. Doubt it? Just ask anyone who works in a factory or an office.
The evolution of a legend
As the Alternative Three mythos spread, politicians castigated Sphere Books for not clearly labeling the work as fiction; some even discussed banning it. Of course, such a ban would only have increased the public’s eagerness to believe the rumors swirling around the slim volume. Perhaps the most disturbing rumor held that two of the three listed creators — Watkins, Ambrose and Miles — died mysteriously, soon after publication. Fortunately, all three gentlemen are alive as of this writing.
Watkins became a target for both hatred and adulation. “As a result of that novel,” he once told a lecture audience, “I’ve...been called a con-man and a liar. I’ve also been praised around the world — quite unjustifiably — for my courage in trying to tell the truth.”
One reader’s reaction was especially noteworthy. Watkins told his lecture hall listeners that “I had a phone call from a man who introduced himself as ‘Clancarty.’ He was actually the Earl of Clancarty, who, under the name Brinsley La Poer Trench, had written extensively about UFOs.” More specifically: William Francis, Earl of Clancarty, founder of the UFO research group Contact International, had written such books as The Flying Saucer Story (1966) and Secret of the Ages (1974), and had established a House of Lords All-Party UFO Study Group.
According to Watkins:
He congratulated me on my fearless expose of the ‘disgraceful truth’ and said: ‘We’ve known a little about this for some time, but it wasn’t until I read your book that I realized how deeply Her Majesty’s government is in this disgraceful conspiracy. I intend to raise this matter in the House of Lords.’Watkins received another call from an amateur researcher who reported that he had tracked down the father of Brian Pendlebury, named in the book as one of the missing scientists now laboring on Mars. This claim intrigued Watkins: Had one of his characters stepped outside the boundaries of fiction, a la The Purple Rose of Cairo? As it turned out, the wanna-be detective had previously made many unwelcome phone calls to a Manchester milkman whose last name happened to be Pendlebury. “That man is so frightened,” the self-appointed sleuth told Watkins, “he won’t even admit he’s got a son named Brian!”
Now, my initial feeling was that this was marvelous. What fantastic publicity for my book! But then I had second thoughts. The Earl of Clancarty seemed a decent sort of fellow and he’d look an absolute idiot if he raised this in the House of Lords. So I tried to assure him that it was merely a work of fiction, and I begged him not to bring it up publicly in any attack on the British or American governments.
He refused to believe me, but did promise, at my insistence, not to raise this ‘conspiracy’ in the Lords. For years afterward, however, he kept pestering me to tell him how I’d discovered my facts. ‘My dear fellow, we know each other well enough now, surely. So you can tell me...’
Other readers, hundreds of them from around the world, took a similar line. I was denounced as a coward and a liar when I explained...
What of the reports that the book experienced mysterious difficulties in distribution? According to former Sphere editor Nick Austin:
I was also delighted when, within weeks of publication, those rumours that have since become an integral part of the A3 mythology began to feed back into the Sphere offices. The lock-up garage “somewhere in North London” stuffed with printers’ packs of the first edition… the pulping on government orders of that same first printing… the clandestine buying up from wholesalers and retailers by secret agents of all available unsold stock (new vistas of lucrative no-risk publishing began to reveal themselves to me)… wondrous stuff, all of it. Crazed, delusional — but pure magic, all the same — and, it cannot be too strongly stressed, genuinely spontaneous. Sphere had neither the time nor the resources to generate this kind of widespread whispering-campaign marketing effort. Anyway, there was obviously no need to.The suppression legend reached North America in a June, 1979 column in UFO Review by the late Gray Barker, a UFO tale-teller who enjoyed testing the limits of truth’s elasticity. Barker reported that one of his correspondents had attempted to purchase 100 copies of the book from the Canadian firm of Thomas Nelson & Sons, only to receive this reply: “The above title has been banned for sale in the United States.” Similar admonitions turned up elsewhere. For example, one UFO buff found dozens of copies on display in Toronto’s largest department store, where the clerks, sounding rehearsed, told him “This book is banned in the United States.”
These ominous statements had a conventional explanation: Thomas Nelson & Sons could not legally ship copies to the United States, because Avon books owned the U.S. publication rights. Avon — braving spooks, death beams and telepathic assassination — distributed its mass-market paperback version unhindered throughout the land of the free. They must have sold quite a few copies, since their edition of Alternative Three frequently turns up in used book stores throughout the country.
In Britain, the book has had seven printings so far. Most authors would love to undergo similar “suppression.”
Belief in the legend has persisted despite the fact that all three credited creators — Miles, Ambrose and Watkins — have made no secret of the work’s true origin. Christopher Miles, producer of the original film, made no attempt to keep up the façade after the initial broadcast. In correspondence dated October 13, 1980, he disclosed the following to a worried inquirer:
The idea for the film and subsequently the book, was something that David [Ambrose] and I dreamed up over a lunch together in London, as I was getting rather tired of the docu-drama on television and wanted to prove how easy it is to lead the general public up the proverbial garden path! I am sorry that you were one of them and if you look at the film or read the book, you will realise that there are hints of its unauthenticity all the way down the line.In an interview published the day after the broadcast, David Ambrose put the matter very bluntly: “I am constantly amazed by the gullibility of people. Those upset by this programme are the type who never read the small print on contracts they sign.”
Of course it has a sprinkling of fact in it, but the basic show is a complete hoax and if you think a bit more yourself, you would realise this was the case.
Leslie Watkins also tried to set the record straight. In the early 1980s, he appeared on a now-defunct radio program called “Open Mind,” heard throughout southern California. Although Watkins had intended to discuss another of his works, Mae Brussell called in and diverted the topic to Alternative Three. “It’s a work of fiction,” Watkins said adamantly. Oh no it’s not, Mae responded (though not in those exact words), firing off the links she perceived between Alternative Three and Lazby’s Project Paperclip. Watkins, perhaps growing testy at his inability to get a word in edgewise, could only repeat that the book was a product of imagination and speculation.
But was it only that? At some point, Watkins himself began to sense something uncanny behind the project. In a widely-republished 1989 letter to a correspondent, Watkins wrote:
The TV programme did cause a tremendous uproar because viewers refused to believe it was fiction. I initially took the view that the basic premise was so way-out, particularly the way I aimed to present it in the book, that no one would regard it as non-fiction. Immediately after publication, I realized that I was totally wrong. In fact, the mountains of letters from virtually all parts of the world — including vast numbers from highly intelligent people in positions of responsibility — convinced me that I had ACCIDENTALLY trespassed into a range of top-secret truths.Some regard this statement skeptically. In Fortean Times #66, commentator Bill Ellis quoted this same letter, and accused of Watkins playing coy about exactly which parts of the book had some basis in truth: “It is, of course, hard to say whether this coyness is based on Watkins’s actual beliefs or his desire to sell more copies of his book to conspiracy buffs.”
Documentary evidence provided by many of these correspondents decided me to write a serious and COMPLETELY NON-FICTION sequel. Unfortunately, a chest containing the bulk of the letters was among the items which were mysteriously LOST IN TRANSIT some four years [ago?] when I moved from London, England, to Sydney, Australia, before I moved on to settle in New Zealand. For some time after Alternative 3 was originally published, I have reason to suppose that my home telephone was being tapped and my contacts who were experienced in such matters were convinced that certain intelligence agencies considered that I probably knew too much.
I consider this reaction too cynical. Still, the reader should keep in mind that a fresh interest in Alternative Three swept America’s underground during the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, the Roswell and MJ12 controversies opened the way for the outrageous rabble-rousings of Milton William Cooper, whose well-attended UFO/conspiracy lectures included many a riff cribbed from his predecessors in paranoia. Cooper assured his listeners that the “Grudge/Bluebook 13” report, which he purportedly read while in the service, verified Alternative Three. Despite the utter lack of evidence that any such “Grudge/Bluebook 13” report ever existed, and despite copious evidence that “Bill” Cooper was the biggest blowhard since the twister that nabbed Dorothy, his recommendation encouraged many Americans to order the book from its British publisher. I doubt that the re-invigorated sales saddened Watkins, or that he donated his royalty checks to charity.
Even so, I don’t question the sincerity of Watkins’ belief that he stumbled onto a significant covert truth or two. He offered further explanations in the previously-quoted lecture:
Thanks largely to material I received after the book was published, I have become convinced that the superpowers have been — and still are — co-operating in a conspiracy of silence. But it is not the evil, baleful one people believe I presented in my novel Alternative 3. I had planned to write a follow-up book, Backlash to Alternative 3, using much of the material supplied by readers to examine the real truth of this conspiracy....Unfortunately, Watkins has bumped into a now-obscure Cold War artifact without understanding the political environment which produced it. Air Force Major George Jordan’s alleged “diaries” grew out of his testimony to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, which had, by 1949, devolved into a highly partisan exercise against New Deal holdovers. After the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb, anyone involved in the W.W.II-era Lend-Lease program with the U.S.S.R. became a potential target of the anti-Communist witch-hunters. Major Jordan deflected attack by telling HUAC what he thought it wanted to hear, making scandalous claims about his former superiors in the Roosevelt administration. The Major undermined his own credibility over the course of three hearings; the more he spoke, the more he “recalled” things contrary to his previous testimony and to the documentation he produced during the 1942-44 period. A congressional inquiry debunked his allegations concerning wartime activities, while his views on post-war U.S.-Soviet contacts never amounted to anything more than opinion. Moreover, those claims — even if accepted at face value — offer no proof whatsoever that the U.S. and the Soviet Union secretly communicated about UFOs, or about anything else pertinent to Alternative Three.
Many people may find it impossible to believe that there could have been secret cooperation between America and Russia. The fallacy of that belief was exposed, as many of you will know, by Major George Racey Jordan, who, for two years — May 1942 to June 1944 — was America’s top liaison man with the Russians over Lend-Lease. His diaries, “Major Jordan’s Diaries,” as they’re known, show that top-secret information and materiel to make nuclear weapons was then being furtively supplied the Russians, and this, according to Major Jordan, was not just a wartime practice. It was known to have continued after it became public knowledge, thanks largely to his courageous expose...
Once we cast away these McCarthy-era leftovers, what remains on our plate? We have Leslie Watkins’ view of the top-secret truth lurking behind his fiction, which comes down to a few unsurprising ideas. Essentially, he seems to believe that UFOs exist. He accepts some variant of the extra-terrestrial hypothesis, and he suspects that the world’s governments have colluded to withhold the truth about alien visitation. His is a familiar position. But it is a position far removed from what we read in Alternative Three.
Of course, a tenacious buff would simply argue that “they” (that is, the conspirators) must have leaned on Watkins, Miles, Ambrose et al, forcing them to change their story.
Just such a claim crops up in a UFO conspiracy lecture given by a man who calls himself "Captain" Bill Robertson. In a 1990 videotape, Robertson alleges that the "station" which broadcast the original show was
told to admit to the public that these programs were all a hoax or they'd lose their license. And they must fire the reporters who were working on it... The book was then written by the two reporters or three reporters that were fired. OK? Now that's how the Alternative Three book came about." How can one respond to such inane assertions? Never mind the fact that only one program existed, never mind the fact that neither Miles nor Ambrose functioned as "reporters" in the conventional sense, never mind the fact that neither man was fired or threatened with firing, and never mind the fact that the sole writer of the book was Watkins, who had nothing to do with the original broadcast. Never mind all that. Let us concentrate, for the moment, on the allegation that the U.K. government threatened the "station" (presumably, this means Anglia TV) with the loss of its "license." Wouldn’t any attempt to carry out such a threat have increased the publicity given Alternative Three? Rather poor cover-up tactics!
In his video presentation, Robertson goes on to "reveal" that the televised Alternative Three was yanked off the air just before the Mars footage appeared on screen. (Not true: The ersatz video unspoiled before the eyes of millions of viewers in 1977.) Robertson then shows the landing footage -- which, needless to say, he culled from a tape of the original broadcast. (As noted earlier, many such tapes circulate underground.) He then offers this classic analysis:
Look, let's first of all examine the possibility that this was made in Hollywood. If they did make it in Hollywood what would be the point of making it so secret that they had to kill people to keep it from being known?Of course, Robertson never names these alleged homicide victims. Why let mere matters of fact spoil the pleasant tingle of fear?
Which brings us to a fear-marketeer of singular irresponsibility: Jim Keith, the author of a work called Casebook on Alternative 3, which has carried the A3 mythos into the 21st century. Keith, who passed away in 1999, exemplified a phenomenon sometimes called “fusion paranoia.”
The term “fusion paranoia” first appeared in a June 19, 1995 New Yorker article by Michael Kelly, which discussed “views that have long been shared by both the far right and the far left, and that in recent years have come together, in a weird meeting of the minds, to become one, and to permeate the mainstream of American politics and popular culture.” This description is somewhat misleading. Until very recent times, American extremists on the left and right shared hardly any fundamental views, beyond a basic anxiety about outside forces subverting our political systems. Those furthest to the left have traditionally seen the subverting force as either resurgent fascism or multinational corporatism, while those furthest to the right usually target communism and “international Jewry.” The extreme rightists long ago learned to disguise their anti-Semitism with euphemistic assaults on “international bankers” and “the New World Order.” This deceptive terminology opened the way for popular fusionists like Jim Keith — who, in his lust for unconventional wisdom, tried to reconcile the intrinsically irreconcilable, conflating anti-fascist fears with neo-fascist propaganda.
Keith’s motives, insofar as I could gauge them, always seemed akin to addiction. Shock was his smack. He grasped at any idea, assertion or factoid that might assail bourgeois beliefs, rarely worrying whether the “forbidden” substance reflected truth, deception, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, National Socialism, or anything resembling common sense. Verifiability and ideological consistency were for the straights and the rubes: Like any dope fiend, Keith cared for nothing except the rush.
His Casebook on Alternative 3 epitomizes this approach, resulting in one of the oddest concoctions in the history of parapolitical literature. Keith launches his investigation with these words:
While perfectly secure in my knowledge that the TV show and the book are basically yellow journalism using scare tactics to make a pound, I am a little shocked to realize that, at most levels anyways, the revelations of Alternative 3 are also true. He then fills the next 150-or-so pages with a data-dump culled from any number of previously published sources, some valid and some silly. (The lack of proper citations doesn’t help the reader discriminate). Most of the topics under discussion bear only a tenuous relationship to Watkins’ “novel.” Keith assails his readers with goose-pimpling tales about secret societies, Armageddon, the Council on Foreign Relations, Nazi scientists, Vatican skullduggery, crop circles, MK-Ultra, CIA drug smuggling, Jonestown as a mind control experiment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Biosphere II, clandestine Kubrick-style bases on the moon, cattle mutilations, sex education in our schools (an idea which seems to horrify the prudish Keith ), alleged UFO sightings during project Apollo, and much more. A few of his disconnected claims may have some basis in fact — unfortunately, in a stew of this sort, even the healthy ingredients look unappealing after simmering in such a greasy broth.
Despite his anti-fascist pose, Keith cites, and even praises, such writers as Michael Hoffman and Nesta Webster. Readers never learn that Hoffman is a notorious Holocaust revisionist, and a proponent of various ultra-reactionary canards. Nor do they learn that Webster was a fanatical anti-Semite, the doyenne of the British Fascists and a supporter of Hitler. (She was also the sort of loony who routinely answered the door with a gun in her hand.) The book’s claims about freemasonry — particularly in the passages castigating Winston Churchill — echo the obscene falsehoods featured in Third Reich propaganda. It is more than a little unnerving to watch Keith ape George Seldes on one page and Father Coughlin on the next. “Fusion paranoia” seems too weak a phrase to describe the literary equivalent of Multiple Personality Disorder.
But Keith’s irresponsibility goes beyond such fusionist foibles when he argues that Leslie Watkins wrote Alternative Three at the CIA’s behest, as an “expression of Nazi occult doctrine”:
The possibility exists that Alternative 3 was created as ‘grey’ disinformation, calculated to confuse and defuse the issues of elitist control, mind control, genocide, and secret space programs, by revealing yet concealing these truths. The purpose would be to discredit these subjects and shunt debate into conclaves of UFO True Believers, who could be counted on to hallucinate, embroider and heavily merchandise the information, thus continuing the work of the disinformers.One could, with as much justification (or as little), level similar charges against Jim Keith himself, given his demonstrated talents for both embroidery and merchandising.
Naturally, Keith’s spook-baiting outraged Leslie Watkins, who has denied being either a CIA operative or a Nazi. I can understand Watkins’ anger, but there’s really no point in mounting a response to such allegations. By the time he wrote his book, Jim Keith had fallen prey to a troubling affliction some call “sick think.” This is paranoia in its most advanced and crippling form: Angst raised to DefCon 3.
A person suffering from garden-variety paranoia can function in life more-or-less normally, although on the field of intellectual battle he will often infer a nefarious hidden agenda on the part of anyone who opposes his viewpoint. Most of us fall into this mind-set at one time or another. When a newspaper columnist defends a large corporation accused of gross environmental pollution, who doesn’t suspect the writer of taking a secret pay-off? Low-level paranoia can prove a useful survival trait in today’s world, provided it comes in measured doses; reckless application usually brings more discredit to the accuser than to the accused.
Sick think goes further. A sick-thinker automatically suspects the worst of not just his opponents, but of anyone on his side. A good illustration occurs in the film Conspiracy Theory. At one point in the movie, Mel Gibson’s character asserts that director Oliver Stone must be a secret functionary of the very same conspiracy that killed President Kennedy — for how else could Stone tell so much truth and live?
Sick think is an occupational hazard of the counter-espionage professional, as any biography of CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton will demonstrate. Angleton’s epic mistrust of his fellow CIA personnel crippled the very Agency he served. Ironically, sick think also tends to waylay those civilians who study and/or oppose the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and similar organizations. The identical question haunts both spook and anti-spook: “Is my friend really my friend?” Many politically-oriented researchers, activists and organizers have ruined their lives, and the lives of others, once the earwig of suspicion has burrowed into their brains.
Anyone writing on certain outside-the-mainstream topics will inevitably face “spook” allegations, regardless of the writer’s background or stance. Such is the nature of advanced paranoia: Vietnam-era protestors frequently went to war against their fellow marchers, JFK assassination researchers loathe each other with a passion they would never feel toward the grassy knoll triggerman, and even Bigfoot investigators have been known to suspect their compatriots of being CIA infiltrators out to suppress the straight dope on Sasquatch.
Leslie Watkins told conspiracy buffs something they wanted to hear; for precisely that reason, he became one more victim of sick think.
One last mystery
Radical paranoia breeds best in those places where deception and double-dealing have actually occurred. It is fitting, then, to close our investigation of Alternative Three by noting a follow-up fraud (at least I presume it is a fraud) that has intrigued me for the past dozen years. This document has, until now, remained known to only a handful of individuals, although a brief snippet somehow made its way into Keith’s book.
Nota bene: I do not believe the story you are about to read; the scientific claims are obvious tosh. And yet the writer seems motivated by neither prankishness nor psychosis. What, then, was his motive?
The document takes the form of a handwritten letter — dated December 5, 1988 — addressed to radio broadcaster Mae Brussell, who probably would have given it widespread publicity, had she not died roughly a month previously. One might label this piece an “almost-was” hoax; Brussell was both an intended victim, and a potential conduit to others. The writer used the name “Michael Johnson,” although he makes clear that this is a pseudonym.
Even though my files bulge with oddities, this item has always seemed particularly intriguing, despite the text’s many absurdities — or, perhaps, because of them. In the original, the handwriting remains strong and careful throughout, while the style and grammar speak of a rational man. Moreover, the writer encourages follow-up research, providing contact information for two private individuals — a technician at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a former FBI agent — one of whom (the FBI agent) provably existed. (I do not give their full names here.) If this document isn’t the work of a joker or a madman, we can fairly conclude that someone made a deliberate, serious attempt to foist a deception on the public, using the broadcaster as his conduit.
But to what end? Judge for yourself:
Dear Mrs. Brussell,Again, let me emphasize: The above claims are obviously false. (If you suspect otherwise, ask any high school science teacher to explain why the Moon can’t have Earth-like gravity.) Just as obvious is the fact that the writer of this letter knew little about Mae Brussell, who probably would have rolled her eyes at the “non-Soviet America” remark.
Recently, while reading through an old copy of Critique, and then again in the Journal of Borderland Sciences, I came across your name in a reference to an “Update” you offer on the Alternative Three mystery. As such, I would certainly like to obtain this for my files, since I have been collecting related materials since the early 60s when my father worked as a designer for NASA. He was part of a team that designed the LEM module, and he told me some pretty hair-raising stories of the astronauts’ “close encounters” on the Moon.
Then, in the Feb/Mar 1983 issue of Mother Jones (pg. 10) I came across a very strange article entitled “Refugees on Mars: FDR’s Secret Plan,” outlining something called the “M Project.” This got me to recalling an event that had occurred to me several years earlier, something I think you might be interested in.
Back during 1978 or thereabouts I happened on a copy of a paperback book, Alternative 3, which detailed some of the things my father had told me years earlier in New York, specifically that the government had cracked the secret of anti-gravity and that the military had disc-shaped aircraft.
He had also told me that NASA had evidence of lights having been seen on the Moon for centuries and that they had been recovering coded signals from Mars and other planets, as well, at Aricibo.
Anyway, a month or so later I happened to be talking with an old Pan Am Captain friend of mine when he mentioned seeing a fantastic program on British TV. He had a home there in London at the time and he said that both he and his son had watched this NASA exposé called the Alternative 3 Project. He said many Britishers believed the subject matter since it was so authoritatively presented.
A short time after that, I found myself up in Twin Falls, Idaho, on a business trip and I was introduced to a gal — about 40 — who worked as a sometime DJ at a nearby radio station. After several drinks, and discussion about this and that, I thought I would impress her by mentioning that I had worked once as a Congressional liaison to the Pentagon for Nixon’s Congressman during the early years of the Watergate fiasco, and that my then-wife had worked as secretary to Donald Segretti, head of CREEP, in the Naval Annex. She was completely nonplussed at this.
Then, after another drink or two, she told me — somewhat hesitantly — that she too had worked at the Pentagon — behind the “Green Door” — as a cryptoanalyst for Military Intelligence, and as personal secretary to an Admiral. This, she said, was during the late ‘50s. And she said that after having helped uncover a Soviet “mole” within her Top Secret Department, she was promoted and later offered a very interesting assignment — in California.
By this time I was so intrigued that I found and set up my tape recorder and flipped it on — covertly, of course. By now she was really getting interesting, and we had become a little more cozy. And since I had once also worked as an Investigative Reporter for four years (in Boston), covering political subversion in high places, assassinations, espionage, etc, I felt that I had here the genesis of a hell of a story. And subsequently I was able to get her story on tape.
To get back to her story, she told me that she moved out to Southern California to accept her new assignment, sometime during 1962 I believe, and started working for the Jet Propulsion Labs there in Pasadena. She was assigned to a highly classified section of the plant as a photo interpreter and eventually became head of that department, where she met her future husband. She said that while her function was to scan and interpret all incoming photographs taken of the Moon and Mars, with “high-resolution” photography techniques and equipment aboard satellites (orbiting the Moon and Mars) — her husband worked in another department as a designer. His function was to design domed, modular living facilities for “Colonies” of earth scientists to be stationed on the Moon, and then Mars! She said that the secret name of this amazing project was: “Project Adam & Eve.” Needless to say, I about fell off the couch.
She told me that her husband, who had many degrees — and was an “egghead” type — was designing these domed structures (and all the life-support systems inside and out) because no other type of housing would suffice. It seems that one of their rocket probes had found that due to the gale force velocity of the winds of Mars, no other structures would hold up, and underground structures were ruled out. In her photo-interpretation work she said she had enhanced the pix to such a fine degree that evidence of ancient civilizations of some kind was readily discernible on both the Moon and Mars, that there was a green vegetation belt on Mars (with “life forms”), that both pyramids and a human face carved into a huge mountain chain were observed!! She said that there was evidence of water, an atmosphere, and almost normal gravity on both the Moon and Mars, from the Pix and other data she was privy to, amazing as all that sounds.
She told me that throughout the plant where she worked there were numerous high-ranking officers, Generals and Admirals, and that each department was color-coded — so that a specific colored badge had to be worn at all times. I believe the badges were magnetic, too, and had a current photo of each worker — with his or her code number.
Sometime later on, she said, her husband and several other key assistants were chosen for an even more secret project (within this Top Secret Project) — and off he went to parts unknown. And she never saw him again. When she kept asking where he was she was consistently told that his whereabouts were on a need to know basis. For the next year or so she received letters from him of a general nature but no hint of where he was. One day, she was informed that he had been killed and that they were very sorry. But they refused to give her any more information than that, or even to [let her] see the body or have normal funeral arrangements.
Finally, due to her constant questioning, they yanked her Q clearance and she was fired. She had had to sign an oath that she would not reveal what her job had been. Sometime later, after making a lot of phone calls trying to track down some answers, there were several attempts on her life — including a near-fatal car accident. As she told me then, she ended up leaving Pasadena in the middle of the night — with her children in tow — and headed for Idaho, where her parents lived. When I asked, jokingly, if she thought maybe her husband and the others had been drafter to go to Vietnam, she stared at me for a blank moment and replied: “No, I think he was drafted to Mars!” And she was deadly serious.
Sometime shortly after this midnight “interview,” after returning to Salt Lake City, I simply had to share this incredible tale with someone — so I loaned the tape to an old friend of mine, an ex-FBI Special Agent who lived in California. And I asked him to check out the story through his connections. It was a very stupid thing to do, for (you guessed it) he then promptly “lost” the tape! There went my story.
Mae, should you wish to follow up on this, I would be happy to give you both their names. For reasons I can’t disclose, I am in no position to follow up on anything at the moment. The gal’s name was Jolly S. [full name withheld], and the last I heard, she was still working in Twin Falls selling advertising. The other’s name was Neil M. [full name withheld], and the last I heard, he was at [address withheld], West Covina, California. Neil, upon retirement, had gone to work in Las Vegas as a bodyguard for Howard Hughes.
Please, do not publish or mention their names for obvious reasons. That is, unless you get their permission. My real name is not really important. As a reporter, I had some 50 exposés published over a 4 year period, and I thought I had heard it all. Since then, I have run somewhat afoul of the powers that be and I am now writing a book, entitled The Dark Side of the Force, re my experiences over the years. Keep up the good work, and carry on the fight for a non-Soviet America. Sorry to say, I have been completely knocked out of the box after one too many exposés.
El Paso, Texas
Can we therefore dismiss this correspondence as a joke?
In my view, a mere leg-puller probably wouldn’t have advised an outside investigator to seek out two real-life individuals for confirmation. Former FBI agent “Neil M.” did indeed reside at the address given; the woman who lived in that house when I knocked on the door in the year 2000 told me that he had moved away in 1990. (She does not know where he went.) I tried to locate him via the Society for Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but they provided no help. Attempts to track down “Jolly S.” also came up goose eggs; no-one at JPL’s employment office recognized the name, and various internet searches proved useless. Nevertheless, I suspect that a woman by that name did once exist.
When investigation ends, speculation takes over. I sometimes picture “Michael Johnson” as a social scientist engaged in a field experiment, an inquiry into the very nature of rumor. Perhaps the intention was to cull data about rapidity of dissemination and depth of belief. Whatever his motive, “Johnson” has given the Alternative Three mythos one last, lingering mystery.