War of the Worlds

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence men went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs … In the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up.” – Opening monologue of  War of the Worlds broadcast – October 30,1938

It was 77 years ago this week that Orson Welles struck terror into the hearts of Americans with his live radio broadcast of the HG Wells classic War of the Worlds. The broadcast began at 8:00 pm on Mischief Night 1938. As I was searching for anything of interest to watch the other night on the 600 cable stations available 24/7, I stumbled across a PBS program about Welles’ famous broadcast. As I watched the program, I was struck by how this episode during the last Fourth Turning and how people react to events is so similar to how people are reacting during the current Fourth Turning. History may not repeat exactly, but it certainly rhymes.

It was the ninth year of the Fourth Turning. The Great Depression was still in progress. After a few years of a faux recovery (stock market up 400% from the 1932 low to its 1937 high) for the few, with the majority still suffering, another violent leg down struck in 1938. GDP collapsed, unemployment spiked  back towards 20%, and the stock market crashed by 50%. The hodgepodge of New Deal make work programs and Federal Reserve machinations failed miserably to lift the country out of its doldrums. Sound familiar? The average American household had not seen their lives improve and now the foreboding threat of war hung over their heads.

The national hysteria over a play about the ridiculously impossible plot of Martians attacking Grover’s Mill, New Jersey seems crazy without the benefit of context. The nation was already on edge. They had just suffered another economic blow to their solar plexus, and now the drumbeats of war in Europe were growing louder. Welles’ biographer Frank Brady described the mindset of the nation:

“For the entire month prior to ‘The War of the Worlds’, radio had kept the American public alert to the ominous happenings throughout the world. The Munich crisis was at its height. … For the first time in history, the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accusation by accusation, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war.”

Studies discovered that fewer than one-third of frightened listeners understood the invaders to be aliens; most thought they were listening to reports of a German invasion or a natural catastrophe. The public allowed their emotions to overcome their rational mind. Playing upon people’s fears becomes easier when they are emotionally susceptible and beaten down from years of bad news. Even though it was specifically stated the show was a work of fiction, the mental state of the country was so panicked, people believed something bad was on the verge of happening and allowed themselves to believe.

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