The Original Flying Saucer Exposé:
Donald Keyhoe’s “The Flying Saucers Are Real”
By Dale D. Dalenberg MD
The Gold Medal paperback originals are a cornerstone of the Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature. We have a handful of them from 1950, their first year of publication. The concept of a “paperback original novel” was quite new in 1950. Some precursors of paperback books had been around since the dime novel era—in fact, we have several books that are essentially paperback reprints of old 19th century dime novels put out around the turn of the 20th Century. For instance, Street and Smith (noted pulp and slick magazine publishers) put out lengthy series of dime novel reprints in a format they called “paper covered books.” But paperback books as we know them today did not take off as a format until Penguin Books in Britain in 1935 and Pocket Books in the U.S. in 1939. Those paperbacks were all reprint editions. So, by 1950, the publishing world was accustomed to over a decade of books first coming out in hard covers and then followed by the paperback reprint edition. This was the established way of things. In fact, it used to be that the relatively expensive hardcover edition was followed by a more cheaply produced hardcover edition on less quality paper—the Dalenberg Library has a number of such cheaper hardcover reprint editions by reprint houses such as Triangle Books and Grosset & Dunlap. After 1939 in the U.S., the cheaper reprint edition was often a paperback instead of a cheaper hardcover.
The “paperback original” was the innovation of Fawcett Publications in 1950. Since Fawcett had a line of magazines and was an independent newsstand distributor, they had signed a deal with New American Library to distribute their Signet and Mentor lines of paperback reprints, but part of the deal at the time was that Fawcett could not publish paperback reprints of its own. Fawcett decided that the loophole in the contract was to NOT publish reprints, but to publish paperbacks of all-original material direct to the paperback market. Fawcett started with reprints of its own magazine material that had never before been published as a book, so Fawcett could not be accused of reprinting hardcover books. This is how The Flying Saucers Are Real came to be. It is #107 in Fawcett’s series which began numbering with #101. It is an expanded version of material first published in Fawcett’s True magazine.
Donald Keyhoe (1897-1988) was one of the first reputable ufologists. He was a US Marine Corps aviator with active duty experience in the early 1920’s and again in a training capacity during World War II. He held various other government positions during his career, plus he managed national tours of early aviation pioneers, most notably Charles Lindbergh during 1927. Keyhoe’s first book was Flying with Lindbergh published in 1928. In 1950, he was approached by Fawcett’s True magazine to write a story about the 1948 UFO incidents. True had been having difficulty getting the straight scoop from the U.S. military, and they were hoping that Keyhoe (who had developed a reputation as a writer) had the contacts to break the story. Keyhoe created a sensation with a January, 1950, article in True, and the magazine sold so well that they had to call for another press run.
Several of Fawcett’s first Gold Medal originals were reprints from True, so it was only natural that they wanted to turn Keyhoe’s flying saucer book into a paperback, since it was the biggest story True had ever run since it started as a magazine in 1937.
The Flying Saucers Are Real is neither a sensationalistic book nor a patchwork of pseudo-science, unlike Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? or Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision. We keep all these books in the Dalenberg Library, along with L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, because they are all important works that exist at the interface between science and science fiction. However, Keyhoe’s book is not very rigorous or scientific. There is virtually no direct evidence in the book for or against the existence of UFO’s as extraterrestrial vehicles. Instead, the book mostly chronicles Keyhoe’s frustrations with trying to eke information out of his mostly tight-lipped government contacts. Keyhoe builds up a whole theory about UFO’s based on the fact that military people all clammed up and wouldn’t talk to him, therefore they must be hiding something (or so the argument goes.) Most of his factual information comes from the known facts about the 1948 UFO sightings, particularly the Chiles-Whitted UFO sighting of 7/24/1948 and the death of Captain Thomas Mantell, as he chased a UFO over Fort Knox and crashed his P-51 Mustang on 1/7/1948. Keyhoe believes that the 1948 UFO incidents had briefly convinced the Air Force that “the flying saucers are real,” and that press releases at the time were designed to soften up the public for the eventual announcement that the Air Force was preparing to make about visitors from outer space who had been observing us on Earth, with observations increasing after the aliens became aware of the atomic bomb blasts in 1945. Then, Keyhoe said that the government became concerned with the possibility of mass hysteria and became more secretive and started denying and covering up the sightings with flimsy explanations, such as the explanation that Mantell was chasing the planet Venus (which was simply not true, and which the government had already disproven on record.) Keyhoe called for more transparency in the government’s scientific investigation of the sightings.
Donald Keyhoe wrote other UFO books after this, and for several years he was a leader among ufologists, lending an air of credibility to a movement that often lacked it. He was eventually marginalized from UFO circles and wrote his last book on the topic in 1973.