...The War of the Worlds was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938 and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds.
The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a 'sustaining show' (i.e., it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the dramatic effect. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic, careful research has shown that while thousands were frightened, there is no evidence that people fled their homes or otherwise took action. The news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast, but the episode launched Welles to fame.
It has been suggested that War of the Worlds was a psychological warfare experiment. In the 1999 documentary, Masters of the Universe: The Secret Birth of the Federal Reserve, writer Daniel Hopsicker claims the Rockefeller Foundation funded the broadcast, studied the panic, and compiled a report available to a few. A variation has the Radio Project and the Rockefeller Foundation as conspirators. In a theatrical trailer for his film F For Fake, Welles joked about such theories, jesting that the broadcast indeed "had secret sponsors".
While Mercury Theatre had no sponsor, CBS and the Rockefeller Foundation were contracting the leading crowd psychology researchers of the time; CBS had Edward Bernays, the Rockefeller Foundation had Ivy Lee. With the involvement of Frank Stanton in the Radio Project and his position in the CBS research department, it is possible the "creative curiosity" of Orson Welles came from conversations within these business circles. A detailed documentary on these circles and the ideas behind social manipulation was made by the BBC called, The Century of the Self.
There has been continued speculation that the panic generated by War of the Worlds inspired officials to cover up unidentified flying object evidence, avoiding a similar panic. U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the first head of UFO investigatory Project Blue Book wrote, "The [U.S. government's] UFO files are full of references to the near mass panic of October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles presented his now famous The War of the Worlds broadcast."It is sometimes said the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was received in skepticism by the American public, as a consequence of the radio performance.