Seventy-five years ago today America got its first taste of the true power of electronic media, courtesy of what is still considered by many to be the single most famous radio broadcast in the history of the medium. 

The date was Oct. 30, 1938. Fans of the pulp hero Doc Savage were thrilling to his latest adventure in the novel Fortress of Solitude. My father was just a month old. And by the end of the night millions of Americans would be tricked into believing that it was the end of the world.

For this was the night that the Columbia Broadcasting System aired the Mercury Theatre On The Air’s radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' classic science fiction novel The War Of The Worlds. Directed by and starring Orson Welles - who at that point was perhaps best known for portraying The Shadow - and presented in the form of fictionalized news bulletins, the broadcast managed to convince listeners that the invaders had lifted off from Mars, traveled across space, landed on Earth, set up their destructive weaponry, defeat our armies, disrupted communications, demoralized the population, occupied entire sections of the planet and was finally defeated by their lack of resistance to our planet's viruses. And all in the space of the 45 minutes it took to air the show (minus commercials, naturally).

All across the nation, people suddenly stopped what they were doing and either dropped to their knees or fled blindly into the night. There were reports of violence, looting, even attempted suicides. Once the program was over and listeners realized they had been duped, they were initially angry; Welles was pursued by reporters and threatened by outraged citizens. Lawsuits for injuries and damaged property were filed against Welles and CBS, although none ever came to trial.

Eventually the tide of public opinion turned and Welles found himself being hailed as some kind of hero. He and his cast, some said, had actually performed for the country an invaluable service; they had shown us just how vulnerable we were to the power of suggestion and our then-still-emerging overreliance on the electronic media. 

Some years after the fact, a research team headed by Professor Hadley Cantrell of Princeton University performed an exhaustive study into the causes of the panic. They estimated that, of the approximately 6,000,000 listeners who tuned in to the Welles program that night, at least 1,200,000 took the broadcast literally and reacted according to their natures and cicumstances. That’s not counting the unknown number who hadn’t listened but were caught up in the mass hysteria anyway.

But why? Why were so many listeners so willing to believe such a fantastic and improbable tale? Especially when a simple switch of the radio dial – over to NBC, for example, where the popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy program was airing at the same time – would have destroyed the illusion of a intergalactic apocalypse?

Consider the times in which the show was aired. In 1938 the Great Depression still cast a shadow over the country. Then, too, there was the spectre of war in Europe that was inching slowly but inevitably across the entire globe. In hindsight, perhaps it is understandable that so many in the 1938 audience heard the word “Martians,” mentally translated it into “Nazis” and assumed the worst.

More than any other contributing factor, however, was the fact that the invasion story was presented in the form of news bulletins and announcements by government officials - particularly a fictional “Secretary of the Interior” who sounded remarkably like then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this day when many are so easily swayed by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck, is it really so difficult to understand why the listeners of 1938 chose that moment to grab their hats and head for the hills?

Although Welles feared his career was over in those first few days after the panic broadcast, the opposite proved to be true. The response to that night’s show elevated Welles to a new level of celebrity and resulted in his getting the attention of the moguls in Hollywood; it is no exaggeration to say that if it hadn’t been for The War Of The Worlds, there likely would have been no Citizen Kane. (The writer of the Mercury Theatre program, Howard Koch, also went to Hollywood and, among other things, earned a screenwriting credit on a little film titled Casablanca.)

Those later individual accomplishments, however, are in reality little more than icing on the cake.  Three-quarters of a century after the fact, The War Of The Worlds remains an important object lesson on how easily a mass audience can be convinced of a totally unreasonable, utterly fantastic and entirely false proposition. It was Howard Koch himself who in 1970 wrote, “If the nonexistent Martians in the broadcast had anything important to teach us, I believe it is the virtue of doubting and testing everything that comes to us over the airwaves...” 

That’s a lesson we would do well to remember today.