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Ronald Reagan’s UFO sightings and alien “Fantasy” speeches

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Fate Magazine, and is reprinted here with their consent.

Reagan in 1976
Reagan in 1976

I was one of the first to publish several articles about Reagan’s many references to what became a persistent theme in his speeches: that an alien threat would unite the nations of the world. I also interviewed Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, Joan Quigley, for the premier issue of the Spanish magazine Año Cero. In the early 90s I even hoped to meet the former president (through a close friend of the Reagan family who knew a good friend of mine in Hollywood circles), and ask him about his UFO experiences and the source of his alien speeches. That hope was quashed when news of his Alzheimer’s was released.

Of Reagan’s two known UFO sightings, one is fairly well documented and dramatic, the other just a second-hand sketch without date or exact location. It was disclosed in 1988 by comedian and radio host Steve Allen, who commented that a very well known personality in the entertainment industry had confided to him that many years ago, Ron and Nancy arrived half an hour late at a dinner party in Hollywood. The first thing they said is that they had just spotted a UFO coming down the coast.

The second incident is more dramatic and better documented. It occurred in the summer of 1974 when Reagan was governor of California and was flying on the governor’s Cessna Citation aircraft. We have the first-hand testimony of the pilot, Bill Paynter, who years later explained in a TV program they were at 35,000 feet in the vicinity of Modesto, when he was alerted by Reagan that a big light was following them. “The governor said, ‘well, let’s see if we can get a little closer to it,’ so we started moving towards it,” said Paynter. “It followed us just of—from the wing-tip probably a half a mile or a mile—and when we started turning towards it, it paralleled our flight, and…just took off.”

Ronald and Nancy Reagan in California in 1964
Ronald and Nancy Reagan in California in 1964

The following quote from Reagan about the incident comes from Norman C. Miller, who was then Washington Bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and later became editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I was in a plane last week when I looked out the window and saw this white light,” Reagan told Miller. “It was zigzagging around. I went up to the pilot and said, ‘Have you seen anything like that before?’ He was shocked and said, ‘Nope.’ And I said to him: ‘Let’s follow it!’ We followed it for several minutes… to Bakersfield, and all of a sudden to our utter amazement it went straight up into the heavens.”

This story was discussed briefly in one of the many political studies of the Reagan presidency, ‘Landslide – The Unmaking of the President 1984-1988,’ by Jane Mayer & Doyle McManus (Houghton Mifflin, 1988). There, on page 34, we find this delightful tidbit: “[Reagan’s] aides went to great lengths to conceal potentially embarrassing quirks. They were secretive about such matters as the president’s and his daughter Maureen’s apparently sincere belief that a ghost haunted the Lincoln Bedroom (Maureen claimed it had a ‘red aura’), the president’s assertion that he had seen a flying saucer, and his acquiescence to Mrs. Reagan’s reliance on astrology to determine his schedule.”

May 16, 1988 Time Magazine cover featuring the Reagans and Astrology
May 16, 1988 Time Magazine cover featuring the Reagans and Astrology

Further material is provided in the Book Notes, which describes the sighting’s impact on the governor. The authors interviewed Miller, writing that “Reagan soon told his wife about what he had seen, and they did some personal research. Reagan related to Miller that they had found references to UFOs in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Reagan was extremely animated as he spoke, and it became clear to Miller that the governor really believed in flying saucers.” The Egyptian reference must be the famous Tulli papyrus reporting a sky portent during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III, circa 1450 BC, which was mentioned in several UFO books from the 60s and 70s, but that’s another story. When asked if the sighting had made Reagan a believer, pilot Bill Paynter responded, “Oh, I am sure he is. Nobody could see that and not be a believer.”

Reagan’s alien “Fantasy”

Move forward in time eleven years, from the summer of 1974 to the fall of 1985. Reagan is now an immensely popular president and he is about to toast his rival in the world arena, Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the USSR, during their first summit in Geneva in Nov. 1985. Up to that summit, Reagan’s harsh anti-Communist rhetoric was famous—“the evil empire” and so on—but things were about to change. A State Department Memorandum of Conversation records this strange statement made by the president in one of many toasts on Nov. 19: he told the Soviet leaders “that if the people of the world were to find out that there was some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth approaching on Halley’s Comet, then that knowledge would unite all the peoples of the world.”

Reagan and Gorbachev in 1992
Reagan and Gorbachev in 1992

This same “alien threat” theme (minus the Halley’s Comet remark, then much in the news due to its 1986 passage) was repeated by Reagan in several speeches and other more casual remarks in the period of 1985-1988. Lack of space prevents us from transcribing all of them, but they’re all variations on the same theme. First came his casual remarks to the Fallston High School in Maryland on Dec. 5, 1985; followed by an important speech to the United Nation General Assembly on Sept, 21, 1987; and a final speech to the National Security Forum in Chicago on May 4, 1988. There was also an important speech by Gorbachev at the Grand Kremlin Palace on Feb. 16, 1987, which confirmed Reagan had brought up the theme in Geneva, adding that “I shall not dispute the hypothesis [of a united front against the aliens], though I think it’s early yet to worry about such an intrusion.”

The UN speech is the most important one because of its official status and global audience. Important speeches underwent a series of editing sessions and revised drafts between the speech writer and the president. All the sources consulted on this issue are emphatic that the alien insertion was purely the Gipper’s own idea. In fact, none of the president’s aides, speech writers and handlers liked it at all, and it never appeared on the original drafts. But Reagan kept adding it or saying it impromptu anyway. Lou Cannon, a close friend, journalist, and author of several books on Reagan’s career, devotes several pages to the alien remarks in his bulky, authoritative 948-page book, ‘President Reagan – The Role of a Lifetime’ (Simon & Schuster, 1991). “Reagan’s idea was not part of the script, and it startled his advisors,” wrote Cannon, adding that Colin Powell (then Reagan’s National Security Advisor) “struggled diligently to keep interplanetary references out of Reagan’s speeches.”

Cannon adds that Powell nicknamed Reagan’s theme “the little green men,” and was convinced the idea was inspired by the classic 1951 sci-fi movie ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still.’ Cannon discusses Reagan’s earlier interest in the Hollywood sci-fi culture and also his idealistic or visionary side. He left out the 1974 UFO sighting, which must have also played a role in the president’s beliefs. Cannon documents the tug-of-war between the Gipper and his handlers regarding the use of his “space fantasy” in the UN speech. Canadian researcher Grant Cameron found a hand-written comment by Reagan to his assistant Rhett Dawson about the text of the speech: “I think there is too much anti-Soviet preaching in view of what we are trying to achieve right now. And toward the end perhaps I still would like my ‘fantasy’—how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if creatures from another planet would threaten this world. RR”

Reagan's "Fantays" speech note
Reagan's "Fantasy" speech note

The UN speech’s final version contained the following passage: “In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside of this world. And yet I ask — is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspiration of our people than war and the threat of war?”  Cannon makes the point that “Reagan knew that his story was a transcendent and understandable way of expressing the primacy of world peace and the necessity of cooperation between the superpowers. Powell, who had kept similar passages out of other speeches, realized that the example was important to Reagan and yielded.”

We could go on with other examples and quotations but I think we’ve made our point. Reagan’s political opponents always accused him of being just an actor reading a script, but the record is clear on this one that the alien theme was his own idea and he even had to fight for it. Those interested in digesting all the minutia should check Grant Cameron’s website, which has not only Reagan’s but all ufological remarks, rumors and documents about every president since Truman.

Antonio Huneeus

Open Minds Investigative Reporter J. Antonio Huneeus has covered the UFO field from an international perspective for over 30 years. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Japan. He was also the co-author of the Laurance Rockefeller-funded “UFO Briefing Document – The Best Available Evidence” and edited the book “A Study Guide to UFOs, Psychic & Paranormal Phenomena in the USSR.” Huneeus studied French at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Journalism at the University of Chile in Santiago in the 1970s. He has lectured at dozens of UFO Conferences all over the world and been interviewed by many media outlets including The Washington Post, the Sy-Fy and History Channels, Nippon-TV, etc. He received the “Ufologist of the Year” award at the National UFO Conference in Miami Beach in 1990 and the “Courage in Journalism” award at the X-Conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2007.

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