Armstrong Circle Theater

By Richard Hall

In one of the more bizarre incidents of UFO history, a major CBS Television broadcast about UFOs, sponsored by a large corporation, was cut off the air when Maj. Donald E. Keyhoe, USMC (Ret.) departed from the script and started to ad lib.

The "Armstrong Circle Theater," sponsored by the Armstrong Cork Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a popular program at that time. The UFO discussion, broadcast on Jan. 22, 1958, was titled UFOs: Enigma of the Skies. It had been carefully scripted under the strong influence of the Air Force.

Frustrated by the continued efforts of the Air Force to control what he wanted to say, Maj. Keyhoe started to announce that NICAP (the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, which he directed) had been working with a Senate committee to investigate UFO secrecy, when the sound level of the audio - very obviously -- was abruptly cut.

When CBS-TV was deluged with phone calls, letters, and telegrams protesting what appeared to be overt censorship, CBS justified the action by stating:

"This program had been carefully cleared for security reasons....public interest was served by the action taken by CBS."

CBS Television letter of January 31, 1958

This strange explanation was given at a time when the Air Force regularly claimed that there was nothing at all to UFOs, that the Air Force had nothing to hide, and there were no UFO-related national security implications. This being the case, what exactly did they (and CBS) fear that Major Keyhoe might say that could possibly justify their action? Why did the Air Force quite literally demand complete control over the script? Major Keyhoe's ad lib comments actually were innocuous (see following text).

The entire episode is very revealing about official attitudes and beliefs at that time. As the program neared the scheduled broadcast date, some of the prominent participants dropped out, including Kenneth Arnold (famous UFO sighting witness) and Edward J. Ruppelt (former chief of the Air Force UFO project), rebelling against the (from their viewpoint) emasculation of the script, and the rigid controls being placed by the Air Force and the complicit program producer on what they could say.

On Jan. 28, 1958, Major Keyhoe sent a form letter to the NICAP membership list informing them that what he was about to say when he was cut off the air was:

In the last six months, we (NICAP) have been working with a Senate committee investigating official secrecy on Unidentified Flying Objects. If open hearings are held,  I feel it will prove beyond doubt that the flying saucers are real machines under intelligent control.

One can only conclude that Major Keyhoe's credibility was such that someone feared a panic. Certainly the notion that one man's opinion would somehow violate national security or cause any sort of panic among a public eager for more information about UFOs seemed very strange at the time, and makes no more sense in retrospect.

In February, deluged by hundreds of letters and telegrams of complaint, the public relations director of Armstrong sent a form letter to inquirers, including many NICAP members. Clyde 0. Hess, manager of public information, said:

<>It was most regrettable that a portion of Major Donald C. [sic] Keyhoe's statement had to be deleted because he departed from the prepared script. The producer and director, in observance of strict network rules, had no alternative but to order the audio cut off since they had no idea what the statement might contain. This network policy is designed to prevent any unfortunate incidents that might be embarrassing to the participants, the sponsor, the public, or the network.

In an amusing sidelight, the producer of the program, Robert E. Costello, had written a letter to Major Keyhoe the day after the broadcast, apparently before the storm of controversy had broken. It said, in part:

The response to the show has been very good. Any inquiries on your work we have referred to your office. You may be interested to know that you have thousands of fans as evidenced by the CBS switchboard which had calls backed up for forty-five minutes following the show.

Chagrined about the uproar he had created, Major Keyhoe promptly sent a letter to the Armstrong Cork Company and CBS taking personal responsibility for the incident, which he blamed on a "misunderstanding." His statement said:

Due to a misunderstanding on my part about rules of approval on script changes, it was necessary for Armstrong Circle Theater and CBS to interrupt a statement I was about to make...While I mentioned it to one or two persons connected with the program, I had not discussed it with the director or producer or any representative of CBS.

Certain minor ad lib changes which I made had been allowed and on that basis I had assumed that the deleted statement would not be contrary to the program rules. Since then I have been told that CBS Continuity has to approve extreme departures from scripts. Therefore, the producer and director had no alternative but to order audio cut-off since they had no idea of what I was about to say.

I regret the misunderstanding and wish to make it plain that this was not an attempt   at   censorship   by   CBS   or ; Armstrong Circle Theater.

Left unsaid was the fact that it was an attempt at censorship by the U.S. Air Force, whose representatives applied constant pressure on the program to prevent Major Keyhoe from stating his case in his own words. Their heavy-handed influence also caused Ruppelt and Arnold to bow out at the last minute.

A very wrong-headed official policy, which NICAP was fighting to change by exposing it to public scrutiny, sought to totally control a public discussion of the facts and issues. Thanks to Major Keyhoe's courage and determination, the policy backfired badly in this case.

Typical Reactions to the Incident

"What was so important in Major Keyhoe's speech that we were not allowed to hear? I say this is an outrage." - Letter to Portland Oregonian 1/24/58

"I take no stand either way on UFOs, but I am going to fight for my right to know whatever it was [Major Keyhoe] said." -Letter to CBS-TV 1/23/58

"What makes me boil is that the powers that be consider the American public too stupid and childish to take this thing in stride ...Just what were your last words that we weren't allowed to hear?" -

Letter to Maj. Keyhoe 1/23/58   
"Call it anything you like, but it appeared to be a very shocking display of censorship; and certainly offensive to the intelligence of the American public.." -Letter to CBS-TV 1/23/58

Source: Journal of UFO History, Jan-Feb 2005, Vol. 1, No. 6, Richard Hall

(Note: On March 1, 2006, researcher, Francis Ridge, located most of the script for the show in the Project Blue Book Archives. Files can be located by going to NARA-PBB87-746  and navigating to page NARA page 821.)