Saturday, November 8, 2014

FBI Releases its Files on Dr. James E. McDonald

Dr. James E. McDonald (1920-1971) was a noted atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, but today is best known for his tireless advocacy of UFOs. More controversial than most UFO advocates, McDonald's methods were confrontational, and he did not get along well even with many who shared his beliefs about UFOs, like J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallee. McDonald came under intense scrutiny and criticism from arch UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass, who not only criticized inconsistencies in McDonald's statements, but accused him of mis-using funds from his government contracts to conduct his UFO research (which criticism turned out to be substantially correct). This has led to irresponsible suggestions that Klass virtually 'hounded' McDonald to his tragic suicide. As we will see below, McDonald's suicide didn't have anything to do with Klass, or UFOs.

Dr. James E. McDonald

Interestingly, we see the FBI expressing little interest, and no concern over McDonald's involvement with UFO claims. Remember, these FBI papers were secret at the time they were written, and nobody expected them to someday be released. If a government UFO coverup existed, we'd expect to find statements like "He's getting too close to learning our secrets, we must stop him."

However, we see that the FBI was concerned over McDonald's minimal contact with someone (whose name is redacted) known to have involvement with Soviet intelligence (see pages 6-9). They apparently concluded that it did not mean much, but were interested to check up, anyway. During the cold war, it was not at all unusual for Soviet "diplomats" or scientists in the U.S. to make contact with leading American scientists and engineers, to potentially learn as much as they can about the latest developments in U.S. science and technology. Philip J. Klass told me of being approached I believe twice by such individuals, and this is reflected in Klass' own FBI files.

In fact, it appears that McDonald's minimal contact with Soviet interests involved UFO research, via the UN! As we read on p. 26,
[redacted; obviously an FBI source at the U of A] said that he has no doubt whatsoever of the subject's loyalty to this country. He said he feels certain the subject's contact with the Soviet representative at the UN Secretariat in mid-1968 in connection with the subject's "UFO studies" was completely innocuous... At this point it does not appear that an interview of Professor MCDONALD would be productive and could possibly result in embarrassment to the Bureau.
In all likelihood, McDonald was simply asking the Soviets for any UFO information they might have, a perfectly innocent and reasonable query. The FBI seemed inclined to drop the matter, except for one concern. As we read on p. 10:
It appears that Professor MC DONALD's letter to [redacted1: probably the Soviet representative at the UN] (contents of which are not known) might have been in itself an innocuous, sincere contact on the part of Professor MC DONALD; however, in view of his background and [redacted2] long time leadership in "New Left" activities in the Tucson area, it is quite probable that Professor MC DONALD would be highly susceptible to an approach made by a Soviet intelligence, particularly concerning a research done in his field, of atmospheric physics.
I am just about certain that [redacted2] originally read "his wife's". About six months after McDonald's suicide, UFO author and researcher Jacques Vallee wrote in his diary, now published as Forbidden Science (Vol II, pp. 110-111):
Mike Jaffe reached Betsy McDonald in Tucson; they had coffee together and compared their life stories. The truth is that it wasn't because of his eyes that Jim McDonald had been put in the hospital. His first suicide attempt had left him blind, and there was nothing the doctors could do about it. Instead he was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, to try and prevent a new phase of depression...
The note he left for Betsy said he was sorry he hadn't found her at home when he came to pick up the money. He left instructions to gather the rest of the cash and dispose of the gun. Jim killed himself out of frustration and love. His wife had gone headlong into politics. She belonged to a radical leftist group, not unlike the Venceremos at Stanford. They gave out weapons to Black revolutionaries. [emphasis added]
This was the height of the Vietnam War, and while most anti-war protests were peaceful and perfectly legal, at least some groups were bent on fomenting violence and revolution. And these groups were being watched very closely by the FBI.

Another obvious reference to Betsy McDonald is on p.31 of the FBI file:
In October 1968, [redacted: obviously Betsy McDonald] reportedly attended the SDS National Convention in Boulder, Colorado, and was overheard telling a group in Tucson upon her return that she favored violence, if necessary, to achieve the goals of the SDS.
Quoting a redacted source from the U of A, an FBI paper from May 26, 1969 states (p. 11):
he recently received information that Professor JAMES E. MC DONALD is "disenchanted" with [redacted1, probably "his wife's"] constant "New Left" activities and they plan to separate. He further said he has heard that [redacted2] This information has not been confirmed through other sources,
In all likelihood, "redacted2" refers to what I heard from J. Allen Hynek soon after McDonald's suicide - that McDonald's wife had been having an affair - and he took it extremely hard. This is more than two years before McDonald's suicide. Obviously, his marital difficulties had been brewing for some time.

On p. 23, the redactor slipped a bit, and left "Subject's wife" in the text:
Applicant-type investigation of subject in 1962, favorable re loyalty, character, and reputation. Subject's wife is active in Students for a Democratic Society and peace movement. Subject is disenchanted with [redacted: probably "his wife's"] "New Left" activities and separation planned.
Vallee's diary entry (referenced above) concluded:
Jim plunged into his research: UFOs, effects of supersonic transports on the atmosphere, the possible destruction of the ozone layer... He did it out of despair, with no humor, no ability to distance himself from what he was studying. Jim had even researched his own case very scientifically, as he did everything: He had gathered detailed statistics about suicide. 
Other papers hint at other problems the FBI had with McDonald (p. 44-63). Apparently he had signed a petition in 1961 of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (soon to be made notorious by one of its zealots, Lee Harvey Oswald),  protesting the U.S. "hostility" to Cuba, and calling for an end to the trade embargo (p. 67). McDonald was also involved with the ACLU, which the FBI apparently considered a subversive organization. Worse yet, he had been a public critic of the Air Force as far back as 1959, concerning its placement of ICBM sites near Tucson. He claimed this placed civilian populations in unnecessary danger in the event of war.

One thing that was not found in the McDonald FBI files: any reference whatsoever to Philip J. Klass.

6 comments:

  1. McDonald's contacts with Soviet scientists in 1967-8 makes perfect sense, that was the era of the 'giant flying crescent' UFOs seen repeatedly across southern Russia & Caucasus, and widely reported in Soviet newspapers. McDonald reported in detail on one such event in his Congressional testimony, proclaiming the apparition could not possibly be a human technological experiment. Years later, I showed that's exactly what it was -- reentry tests of Soviet space-to-ground thermonuclear warheads. As the Soviet military also realized it at the time, they immediately clamped down on further publishing such material -- and probably grew suspicious of any Westerners poking around for more observational details. The 'crescent UFOs' championed by Feliks Zigel remain enshrined in the UFO canon of miracles and top data bases of unsolved cases.

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  2. MacDonald solved some UFO sightings, particularly one that he saw from the top of the building where he had his office. His report of what he saw was accurate, after all, I know since I had constructed the UFO. If anyone cares, I can go into more detail.

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    1. Keith, Dr. McDonald is an important part of UFO history, and so your story is significant. Please do share it

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  3. I wonder why it has taken so long, after the FOIA was first available, for McDonald's files to be released. Is it that nobody thought Dr McDonald was a person important enough in UFO history for anyone to put in a FOIA request, or is it because his suicide (thought by some to be caused by his 'rejection' by the scientific community for his strong pro-UFO beliefs) might turn out to be entirely non-UFO related, and that therefore nobody in the UFO fraternity wanted to risk the truth being revealed, as it now has.

    I believe his personal life & depression was known about, but downplayed, some years ago.




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  4. http://www.ufoevidence.org/newsite/files/AIAAreport.pdf

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    1. Dave, yes, the well-known RB-47 case. I wrote about that one:
      http://badufos.blogspot.com/2012/01/rb-47-encounter-of-1957-ufologys-best.html

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