‘I had no idea I’d become a national event’: Orson Welles on the mass hysteria of The War of the Worlds

There were threats of lawsuits, and calls for censorship and regulation of radio content. CBS hastily called a press conference, where Welles repeatedly denied that he had intended to deceive anyone. Ultimately the Federal Communications Commission investigated the incident and found no law had been broken, but networks did have to agree that they would be more cautious with future programming.

The scandal only served to boost Welles’s reputation as a creative genius with a mastery of storytelling. It would go on to propel him to Hollywood, where he would direct and star in 1941’s Citizen Kane, often cited as the greatest film of all time.

As this clip in the BBC Archive reveals, when asked about the broadcast afterwards, Welles, ever the raconteur, made a big claim about the lasting impact his show had on shaping public opinion. He recounted how, a few years later, news broke that Japan had launched a surprise attack on the US base in Pearl Harbor during a patriotic performance he was giving on radio.

“I was in the midst of some hymn of praise to the American cornfields or something of the kind,” he recounts, “when suddenly, a gentleman darted into the radio studio, held up his hand, and said, ‘We interrupt this broadcast to bring you an announcement: Pearl Harbor has just been attacked.’ And of course this very serious and terrible news was never believed. Not for hours, by anybody in America, because they all said, ‘Well there he goes again, really, rather bad taste, it was funny once, but not a second time’.”

In the years since, there has been much debate about whether the level of panic the broadcast actually caused has been overstated, or indeed how many people actually heard the broadcast, as opposed to reading the newspaper reports about it. But regardless, it remains a landmark moment in broadcast history, and a testament to the power of storytelling to capture the imagination of an audience. 

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

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