Some of the most infamous UFO sightings in history are the ones that have been made by beloved public figures or famous people. These are the ones that truly resonate with us, and stir a sense of awe within us, no matter how believable they may be. Certainly one of the most sensational of these was the time the U.S. president Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, which would turn into a case that has been discussed and debated to this day.
James Earl Carter Jr., better known to the masses as Jimmy Carter, was the 39th president of the United States, serving from 1977 to 1981. A member of the Democratic Party, he narrowly beat out incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford in the Presidential race and was known for several sweeping changes, such as pardoning all Vietnam War draft dodgers, the establishment of the Department of Energy and the Department of Education, as well as his involvement with pushing the Panama Canal Treaties, the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II), and advocating the return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama. His presidency was marked by such turmoil as the Iran hostage crisis, the 1979 energy crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and he is also known for his philanthropist work, founding the nongovernmental, not-for-profit human rights organization called the Carter Center, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Yet for all of this some of the most interesting tales surrounding the former president come from his years when he was a Senator in Georgia, most notably the time he had a UFO sighting that would fundamentally change his whole official stance on the matter.
At the time, Carter was serving in the Georgia State Senate, his aim to be Governor of the state, and on one evening in January of 1969, he was getting ready to deliver a speech at a meeting of the Lion’s Club at Leary, Georgia. At the time he was with a group of around 20 others at a small outdoor restaurant right after sundown when his attention was drawn to something strange in the sky to the West, which appeared as a green light that steadily got brighter as it seemed to approach them. Carter would say of the strange events that would follow:
All of a sudden, one of the men looked up and said, ‘Look, over in the west!’ And there was a bright light in the sky. We all saw it. And then the light, it got closer and closer to us. And then it stopped, I don’t know how far away, but it stopped beyond the pine trees. And all of a sudden it changed color to blue, and then it changed to red, then back to white. And we were trying to figure out what in the world it could be, and then it receded into the distance.
In some retellings of his story he made mention of the fact that he did not take the phenomenon to be a solid object, although he believed it to be self-illuminated. Carter would keep the sighting mostly to himself, but sometimes brought it up in interviews, and considering his high standing he was encouraged to finally log an official report with the International UFO Bureau in 1973, after which it would be officially investigated in 1976. Considering that this was a full seven years after the sighting, most witnesses either did not remember the incident or thought that it was just a weird anomaly that they hadn’t given much thought to over the years, but Carter had certainly been affected by it, even going so far as to tell reporters in his 1976 election campaign that one of his goals was to create more transparency in the government with regards to UFOs, and he would say of this:
One thing’s for sure, I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve seen unidentified objects in the sky. If I become President, I’ll make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public and the scientists.
It is important to note that while Carter did believe he had seen something very strange that night, he did not necessarily think it was an alien spacecraft, and tended to be rather vague about what he thought it might be, but he was definitely open-minded, and was seen by hopeful UFOlogists as perhaps the first American president that would blow the lid on government secrecy with regards to UFOs, and pursue full disclosure. In the end, it would turn out that this was not to be. Interestingly, once he was elected he sort of backpedaled on his promise to pursue the matter, and rather than try enact any sort of disclosure he began strongly denying that what he had seen was an alien spacecraft, even going so far as to assert that extraterrestrials had never visited Earth, and proclaiming that no government that he knew of had secret knowledge of UFOs or had ever been part of a cover-up. Instead of demonstrating an openness to the phenomenon that he had once embraced due to his own sighting, he began to go into full denial and general dismissal of UFOs. Carter was less inclined to take the ambiguous stance of “I don’t know” anymore, and became more closed on the subject while simultaneously starting to voice more strongly the opinion that he had just seen some sort of experimental aircraft. Before long, Carter would get into his presidency full swing, and talk of the UFO he had seen would be swept under the carpet and largely forgotten, relegated to history as a curiosity and nothing more.
Theories on what Carter saw have run the range. There are of course the conspiracy theories that he did in fact see an alien craft, or at least really believed he had, and that he had shied away from that explanation under pressure from those within the government. A big explanations offered by skeptics was that he had merely seen the planet Venus, which is thought to have been particularly bright on the evening in question. However, Carter was an avid amateur astronomer, and firmly dismissed this possibility. Another idea is that he saw some other atmospheric phenomenon or that it was a high altitude glowing barium cloud launched from Eglin AFB for the purpose of studying the upper atmosphere. The cloud theory would fit in with the location, the elevation angle, and the non-solid properties claimed of it, as well as the color, size, and brightness of the object. A professor and member of the Carter family, Carl G. Justus, would originally offer this explanation, later explaining:
In the 1960s and early 70s I worked on an Air Force sponsored project that studied the upper atmosphere using releases of glowing chemical clouds, produced by rockets launched from Eglin AFB rocket range in Florida. Some of these chemical clouds, notably sodium and barium, were visible by the process of resonance scattering of sunlight. Clouds of this type had to be launched not long after sunset or not long before sunrise. This was due to the fact that the cloud had to be in sunlight at high altitude, while it was still dark enough at ground level for the cloud to be visible against the dark sky.
I can verify from personal experience that under clear skies, a barium cloud such as this would easily have been visible from the distance of Leary, GA. Carter reported the UFO ‘appeared from West’. The direction of Eglin AFB from Leary, GA is approximately WSW. Thus, this barium cloud at Eglin is consistent with Carter’s reported ‘UFO’ as to time, elevation, AND direction. Furthermore, the appearance reported by Carter is totally consistent with a high-altitude barium cloud. His report stated that it was ‘bluish at first, then reddish, luminous not solid’. A neutral barium cloud would initially glow bluish or greenish, with parts of it taking on a reddish glow as some the barium becomes ionized in the high-altitude sunlight. The size and brightness, reported as being about that of the moon, would also be consistent with a barium cloud at Eglin, as viewed from Leary, GA.
Is that what Carter saw? Glowing chemical clouds? Or was it perhaps something more mysterious? The case sticks out because of the high standing of the witness, as well as the odd way he seemed to back away from it in later years. What seemed to have been perhaps a turning point for government disclosure instead became just another obscure UFO report buried in history. Whatever it was that Jimmy Carter saw, it has stirred a bit of debate ever since, and I wouldn’t hold one’s breath for any real answers any time soon.