Science Fiction Studies

#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994

H. Bruce Franklin

Star Trek in the Vietnam Era1

The original Star Trek series was conceived, produced, and broadcast during one of the most profound crises in the history of the United States, a crisis from which we have by no means recovered. Those thirty-three months when the series was first broadcast—between September 1966 and June 1969— were in fact one of the most excruciating periods in American history. In the midst of a disastrous war, virtual warfare in the nation’s own cities, ever-increasing crime, inflation and debt, campus rebellions, and profound challenges to hallowed cultural values and gender roles, Star Trek assumed a future when Earth has become an infinitely prosperous, harmonious world without war and social conflict, a future in which the aptly-named starship U.S.S. Enterprise itself embodied an ordered, self-contained society capable of making traditional American values and images triumphant in the farthest reaches of the universe.

Looming over the mind of every thinking American, the Vietnam War threatened to tear the nation asunder. Indeed, even today the very mention of Vietnam raises the emotional temperature and brings out deep divisions in American society. As a matrix for Star Trek, the war lurked in the background of the serial. The utopian 23rd-century future assumed in Star Trek—never envisioned—is presented as a sequel to the Vietnam epoch, just as the universe of the starship Enterprise is presented as an alternative to the actual world of viewers in the America of the 1960s.

Star Trek was one of the first dramatic series to confront the Vietnam War. Fearful of losing viewers or advertisers, television networks were reluctant to allow disturbing or controversial issues into shows designed for entertainment. So following its usual gambit for dealing with contemporary issues, Star Trek parabolically displaced the Vietnam War in time and space.

The serial was conceived just as the war was becoming an openly American affair. To begin to understand Star Trek in the Vietnam era, highlight and juxtapose a few dates. In early November of 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been installed by the United States in 1954 as the puppet dictator of South Vietnam, was overthrown and assassinated by a cabal of his generals, whose efforts were coordinated by U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Although President John F. Kennedy had authorized the coup, he was shocked by the assassination of Diem, for Kennedy’s own family had been instrumental in selecting Diem to serve as the U.S. proxy. At this time there were between 16,000 and 21,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, officially designated as "advisers." Deprived of a figurehead like Diem, the United States now had two possible courses of action: withdrawal or a full-scale U.S. war. There is no evidence that Kennedy was considering the latter course. But three weeks later, President Kennedy himself was assassinated. Within four days of his inauguration, President Lyndon Baines Johnson issued National Security Action Memorandum 273, an ambitious plan for covertly attacking North Vietnam in order to provoke retaliation and thus legitimize an overt U.S. war, all to be cloaked under what he referred to as "plausibility of denial."

Four months later, in March of 1964, Gene Roddenberry submitted the first printed outline for Star Trek, an "action-adventure science fiction" designed "to keep even the most imaginative stories within the general audience’s frame of reference."2 In August, the Johnson Administration, pretending that U.S. ships had been attacked by North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, ordered "retaliatory" bombing of North Vietnam and received from Congress the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution," a blank check authorization for full-scale U.S. war in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Johnson was in the process of winning a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater on the basis of his promise, made over and over again, that "I shall never send American boys to Asia to do the job that Asian boys should do." In February 1965 Roddenberry delivered the intended pilot episode for Star Trek, "The Cage," which was rejected. The same month, Lyndon Johnson, a few weeks after being inaugurated as the elected President, began full-scale bombing of North Vietnam, followed swiftly by dispatch of the first openly acknowledged U.S. combat divisions to Vietnam.

By the time the first Star Trek episode was broadcast in September 1966, the United States was fully engaged in a war that was devastating Indochina and beginning to tear America apart. By the time the final Star Trek episode was aired in June 1969, the war seemed endless, hopeless, and catastrophic. Four episodes that were broadcast between the spring of 1967 and January 1969, the most crucial period in the war and for America, relate directly to the war. Taken as a sequence, these four episodes dramatize a startling and painful transformation in the war’s impact on both the series and the nation.

The first of the four was "The City on the Edge of Forever," which aired on April 6, 1967, one week before the end of Star Trek’s first season. Prior to this date, the most astonishing domestic manifestation of the war was the spectacular growth of the anti-war movement, whose size and fervor were without precedent in the history of America’s wars. In April 1965, just a few weeks after the first overt dispatch of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, the first large anti-war demonstration took place in Washington. In the same period, an intense campaign began to educate the American people about the history of the war, a campaign featuring the teach-in movement on college campuses and the publication of an avalanche of historical books, journals, and pamphlets. Millions of Americans were beginning to learn that the government had been deceiving them about how and when the United States had intervened in Vietnam, as well as about the conduct and current state of the war. They discovered that the war had begun not as the defense of a nation called "South Vietnam" from invasion by the Communist nation of "North Vietnam," but as a war of independence by Vietnam first against France and then against a dictatorship installed in the south in 1954 by the United States in violation of the Geneva Accords. They read and heard about how the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations had gradually escalated a covert war into what could already be considered America’s longest overseas military conflict. Two days before "The City on the Edge of Forever" aired, Martin Luther King, Jr., threw himself into the burgeoning anti-war movement with his "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," a sermon which summarized much of this history and which he gave as a speech two weeks later to a throng of hundreds of thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Central Park.

"The City on the Edge of Forever" opens with the Enterprise being buffeted by strange ripples in time. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a potent drug, and, in a paranoid delirium, hurtles through a time portal into New York City of 1930. Evidently something he does there annihilates the future in which the Enterprise exists, so Kirk and Spock follow him though the portal to prevent his action and thus reestablish the proper course of history. While searching for McCoy, Kirk falls in love with social worker and slum angel Edith Keeler. But Spock and he discover that for their future to come into being, Edith Keeler must die very soon in a traffic accident. If she is not killed then, she will become the founder of a peace movement that will misdirect the course of history. At the crucial moment, Kirk prevents McCoy from saving Edith from an oncoming truck, thus restoring the history familiar to the audience and the crew of the Enterprise.

The subtext of this episode and its significance are highlighted by the evolution of the script and key pieces of dialogue inserted into the version that was broadcast in April 1967. The original script of May 13, 1966, written by Harlan Ellison, was a poignant tragedy of doomed love. Though using the SF concept that any change in the past, no matter how slight, might radically alter the future, Ellison’s script had no reference to Edith as a peace activist, much less to a peace movement that could misguide history. In the revised script of June 3, 1966, Spock imagines possible futures that might come if Edith were to live. He speculates that her pacifist "philosophy" might have spread, delaying America’s entry into World War II and thus changing its outcome.

In the episode as it aired in 1967, this speculation introduced into the June 3, 1966 script has been turned into a major plot element whose subtext was the growing movement against the Vietnam War. Asked in 1992 whether the makers of this episode consciously intended it to have the contemporaneous anti-Vietnam-war movement as subtext, producer Robert Justman replied, "Of course we did."3

Spock works feverishly with the available materials from this primitive period to build a rudimentary computer so that his tricorder can actually display the possible futures unreeling from this focal point in time in 1930 New York. He discovers an obituary for Edith Keeler, indicating that she has been killed in a traffic accident in 1930. But he also discovers newspapers with later dates indicating that Edith has become the "founder" of a gigantic "peace movement" that will keep the United States out of World War II long enough for Nazi Germany to develop the atomic bomb, win the war, and rule the world, thus annihilating the future in which the U.S.S. Enterprise exists. So in order for the wonderful 23rd-century of Star Trek to come into being, as Spock ruefully tells Kirk, "Jim, Edith Keeler must die." And of course it is Captain James Kirk who must take the action to insure her death.

As an embodiment of the dangerously misguided peace movement, Edith is not portrayed as deserving scorn, contempt, or ridicule. She has nothing but the most admirable and worthy motives. Indeed, she is a true visionary, who, in the midst of the miseries of the Depression, offers a prophecy of a magnificent future as inspiration to the homeless and unemployed. The future she describes, in fact, is the very one dramatized by the Star Trek series:

one day, soon, man is going to be able to harness incredible energies. maybe even the atom, energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds, maybe in some sort of space ship. And the men who reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases.... And those are the days worth living for.

But this apostle of peace, technological progress, prosperity, and space exploration has the misfortune to be living in the wrong historical time and place.

As broadcast in the spring of 1967, "The City on the Edge of Forever" was clearly a parable suggesting that the peace movement directed against the U.S. war in Vietnam, no matter how noble, alluring, and idealistic in its motivation, might pose a danger to the progressive course of history. The episode projected the view that sometimes it is necessary to engage in ugly, distasteful action, such as waging remorseless warfare against evil expansionist forces like Nazi Germany or the Communist empire attempting to take over Indochina, even doing away with well-intentioned, attractive people who stand in the way of such historical necessity.

At this point in the Vietnam War, the peace movement, though growing rapidly, still represented only a minority of the American people, for it seemed to most that victory in Southeast Asia was not only necessary but also feasible, and perhaps even imminent. This view would soon change.

In the months that followed, the American people, despite the media’s almost universal support for the war, began to get ever more appalling glimpses of its reality. Napalmed children, villages being torched by American GI’s, the corpses of young Americans being zipped into body bags—all started becoming familiar images within the typical American home.

As public opposition to the war kept growing, President Johnson summoned General William Westmoreland home in November 1967 to do public relations. The commander of U.S. and allied forces informed the public that "the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt," his forces are "declining at a steady rate," "he can fight only at the edges of his sanctuaries" in other countries, and we have entered the phase "when the end begins to come into view," a time when the Saigon army will "take charge of the final mopping up of the Vietcong.4 James Reston of The New York Times echoed the official assertions that "the Vietcong now control only 2,500,000 people," little more than half what they had controlled in 1965, and "it is now merely a matter of time until this trend forces the enemy not to negotiate but to fade away into the jungle." Hanson Baldwin, the leading military analyst for the major media, reported in a series of articles in the December 1967 New York Times that "the enemy is weaker than he appears to be" and is gripped by "desperation," that the morale of U.S. troops is "excellent" whereas there is "irrefutable evidence of a decline in enemy morale," that "the enemy can no longer find security in his South Vietnamese sanctuaries," and that "the allies are winning" and "there seems little reason to doubt that Hanoi has abandoned the hope of conquest of South Vietnam by military force."5 So according to the White House, the Pentagon, and the media, the Johnson Administration’s strategy of gradual escalation was on the verge of success, and the American people needed to be patient, rejecting both those who called for withdrawal and those who demanded a speedy end to the war through the use of nuclear weapons.

It was during this period that Star Trek was producing the episode that dealt most explicitly with the Vietnam War, "A Private Little War," written by Gene Roddenberry from a story by Jud Crucis. The Enterprise visits Neural, a planet Kirk remembers from an earlier visit as so primitive and peaceful that it seemed like "Eden." However, an unequal war has begun on Neural, with one side—known as "the villagers"—mysteriously armed with firearms, devices far beyond the technological level of any society on the planet. The villagers, who represent the official U.S. view of the North Vietnamese, have been attacking and attempting to conquer the peaceful "hill people," who represent the official U.S. view of the South Vietnamese. Like the National Liberation Front (or "Viet Cong"), the villagers at first seem to be armed with primitive handforged weapons, in this case flintlocks. But these weapons in fact have been mass produced by some outside imperialist power, which has been smuggling them in and making them appear to be indigenous. Who could this evil empire be? The Klingons, of course, Star Trek’s analogues for the Soviet Union and/or Communist China. Their aim, needless to say, is to subvert and take over this primitive planet, itself an analog for Vietnam, Indochina, and the rest of the Third World menaced by the domino theory of communist expansion.

Thus "A Private Little War" promoted the official Administration version of the history of the Vietnam War—that it had begun as an intervention by an outside evil empire—the Soviet Union and/or Communist China. In fact, as millions of Americans were then discovering, the war had begun as a defense of an existing empire (France) against an indigenous movement for national liberation, and then transformed into a war of conquest by another nation attempting to advance its own imperial interests in Southeast Asia— the United States of America.

This is not to say that the episode implicitly endorses major enlargement of the Vietnam War. Indeed, it seems to suggest that the main danger to be avoided is any form of military intervention that could lead to direct warfare between the United States, here represented by the Federation, and the evil Communist empire, here of course represented by the Klingons.

The Enterprise’s options are presented in a debate between Kirk and McCoy. It is revealing that in the "teaser," Spock, after issuing a stern warning against interfering in the planet’s affairs, is gravely wounded and spends the rest of the episode recovering on the ship, thus conveniently removing him from all further discussion and decision-making. Perhaps, as Rick Worland has suggested, Spock’s usual role as an objective outside commentator on human affairs "might have made him too dangerous here," for the Vulcan might "have perceived instantly the illogic of the whole situation and denounced the Neural/Vietnam War."6 Before McCoy challenges him, Kirk has decided to provide military training to the hill people and to arm them with the same weapons as the villagers. McCoy, appalled by this course of action, points out its hideous potential consequences for the people whom the Federation would supposedly be aiding in a speech loudly evoking Vietnam in the minds of viewers: "You’re condemning this whole planet to a war that may never end. It could go on for year after year, massacre after massacre." Kirk argues that he is merely establishing a balance of power, and makes the parallel with the Vietnam war explicit:

McCOY: I don’t have a solution. But furnishing them with firearms is certainly not the answer!

KIRK: Bones, do you remember the twentieth-century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt that they could pull out?

McCOY: Yes, I remember—it went on bloody year after bloody year!

KIRK: But what would you have suggested? That one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No—the only solution is what happened, back then, balance of power.

McCOY: And if the Klingons give their side even more?

KIRK: Then we arm our side with exactly that much more. A balance of power—the trickiest, most difficult, dirtiest game of them all—but the only one that preserves both sides!

Kirk here aligns himself closely with the avowed policies of the Johnson Administration and suggests that, although the road may be long and ugly, a patient application of realpolitik will eventually lead out of the Vietnam morass and into humanity’s glorious future. At the time, the growing impatience of the American people with a seemingly endless war was producing an increasingly bitter conflict between advocates of total war, such as Barry Goldwater (who had suggested using tactical nuclear weapons) and Ronald Reagan (who asserted that "we could pave Vietnam over and bring our troops home by Christmas"), and the now huge peace movement, which was more and more demanding that the United States withdraw from Vietnam and let the Vietnamese settle their own affairs. With the logical Spock absent, McCoy is unable to articulate any coherent alternative to the Captain’s analysis and is reduced to mere moral outrage. Kirk’s own moral anguish in making his choice precisely mirrors that being projected by Lyndon Johnson, who presented himself as a realistic moderate, torn by his rejection of seductive but illusory extremes.

The episode ends with a sense of foreboding and disillusion uncharacteristic of Star Trek. When he orders Scotty to manufacture a hundred flintlock rifles for the hill people, Kirk refers to these instruments as "a hundred serpents...for the garden of Eden." Then, as McCoy tries to comfort him, the Captain says somberly, "We’re very tired, Mr. Spock. Beam us up home."

Even as it was being produced, "A Private Little War" was anachronistic in its view of the Vietnam War, referring more clearly to the period of covert U.S. involvement prior to the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 than to the open U.S. war of 1968. Kirk even points out early in the episode that "keeping our presence here secret is an enormous tactical advantage" over the Klingons. The leader of the hill people has a wife clearly modeled on President Diem’s wife, Madame Nhu, the infamous "dragon lady," and each wicked woman helps precipitate the event that triggers escalation by the good outside power. In late 1967 and the first month of 1968, despite all official and media reassurances, Kirk’s policy of measured escalation had certainly not led to any resolution, and McCoy’s warnings about "a war that may never end" could not be easily dismissed.

Yet like "The City on the Edge of Forever," "A Private Little War" suggests that the Vietnam War is an ugly necessity that forms a critical part of the pathway to the glorious 23rd century of space travel and the universe of Star Trek. But two days before the episode aired, an event began that was to challenge even such guarded optimism.

Although "A Private Little War" was produced while the government and media were proclaiming that the United States was nearing victory, it was originally telecast on February 2, 1968, while the nation was in shock from the start of the devastating Tet Offensive, when the insurgent forces simultaneously attacked every U.S. base and over a hundred cities and towns in South Vietnam. This astonishing offensive convinced the nation that the Vietnam War could not end in victory. When the next episode directly relevant to Vietnam was broadcast one month later, it dramatically expressed the effect of the Tet Offensive on America’s consciousness. Completed in December 1967, while anti-war newspapers were debunking official optimism with accounts of the rapidly deteriorating U.S. military situation, this episode suggests that the makers of Star Trek themselves had moved much closer to the anti-war movement.7 Sardonically entitled "The Omega Glory," it displayed a profound darkening of Star Trek’s vision of the Vietnam War and its possible consequences.

By the time "The Omega Glory" aired on March 1, the Tet Offensive had shattered all expectations of victory in Vietnam. The episode, written by Gene Roddenberry, now examined the consequences of a possibly endless war in Vietnam from a perspective much closer to the grim view McCoy had expressed in "A Private Little War." Indeed, the main victims of such a war are no longer seen as some alien peoples confined to some remote location like the planet Neural or Southeast Asia, for America itself is imagined as a devastated former civilization reduced to barbarism.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy visit the planet Omega IV, whose dreadful history is gradually revealed to them. The planet is now dominated by a race of Asian villagers known as "the Kohms," who are engaged in unending warfare against a fair-haired, fair-skinned race of savages known as "the Yangs." The Yangs, who are so primitive they seem scarcely human, are beginning to overwhelm the Kohms with the sheer ferocity of their hordes. Meanwhile, starship Captain Tracey, a mad renegade, has violated the Prime Directive, directly intervening in the planet’s war on the side of the Kohms, using his phasers personally to slaughter many hundreds of Yangs.

McCoy’s medical research reveals that once there had been very advanced civilizations here, but they had destroyed themselves in this constant warfare. The survivors show signs that they had even waged "bacteriological warfare," similar to Earth’s "experiments in the 1990s"; "Hard to believe," he says, "we were once foolish enough to play around with that." Spock’s logic ultimately concludes that this planet presents a case of parallel evolution: "they fought the war your Earth avoided, and in this case the Asiatics won and took over the planet." He comes to this conclusion as soon as he and Kirk realize the significance of the names of the two warring races:

KIRK: Yangs? Yanks. Yankees!

SPOCK: Kohms. Communists!

At this point, the Yangs, who have conquered the Kohm village, are being incited by Captain Tracey to execute Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. The scene is dramatically punctuated by the entrance of the sacred banner of the Yangs, a tattered American flag, evidently the "omega glory" of the episode’s title. Forgetting all the principles for which they were fighting in their endless war against the Communists, these Yankees have become savage barbarians teetering on the very edge of bestiality. All they have left of the great American ideals are their worship words, garbled versions of the Pledge of Allegiance and the preamble to the constitution of the United States, which they recite as mere sacred gibberish.

In a melodramatic ending, Kirk grabs their holiest of holies, a printed version of the preamble to the Constitution, and recites it, with emphasis on "We the People." He explains to the Yangs, who now worship Kirk as a god because of the seemingly miraculous appearance of a rescue team from the Enterprise, that "these words . . . were not written only for the Yangs, but for the Kohms as well." Such thoughts constitute a shocking heresy for the Yangs, but Kirk insists, "They must apply to everyone, or they mean nothing." The eyes of the Yangs gradually seem more human as Kirk thus awakens them from their eons of mindless anti-Communist warfare, and the thrilling sight of Old Glory and strains of the Star Spangled Banner suggest that this planet too may return to the true path of American ideals.

"The Omega Glory" implies that the war in Southeast Asia, which no longer held any promise of victory or even suggestion of an end, could evolve into an interminable, mutually destructive conflict between the "Yankees" and the "Communists" capable of destroying civilization and humanity. True Americanism is shown as antithetical to mindless militarism and anti-Communism, and the episode rather paradoxically uses ultrapatriotic images of a tattered Old Glory and strains of the Star Spangled Banner to preach a message of globalism. Kirk’s emphasis on "We the People" might even be a suggestion to the American people that they must reassert their own role in the nation’s affairs.

If there were any doubts where the makers of Star Trek now stood on the Vietnam War itself, these were resolved in the pages of the nation’s leading SF magazines. Like other Americans, SF writers were profoundly and bitterly divided about the Vietnam War, and in early 1968 more than a hundred and fifty of them took out rival advertisements supporting and opposing continuation of the conflict. These ads, signed before the Tet Offensive, appeared first in the March issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which came out just before "The Omega Glory." Not one person associated with Star Trek joined the 72 signers of the ad that stated "We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of that country." Among the 82 who signed the ad that stated "We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam" were Star Trek scriptwriters Jerome Bixby, Jerry Sohl, Harlan Ellison, and Norman Spinrad as well as Gene Roddenberry himself.

Nineteen sixty-eight was not only the decisive moment in the Vietnam War but also the period of the most intense domestic crisis of recent American history. Most of the countryside of South Vietnam was lost to the insurgent forces, and the 1.4 million troops under U.S. command were locked into a defensive posture around their bases and the cities and towns of the south. General Westmoreland was dismissed from his command. The President of the United States was forced to withdraw from the election campaign, and anti-war forces swept every Democratic primary. Massive uprisings erupted in 125 cities within a single week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 55,000 troops had to join police to suppress these uprisings. Washington itself had to be defended by combat troops, while towering above the Capitol rose columns of black smoke from burning buildings. Police and sometimes soldiers battled demonstrators on college campuses across the country. The international finance system reeled from blows to the U.S. economy and its credibility, and the Johnson Administration was forced into negotiations with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Robert Kennedy, running as an anti-war candidate for president, was assassinated on the evening when he had virtually clinched the Democratic nomination. Forty-three GIs, mainly Vietnam veterans, were arrested for refusing to join the 12,000 soldiers, 12,000 Chicago police, and a thousand Secret Service agents who battled anti-war demonstrators outside the Democratic convention in August.8 Earlier that month, outside the Republican convention in Miami Beach, a line of tanks had sealed off the entire peninsula from Miami itself, where police and National Guard units fought rebelling African-Americans in what a Miami police spokesman called "firefights like in Vietnam."9 In his acceptance speech, Richard Nixon, after noting that "as we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame," vowed that "if the war is not ended when the people choose in November," "I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next Administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam."10 Nixon won that 1968 election as a peace candidate.

On January 10, 1969, ten days before Richard Nixon’s inauguration and four years before the end of official U.S. participation in the Vietnam War, Star Trek broadcast an aptly titled episode: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." This episode views the racial conflict of the 1960s in a parable about two races on an alien planet, each half black and half white, who annihilate each other in an increasingly violent struggle between oppression and revolution. The master race, white on the left half and black on the right, has enslaved and continues to exploit the other race, black on the left half and white on the right.

Enraged by millennia of persecution, the oppressed are led by a fanatic militant. In a clear allusion to the disproportionate deaths being suffered by African-Americans in Vietnam, he asks crew members of the Enterprise: "Do you know what it would be like to be dragged out of your hovel into a war on another planet, a battle that will serve your oppressor and bring death to your brothers?"

The ultimate end of the mutual hatred of these races is spelled out when the Enterprise reaches their home planet. Spock reports there are now "no sapient life forms": "they have annihilated each other totally." As the last representative of each race continues their fight to mutual doom, behind them flash actual footage of scenes from America’s burning cities. The vision of global disaster projected as a possible outcome of the Vietnam War in "The Omega Glory" has now, less than a year later, literally come home.

The first of these two episodes, "The City on the Edge of Forever" and "A Private Little War," had suggested that the Vietnam War was merely an unpleasant necessity on the way to the future dramatized by Star Trek. But the last two, "The Omega Glory" and "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," broadcast in the period between March 1968 and January 1969, are so thoroughly infused with the desperation of the period that they openly call for a radical change of historic course, including an end to the Vietnam War and to the war at home. Only this new course presumably would take us to the universe of the U.S.S. Enterprise.


1. This essay is developed from the script that I wrote for the "Vietnam" section of the National Air and Space Museum’s 1992 exhibit entitled "Star Trek and the Sixties," for which I served as Advisory Curator. As co-author of the full script, Mary Henderson, Art Curator of the museum and Curator of the exhibit, also contributed to the Vietnam section.

2. Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium (NY: Pocket Books, 1989), 9.

3. Interview with Robert Justman, February 26, 1992.

4. New York Times, November 22, 1967.

5. Hanson W. Baldwin, "Vietnam Report: Foe Seeks to Sway U.S. Public," "Vietnam Report: The Foe Is Hurt," "Report on Vietnam: Sanctuaries viewed as a Major War Factor," New York Times, December 26, 27, 28, 1967.

6. Rick Worland, "Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior," Journal of Popular Film and Television 16 (3), 115. My own analysis owes a considerable debt to Worland’s exceptionally insightful essay.

7. For an account of the profound contradictions between views of the war in the establishment media and the movement press, see H. Bruce Franklin, "1968: The Vision of the Movement and the Alternative Press" in The Vietnam Era: Media and Popular Culture in the US and Vietnam, edited by Michael Klein (London and Winchester, MA: Pluto Press, 1990), 65-81.

8. Thorne Dreyer, "Know Your Enemy," Liberation News Service, August 30, 1968.

9. New York Times, August 9, 1968.

10. Nixon Speaks Out: Major Speeches and Statements by Richard Nixon in the Presidential Campaign of 1968 (NY: Nixon-Agnew Campaign Committee, 1968), 235.

Abstract.— Star Trek emerged from a specific cultural matrix: one of the most profound crises in the history of the United States. At the center of this maelstrom was the Vietnam War, which was radically reshaping the American consciousness during the months when the series was first broadcast between 1966 and 1969. In some senses the war was the subtext for the entire series, with the universe of the aptly-named starship U.S.S. Enterprise serving as both happy sequel and alternative to the actual world of viewers in the America of the 1960s. In Star Trek, the prewar faith in a triumphant future for 1950s American values is displaced from an historical Earth to the enclosed world of the Enterprise and an imagined space. Star Trek was also one of the first dramatic series to confront the Vietnam War explicitly. Four episodes in particular express a swiftly changing vision of the war, part of the metamorphosis of American society as it faced defeat in Vietnam and disintegration at home. (HBF)

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