#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994
H. Bruce Franklin
Star Trek in the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)