Thursday, April 19, 2007

Star Trek and the Vietnam War, part 1

One scholar's provocative essay relating TOS to the war in Vietnam.

Trekdom invites our readers to critique and review this essay. Is this scholar over-analyzing? Does he make valid points? Do you agree with his interpretation of City on the Edge of Forever?

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H. Bruce Franklin
Star Trek in the Vietnam Era

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.