Trekdom brings you part 2 of Prof. H. Bruce Franklin's provocative essay about Star Trek: The Original Series and the Vietnam War.
In part 1, Franklin critiqued "City on the Edge of Forever" as Trek's commentary on the growing peace movement. He now continues with an interesting interpretation of "A Private Little War." It is worth noting that many Trek insiders, such as Gene Roddenberry, Bob Justman, and Gene Coon label this episode as Star Trek's most blatantly anti-war statement.
Franklin's interpretation differs markedly.
Is this scholar being fair to Star Trek? Do you agree with his analysis of "A Private Little War"?
Star Trek in the Vietnam Era, part 2
by H. Bruce Franklin
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. 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." 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.
[Trekdom insert: Jud Crucis was a pseudonym for writer Don Ingalls. It references "Jesus Crucified" as a statement that Roddenberry crucified his original script - Thanks to Sir Rhosis at TrekBBS for that tidbit]
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." 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.
To be continued...