Monday, April 30, 2007

Star Trek and the Vietnam War, part 3

And now the conclusion of Prof. H. Bruce Franklin's "Star Trek in the Vietnam Era." In parts 1 and 2, Franklin analyzed "City on the Edge of Forever" and "A Private Little War." Both of those episodes, he argued, implicitly voiced support for continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In part 3, Franklin sees a shift toward a more critical stance with "The Omega Glory" and "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield."

Trekdom invites its readers to critique Franklin's Conclusions.
Star Trek in the Vietnam Era, part 3
by H. Bruce Franklin

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. 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.