Star Trek in the Vietnam Era
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 24, Numbers 1-2, 1994
- pp. 36-46
- View Citation
- Additional Information
36 Franklin / Star Trek in the Vietnam Era Star Trek in the Vietnam Era1 H. Bruce Franklin The originai Star Trek series was conceived, produced, and broadcast during one of the most profound crises in American history, a crisis from which we have by no means recovered. At the center of the maelstrom was the Vietnam War, which was radically reshaping American consciousness during the thirty-three months-between September 1966 and June 1969-when the series was first broadcast. 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 had become an infinitely prosperous, harmonious world without war and social conflict, a future in which the aptly-named starship U.S.S. Enterprise embodied an ordered, self-contained society capable of making traditional American values and images triumphant throughout the galaxy. Looming over the mind ofevery thinking American, the VietnamWar 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 was in some senses a subtext for the entire series. Earth's Utopian 23rd-century future assumedin Star Trek-though never envisioned~is presented as a sequel to the Vietnam epoch, just as 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 understand Star Trek in the Vietnam era, it is helpful to highlight and juxtapose a few dates. In early November 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 H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. He is the author or editor of sixteen books on culture and history including War stars: The Super Weapon and the American Imagination and M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America Film & History, Vol. XXIV, No's. 1-2, 199437 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 being sworn in, 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 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 ofTonkin 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...