Politics of ‘Star Trek’: The Pro-Vietnam War Episode

Would it surprise you to know ‘Star Trek’ did a pro-Vietnam War episode? Prepare to be amazed as we continue our journey through the conservative world that is ‘Star Trek’ the original series with Episode 45: “A Private Little War.”

The Plot

This week, the Enterprise visits the planet Neural in the Zeta Bootis System, a veritable treasure trove of medicinal plants and specimens. Kirk surveyed this planet thirteen years before when he was a lieutenant on the USS Farragut. What he found was a primitive but peaceful planet where villagers and Hill People lived happily side by side, hunting food with bows and arrows. But when he beams down this time, he discovers a group of villagers setting an ambush for a Hill People hunting party. Moreover, the villagers are carrying flintlock muskets, something they shouldn’t be able to manufacture at this phase of their development.

Kirk disrupts the ambush and reunites with a friend he made during his prior survey -- Tyree, who has risen to become leader of the Hill People. Kirk learns that the Klingons are arming the villagers with the flintlocks. Some of the Hill People want Kirk to give them superior weapons, but Kirk will only offer flintlocks to maintain the balance of power. Tyree resists even this offer because he’s a pacifist and thinks the villagers will return to their peaceful ways. But when the villagers kill Tyree’s wife, he finally accepts Kirk’s offer.

Why It’s Conservative

“A Private Little War” involves primitive people who find themselves in a nasty arms race as each is backed by a galactic superpower, i.e. the Klingons and the Federation. This is a metaphor for Vietnam, which was raging at the time. In fact, the original script referenced Vietnam and described the villagers as wearing “Ho Chi Mihn type” clothes. Even the revised script refers to “twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent.”

To call this story “pro-Vietnam War” is perhaps a bit of a stretch, because the story definitely laments the loss of innocence of the Hill People and the villagers, which can be seen as an anti-war statement. However, that interpretation doesn’t mesh with the deeper philosophical points made. To the contrary, the moral of this story is that you cannot back down in the face of aggression. And if the other side is arming their allies, then you need to arm yours. That is a very conservative point.

We see this moral in the argument between Kirk and McCoy over what to do about the Klingon Empire’s interference. McCoy, who is the show’s emotional factor and who often took on the role of advocating the liberal bleeding-heart position, was aghast that Kirk would even think about arming the Hill People. Presumably, he would have Kirk abandon the Hill People to the mercy of the villagers so they could live “in peace” as slaves under the villagers and by proxy the Klingon Empire. In this, McCoy is echoing the peace movement which rioted at the 1968 Democratic convention a few months after this episode was first shown (ironically, it was repeated 3 days before the convention began).

Kirk rejects this, noting that the only solution to aggression is to stand up to the aggressor. And if they fight through a proxy by arming that proxy, then you must provide your allies with identical weapons to maintain the balance of power. Here’s the script:

MCCOY: Do I have to say it? It's not bad enough there's one serpent in Eden teaching one side about gun powder. You want to make sure they all know about it!
KIRK: Exactly. Each side receives the same knowledge and the same type of firearm.
MCCOY: Have you gone out of your mind? Yes, maybe you have. Tyree's wife, she said there was something in that root. She said now you can refuse her nothing.
KIRK: Superstition.
MCCOY: Is it a coincidence this is exactly what she wants?
KIRK: Is it? She wants superior weapons. That's the one thing neither side can have. Bones. Bones, the normal development of this planet was the status quo between the hill people and the villagers. The Klingons changed that with the flintlocks. If this planet is to develop the way it should, we must equalize both sides again.
MCCOY: Jim, that means 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: All right, Doctor! All right. Say I'm wrong. Say I'm drugged. Say the woman drugged me. What is your sober, sensible solution to all this?
MCCOY: I don't have a solution. But furnishing them 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 they could pull out.
MCCOY: Yes, I remember. It went on bloody year after bloody year.
KIRK: 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.

This is solid conservatism. Liberalism believes aggression is the result of fear, by the aggressor, that others intend to do them harm. Thus, the aggressor turns to aggression as a means of self-defense. This was why liberalism advocated disarmament in the face of Soviet aggression, to show the Russians we meant them no harm. Conservatism knows better. Conservatives understand that aggression is the result of desire: a desire to take something which does not rightly belong to the aggressor, combined with the power to take it. Conservatives also understand that we cannot eliminate desire as a human trait. Thus, the only way to prevent aggression is by making it impossible for the would-be aggressor to achieve their goals through aggression, i.e. to stand up to them.

This episode encapsulates that. First, note that the villagers’ aggression is not the result of fear. The villagers have nothing to fear from the Hill People, as shown by their prior peaceful coexistence. And the only reason they are aggressors now is they now have the power to take what they want. This is confirmed when Tyree’s wife tries to cut a deal with the villagers. If they were aggressive because they were fearful, they would have listened to her when she came to them with promises of greater power. But they don’t listen. Instead, they try to rape her the moment they see her, before killing her, because their power over the Hill People has corrupted them.

Secondly, Kirk correctly calculates the conservative position and arms his allies. He knows aggression can’t be stopped with words or hoping the villagers suddenly become pacifists. He knows it can only be stopped if the villagers realize they can’t achieve their goals through force. He also knows that giving the Hill People superior weapons would only shift the aggression because it is the power itself which corrupts. Hence, the only solution to the Klingons’ interference is to maintain the balance of power. (This was the initial Vietnam strategy.)

Finally, as a kicker, Tyree rejects pacifism and his belief the villagers will return to their peaceful ways when his wife is killed, because he realizes the villagers will always be aggressive unless they have reason to fear the consequences -- that’s human nature and how it responds to an imbalance of power. Conservatives understand this, liberals don’t. Liberalism believes human nature can be changed and they would have hoped to find a way to change the villager’s “violent natures,” e.g. address the “root causes” of the violence. Conservatives understand that human nature can merely be contained.

That’s why this episode is conservative. Because it applies a conservative understanding of the nature of aggression.


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