Star Trek’s Original Series Brought the Cold War Into Space
Kirk’s crew averted nuclear war, competed for the loyalty of developing nations and engaged in espionage
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
It’s been 50 years since the starship Enterprise first soared boldly where no one had gone before in a three-season run that brought science fiction into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.
In a time when social divisions seemed unbridgeable and nuclear war appeared imminent, Star Trek offered a positive vision of the future where a united and peaceful humanity explored the stars on behalf of a Federation in which poverty, disease and violent conflict were mostly things of the past.
Star Trek still gets some flak for this utopian vision — could humanity really outgrow war and unite in a post-scarcity economy? It’s hard to find sci-fi today that does not dish up some flavor of dystopia, be it post-apocalyptic, neo-Dickensian, or Orwellian.
Even later Star Trek shows and films, though retaining some of their idealism, cast a darker and more complicated view of the Federation and the threats it faces.
But the original series was not as simplistic as it is often accused. Most strikingly, its episodes reflect a Cold War vision of opposing superpowers embracing covert activities while recruiting allies from developing nations.
The ’60s in space
Initially, creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to studio executives as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” Each self-contained episode would feature a starship visiting a new planet in the 23rd century.
But he also wanted to make those episodes into allegories of the 1960s’ most pressing political and social controversies, such as the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, sexual liberation and race relations. The starship’s crew would act altruistically and espouse values of peace, tolerance and brotherhood to resolve each conflict.
Roddenberry recruited aviators Franz Bachelin, a German veteran who served as a pilot in World War I, and Matt Jeffries, who had co-piloted B-17s in World War II, to design his ship. Roddenberry himself flew both B-17s and airliners, and had survived two deadly plane crashes.
Together they produced the Enterprise, a starship with relatively firm guidelines on what it could and couldn’t do. Despite the Enterprise’s heavy armament and shielding, Roddenberry insisted she was an exploration vessel, not a military ship — a stance belied by the military-style ranks, tribunals and service academies of Starfleet.
Prop designer Wah Chang created much of the futuristic equipment — “communicators” that didn’t require a phone line, and phasers that could either stun or disintegrate — while costume designer Bill Theiss contributed outfits so risqué the actresses had to be glued into them to avoid wardrobe malfunctions.
The crew included people of all nationalities, such as Lt. Nyota Uhura from “the United States of Africa” and the Russian Ensign Pavel Chekov. Appearing two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chekov debuted in 1967) these characters served as a bold statement that humanity would grow beyond its political, racial and sexual divisions.
Pointedly, many Star Trek episodes were preoccupied by the specter of nuclear war.
“Assignment Earth” sees the Enterprise travel back in time to the 1960s to prevent another time traveler from triggering an exchange of ballistic missiles. In the end, a missile launched from the United States into “Eurasia” detonates prematurely in space, persuading an alarmed humanity to initiate arms control treaties that curtail the likelihood of nuclear conflict.
In “The Savage Curtain,” an evil American military officer, Colonel Green, is resurrected from the past. Responsible for starting World War III with his genocidal attacks, he spouts such pearls of wisdom as “no one talks peace unless he’s ready to back it up with war.”
Green is both paranoid and treacherous, a symbol of the mutual distrust and military aggression that kept the Cold War simmering.
Finally, in “City on the Edge of Forever” — arguably the best episode of the original series — a time-traveling Doctor Leonard McCoy accidentally causes the nuclear annihilation of Earth by saving the life of Edith, a compassionate pacifist who would go on to lead an anti-war movement in America that would have bought Nazi Germany enough time to develop atomic bombs.
In the original series, intentionally designed weapons of mass destruction were always the problems of past civilizations, such as the planet eater in “The Doomsday Device” which wiped out both parties in a war it was created to win.
This changed in the Star Trek films of the ’80s, starting with the superb Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock, in which a revolutionary terraforming device is revealed to have terrifying destructive potential. Since then, two of the three Star Trek reboot movies have centered around planet-killing WMDs, showing the darkening over time of Roddenberry’s idealistic future.
A key turning point in the original series comes with “Errand of Mercy”, which introduces the Klingon Empire — in its original incarnation, a fascist authoritarian regime seeking to expand through conquest.
“Errand of Mercy” begins with the Federation on the brink of a massive war with the Klingons. Starfleet sends Capt. James Kirk to win the loyalty of Organia, a primitive planet in a key strategic location, meant to evoke one of the many developing countries like Congo and Laos caught in the crossfire of the Cold War.
The local government refuses to join the Federation, so the Klingons seize the planet and impose military rule, using high-tech torture devices on anyone suspected of opposing them.
Over the objection of the passive local leaders, Kirk mounts a guerrilla resistance campaign which leads the Klingons to begin executing Organians in retaliation. Kirk’s efforts to incite the locals to fight only helps escalate the conflict and the body count.
In a typically Trekkian deus ex machina, the Organians turn out to be omnipotent energy beings that force the Federation and Klingon Empire to end the war. Both sides sign a treaty in which they promise to compete peacefully by proving the superior cultural and economic qualities of their civilizations.
The Organian treaty paralleled the less violent Cold War activities of the United States and Soviet Union to entice neutral nations into their camps through development aid and cultural programming, which included CIA-funded modern art and exhibitions of household technology in Moscow and New York.
The Organian treaty remained one of the few premises to be carried over from one episode to the next. However, the “enlightened” competition between the Klingon Empire and the Federation ended up being scarcely more peaceful than the real Cold War.
Though open warfare was forbidden, both parties instead relied on proxies, covert operations and plausibly-deniable incidents at the periphery of their spheres of influence. In the original series, the episodes “Friday’s Child” and “Elaan of Troyius” depict the Federation and Klingons attempting to woo less technologically advanced societies to their side.
The sneaky Klingons buy the loyalties of local factions, use assassination and sabotage to foil Federation diplomacy, and even ambush the Enterprise in attempts to secure the parties to their cause. Instead of reaching an understanding with the Klingons, Kirk attempts to recruit the natives — and the valuable resources they control — into the Federation.
This type of story reached a depressing low point in “A Private Little War,” in which Kirk initially declines to become involved in a conflict between warring native tribes. However, when the Klingons buy the loyalty of a hostile tribe by providing them with flintlock muskets, Kirk decides to teach the allied natives how to build and craft their own muskets to balance things out.
“A Private Little of War” affirmed that American intervention on behalf of South Vietnam was a regrettable but necessary means to counter Soviet and Chinese support for North Vietnam. Gone was any notion of working beyond senseless warfare — the Federation had to fight back against bad guys who refused to play by the rules.
Even less subtle is “The Omega Glory,” in which Kirk befriends the noble barbarian Yangs in their war with the civilized but evil Khomms. To make Cold War parallel even more obvious, the Khomms are Asiatic, while the Caucasian-looking Yangs worship an old copy of the U.S. Constitution which serves as their holy book.
The episode could not have wrapped itself more in the flag had Kirk worn an Uncle Sam top hat and goatee.
Some episodes did feature more pacifist themes — notably “Arena,” in which Kirk wrestles a reptilian alien captain responsible for a brutal attack on a Federation outpost.
Ready to bash his enemy’s skull in with a rock, Kirk decides to spare the alien, only to discover that in doing so he has proven to yet another omnipotent energy being that humanity has the capacity to make peace, and should thus be spared from destruction.
“The Corbomite Maneuver” has a similar twist, while in “Day of the Dove” a malicious alien entity incites Kirk’s crew into a hateful berserker melee with Klingons rescued from a crashed ship. Senseless hatred also drives an unending war in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” a somewhat ham-fisted allegory on racism.
What binds these episodes together is their treatment of war as a product of animalistic hatred and paranoia — primitive emotions that could be overcome through rational analysis, compassion and communication.
Rapid and dramatic technological change marked the early years of the Cold War. Television sets, jet airliners, satellites, and guided missiles entered widespread use with stunning speed. With those developments came the fear of falling behind.
American leaders obsessed about “missile gaps,” “bomber gaps,” even “education gaps” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
Star Trek evoked this sense of technological insecurity when it introduced the Romulan Empire in the gripping “Balance of Terror.” Unlike the expansionist Klingons, the Romulans are xenophobic and insular, destroying anyone who violates the Neutral Zone.
Thus, the Romulan Empire resembled Mao’s isolationist China, then in the grips of the Cultural Revolution — a closed society perceived as a potential threat that might at any moment pour across neighboring borders.
The Romulan Neutral Zone also references the Demilitarized Zone separating the divided northern and southern halves of Korea and (at the time) Vietnam. When the crew of the Enterprise hacks into their opponent’s bridge monitor, they discover the Romulans appear identical to the Federation’s Vulcans, hinting at a politically divided past.
“Balance of Terror” terror begins with a Romulan sneak attack on a series of Federation outposts monitoring the Neutral Zone, enabled by a cloaking device that keeps the attacker invisible until the moment before firing.
What ensues is a classic submarine hunt as Kirk plays cat-and-mouse with a smaller stealth ship capable of taking down the Enterprise’s shields with a single shot.
When the attacking ship withdraws to its side of the Neutral Zone, Kirk decides to pursue, realizing that if the attacker escapes unscathed, the Romulans will have the confidence to embark on a full-scale war.
Kirk’s eventual victory is bittersweet — crew members die in the skirmish, and the Romulan commander is revealed to be an honorable leader who disapproves of the war but reluctantly follows orders to the death.
Nonetheless, “Balance of Terror” suggests that the Federation must retaliate against armed incursions and be wary of the technological advances of its foes.
The Enterprise again violates the Romulan Neutral Zone in “The Enterprise Incident,” which aired eight months after the real-life USS Pueblo incident of 1968, when North Korea seized an American intelligence ship and tortured her crew. The Pueblo remains moored in Pyongyang to this day.
The Romulans, likewise, surround the Enterprise using Klingon-style cruisers, which confirms intel that the two races are exchanging technology as part of an alliance, echoing the relationship between the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s.
It turns out that Kirk is on a covert mission to infiltrate a Romulan warship and steal the cloaking device. He even deceives his own crew when he gives the illegal order to enter the Romulan Neutral Zone.
Starfleet was apparently not above violating the treaty, nor risking the loss of a starship and her mostly unsuspecting crew, to steal the Romulan cloaking tech and redress the military balance.
The Federation does attempt to develop its own military edge in “The Ultimate Computer” when it installs a prototype artificial intelligence onto the Enterprise, turning the ship into a sort of 23rd century Predator drone.
The A.I. proves itself devastating in combat when tested — but is unable to distinguish when the use of lethal force is appropriate, destroying a civilian freighter and friendly starship as it predictably falls out of human control.
Presciently, the episode was intended as a commentary on how automation threatens to render human jobs obsolete.
23rd century perestroika
In spirit, the original Star Trek was opposed to war and nuclear weapons. However, it could not help sketching a universe in which opposing alliances resorted to espionage, gunboat diplomacy and covert operations.
That Cold War influence came across in a different way 25 years after the series debut in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last Star Trek movie featuring the full original crew. An exploding moon-based power station — shades of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster — leads to an economic and environmental crisis in the Klingon Empire.
Crippled by excessive military expenditures, the erstwhile villains make a dramatic overture for peace with the Federation. Star Trek VI clearly parallels the perestroika policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, which opened economic and political contact with the West in an attempt to save the collapsing Soviet Union.
However, hawkish factions in both the Klingon Empire and the Federation conspire to undermine the peace accord with saboteurs and assassins, convinced their respective nations will be left vulnerable.
Kirk himself is conflicted over the peace treaty because a Klingon killed his only son — but ultimately he chooses to oppose the conspirators and save the peace process.
Thus, in its final mission the Enterprise helps bring an end to the Federation’s Cold War in space.