To vastly over-simplify a decades-long conflict involving dozens or more countries and myriad shifting allegiances, the Cold War was fundamentally about two warring ideologies: capitalism and communism. And while most wars have their ideological components (even if those components don’t extend beyond “we want that land” vs. “no”), the nature of this particular struggle meant that the power of ideas took center stage. For many Americans in the ’50s and ’60s, communism wasn’t just a different way of thinking, but a conceptual virus threatening to corrupt anyone foolish enough to listen. It’s a rigid perspective that treats the open discussion of ideas as an invitation to collapse—a position that sits directly opposed to the humanist philosophy at the heart of the original Star Trek.
One part of the greatness of that series, which aired around the time the Vietnam War was starting to really pull in public notice, was its freedom to explore allegory in a pulpy, sci-fi setting. The original Trek was never consistent; to modern eyes, its frequently ham-fisted writing, sexism, sluggish pacing, and lack of continuity between episodes can take some adjustments to accept. But at the show’s peak, those flaws could never obscure the raw energy that drove the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise, nor the way that energy so often coalesced behind a fundamentally optimistic view of the universe.
Take “The Corbomite Maneuver” from season one. While gallivanting through space one fine afternoon, the Enterprise enters into a conflict with a larger, more powerful ship. Kirk saves the day by bluffing his way through the encounter, only to learn that the captain of this unknown ship is a lonely alien no larger than a human child. In facing each other down, both sides made decisions based on their fears of what the other was capable of, and it was only in putting aside that fear that Kirk and the others are able to make contact and form a lasting peace.
Again and again on the series, we see that communication is the solution to problems, and that understanding your enemy (if they even are an enemy) is the only way to resolve a dangerous situation. It’s a concept that seems to belie every piece of Cold War doctrine foisted on the American public. The Red Menace was a danger so insidious, so malignant, that even trying to understand its beliefs and systems meant a form of surrender. This wasn’t just a physical force, but a kind of philosophical brain snatcher whose tendrils, if left unchecked, would lay waste to the free world.
That kind of paranoid faith in the untouchable—the assumption that some beliefs must be walled away in silence and fear—was something that Star Trek stood against in stark opposition. But that opposition didn’t presume that such openness would be easy. In “A Taste Of Armageddon,” another episode from the show’s first season, Kirk and the rest beam down to a planet engaged in a centuries-long conflict with an enemy they’ve never seen. Their “war” is done by computer; variables are counted up, death tolls are assigned, and each side is held responsible for killing off the assigned number of its own citizens.
It’s a chilling, if somewhat implausible, view of a society that gives over everything, even war, to the machines. But underneath the science fiction is a chilling end game view of the American/Russian conflict. As each side becomes further entrenched in its own philosophies, and further determined to protect those philosophies from even the slightest whiff of outside perspective, the appeal of a “hand’s free” war becomes increasingly apparent. In “Armageddon,” Kirk is told that the computer systems were designed to prevent the destructive cost of conflict, the attrition to society and culture of long-term battle, but it might just as well have been a way to keep either side from talking to one another. Read the printouts, warm up the disintegrator booths, and make sure no one ever picks up a phone; that’s how you keep the balance of power in check.
Kirk, of course, is having none of this, but his solution—destroying the booths and the computers—doesn’t offer immediate peace. In fact, his goal (as he explains in a speech that borders on gloating) is to force the locals to get up close and personal with the ugliness of real war, to make them get their hands dirty and realize the actual horror of the experience. It’s a speech that rings slightly hollow in context, but carries considerable weight outside of the episode. Americans were getting their first real taste of what actual war was like in footage shipped home from Vietnam, and here was Kirk, preaching the gospel of in-your-face carnage. But even then, the core message remains consistent: If people of “Armageddon” had to deal with an actual fight, they might finally have to reach out to their enemy and talk things through.
Yet even with its faith in the power of communication, Star Trek was never less than clear about which side of the conversation would ultimately win out. If a number of episodes revolved around the importance of treating with an opponent on common ground, just as many featured Kirk waltzing into some society, deciding he didn’t like how things were done, and wrecking up the place with his good old fashioned (American) values.
“A Taste Of Armageddon” is one example, albeit one where it’s hard to argue against Kirk’s ultimate decision. Things are a little more unclear in “The Apple,” a second season episode that has our heroes landing on a planet where a group of childlike adults live their lives at the behest and beneficence of a computer in a cave. The adults have no concept of sex or violence, and live in a state of Eden-like innocence. So Kirk, for reasons that nearly make sense, decides to destroy the computer and introduce the nice people to what it’s like to be a real human being.
The way this decision (with some minor pushback from McCoy) is presented as a triumph for everyone involved betrays a certain lack of objectivity on the part of the writers, the assumption that, while we’re open to discussion, let’s not kid ourselves as to what the real, best way of life actually is. Perhaps that was why the show was able to get away with its subversive optimism. At its heart, that optimism was founded on an unwavering belief in the righteousness of its own assumptions. Hard to get more American than that.