Star Trek as Cold War Metaphor

Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) debuted on NBC television on September 8, 1966 with the episode "The Man Trap" and concluded on June 3, 1969 with "The Turnabout Intruder."   While never a ratings winner, when TOS went into reruns, the show became a legitimate cultural phenomena, spinning off six other television series and thirteen movies, as well as numerous tie-in books and graphic novels. 

The popularity of Star Trek in all its incarnations is generally attributed to the fact that the Star Trek universe "offers a vision that promote an egalitarian and peace loving society where technology and diversity are valued . . . and citizens work together for the greater good. Thus Star Trek offers a hopeful vision of the future and a template for our lives and our society that we can aspire to." This rosy, near utopian, view of the future held by many Star Trek fans ignores many aspects of the show's "universe" that were present from the start, like the cold war metaphor inherent in Star Trek

To vastly oversimplify, the Cold War was a period of non-overt hostile belligerency between the three great powers blocs: The United States and its allies (the West), the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) and its client states, (the East Bloc), and the Communist People's Republic of China (PRC) (Chi-Coms, or Red China). On a note, relationships between the two great communists' powers, the PRC and the USSR, were decidedly chilly during the late 1950s and 1960s, culminating in fairly large scale military clashes between the two in 1969.  

During the Cold War, the three great powers contended socially, economically, diplomatically, intellectually, technologically  and ideologically throughout the world, especially in the developing, or Third World, in an attempt to dominate the globe. The great powers generally managed to avoid direct military confrontation with each other, except in the 1951-1954 Korean War, when Chinese and American soldiers engaged in direct combat against each other. All sides engaged in proxy wars, such as Vietnam and various anti-colonial conflicts, or "Wars of National Liberation."

The Great Powers

In the Star Trek: TOS universe, the United Federation of Planets (UFP) is the stand-in for the United States of America. The UFP is a multi-planet polity which closely resembles the USA in that it is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society which values the individual, and the human rights of liberty, equality, justice.  Although the details are not discussed in the series, clearly the UFP is a democratic, representative republic, with a written constitution. The Federation has a democratically elected president, who is the head of state, head of government and commander of the armed forces. The Federation Council is a democratically elected unicameral legislature.
The Federation also has criminal and civil courts systems, including a supreme court.  Within the Federation, the local planetary governments operate in a co-dominium, joint sovereignty form with the central Federation government. The Charter of the United Federation of Planets, the Federation's constitution, has several guarantees of individual rights. The inference is that these fundamental Guarantees are similar to the US Bill of Rights and United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In the TOS universe, the Klingon Empire is the analog to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), sometimes referred to as Russia. The Klingon Empire is a multi-planet star empire. The Empire's economy depends on slave labor. The Klingons are a near peer military power to the UFP.  The empire is a militarily aggressive, expansive dictatorship which threatens many neutral, non-aligned and underdeveloped planets.  In fact, the first time the Klingons make an appearance in the series they invade and occupy the peaceful and apparently low-tech planet of Organia, as a precursory move to invading the Federation proper.   

The Romulan Star Empire is the stand in for the People's Republic of Chinese, Communist China. The Romulans are mysterious and secretive, until the episode "Balance of Terror" the Federation doesn't even know what they look like. A further parallel between the PRC and the Romulans are that there was a previous conflict between them and pre-Federation Earth, about 100 years before the time of the series. This is historically similar to the Korean Conflict of the mid-1950s with Chinese troops battling Americans. Further it is clear while a significant opponent, the Romulans are a second-tier power compared to the Federation and the Klingons. 

The Federation versus Klingon Empire

"Errand of Mercy"

The first appearance of the Klingons is in Season 1, Episode 26: "Errand of Mercy", written by Gene L. Coon and directed by John Newland. Diplomatic relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire have broken down. The Enterprise is dispatched to Organia, a non-aligned planet between the Empire and the Federation, to thwart a Klingon invasion.  War is declared as Spock and Kirk beam down to warn the inhabitants of an impending Klingon invasion. Strangely, the Organians do not appear concerned about the
invasion nor about the prospect of Klingon occupation. The Klingon fleet arrives and Enterprise retreats, stranding Kirk and Spock.
The Klingons occupy the planet. After disguising themselves as a native and a Vulcan merchant to escape detention. Kirk and Spock attempt to incite resistance by the Organians to no avail and are quickly captured. They escape with Organian help, and the Klingons execute 200 natives in retaliation.  Kirk and Spock go on a suicide mission to stop the executions by capturing the Klingon military leader, Kor. As the Federation and Klingon fleets mass for an attack on each other, the Organians finally reveal their true nature, by immobilizing all fighting forces of both sides. The Organians are as far above humans on the evolutionary scale as humans are above the amoeba. They are beings of pure energy.  The Organians insist the two sides sign a peace treaty that limits the conflict between the two powers to something less than total war.  

A quick analysis of this this episode has the Klingons as the ultimate bad guys as they ruthlessly occupy a peaceful planet and even, seemingly, execute hundreds of the inhabitants. Kirk and Spock are the good guys, trying to do their duty by resisting the invasion and attempting to stir the population. While this episode is where the Klingon-Federation Cold War starts, the historical precedencies for the plot are not actually so much Cold War inspired as coming from pre-World War Two history. The three historical antecedents being the remilitarization of the Rhineland by the German Army in 1936, the occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and the so-called "Rape of Belgium" during World War I.  In the first two, Nazi Germany occupied, without resistances from the great powers, two peaceful territories as a prelude to World War Two. In the last, the Imperial German Forces engaged in a set of atrocities in occupied Belgium from 1914 to 1918 including shooting civilians, raping women, burning and looting homes.    
"Friday's Child"

Although the Klingons get passing mentions in the episodes "The Amok Time" (Season 2, Episode 1) and "Journey to Babel" (Season 2, Episode 10), the next time they make a major appearance is in the second season's eleventh episode: "Friday's Child", written by D. C. Fontana and directed by Joseph Pevney. Kirk is ordered to secure the mining rights on Capella IV for a rare mineral called topeline. Previously ship's surgeon, Dr. Leonard McCoy, had been posted on the planet for two months as part of a medical assistance team and has become something of an expert on Capellan culture. The Capellans are average about 7 feet tall and very strong. They are aggressive and warlike, but also thoroughly honest. Beside knives and swords their favorite weapon is a combination boomerang and throwing-star called a kligat. Leaving Scotty in command with a warning about possible Klingon activity, Kirk, McCoy, Spock and a security man beam down to the planet. 

The Star Fleet officers find a Klingon, named Kras, (so called in the script, but the name is not used in the show) already at the Capellan camp. Seeing the Klingon, the security officer draws his weapon and is killed by a kligat-wielding Capellan. Although disturbed by the death of his crewman, Kirk agrees to hand over the landing party's weapons and other devices as Kras has already done The Federation crew are then treated as honored guests. Kirk and the Klingon argue in front of Tier Akaar, leader of the ten tribes of Capella. The Tier seems to favor the Federation, whereas Maab, Akaar's main rival, favors the Klingons. Shortly after the argument, Maab, with Klingon aid, launches a successful coup and kills Akaar. Meanwhile, a phony distress call sent by the Klingons has drawn the Enterprise away from the planet. While returning to Capella, the Enterprise is confronted by a Klingon warship. In the meantime, on Capella, Akaar's pregnant consort, Eleen, is sentenced to death because she carries the late Akaar's child. Kirk stops the execution, upsetting both the Capellans and Eleen herself, who demands his death for laying hands upon her. The Star Fleet landing party is
confined with Eleen. The landing party overpowers their guards and flee into the hills with the pregnant woman.  Maab, his warriors and Kras pursue the fleeing prisoners. Using their communicators, Kirk and Spock cause a landslide which kills some of the Capellans chasing them and diverts the rest into the hills. Kras steals one of the confiscated phasers by killing the Capellan carrying the weapon. Finding shelter in a cave, McCoy delivers the baby, and Kirk and Spock make bows and arrows. Eleen smashes McCoy on the head with a rock and goes back to the Capellans. She claims her baby is dead and that she killed the Earthmen as they slept. Kras uses his stolen
phaser to threaten the Capellans to get them to check Eleen's story. Kirk shoots the Klingon with an arrow, a violent exchange the between Star Fleet personnel and the Capellans and the Klingon ensues. The Klingon threatens to kill anyone who raises a weapon. Seeing Kras is threatening them all, Maab exchanges his life for Eleen's and draws the Klingon's fire while one of his warriors kills the Klingon with a kligat.  Scotty arrives with a security force. Kirk signs a mining rights treaty with Eleen acting as regent for the child Tier, named Leonard James Akaar.

Once again the Klingons are the bad guys. They use false distress signals to draw the Enterprise away and leave the land party stranded. The Klingon, Kras, outright murders at least two Capellans and threatens mass murder against many more. Kirk declares the Federation's highest law "states that your world is yours and will always remain yours."  "Friday's Child" is a straight forward Cold War story with two great powers competing for some vital natural resource located in a primitive and non-aligned location. Similarly the USSR and the West struggled over oil in the Middle East. The two powers negotiate with the local leadership to obtain rights to the resource, but are not above doing some double dealing, by fomenting a coup, or performing a political assassination, if required to achieve the goal.  

"The Trouble with Tribbles"

The second outright comedic episode of Star Trek (the first was "I, Mudd") "The Trouble with Tribbles" was the second season's fifteenth episode and was written by David Gerrold and directed by Joseph Pevney.  "The Trouble with Tribbles" has spawned direct sequels in Star Trek: the Animated Series with "More Tribbles, More Troubles" and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Trials and Tribble-ations". 

The Enterprise receives a distress call from civilian space station K-7, located near Sherman's Planet. The planet is subject of a dispute between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The distress call was made by Nilz Baris, the under-secretary of agriculture for the sector, who wants someone to guard the vital shipment of quadrotriticale grain bound for Sherman's Planet. Quadrotriticale is the only Earth grain that will grow on Sherman's Planet. Kirk reluctantly assigns a guard detail to protect the grain. Then a Klingon ship commanded by Koloth (William Campbell) arrives. Koloth requests his crew be given shore leave on K-7. Kirk is forced by the Organian Treaty to agree, but limits the number of Klingons and places a guard on them. Independent trader, Cyrano Jones, arrives on the station with tribbles. He gives one to Lt. Uhura who takes it aboard the Enterprise, where it and its offspring are treated as adorable pets. Humans love the small furry creatures and find their purring most soothing. The Klingons find the tribbles annoying, and tribbles hiss and shriek whenever they are near Klingons. Soon the tribbles are everywhere, eating everything they can and interfering with ship's functions.  The captain soon recognizes that if the tribbles are everywhere on the Enterprise, then they are likely everywhere on the station as well. He and Spock rush to examine the grain supply, but too late, the tribbles have indeed eaten all the quadrotriticale. Kirk opens an overhead hatch and is inundated by gorged tribbles at which time Spock and McCoy discover that about half the tribbles are dead and many others are dying because the grain was poisoned.  Baris holds Kirk responsible for the destruction of the grain and Commander Koloth also demands an apology from Kirk after the Enterprise crew and the Klingons brawl in the station's bar. Meanwhile, the tribbles hiss and sheik at Arne Darvin, Baris' assistant, giving away the fact that Baris is a Klingon disguised as a human. Darvin has poisoned the grain so Sherman's Planet would go to the Klingons. Scotty, beams all the tribbles on the Enterprise to the Klingon vessel just as they leave, where:  "they'll be no tribble at all."

Beneath all the fun and outright slapstick comedy, "Trouble with Tribbles" is a Klingon-Federation Cold War story. The two powers are again competing for control of a planet. The side which shows that it is best able to develop Sherman's Planet will take possession of it. Historically the US and the USSR had similar programs like the State Department's Agency for International Development (AID), which provided vast amounts of agricultural help to Vietnam in the 1960s. 

This episode also added another layer to the Klingon-Federation conflict; that of espionage. The Klingons are found to have the ability to alter their appearance to seem human. Clearly this is a reference to the various Soviet spies that infiltrated the West during the Cold War. Such "illegal" or "sleeper" agents went undetected for years as they established contacts in the government and big business. Some such agents, just like Darvin, actually took jobs in the US and other Western governments.  

"A Private Little War"

The next time the Klingons make an appearance is in the nineteenth episode of the second season, "A Private Little War" written by Don Ingalls using the pen-name Jud Crucis, and directed by Marc Daniels. Spock, Bones, and Kirk beam down to a planet. Kirk is familiar with the planet; he surveyed it 13 years ago. The planet's inhabitants are very peaceful and are only just beginning to forge iron. The landing party is surprised to see villagers with flintlocks setting an ambush for a party of Hill People which includes Kirk's 
friend, Tyree. To distract the ambushers, Kirk throws a rock, which causes a musket to go off. On the Enterprise, they find a Klingon ship also in orbit. Kirk speculates that the Klingons have violated the treaty and have provided the villagers with flintlocks. Kirk and McCoy beam down to investigate. 

Tyree reports that the firesticks appeared about a year ago. Nona, Tyree's witchdoctor wife, wants Kirk to use his phaser weapons to vanquish the village people and make her husband a powerful man. She is greatly disappointed when Tyree pledges not to kill and Kirk is reluctant to share his knowledge of weaponry. Kirk and McCoy discover the Klingons are indeed providing flintlocks to the villagers. Kirk decides to provide the hill people with rifles, noting the analogy of the present situation and Vietnam. 

Not only is "A Private Little War" a blatant Cold War metaphor, it is an equally obvious Vietnam War metaphor with two superpowers supplying arms to technologically primitive opponents in a "brush-fire war" on the fringe of their spheres' of influence. This episode also discusses the morals of a fighting such a war where the balance of power is maintained so finely that neither side can win, allowing the war to go on bloody year after bloody year. 

"Day of the Dove"

Season 3, Episode 7 "Day of the Dove", written by Jerome Bixby and directed by Marvin Chomsky, features the Klingons again. 

Enterprise answers a distress call from a human colony on Beta XII-A, but finds no signs of any type of settlement on the planet. The landing party, including Captain Kirk and Ensign Chekov are suddenly surrounded by Klingons. Commander Kang says the Enterprise fired upon their ship. Unexpectedly, Chekov attacks the Klingons, saying they had killed his brother, Piotr. Kang tortures Chekov forcing Kirk to surrender. Kirk manages to warn Spock about the Klingons and Spock uses the transporter to materialize the Enterprise crew first, then the Klingons without their weapons. Meanwhile, a pure energy being enters Enterprise undetected and interfaces with its
controls, making the ship head out of the galaxy at high warp. The entity traps most of the Star Fleet crew "below decks".  The energy being transmutes benign objects into bladed weapons and cause the free Star Fleet crew and the captive Klingons to fight with them. Spock discovers the entity, and that it is feeding off the violent emotions of the crews. Kirk thinks that ifhe can talk to Kang he can help stop their crews from fighting and return the ship to normal. Kirk fights his way through the various skirmishes and comes across the Mara, Kang's wife, who has been nearly raped by an out-of-control Chekov. Kirk knocks Chekov out. Mara and Kirk implore Kang to stop fighting, telling him that they will be pawns of this entity for lifetimes if they continue to fight. Kang understands and puts down his weapons, commanding the other Klingons to do likewise. To drive off the entity, Kirk and Kang get their crews to act convivially. The crew regains control of the ship to return the Klingons home.

The plot of "Day of the Dove" doesn't have any historical precedent. The episode does add some nice depth to Star Trek as a Cold War metaphor with two sides competing in an internal and external propaganda war.  The Star Fleet crew is perfectly willing to believe that the Klingons raid their outposts and as Dr. McCoy says: "And you know what Klingons do to prisoners: slave labor, death planets, and experiments!"  

"Elaan of Troyius"

The thirteenth episode of the third season is the last major appearance of the Klingons in TOS. Enterprise is sent on a secret mission to the Tellun system. The starship is to transport Elaan, the Dohlman of Elaas to Troyius so she may marry the ruler of Troyius to end a bloody inter-planetary war.  Enterprise takes on board the Dolhman and her three guards.  Petri of Troyius is on board to teach the haughty and rude Elaan the rudiments of civilized behavior as Enterprise slowly flies to the wedding. The lessons do not go well as Elaan stabs Petri and Kirk has to take over as her teacher. The captain does no better at instructing Elaan than the Troyian, as Elaan throws a knife at him as he leaves.   

Meanwhile, Spock detects a sensor "ghost" paralleling Enterprise's course, which turns out to be a Klingon warship. One of the Elassians, Kriton, has sold out to the Klingons because he loves Elaan and wants to prevent the wedding. Kriton sabotages the warp engines to explode when the ship tries to go to warp. He also kills an engineer who discovers him. Kriton sends a signal to the Klingon ship but is caught. Before Spock can use the Vulcan mind-meld on him, he commits suicide.   

Kirk continues to try and tutor Elaan with little success at first. Then she has a change of heart, she cries and tells Kirk she wants to make people like her. Kirk touches her tears. The tears have a biochemical which makes men to fall in love with the woman who cried. Kirk is now enthralled by Elaan. 

The Klingons' ship charges Enterprise at high warp. Fortunately, Scotty discovers Kriton's tampering just before Kirk gives orders to maneuver. The Klingon ship passes Enterprise without firing, waiting for the Federation ship to explode. Scotty also finds that the dilithium crystals are completely fused and the ship has no power for weapons or warp speed. The Klingons demand that Kirk surrender or be destroyed. Kirk does not submit and the Klingons attack. Spock wonders why the Klingons are so interested in a minor star 
system at all. Elaan comes to the bridge and sensors show that the "common stones" she wears are uncut dilithium crystals. Scotty uses the raw crystals to make repairs to the engines and Kirk damages the Klingon ship using photon torpedoes on its next run. Kirk throws off the effect of Elaan's tears and she is safely delivered to Troyius.

In this episode the Klingons are a faceless, but more direct threat to Enterprise than in "Friday's Child."  But again the "twilight struggle" is over a region with a vital natural resource, in this case dilithium crystals, required for warp engines. In this case the Federation is unaware of the existence of the resource, but does want peace and stability in the regions, for its own sake. 

The Federation versus the Romulan Star Empire 

"Balance of Terror"

"Balance of Terror" was the fourteenth episode of the first season, and was written by Paul Schneider and directed by Vincent McEveety. Enterprise is inspecting the line of manned Federation outposts guarding the Romulan Neutral Zone. Some unknown enemy is destroying them one by one. The unknown enemy attacks Outpost 4. Spock explains what the Neutral Zone is and how it was created as a demilitarized zone between the two powers by the peace treaty that ended the Earth-Romulan War a century earlier. But
because there were no visual communications, the two races have never seen each other and only communicated over subspace radio. 

Approaching Outpost 4, the crew observes the enemy using a weapon of immense power. A single shot all but destroys the outpost. Kirk determines that the attacker is a single Romulan Bird of Prey furnished with a cloaking device. The cloak is not flawless; Enterprise can track the enemy. After destroying the outpost, the Romulan ship turns for home to report the weakness of the Federation. Spock manages to tap the Romulans' internal cameras, which reveals that the Romulans are identical to Vulcans. Stiles, the navigator, starts to suspect that Spock might be a spy. Stiles advocates Enterprise attack the Romulans before reaching the Neutral Zone. Spock 
approves of Stiles's suggestion, stating that the Romulans are likely offshoots of Vulcan from their primitive age of warfare before logic started to guide them. Spock reasons that if the Romulans return home with stories ofnFederation weakness, they will launch a full-scale war. 

A cat-and-mouse game ensues between the two ships. As the two commanders engage in a battle of wits. The Romulan commander even says of Kirk "He's a sorcerer, that one! He reads the thoughts in my brain!" Kirk considers the Romulan captain a clever, and extremely dangerous opponent as well. Almost beaten, the Romulans jettison a nuclear weapon along with other debris and a dead body, in hopes that Enterprise will approach the weapon and be destroyed. Spock detects the bomb at the last second and Kirk orders a point-blank shot that detonates it.  Enterprise is damaged, losing remote weapons' control. Kirk decides to lure the enemy in by ordering operations to go to minimum power, exaggerating the damage.  The Romulan approaches to finish off seemingly helpless Enterprise. But when the Bird of Prey de-cloaks to fire a torpedo, Kirk springs his trap and Enterprise severely damages the Bird of Prey. When Kirk hails his opponent, offering to beam aboard the survivors, the Romulan commander declines. The commander then expresses his regret that he and Kirk are enemies, saying, "You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend." Then, the commander triggers his ship's self-destruct systems.

"Balance of Terror" introduces the Romulans to the Star Trek universe, but is less a Cold War story and more a good old submarine versus destroyer story, like "The Enemy Below" with the Romulans as the submarine and Enterprise as the destroyer. The story gives a good deal of background to the Earth-Romulan War of a century before the time of TOS and also lets the audience in on a bit of racial suspicion when Stiles thinks Spock might be a spy because of the Vulcans and Romulans racial similarities. This is obviously a play on Japanese-Americans during World War Two.

"The Enterprise Incident" 

The next time we see the Romulans as a major antagonists is in the third seasons' second episode "The Enterprise Incident", written by D. C. Fontana and directed by John Meredyth Lucas. They did make a "guest appearance" in "The Deadly Years" (season 2, episode 12) when Enterprise tries to take a short cut through the Neutral Zone and is attacked by a dozen Romulan ships. Kirk has become increasingly irritable and irrational. He orders Enterprise to cross the Neutral Zone into Romulan space. Despite sensor readings which show nothing, Enterprise is instantly encircled by three Romulan ships. Kirk sends a coded message to Starfleet describing the 
situation. Sub-commander Tal, demands immediate surrender of the Enterprise. The Romulans consent to Kirk and Spock beaming aboard the flag ship for questioning by the Romulan task force commander. Kirk says navigational errors caused the Enterprise to stray into Romulan space, but Spock refuses to corroborate his story. Spock tells the Romulans that stress has led Kirk to act insane and that the captain ordered Enterprise across the Neutral Zone on his own. 

Spock continues to act the traitor by testifying against Kirk. The female Romulan commander finds Kirk guilty of espionage. She also asks Spock to join the Romulans as the commander of Enterprise under the Romulans. The Romulan commander takes a romantic interest in Spock, and he uses the opportunity to seduce her. Kirk is injured while trying to escape, and McCoy beams aboard to treat him. McCoy then substantiates Spock's testimony that Kirk is unfit for command. Spock agrees to take command of the Enterprise and take it to a Romulan base. When Spock says this, he is attacked by Kirk and defends himself using the "Vulcan Death Grip." The supposedly dead Kirk is returned to the Enterprise. 

Turns out Spock only gave Kirk a nerve pinch that simulated death and both Kirk and Spock are operating under orders to steal the newly developed Romulan cloaking device. Kirk is disguised as a Romulan and beams back to the Romulan ship. He reports to Spock that the cloaking device is located near the commander's quarters. The communication is detected, but Spock is able to distract the Romulan commander long enough to enable Kirk to steal the cloaking device. The Romulan commander is outraged by Spock's
double dealing. Spock asks her what the present Romulan method of execution is. Spock delays by demanding the Romulan right of statement. Scotty locates him and beams him and the Romulan Commander back on board the Enterprise. Kirk attempts to use the Romulan commander as a hostage, but this scheme backfires when she orders her ships to destroy the Enterprise immediately. Scott connects the cloaking device to the shields and Enterprise speeds away at Warp 9 escaping back to Federation territory. While escorting the Romulan commander to the brig, Spock reveals that he was indeed affected by her.


Star Trek: The Original Series was about American man in space, embodied in the person of Captain James T. Kirk.  Further, Star Trek, like all science fiction, reflects much about the time and place in which it was created. In Star Trek's Original Series' case, that is America in the late 1960s. So, just as the series discussed prejudice ("Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"), the counter-culture ("This Way to Eden"), the advance of runaway technology ("The Ultimate Computer"), Star Trek also explored various aspects of the Cold War as well.


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