Saturday, October 5, 2013

Writing 'A Private Little War,' Star Trek's Allegory for the American War in Vietnam (Part One)

Still from 'A Private Little War' (1967)
I doubt that many Star Trek fans would cite 'A Private Little War' as one of their favorite episodes. Indeed, a brief sampling of online reviews demonstrates decidedly mixed reactions. The A.V. Club awarded the episode a B+. Dauntless Media bestowed the episode a far less generous D+. Jammer's Reviews gave the episode two and a half out of four stars. And in their evaluation of the entire original series, ranked 'A Private Little War' as 51st best of 79 episodes.

Despite this response, however, 'A Private Little War' is often brought up when looking back at the series. When asked by the BBC if Star Trek had storylines which "reflected the changing world around them," Robert H. Justman agreed and named 'A Private Little War' as his example, since the episode "was an allegory for Vietnam." Indeed, the episode's Vietnam allegory has been a source of constant discussion, by members of the cast, academics, and even conservative bloggers.

'A Private Little War' was not the first time Star Trek had done an episode that could be read as an allegory for the American War in Vietnam, but it was by far the most overt. Although the war is never identified by name, there is little doubt to what Captain Kirk is referring to when he compares the conflict on planet Neural to "the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent."

One of the more familiar anecdotes about the writing of the episode has to do with the differences between Don Ingalls' first draft of the teleplay and Gene Roddenberry's filmed rewrite, specifically over the episode's Vietnam allegory. It appears this particular anecdote first appeared in the original edition of Alan Ashermann's The Star Trek Compendium (1981):
Don Ingalls wrote the first draft script of 'A Private Little War.' This earliest version contains more specific references to the Vietnam conflict; the Neural tribesmen dress in Mongolian-type clothes, and Apella (the puppet of the Klingons) was described as a "Ho Chi Minh" type. A security man was shot during the initial attack, and Spock stayed with the landing party.
--Allan Ashermann, The Star Trek Compendium (1981), p.128
In the thirty-two years since Ashermann's book was first published, this account has filtered into Star Trek fandom, appearing on Memory Alpha and even making its way into an academic's overview of the series:
An obvious allegory of the Vietnam conflict, the original script by Don Ingalls was firmly dovish and McCoy voices many of his arguments. By the time Roddenberry had rewritten it, however, the episode advocated the US involvement in Vietnam explicitly.
--Ina Rae Hark, Star Trek: BFI Television Classics (2008), p.51-52
The other component to this account seems to have been added by David Alexander's Gene Roddenberry biography. Alexander writes:
Being Gene's friend did not guarantee escape from his rewrite gauntlet. Even Don Ingalls, close to Gene since their days at LAPD, felt the point of Gene's pencil. His first Star Trek script, 'The Alternative Factor,' was rewritten only a bit, but his second, 'A Private Little War,' written specifically as a critique on the Vietnam War, was heavily rewritten; so much so that Don was thoroughly irritated with Gene. He stayed mad at him for a year. Further, he insisted on a pseudonym for his credit on that particular show. He chose "Judd [sic] Crucis," a variant on the Latin for "Jesus Crucified," which he said was emblematic for having been crucified on the show.
--David Alexander, Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (1994), p.289-290
It's certainly a compelling narrative. Don Ingalls, Roddenberry's friend from the police force, writes an episode which overtly criticizes American policy in Vietnam, only to be betrayed by his old friend, who rewrites the episode into one that advocates for the American War in Vietnam. Disgusted, not only does Ingalls take his name off the episode, he uses a pseudonym invoking the crucifixion of Christ. But is this account true?

Over the next few weeks, I will be going over the writing process of 'A Private Little War' in close detail, from Don Ingalls' first draft story outline to Gene Roddenberry's final draft shooting script, and all the memos (written by Bob Justman, D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon, and Gene Roddenberry) in between.

(To be continued in Part Two)

Image courtesy of Trek Core.


The Star Trek Compendium (Alan Asherman, 1981)

The Star Trek Compendium (Alan Asherman, Revised 1993)

Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (David Alexander, 1994)

Star Trek: BFI Television Classics (Ina Rae Hark, 2008)


  1. This guy wrote "The Alternative Factor," and they let him write ANOTHER Star Trek? Geeze, he must have been a VERY good friend of Roddenberry's!

  2. As soon as Spock was shot I knew why. If this episode was about the Vietnam conflict which cannot be disputed Spock, had to be taken out of the picture as at first he would have talked Kirk out of the action he took with logic first and no doubt by legitimate force if he had to. Stating something along the line of the prime directive which I don't know was written in TOS?

    Spoke wouldn't have allowed it.

  3. I do have a tough question though.

    Which side are the Americans and which side are the Communists? Was it not the Americans who entered the arms race first after their boat was attacked?