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Star Trek Versus Imperialist Doctrine

America’s liberal imperialist doctrine has been responsible for appalling carnage in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Central America. But America has also produced a liberal anti-imperialist doctrine that remains ensconced in a TV series that has been captivating US audiences since 1966.

ATHENS – On February 9, 1967, hours after the US Air Force pounded Haiphong Harbor and several Vietnamese airfields, NBC television screened a politically momentous episode of Star Trek. Entitled “The Return of the Archons,” the episode marks the debut of the Prime Directive – the supreme law of the fictional United Federation of Planets, and its Starfleet, banning any and all purposeful interference with alien people, civilizations, and cultures. Devised in 1966, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was sending another 100,000 troops into Vietnam, the Prime Directive constituted a direct, though well-camouflaged, ideological challenge to what the US government was up to.

Having remained central to the Star Trek series to this day, the Prime Directive is even more pertinent now. Military escapades always entail a variety of separate issues, making it hard to have a rational debate about their merits. For example, were the US invasions of Vietnam or Afghanistan motivated by good intentions, whether containing totalitarianism or saving women from radical Islamists? Or were those intentions invoked to provide political cover for cynical economic or strategic motives? Were they wrong because the US forces were defeated? Or would they have been wrong even in victory?

The beauty of the Prime Directive is that it cuts through this labyrinth of confusion and deception: the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota. The Prime Directive bans the deployment of superior technology (military or otherwise) for the purposes of interfering with any community, any people, or any sentient species. It is, in fact, quite drastic: Starfleet personnel must respect it even if it costs them their lives.

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