“Balance of Terror”: Star Trek, History, and National Security
“Balance of Terror,” first broadcast on December 15th, 1966—and now celebrating its 50th anniversary—has long been seen as a classic episode of the original Star Trek. It involves a series of space battles between the Enterprise and a Romulan Bird-of-Prey around the Neutral Zone, the restricted region of space separating the Federation and the Romulan Empire. The Neutral Zone evokes the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the Iron Curtain, and the 17th parallel separating North and South Vietnam, which was a war zone when the episode aired.
Both Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the Romulan Commander (Mark Lenard) know that their clash could ignite a devastating full-scale war, paralleling the threat of nuclear war at the time between the United States and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, on the bridge, Lieutenant Stiles (Paul Comi) questions the loyalty of Spock (Leonard Nimoy) because he looks like a Romulan.
It has been little noticed that the title of the episode, “Balance of Terror,” is an exact quote from then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s description of the Cold War, with its potential for Mutually Assured Destruction. Star Trek has sometimes been criticized as a near-utopia where greed and discrimination have mostly been overcome, but “Balance of Terror” has a militaristic edge, and reveals that bigotry on the bridge is almost as much of a threat as the Romulans.
President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 is a key event to start with in understanding the historical context of this episode. From Star Trek’s beginning it seemed that the character of Captain Kirk was inspired in part by President Kennedy (Gross, p.34), and JFK’s “New Frontier” was a template for Star Trek’s “Final Frontier.” Star Trek was progressive Cold War liberalism projected into the future. And arguably Kennedy’s most important achievement was avoiding nuclear war after the Soviet Union installed scores of nuclear missiles in Cuba. As Kennedy said in a televised address to the nation on October 22nd, 1962:
This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites [are] now in preparation….The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.
Kennedy went on to call the missiles a “clear and present danger” to the United States, adding that “The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war….It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response.”
A nuclear holocaust threatened the world. The US blockaded Cuba, and demanded that the missiles be removed. Kennedy did not mention that the US had nuclear missiles in Turkey at the time, about as close to the USSR as Cuba’s were to the United States. Nevertheless, the secret Soviet installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba—after Soviet assurances to the contrary—was a destabilizing move that plunged the world into crisis. Behind the scenes, most of the US military recommended to Kennedy a massive bombing of Cuba, followed by an invasion. But, as Michael Dobbs writes in his book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, “the Soviet nuclear arsenal on Cuba far exceeded the worst nightmares of anyone in Washington” (p.58). JFK resisted the military’s plans, fearing that an invasion might ignite a nuclear war. And many nuclear weapons in Cuba were, in fact, already operational. In other words, if the US had invaded Cuba this likely would have escalated into a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union, with thousands of nuclear weapons deployed by each side against the other, and hundreds of millions dead.
As Kennedy’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later wrote of the crisis: “I walked out of the president’s Oval Office, and…I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night” (Dobbs, p.311). McNamara added in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, published in December of 1962, that the whole world was in a “balance of terror.”
The crisis was finally resolved because Kennedy offered to secretly remove US missiles in Turkey after the Soviets removed theirs from Cuba. Why was Kennedy effective at resolving the crisis? In part because he had recently read Barbara Tuchman’s bestselling book about World War I, The Guns of August. The thesis of The Guns of August is that miscalculation and misunderstanding can lead to a devastating world war that kills millions. Kennedy was so impressed with the book that he had his aides read it, and ordered copies of The Guns of August distributed to every US military base in the world (Dobbs, p.226). This book is possibly why we are all alive today—a compelling example of a historian changing the course of history.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a shock to the United States, and one that for some evoked the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. “Balance of Terror” was broadcast a week after the 25th anniversary of that attack, and there was a lot of media attention given to this anniversary. “Balance of Terror” similarly begins with a surprise attack on the Federation surveillance outposts that line the Neutral Zone. As Kirk is about to perform a wedding ceremony in the ship’s chapel, Ensign Sulu (George Takei) interrupts with a ship-wide announcement: “Alert! Captain to the Bridge. All decks alert.”
On the bridge, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) reports to Kirk that Outpost four is under attack. Kirk then asks Spock to show all decks a chart showing the Neutral Zone and the Earth outposts—three of which have already been destroyed—as well as the position of the Enterprise as it moves in at maximum warp. Kirk announces to the ship that “In our next action, we can risk neither miscalculation nor error,” and then turns the briefing over to Spock, who says:
Referring to the map on your screens you will note beyond the moving position of our vessel, a line of Earth outpost stations. Constructed on asteroids, they monitor the Neutral Zone established by treaty after the Earth-Romulan conflict a century ago. As you may recall from your histories, this conflict was fought…with primitive atomic weapons. Earth believes the Romulans to be warlike, cruel, treacherous. And only the Romulans know what they think of Earth.
Even the name “Romulans” evokes the Russians during the Cold War. But the name also, of course, references the Roman Empire, especially since the names of two of their key planets, Romulus (their capital) and Remus, come from the mythological founding brothers of Rome. Although the situation is different from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kirk, like Kennedy, is a rational leader who seeks to prevent a larger war. But Lt. Stiles, at the helm next to Sulu, recommends immediate attack:
STILES: We know Outpost four has been attacked, sir, so if we intercept the Romulans now—
KIRK: After a whole century, what will a Romulan ship look like, Mister Stiles? I doubt they’ll radio and identify themselves.
STILES: You’ll know, sir. They’re painted like a giant bird-of-prey.
KIRK: I had no idea that history was your specialty.
STILES: Family history. There was a Captain Stiles was in the space service then. Two Commanders and several junior officers. All lost in that war, sir.
KIRK: Their war, Mister Stiles. Not yours. Don’t forget it.
We then hear from Outpost Four, where Commander Hanson is the sole survivor of the Romulan attack. And he reports that after the attack “the whole vessel disappeared.” Suddenly, the Bird-of-Prey reappears and destroys the remains of Outpost Four, killing Hanson before vanishing again with its cloaking device.
The elegant Romulan ship was created by Chinese-American designer Wah Ming Chang, who also designed the tricorder, the first-generation laser pistol, and the communicator, which was the inspiration for the flip phone of the 1990s. Chang also designed the appearances of many alien species seen in Star Trek, including the Talosians, the Salt Vampire, Blalock, the Gorn, and even the Tribbles. For the Bird-of-Prey emblem, he drew upon the symbol of the predatory eagle, used by the Roman Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Nazis.
The Romulan cloaking device anticipates the “stealth technology” of Air Force bombers and fighters of a few decades later, but it also reaches back to the “silent running” mode of submarines starting in World War II. One of the movies that influenced Paul Schneider, the author of the “Balance of Terror” teleplay, was Run Silent, Run Deep, a 1958 submarine film starring Clark Gable that was directed by Robert Wise (who later directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture). In Run Silent, Run Deep, Gable plays a submarine captain who seems almost Ahab-like in his obsessive quest for a Japanese ship that he eventually destroys.
This is similar to Kirk’s relentless pursuit of the Romulan Bird-of-Prey in “Balance of Terror.” But unlike in many military movies, which feature leaders who seem to command almost solo, from Gable, to Robert Ludlum in The Enemy Below (1957), to Gene Hackman in the 1995 sub movie Crimson Tide, Kirk has a more group-oriented mode of command in “Balance of Terror.”
Like Kennedy with his Executive Committee, or ExCom, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kirk consults extensively with his crew around a briefing table to analyze the situation and get recommendations. This is a model of rational, knowledge-based decision making, as opposed to a gut-based, shoot-first and figure-it-out later approach. Seated around a table, Spock holds a fragment of metal retrieved from the wreckage of Outpost Four:
SPOCK: This is the hardest substance known to our science.
[He crushes it with his hand]
SPOCK: Lab theorizes an enveloping energy plasma forcing an implosion.
SPOCK: Obviously, their weaponry is superior to ours, and they have a practical invisibility screen.
MCCOY: You’re discussing tactics. Do you realise what this really comes down to? Millions and millions of lives hanging on what this vessel does.
SPOCK: Or on what this vessel fails to do, Doctor.
Going around the table Kirk learns from Engineer Scotty (James Doohan) that the Enterprise has superior engines and is faster than the Bird-of-Prey. Stiles again recommends immediate attack, but Sulu replies, “Attack without a visible target? How do we aim our phasers?”
But Stiles insists, echoing the words of Kennedy and other Cold Warriors: “These are Romulans! You run away from them and you guarantee war …. You know that, Mister Science Officer. You’re the expert on these people, but you’ve always left out that one point. Why? I’m very interested in why.”
Stiles has questioned Spock’s loyalty since earlier when the Enterprise intercepted a Romulan message, revealing that Romulans look just like Vulcans. Kirk asks Uhura to decode the remainder of the message, and Stiles makes a snide remark:
STILES: Give it to Spock.
KIRK: I didn’t quite get that, Mister Stiles.
STILES: Nothing, sir.
KIRK: Repeat it.
STILES: I was suggesting that Mister Spock could probably translate it for you, sir.
KIRK: I assume you’re complimenting Mister Spock on his ability to decode.
STILES: I’m not sure, sir.
KIRK: Well, here’s one thing you can be sure of, Mister. Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the Bridge. Do I make myself clear?
This stand by Kirk against bigotry parallels the improved Civil Rights records of some liberals during the 1960s. Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, pressured by the Civil Rights movement and popular opinion, supported civil rights in part because it was the right thing to do, but also because America’s entrenched and government-supported racism was accurately perceived by these presidents as damaging to America’s image during the Cold War (Reeves, p. 480-510). Pictures and news films, for instance, of people being attacked by police, dogs, and fire hoses during peaceful civil rights protests in the 1960s shocked most Americans and much of the world.
Over the years, some have understandably criticized the “tokenism” of Star Trek, but in 1966 the diversity found on the bridge, with Spock, Sulu, and Lieutenant Uhura was at the time progressive. To put it in perspective, this 50-year old episode has more diversity than the main cast of Friends from the 1990s, or Game of Thrones today. And yet Kirk acknowledges that even with the progress that’s been made in the 23rd century that bigotry, like that shown by Stiles, is not unknown, and in fact may not be eliminated—only kept off the bridge. This is disturbing, but it’s perhaps realistic that even in Star Trek’s future more work needs to be done to overcome prejudice.
And ironically, at least from our perspective, back on the bridge Sulu agrees with Stiles that added security steps should be taken in case there are Romulan spies on board the Enterprise. The irony is that after Pearl Harbor more than one-hundred thousand Japanese Americans were forcibly removed to concentration camps for years because of racist war hysteria, a grievous trampling on the US Constitution. And George Takei, as a young boy, was, with his family, among those imprisoned in the camps. This tragic mistake, which was even approved by the Supreme Court in 1944, is one that the US is still coming to terms with, and something that Takei has personally helped raise awareness about. The bottom line, however, is that “Balance of Terror” is critiquing this kind of racial suspicion of people during wartime.
Back in the briefing room, Spock shocks everyone by agreeing with Stiles that they must respond immediately to the Romulan aggression, no matter what the cost. Spock recommends this based on his own Vulcan history, saying, “If the Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood, and I think this is likely, then attack becomes even more imperative.”
“War is never imperative!” Bones interrupts, raising the tension between them in a way that became a hallmark of the series. “It is for them, Doctor,” Spock explains. “Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive, colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if the Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.”
This existential concern about showing “weakness” was a backbone of the Cold War, and a main driver for the Vietnam War, which at the time of this episode was nearing its peak. The core idea held by almost everyone in the US national security establishment, including Secretary McNamara—who, as mentioned, inadvertently gave this episode its title—was that Vietnam was like a domino piece, stacked up in a row next to all the other domino pieces of the various countries of Asia—so that if one fell to Communism, they would all fall.
Thirty years after this episode was broadcast, McNamara published his memoirs, and even wept on national TV, for his crucial involvement in what he concluded, as his title said, In Retrospect, was a war that was a colossal mistake, based on a misunderstanding of Vietnam, in part because of the fatally-flawed “domino theory.”
Even in 1966, Star Trek’s references to the Cold War were seen by many. For instance, TV Guide highlighted this episode in that week’s issue with a special “Close-Up,” stating in its short review that “the warlike Romulans have sent a powerful flagship to probe earth’s defenses. Kirk knows that retreat will only invite further devastation. His alternative: counterattack” (Cushman, p. 233)
Vietnam was the first television war, and news programs like the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, which brought the war into millions of American households, aired right before Star Trek’s 7:30 start time in major markets. As Marc Cushman writes, in 1966, “The troops of North Vietnam continued to pour across the DMZ into the South, carrying out their military strikes, testing American defenses, and then retreating to the safety of home. The actions of the Romulans in ‘Balance of Terror’ were clearly designed to mimic the tactics of the Viet Cong of this era” (Cushman, p.234).
This episode of Star Trek, in other words, can be seen as a cultural part of the Cold War. It might even be seen—with its fetishized phasers—as providing support for the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation about in his farewell address in 1961.
That’s part of it. But “Balance of Terror” is more complicated than that. As the cat-and-mouse battles between the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey unfold, with both vessels being heavily damaged—and the Enterprise almost destroyed by a Romulan nuclear weapon—we see that the Romulan commander is not a stereotyped and vicious enemy, but instead a sympathetic character.
We see the unnamed Romulan commander on his bridge, which, in homage to the submarine movies from which this episode borrows, looks like the bridge of a futuristic submarine, with viewing controls hanging from the center of the ceiling like a periscope. Like Kirk, the Romulan commander knows that the decisions he makes could mean death for millions if a larger war is triggered. The moody lighting, including strange pink hues for the Romulan commander, and shadowy key lighting for Kirk, shows the weight of their decisions literally playing across their faces (McDonough). The Romulan commander says to his second-in-command and friend, with whom he’s served for many years:
No need to tell you what happens when we reach home with proof of the Earthmen’s weakness. And we will have proof. The Earth commander will follow. He must. When he attacks, we will destroy him. Our gift to the homeland, another war….Obedience. Duty. Death and more death….I find myself wishing for destruction before we can return.
Meanwhile on the Enterprise, in a moment of down time in his quarters, Kirk confesses his doubts to Bones. Kirk knows that Bones has been the strongest critic of the pursuit of the Bird-of-Prey, and so Kirk is dropping his Captain’s mask and making himself vulnerable—which reveals the depth of their friendship.
KIRK: I look around that Bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move. And Bones, what if I’m wrong?
MCCOY: Captain, I—
KIRK: No, I don’t really expect an answer.
MCCOY: But I’ve got one. Something I seldom say to a customer, Jim. In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.
The sympathetic portrayal of both sides locked in this death struggle is almost as much of a critique of the Cold War as it is a reinforcement of it. And Bones, sounding almost like Carl Sagan, infuses this part of the episode with a cosmic and yet empathetic perspective on this cold war in space.
But the costs of war are nonetheless made clear. An all-out war is avoided, just barely, but with the loss of many lives. And as the Romulan commander says to Kirk at the end, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
But conflicts of this kind don’t have easy solutions, as we still know today. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published a Doomsday Clock. In 1966, it was set at five minutes to midnight. And today, fifty years later, with much fluctuation of the minute hand in the intervening decades, the clock stands at three minutes to midnight. It is bittersweet to say that this episode is still relevant, because it means that we are all still living in a balance of terror.
Stewart Alsop, “McNamara Thinks About the Unthinkable,” Saturday Evening Post, December 1, 1962, p. 18.
March Cushman with Susan Osborn, These Are The Voyages: TOS Season One, Expanded and Revised Edition, Jacobs/Brown Press, 2013.
Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, Knopf, 2007.
Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, The Fifty Year Mission: The First 25 Years, St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Megan McDonough, Star Trek’s “Balance of Terror”: Shedding Light on a Big Decision, unpublished review.
Robert McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Crown, 1995.
Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Gail Blasser Riley, Wah Ming Chang: Artists and Master of Special Effects, Enslow Publishers, 1995.
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August, Macmillan, 1962.
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