B4 Trek: A Real War
Having grown up in the 1930s, they were young adults in the 1940s. This war is another of the usually unexamined influences on their lives and on Star Trek.
Like Roddenberry, producer Robert Justman served in the Pacific, but as a U.S. Navy radio operator. Producer Gene Coon was a Marine.
When Roddenberry talked over designs for the Enterprise with Matt Jefferies, they had in common a background in World War II aircraft, specifically the B-17. Jefferies had been a flight engineer.
Director Marc Daniels survived two years of combat in the U.S. Army. Director Joseph Pevney was a staff sergeant in the Army Signal Corps in Europe. Director (and later, actor in TNG) Lawrence Dobkin served in the Army Air Corps, in a radio propaganda unit. Writer Jerry Sohl served in the Army Air Force.
Third season producer Fred Freiberger was a flyer who was shot down over Germany at about the time that Roddenberry was first in combat in the Pacific. Freiberger was confined in the same prison camp featured in the movie The Great Escape.
George Clayton Johnson, who wrote the first Star Trek episode (“The Man Trap”) to air in September 1966 was a telegraph operator and draftsman in the Army. Actor DeForest Kelley was also in the Army Air Force, beginning the same year as Roddenberry, attached to a motion picture unit.
Of course, World War II was a reality for more Americans than experienced combat, or even served in the military. Millions worked in factories producing everything from airplanes and machine parts to life vests and vacuum tubes. An effort this large became the focus of many lives on the homefront.
World War II was the largest and most destructive war in history. It involved an estimated 100 million people from 30 countries on every continent except Antarctica. It was fought in most of Europe, in the Soviet Union, in Asia and parts of Africa, plus Pacific islands from Hawaii to near Australia and in Japan.
In just six years, some 36 million people died as a result of the war. Countless more were hurt, maimed, and injured in mind as well as body. As we know now, almost no participant in modern warfare escapes some psychological damage.
It is generally believed that war production in the United States was the deciding factor—from western coal mines and Pittsburgh steel mills to factories in Detroit and the new aircraft plants in the Northwest and elsewhere-- especially in southern California, which transformed GR’s home area.
Besides large scale military engagements and the ground fighting in cities and towns, a new feature of this war was massive bombing of cities from the air, including deliberate targeting of civilian populations.
|London during the Blitz|
Japanese forces bombed civilian areas, but the most destructive campaigns came from United States and British planes bombing cities in Germany and Japan. Some bombing was directed at military installations, industrial and transportation infrastructure, with nearby civilian areas also destroyed. But some was deliberately aimed at civilian populations, with the intent to terrorize. That particularly became the intent of German bombing of England, and Great Britain’s bombing of Germany, and at a certain point the U.S. bombing of Japanese cities.
This is partly why the war left such destruction behind. After the war in Europe was over in 1945, from half to more than two-thirds of the housing in major cities had been destroyed. Some 30% of houses in all of Great Britain were reduced to rubble, and even more—some 40%--in Germany. Three-quarters of the buildings in Berlin were uninhabitable.
|Dresden, Germany after Allied firebombing|
Roddenberry’s bombing missions attacked military targets in sparsely populated areas. But bomber pilots in general took off knowing that in minutes, they might be killing innocent families on the ground.
These complexities were even more tragic in battle zones, largely because of civilians and sometimes because of a phenomenon more familiar from later wars—the military use of civilians as shields, or even the unwitting danger they represented. Actor Rod Steiger recalled being ordered to sink small boats with Japanese women and children on board because they had radios that could contact Japanese forces. “You learn there’s no glory in war,” he said.
The misjudgments of generals, irresponsible officers and the bureaucratic madness of all wars were much greater in a war of this tremendous size and scope, and much more consequential in the waste of resources and lives. These aspects perhaps more than others turn soldiers into cynics.
“Gene’s distrust of authority became etched in stone that day,” Alexander wrote. “Gene witnessed the real ravages of war, and those experiences led to his ultimate anti-war stance.”
Many came out of this war with similar feelings, and certainly with a deeper knowledge of war. In this context it’s worth noting that although Star Trek in its first years referred to a Romulan War, and featured episodes with armed confrontations, Starfleet was not seen fighting a war in the original series or in most of Next Generation. The saga depicted wars only in the later 1990s, when there were few if any writers, producers or directors involved in Star Trek who had personally been involved in a real war.
Exposing the contradictions and follies of war, and exploring ways to prevent war became overt and underlying themes in many episodes of Star Trek.
There were some basic reasons that Americans fought in World War II. Their country was attacked when without warning Japanese planes bombed American ships at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. There was the specter of Nazi Germany marching across Europe, and its announced goals of conquest and oppression.
Then of course there were the reasons all soldiers fight: to not let the others in their unit down, and to get home safely.
But beyond patriotism and survival, and defending these general democratic and egalitarian principles, more specific elements became part of what many felt were necessary goals of this particular war.
Intellectuals and political leaders, combatants and civilians at home had ideas about what must come out of this war—about what the future must be. There were many voices, from H.G. Wells in England to FDR in the White House, but one voice that seemed to speak for many—and clearly touched many—belonged to a man famous in his time, but nearly forgotten in ours.
But these were programs of a particular kind—which Corwin invented. According to radio historian Gerald Nachman, they were one of a kind, “blending drama, history, journalism, verse, narrative, music and sound into a kind of radio tone poem, using the finest actors, composers, poets and special effects available.”
Among those that Corwin influenced were Ray Bradbury (who considered Corwin a mentor and became a close friend), Rod Serling, Norman Lear, J. Michael Straczynski—and Gene Roddenberry. In Corwin’s later years as a radio producer, one of his chief actors was the young William Shatner.
Corwin’s broadcasts were heard across America on the CBS national radio network, and recorded for soldiers overseas. Many of his scripts were performed as plays or as readings in theatres and classrooms, very soon after their broadcast. Corwin was so popular that CBS put his name on all his programs, and never even asked to see his scripts in advance.
As much as anyone and more than most, Corwin gave voice to the hopes of many, that the international cooperation and coordination of World War II would change the world for the better, with better prospects for a world of peace, with more equality and freedom. He was not quoting intellectuals or leaders, but the sentiments of combatants he met.
Corwin wrote about “the little guy” in America as well, who proved his mettle and judgment in the war, who could do great things when given the opportunity, and who deserved good housing, health and education.
This international cooperation along with the nature of a world war broadened the horizons of those involved in it, as interdependence became a fact of future life. “Before this war all of our countries were islands,” Corwin wrote in another script, “each one of us cut off in spirit from the rest of the world...But now we’re together...”
“America was involved in the world, all its little Velvas were in the world, and the world was now in them, and neither the world nor America would ever be the same.”
Sevaried wrote this in his postwar book called Not So Wild A Dream. That title is taken from one of Norman Corwin’s most famous scripts, “On a Note of Triumph” celebrating victory in Europe. The full line is this: “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend...”
Though there wasn’t real racial integration in the United States armed forces in World War II (except in the movies--it would begin happening in the early 1950s Korean conflict), American soldiers, flyers and sailors worked with counterparts from other nations and nationalities.
Corwin spoke for many when he called for veterans to remain involved and socially conscious. Add this sense of fighting for a better future to the general sense of purpose many felt in the war itself— the cooperation, common effort and humanity that was often part of the war effort (though not always, and not for everyone.)
“It may sound trite to modern ears, but those really were years when you could get involved in something beyond yourself,” said 1970s Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, reflecting on his World War II service in the Pacific, “something that connected you to your times in ways that no longer seem so natural, or expected.”
But at least some remembered the possibility of a lot of people engaged in a large-scale effort with a common purpose for the future and the common good. And some such efforts followed the war.
The Marshall Plan had sustaining popular support in the U.S. Though political leaders knew it also served American geopolitical and economic interests, historian Greg Behrman notes in his book The Most Noble Adventure that for ordinary Americans it was also an act of altruism.
George Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Marshall Plan leadership, the first military officer to receive this award. He was in this sense a model for the many war veterans whose motivation became the need to make a framework for a future of peace.
Though all the ideals weren’t realized after the war, some changes did happen. The United Nations was not the world government that H.G. Wells wanted, but it is a world body that has lasted and has played an important part in global affairs. Wells’ efforts to encourage the UN to specify human rights helped result in the UN Declaration of Universal Rights, which remain a basis for international ethics and standards. And may well guide such standards in the future.
The United Nations began officially in 1945 in San Francisco. That this city became the location for Starfleet HQ and Starfleet Academy may not be a coincidence.
But as Americans filled with idealism trooped home from Europe, something astounding happened that changed everything.
It did explode, with such brightness that a woman blind from birth traveling in a car some distance away saw it. “A colony on Mars, had such a thing existed, could have seen the flash,” wrote Gerald DeGroot in his 2005 book The Bomb: A Life. “All living things within a mile were killed, including all insects.”
Eric Sevareid spoke for many when he first heard about Hiroshima. “It was like a heavy blow to the chest, and the concussion left me in a kind of mental coma for days. It seemed then for a time that everything was not only uncertain but pointless. It seemed to me that everything I had learned was junk for the trash barrel, that everything I had seen was senseless illusion, that all I had come to believe was hollow mockery, that all my life to this point had been lived for nothing.”
From the summer of 1945 through the era of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation and more quietly through today, the specter of nuclear weapons would shape the world and the lives of humanity everywhere. How this influenced Star Trek and its creators and its audience will be explored as we follow them through the 1950s and early 1960s, before Trek.
Besides the Marshall Plan, there was another visionary federal program that made a positive difference immediately after World War II, and benefited at least some of these Star Trek pioneers. It was the GI Bill of Rights.
Gene Roddenberry’s father had fought in World War I, but when his service was over he got no help in starting a civilian life, or in competing with men his age who’d stayed home and got a head start on their careers. But the veterans of World War II got the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided a year of unemployment benefits and—in its most popular provision—funding for their education, including specialized training but also college and university.
In the past, the military was more severely divided between an officer class from wealthy and educated backgrounds (“officers and gentlemen”) and common soldiers. Due in part to the increasingly technical nature of warfare in World War II, many from poorer backgrounds received training and responsibilities that enabled them to move up the ranks and become officers.
But even for other veterans like Gene—and certainly those of lower rank who learned lesser skills—success in civilian life depended on further education. And again, college and university education was mostly for the rich, the elite. Or it was until the G.I. Bill.
As important as the education vouchers were the housing loans under the G.I. Bill (not all races benefited equally from this provision however.) They helped to further expand the American middle class, and jump-started suburban housing developments responding to a postwar housing shortage. At least in this respect, Americans of GR’s generation had reason to be optimistic about the future.
That baby, born in June of 1946, was me. And so my generation enters the Star Trek story, as the core of its first audience. How we grew up in the 1950s is also part of the Star Trek 50th anniversary story, which continues here next time.