The Day the Earth Stood Still

Libertarian Themes

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Directed by Robert Wise and released in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a libertarian science fiction classic.  As M. Keith Booker writes, “The Day the Earth Stood Still, a statement in favor of international peace and cooperation at the height of the Cold War, was a courageous film that can rightly claim to be the first truly important work of American science fiction cinema.”1  In particular, the film takes a critical view of militarism, the nuclear threat, and xenophobia.

Michael Rennie as Klaatu

The film begins with a flying saucer landing in a baseball field in Washington, D. C., at 3:45 P.M.  Immediately, police and military troops are dispatched to the site, and they surround the craft, “supported by tanks, artillery, and machine guns.”  As the reporter announces to his listeners, “Every eye, every weapon, is trained on the ship.”

Two hours after the ship arrives, a being in a suit steps out.  “We have come to visit you in peace,” says the being, “with good will.”  But when the being removes a weird-looking object from his suit, one of the government employees attacks the being—whose name is Klaatu—with gunfire, breaking the object and injuring Klaatu.  This attack triggers “a chain of events through which the film broadcasts a stern warning against automatic hatred of anyone who appears to be different.”2

Immediately following the attack upon the man from another world, a menacing robot known as Gort appears from the ship, emits a laser from what would be its eyes, and disarms the dangerous government employees by disintegrating their weapons—even the tanks.  Tellingly, Gort did not act to disintegrate the weapons until after Klaatu the extraterrestrial ambassador was injured.  This gives us reason to assume that Gort would have left the weapons fully intact had they not posed a threat to the ambassador.  As one commentator observed, “Even this opening sequence suggests that technology (in this case a simple handgun) can be used ethically or unethically.”3  Klaatu thereafter effectively shuts Gort down with the command “Gort!  Deklato prosko!”

As it turns out, the weird object had been a gift, one that allows its users to study life on the other planets.  Thanks to the impulsive actions of the government employee, it no longer functions.  The opening scene ends with the military preparing to transport Klaatu to Walter Reed Hospital.  Thus, we see the motif of the film set: “the earth [is depicted] as dystopic, for, at the conclusion of the opening scene, the audience finds itself identifying with the aliens.”4

During his stay at Walter Reed, Klaatu tells a Secretary to the U. S. president that he wishes to speak to the representatives of all the nations of the Earth, since his reason for coming to Earth was one that concerned all humans.  But because of the international environment (keep in mind this was filmed during the Cold War), the secretary explains to Klaatu, it simply wouldn’t be possible.  Klaatu then suggests that he go out into the world so that he may become familiar with the basis for what he recognises to be “strange, unreasoning attitudes”; the Secretary tells him that that, too, would be “impossible.”  Thus, Klaatu decides to escape:  “When Klaatu realizes that his (largely unnecessary) hospital stay has turned into (a futile attempt at) imprisonment, he leaves.”5

Klaatu takes up residence at a boarding house under the name Mr. Carpenter.  As an example of the “strange, unreasoning attitudes” with which Klaatu wished to familiarise himself, we find one person sitting at the breakfast table saying to the others, “Why doesn’t the government do something? that’s what I’d like to know.” Fear, we see, has a way of stifling reason.

In his travels, Klaatu is stunned to see how many people have died in war when visiting Arlington Cemetery, as there are no wars on his planet.  We also learn that Klaatu’s people use diamonds as their medium of exchange, indicating that these peaceful beings have a market-based economy which likely lacks central banking.  (After all, if Klaatu’s people were to employ central banking, they would likely have a fiat money system in place of the hard-money system they clearly enjoy.)  All of this leads the viewer to suppose that Klaatu’s advanced civilisation is based on fundamentally libertarian principles.

There are many different labels that different libertarians give themselves, but we can say that all libertarians fall within one of two broad categories.  Those libertarians who favour the existence of a state with only a very limited degree of power are typically referred to as minarchists.  And those libertarians on the other hand who believe that all social functions can be performed by voluntary organisations, who believe therefore that the existence of a coercive state is neither desirable nor necessary, are typically referred to as anarchists.  Klaatu is certainly not an anarchist, as shall be explained below, and it is quite possible that Klaatu is not personally a libertarian at all; nevertheless, the clues we receive concerning his civilisation invariably lead us to assume that the society from whence Klaatu comes is indeed libertarian at its core.

Sam Jaffe as Jacob Barnhardt
Michael Rennie as Klaatu

In any event, Klaatu’s journey takes him to the renowned Professor Barnhardt, a character modelled in many ways off of Albert Einstein.  It is to Barnhardt that Klaatu first discloses an inclination as to his mission on planet Earth.  “When one of Earth’s nations applies atomic energy to spaceships,” Klaatu explains, “it will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets.”  According to Aeon J. Skoble,

Even this partial disclosure of Klaatu’s mission points to interesting moral considerations.  First of all, Klaatu and the people he represents are not paternalistic: they do not have an idealistic mission to stop all fighting.  They respect our autonomy in that regard.  It might be regrettable, evidence of the primitive state of our society, that we fight among ourselves, but it’s not seen as the business of Klaatu’s society to interfere.  Perhaps it’s a phase that many civilizations go through, and we’ll eventually grow past it.  Perhaps Klaatu’s society recognizes that it lacks the wisdom to know how to interfere in our local problems.  In any event, Klaatu’s position is that our autonomy regarding local disputes does not trump other planets’ right to peace and security.  So if we’re going to “export” our problems into space, then it is the business of Klaatu’s society to interfere.6

Perhaps more importantly, however, is what Klaatu’s quote reflects about the inherently corrupting and inevitably destructive influence of nuclear power.  Indeed, as the libertarian sees it, for anyone to become “secure from the nuclear menace it is vital to achieve worldwide nuclear disarmament.”7  As the libertarian philosopher Dr. Murray Rothbard wrote in his 1982 classic The Ethics of Liberty,

It has often been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era.  …  But a particularly libertarian reply is that while the bow and arrow, and even the rifle, can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot.  Here is a crucial difference in kind.  Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors.  Nuclear weapons, even ‘conventional’ aerial bombs, cannot be.  These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction.  (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.)  We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.8

Since it violates libertarian ethics for any person or group of persons to initiate or to threaten to initiate force or fraud against the person or justly-acquired property of anyone else, and since the possession of an atomic bomb necessarily threatens the lives and the property of any innocent individuals at which the weapon is pointed, Rothbard concludes that it is the characteristic of such weapons that they “cannot be used in a libertarian manner.  Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake.”9  Thus, in so far as this film promotes nuclear disarmament and understanding concerning the frank danger of nuclear weapons, it is to be classed as a libertarian movie.

Unfortunately, not all of Klaatu’s actions are in perfect harmony with libertarian ethics.  After discussing with Professor Barnhardt, Klaatu decides to use his superior technology in order to shut down almost all electrical equipment around the world.  Of course, since Klaatu is shutting down other people’s electrical equipment without the consent of the owners, he is effectively violating the property rights of millions, if not billions, of people.  Thus, Rebecca Bell-Metereau correctly describes this as a “violent interruption of technology.”10  What Klaatu is doing when he shuts down the justly-acquired property of others is erecting a coercive hierarchy over those whose things he is effectively usurping control.  Since the anarchist recognises that all true hierarchies are maintained only through aggression, and since the anarchist wishes to eliminate aggression and thus also all true hierarchies, we can conclude objectively that Klaatu is not an anarchist, despite whatever libertarian tendencies swell within his own society.  Therefore, if Klaatu is a libertarian at all, he is at most a minarchist.

Meanwhile, the government has been unsuccessfully searching for Klaatu for days.  Finally, in order to catch Klaatu, the government imposes authoritarian travel restrictions on all.  Eventually, thanks to a tip, the government does track Klaatu down, and government employees shoot to kill the innocent Klaatu.  Gort is at this point once again animated, and it now begins disintegrating humans in addition to weapons.  Luckily, it doesn’t get far on its “rampage.” Gort disintegrates only two humans, both of whom are employees of the increasingly authoritarian state apparatus.  Gort’s “rampage” ends when a human who had befriended Klaatu says, “Klaatu barada nikto.”  Gort, in addition to other things, goes to retrieve and resurrect the dead Klaatu following the receiving of this command.

Since Klaatu had been unable to organise a meeting of world leaders, he opted instead to have Barnhardt organise a meeting of the world’s intellectuals.  However, despite Klaatu having been shot to death by the government employees, the military authorities nevertheless tell “Barnhardt to cancel the meeting.  Barnhardt agrees, underlining again that the military governs the world of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Washington, D. C.’s monuments—the setting for Jefferson Smith’s hero-worshipping awe of national heroes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—become in The Day the Earth Stood Still the stage for scores of police and military vehicles in pursuit of Klaatu.”11

Before the intellectuals can disband, however, the ship opens, and Klaatu delivers his famous speech:

Klaatu delivers his speech to the intellectuals
while Gort guards from behind.
Lock Martin as Gort
Michael Rennie as Klaatu

I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly.  The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated.  There must be security for all or no one is secure.

Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly.

Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them.  We of the other planets have long accepted this principle.  We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression.

The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it.  For our policemen, we created a race of robots.  Their function is to patrol the planets—in space ships like this one—and preserve the peace.  In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us; this power can not be revoked.

At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor.  The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war—free to pursue more profitable enterprises.  Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works.

I came here to give you these facts.  It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet.  But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.

Your choice is simple:  Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.  We shall be waiting for your answer; the decision rests with you.

After delivering this speech, Klaatu and Gort re-enter the their spacecraft and ascend into the night.  Thus ends the film, but not the philosophical debate as to the meaning behind it.

Indeed, some have interpreted the film as an allegorical call for the strengthening of the United Nations, and in so far as it is, the film would be more accurately classed as a neoliberal flick than a libertarian movie.  While the libertarian adheres to a classically liberal foreign policy that calls for international free trade as the means of inhibiting international aggression, exemplified by Richard Cobden and John Bright; the neoliberal foreign policy, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson, calls for the erection of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, &c.  The neoliberal approach to foreign affairs is plagued precisely to the degree that it abandons its classical liberal roots.

Unfortunately, it was the explicit objective of the producer Julian Blaustein to promote an aggrandisement of power in the hands of the United Nations.  In an interview, Blaustein spoke of the aggrandisement of power with such glee that one would have a hard time not dismissing the man as hopelessly neo-fascist.  Nevertheless, there is reason to believe, fortunately, that Mr. Blaustein’s goal of promoting the growth of global statism explicitly through The Day the Earth Stood Still has proved unsuccessful, for as Dr. Rebecca Bell-Metereau claims, “The Day the Earth Stood Still depicts a skeptical attitude toward centralized government and law enforcement, and a sympathetic attitude toward the ‘other.’”12  Assuming Dr. Bell-Metereau’s interpretation of the film’s underlying theme reflects that of the general public, we can rejoice, knowing that Mr. Blaustein did not succeed in his unsavoury objective.

There is, of course, good reason to disassociate promotion of the United Nations from the outcomes of the film, if for no other reason, because the U. N. is categorically different from the race of robots depicted in the film.  The sphere of power of the U. N., after all, is potentially far more extensive than the sphere of power of the robotic watchmen.  The function of said robots is technologically limited to retaliating against interplanetary aggression, while it is impossible for humans to truly, indefinitely limit the power of a political institution such as the U. N.  In short, the existence of a United Nations is far more threatening to humanity than the existence of these interplanetary robotic watchmen.

Dr. Aeon J. Skoble

Even with this matter resolved, there is still the matter of whether or not the robotic watchmen that remain in our purview might not nevertheless allegorically promote a rejection of libertarian attitudes or beliefs.  While Professor Phillip L. Gianos holds, for instance, that Klaatu’s position is fundamentally Hobbesian,13 Professor Skoble gives strong reason to reject this view in his essay “Technology and Ethics in The Day the Earth Stood Still.”14  Skoble points out, for example, that the power of the external sovereign in Hobbesian political philosophy is far more extensive than the power of the robots who “have jurisdiction only in matters of interplanetary aggression.  So planet A might be a utopian community of benevolent poets and musicians, and planet B might be one of gladiatorial games and strife between factions, and in neither case could the robots interfere with how those planets’ societies operate.”  Instead, Skoble suggests that the underlying philosophy behind the creation of the robotic watchmen resembles that of, not Thomas Hobbes, but rather John Stuart Mill.15  I highly recommend Professor Skoble’s essay, which I consider the clearest and most compelling interpretation of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In conclusion, although the principle character does not act with consistent respect for libertarian ethical concerns, the film itself can regardless be regarded as a libertarian science fiction classic.  The movie may be regarded as libertarian due to its subtle yet persistent rejection of xenophobia, its warnings against substituting fear for reason, its examination of the dangers of nuclear war and nuclear weapons generally, and its insistence that there is something socially problematic about any hypermilitaristic society.


1 M. Keith Booker, Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006), p. 27.

2 Ibid., pp. 27–28.

3 Aeon J. Skoble, “Technology and Ethics in The Day the Earth Stood Still,” in The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, ed. Steven M Sanders (The University Press of Kentucky, 2008), p. 92.

4 Phillip L. Gianos, Politics and Politicians in American Film (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999), p. 135.

5 Skoble, p. 93.

6 Skoble, pp. 93–94.

7 Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 2nd ed. (Auburn, AL: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), p. 366.

8 Murray N. Rothbard, “On Relations Between States,” chapter 25 of The Ethics of Liberty (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1982), pp. 190–191.  This chapter is adapted in part from an earlier essay by the same author, “War, Peace, and the StateThe Standard, April 1963, pp. 2–5.

9 Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty p. 191.

10 Rebecca Bell-Metereau, “The Capital Shape of Science Fiction Heroes to Come,” in Cinema and Modernity, ed. Murray Pomerance (Rutgers, The State University: 2006), p. 127.

11 Gianos, pp. 135–136.

12 Bell-Metereau, pp. 126.

13 Gianos, pp. 136–138.

14 Skoble, p. 96.

15 Skoble, pp. 94, 98.