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Little House on the Prairie is one of the most famous family-friendly TV shows from the 1970s, however, Melissa Gilbert revealed it dealt with hard-hitting topics. Specifically, she said it dealt with issues pertinent to the time it first aired. One episode of the show was the struggles of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.

Melissa Gilbert and Arngrim | NBCU Photo Bank

Melissa Gilbert reveals ‘Little House on the Prairies’ dealt with 1970s issues

Sometimes harsh realities are easier to deal with if you discuss similar events in the past. For example, Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H* and its television adaptation were set during the Korean War. However, it commented on the then-current War in Vietnam. During an interview with Buffalo News, Gilbert revealed Little House on the Prairie also commented on then-current events — albeit in an American frontier setting. 

“We started in the mid-‘70s and the country was just getting out of Vietnam and we were smack in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement,” Gilbert recalled. “Little House… was really telling some hard-hitting stories about our country in the 1970s. It served as a reminder to people then, if we could survive the settling of our country in the 1770s and 1870s, we could certainly make it through the 1970s.”

The theme from Little House on the Prairie

Gilbert’s comments are interesting, even if she gets history a little wrong. The Civil Rights Movement is usually agreed to have ended in 1968 while Little House on the Prairie began its run in 1973.

How one episode dealt with the trauma of the Vietnam War

During an interview with Parade, Gilbert discussed how Little House dealt with real issues. For example, it subtextually highlighted one of the biggest issues in American politics from the era of Little House’s first airing: the Vietnam War. Interestingly, the show used the American Civil War to comment on the War in Vietnam.

Michael Landon and Karen Grassle in a covered wagon
Michael Landon and Karen Grassle | NBCU Photo Bank

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“We had an episode where we had a Civil War veteran come home addicted to morphine,” Gilbert said. “In the end, he committed suicide. That was when the soldiers were still coming back from Vietnam and we realized that there may have been an issue with them. A lot of them were coming back addicted to heroin and other drugs. We, as a country, were pretty innocent about drugs, too, and were just becoming aware of the fact that all of these things were addictive and dangerous.”

The episode in question appears to be “Soldier’s Return” from 1976. Richard Mulligan guest stars in the episode as Granville Whipple, a Civil War veteran addicted to morphine. Mulligan was most well-known for his roles on the shows Soap and Empty Nest. He gives a great performance in the episode. While Little House on the Prairie was beloved by many young people, episodes like “Soldier’s Return” showed it could deal with decidedly adult issues.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.