The Making of a Quagmire

Steve Lyons’ play The Ghosts of Tonkin, about Wayne Morse and Vietnam, hits Eugene for one-night engagement

Greg Monahan as Sen. Wayne Morse and Gray Eubank as President Lyndon Johnson in The Ghosts of Tonkin
Greg Monahan as Sen. Wayne Morse and Gray Eubank as President Lyndon Johnson in The Ghosts of Tonkin

The Ghosts of Tonkin, a dramatic work about the Vietnam War by Bellingham, Washington-based playwright Steve Lyons, will show Sunday, Sept. 28, at Wildish Theatre. Lyon’s play is a behind-closed-doors investigation of the political maneuvering that led to the conflict, focusing on such historical figures as Robert McNamara, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson and Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, one of only two U.S. senators to vote against the war.

I’ll start by playing devil’s advocate. Why do we need another dramatic work about Vietnam?

In 1964, we attacked a country based on false intelligence. We attacked a country that posed absolutely no threat to the United States. And in the build up to the war, the media simply parroted whatever lies our government told it without questioning those lies. As I was researching the origins of the Vietnam War, it all sounded vaguely familiar.

So, is there something about that era of our history that still speaks to us? Yes, it is speaking to us. We just are not listening.

What do you find interesting or inspiring about Sen. Morse?

Goliath is not a story. You need David to make it a story. I found my David in the form of Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Because Morse single-handedly battled to stop the Vietnam War before it began, you now have a stage-worthy, epic story. Morse is such a Cassandra figure. Like Cassandra, he had the ability to predict the future. In voting against military intervention in Vietnam, he said, “Future generations will look with dismay upon a Congress about to make such a historic mistake.” Pretty accurate prediction. But like Cassandra, he also carried the curse that no one would believe him.

Morse was extremely principled. He was not afraid of the consequences of his position on controversial subjects. He is the focus of this story because he was outspoken on Vietnam long before the Vietnam War began, and because he served on the Senate Foreign Relations committee that held a hearing on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution before it was sent to Congress to be voted on. That hearing was the O.K. Corral of Vietnam, and is at the center of this play.

What was the genesis for The Ghosts of Tonkin?

I wrote the first draft of this script in 2002. I would have never written it if we had not invaded Iraq.

When the Iraq War began, people drew an analogy between the genesis of that war, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. News media in the U.S. eventually asserted that the “weapons of mass destruction” of the Iraq War were the moral equivalent of the “Gulf of Tonkin” of the Vietnam War. I had no idea what they were talking about. But it made me curious to learn more about the origins of the Vietnam War. That curiosity eventually led to this script.

This is a “real events” play. History defined the storyline. I can’t just make stuff up. And the audience already knows how things end! So, the journey of the play must be engaging, because the audience knows where it is ultimately headed.

The Ghosts of Tonkin plays 7:30 pm Sunday, Sept. 28, at Wildish Theatre, 630 Main St., Spfd.; $17 door.