With Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” airing on PBS this week I thought it was timely that this article about the involvement of George Stephen Morrison in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident be republished. Most Doors fans know that Admiral Morrison was involved, but I think what most people don’t realize is that Admiral Morrison wasn’t just there; he was in charge of the whole US Navy task force that drove the incident, and his actions and dispatches to the Pentagon and the White House were probably used by President Lyndon Johnson to increase U.S. involvement in the war.
Doors fans and even casual rock fans are aware that Jim Morrison’s father was at the Gulf of Tonkin during the events of August 1964. For most it’s an answer to a trivia question on The Doors and rock and roll history. But most aren’t aware of the extent of Morrison Sr.’s involvement. George Stephen Morrison was not only in command of the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) at the Gulf of Tonkin, he was in charge of the whole task force whose activities gave the United States justification for entering the war officially. Furthermore, Morrison may have knowingly provided disinformation used by President Lyndon B. Johnson to commit the United States military to Vietnam without a formal declaration of war.
The events of August 1964 are complicated. The alleged sequence is as follows. On August 2, 1964, the task force commanded by Captain Morrison was patrolling off the coast of Vietnam when North Vietnamese patrol boats fired upon the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731). The Maddox evaded the attack, but in trying to escape the Maddox sank one of the patrol boats while air support from the carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) sank at least one of the other fleeing North Vietnamese patrol boats.
From there the task force’s actions and motives become murkier. Captain Morrison put the task force on high alert, and under direct orders from President Johnson, Morrison ordered the Maddox and the destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD-951) to sail close to the North Vietnamese coast to “show the flag.” The seas were rough and the destroyers started receiving radar, sonar, and radio hits that they interpreted as being another attack by the North Vietnamese.
For the next four hours, the ships fired on radar hits and maneuvered under the assumption that they were under attack. They claimed to have sunk more North Vietnamese patrol boats, although there was no physical evidence to support the claim. Communications between Morrison, his commanders, the Pentagon, and the White House were distorted, perhaps intentionally, or perhaps by the fog of war.
That night President Johnson addressed the nation, using the distorted information to generate support for military escalation in Vietnam. While Johnson was speaking, Morrison was reporting to Naval headquarters in Hawaii that the targets the destroyers were firing upon were probably false returns. This information was relayed to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but McNamara failed to pass Morrison’s report to Johnson. Johnson later realized that the information he had received was suspect, and he commented, “For all I know our Navy was shooting whales out there.” The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized Johnson to pursue “all necessary measures” in Vietnam, was passed by Congress on August 7, 1964 and signed by the President on August 10.
It is doubtful that Jim Morrison knew of his father’s activities at the Gulf of Tonkin. By 1964 Jim had already transferred to UCLA and had little contact with his parents; the last confirmed communication between Jim and his father came after Jim had started The Doors and wrote to George in England in the late summer or fall of 1965. Given the security restrictions surrounding the incident, it’s also doubtful that George Morrison ever discussed the matter with his family. George Stephen Morrison was elevated to Rear Admiral in 1966, and in an ironic twist, he spoke at the decommissioning ceremony of the USS Bon Homme Richard on July 3, 1971, the same day Jim died in Paris.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Admiral Morrison was involved in rescuing refugees fleeing Vietnam.
As an aside, many musicians in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s came from military families. There are conspiracy theories that Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, Stephen Stills and others were CIA agents working to lull the youth of America into a life of hedonism and complacency while the government started wars, infiltrated political groups, and spied on citizens.
Sources: We Are the Mighty, “Jim Morrison’s Dad Had A Hand in Starting the Vietnam War.” If you would like to read which other rock stars had connections to the military via their families please see the Above Top Secret website or this interview with Dave McGowan on YouTube.
Originally published March 15, 2016.