A Good Question

 

In October 1966 President Johnson presided over the seven-nation Manila Summit Conference. Its purpose was to brief the heads of state of South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the Philippines on the conduct of the Vietnam War and to secure their support for its continuance. The briefing was presented by General William Westmoreland, the trim and bemedaled commander of the U.S. forces. A large backdrop map of Southeast Asia enabled him to highlight the contested areas.

           

With an electronic pointer he directed our attention from one sector to another, pronouncing each in turn secure, and concluding that victory was at hand. The President asked whether there were any questions. There were none. The President, unaccountably to my mind, then asked, “General, is there anything you need?” Westmoreland responded, “Yes, sir, 100,000 more men.” Turning to his array of expressionless guests, the President again asked whether there were any questions. Again there were none. The President then thanked the General, adjourned the meeting, shook hands with his colleagues, and, flanked by his security detail, headed for the door.

           

Attending the meeting as the president’s Chief of Protocol, I took the opportunity to approach the dais, where the General was gathering his papers and preparing to exit. Understandably apprehensive, I found my voice and introduced myself.

           

”Ah, yes,” he beamed. “I know your father.” “Yes, sir, and I have a question.” “What’s that?” “Well, sir, if we are doing so well in the war, why would we need any more troops, never mind such a large number?”

           

The General regarded me with a kind of inward gaze and replied, “Son, that’s a good question.” He then turned on his heel and walked away—a response that literally buckled my knees. Had the question been put by one of the attending sovereigns, I wonder to this day what the necessarily more diplomatic answer might have been.

           

Eight years later, as a member of Congress, I would be closeted with my Wisconsin colleague, Dave Obey, trying to devise a withdrawal policy that would not denigrate the sacrifices of so many young Americans.