Honor restored for general blamed after Nixon denied authorizing Vietnam bombing

John Lavelle, right, talks with Senate Armed Services Chairman John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) in late 1972.
John Lavelle, right, talks with Senate Armed Services Chairman John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) in late 1972. (Ap Wirephoto)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

During the summer of 1972, official Washington was dragging Air Force Gen. John D. Lavelle's name and reputation through the mud. Multiple investigations by the Pentagon and Congress concluded that the four-star commander had ordered unauthorized bombing missions in North Vietnam and then tried to cover them up. He was demoted to major general and forced to retire, in disgrace.

Lavelle maintained his rectitude until his death, saying he was acting on orders. Nearly four decades later, it turns out he was right.

On Wednesday, after an exhaustive reexamination of Lavelle's actions, President Obama asked the Senate to restore his honor and his missing stars. The decision officially sets the record straight about who really lied during the controversial chapter in the Vietnam War, who told the truth and who was left holding the bag.

Historical records unearthed by two biographers who came across the material by happenstance show that Lavelle was indeed acting on orders to conduct the bombing missions and that the orders came from the commander in chief himself: President Richard M. Nixon.

Not only did Nixon give the secret orders, but transcripts of his recorded Oval Office conversations show that he stood by, albeit uncomfortably, as Lavelle suffered a scapegoat's fate.

"I just don't want him to be made a goat, goddamnit," Nixon told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, on June 14, 1972, a few days after it was disclosed that Lavelle had been demoted for the allegedly unauthorized attacks. "You, you destroy a man's career. . . . Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing?"

On June 26, Nixon's conscience intervened in another conversation with Kissinger. "Frankly, Henry, I don't feel right about our pushing him into this thing and then, and then giving him a bad rap," the president said. "I don't want to hurt an innocent man."

But Nixon was unwilling to stand up publicly for the general. With many lawmakers and voters already uneasy about the war, he wasn't about to admit that he had secretly given permission to escalate bombing in North Vietnam. At a June 29 news conference, he was asked about Lavelle's case and the airstrikes.

"It wasn't authorized," Nixon told the reporters. "It was proper for him to be relieved and retired."

In testimony and in interviews before his death in 1979, Lavelle took responsibility for the military consequences of the bombings, which he said were justified to protect U.S. air patrols and surveillance missions over North Vietnam. But he insisted that he never exceeded his authority. He said he was following rules of engagement communicated to him by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington as well as by Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird and Gen. Creighton Abrams. (There is no evidence that Lavelle ever knew that the directive originated with Nixon.)

"It is not pleasant to contemplate ending a long and distinguished military career with a catastrophic blemish on my record," Lavelle told Congress, "a blemish for conscientiously doing the job I was expected to do."

Removal of that blemish began in 2007, when Aloysius Casey, a retired Air Force general, and his son, Patrick Casey, wrote an article in Air Force Magazine about the case. While researching a biography about another Air Force commander, the Caseys came across audio recordings of Nixon's conversations as well as declassified message traffic from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The material, they concluded, showed that Lavelle had "unequivocal authorization" from Nixon and senior military officials to conduct the North Vietnam airstrikes in late 1971 and early 1972.

The findings were presented to Lavelle's widow, Mary Jo, now 91 and a resident of Marshall, Va., as well as the couple's seven children. The family retained Patrick Casey, a Pennsylvania lawyer, to help them ask the Air Force to reopen the case and restore Lavelle to the rank of full general.

The Lavelles applied to the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, which endorsed the general's exoneration last year. That decision was separately upheld by Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. On Wednesday, Obama gave his support as well. The case will now go to the Senate for final approval.

"Jack was a good man, a good husband, a good father, and a good officer," Mary Jo Lavelle said in a statement Wednesday. "I wish he was alive to hear this news."

Air Force officials said the Lavelle family does not stand to benefit financially from his posthumous promotion. Although he was demoted, military personnel rules in effect at the time enabled Lavelle to retire with a full pension, said Beth Gosselin, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam combat veteran who had urged the Air Force to hear Lavelle's petition, said the case is an example of the frustrations encountered by military commanders during Vietnam who thought they were given conflicting directions from lawmakers and civilian officials.

"We've still got a lot of unwinding to do from the debates at the end of the Vietnam War," Webb said. "But this restores his honor."

Read more at PostPolitics.com.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company