Effort to restore honor of Vietnam-era general hits resistance

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 8:05 AM

An official push to rehabilitate the reputation of a long-deceased Air Force general has hit a wall in the Senate, where some of the most influential names in U.S. foreign policy are tangling, once again, over fateful decisions from the Vietnam War.

After years of trying, the family of Gen. John D. Lavelle thought it had achieved a breakthrough in August, when the White House formally asked the Senate to restore his honor, 38 years after the four-star commander was fired and demoted in rank to major general for allegedly ordering rogue bombings of North Vietnam.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were sympathetic to the family's argument - that the bombings were carried out on secret orders from the chain of command, all the way up to President Richard M. Nixon - and pledged prompt action.

But the Lavelle case has now bogged down on Capitol Hill. And unless the Senate acts in the waning moments of its lame-duck session, the general's ailing 92-year-old widow and children fear that their efforts to clear his name will fail.

"Neither the Lavelle children nor my firm are going to permit a second injustice to be suffered by General and Mrs. Lavelle in the Senate Armed Services Committee," said Patrick A. Casey, a lawyer representing the general's family. "The staff has been given the truth; we expect a public vote while Mrs. Lavelle is alive."

Standing in the general's corner are the Obama administration, the Pentagon, the Air Force and a former CIA director who once sided against him. Also expressing sympathy: a president's uncensored voice from the grave.

(Listen to the Nixon/Kissinger tapes)

In a series of Oval Office conversations that he secretly recorded, Nixon can be heard lamenting to his aides how Lavelle was unfairly taking the blame for the bombings.

"It's just a hell of a damn. And it's a bad rap for him, Henry," Nixon told his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, on June 14, 1972. "Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing?"

"All of this goddamn crap about Lavelle!" Nixon shouted four months later to Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. "All he did was hit the goddamn SAM [surface-to-air missile] sites and military targets."

Lavelle's case, however, has run into resistance from key Nixon-era figures, including Kissinger and a former Senate staffer who was instrumental in sanctioning the general four decades ago. They have argued that Nixon's comments are being distorted and that he did not give orders for the bombings in question.

The result is that the case has stalled in the Senate Armed Services Committee and may not come up for a vote, according to sources directly involved in the matter. If the Senate fails to act before the end of its lame-duck session this month, Lavelle's posthumous promotion will be kicked back to the White House.

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