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.
In a telephone interview, Kissinger acknowledged speaking to Senate committee staffers about the case. Although he said he did not try to torpedo the nomination to restore Lavelle to his former rank, he complained that the Obama administration was "dumping" on the Nixon White House by erroneously blaming the former president for Lavelle's actions.
"I do not oppose the nomination of General Lavelle. I have a strong view on a related subject," Kissinger said. "What has been said is that President Nixon went outside the chain of command and authorized military action" in the form of bombings against North Vietnam between November 1971 and February 1972.
"I am opposed to the proposition that it was ordered by President Nixon. That argument is totally false, demonstratively false," he added. "If General Lavelle thought he had other authority, I do not know. I cannot comment on that."
Attorneys for the Lavelle family, however, say that White House tapes show that Nixon did issue the orders, and that Kissinger was well aware.
They cite a Feb. 3, 1972, meeting that Nixon had with Kissinger and Ellsworth F. Bunker, ambassador to South Vietnam. According to a tape of the conversation, Nixon said he wanted his military commanders to expand the rules of engagement for airstrikes in North Vietnam, but to do so in secret.
"You tell them I don't want to beat around any more. Tell 'em," Nixon said, according to the tape. "Do it, but don't say anything."
In addition, attorneys for the Lavelles say the general was personally given the go-ahead for the expanded airstrikes by Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird. In a 2007 letter to Air Force Magazine, Laird acknowledged as much, saying it was "certainly true" that he had given Lavelle "new orders" regarding the bombings.
The Lavelle attorneys also say the general received separate authorization in classified message traffic - copies of which they obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military superiors.
Among those superiors: Adm. John S. McCain Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Today, his son, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
In August, McCain and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, issued a joint statement saying that they were "sympathetic" to the White House's request to restore Lavelle to the rank of a four-star general and that they would "act expeditiously."
"After their decades-long fight to restore General Lavelle's honor, his wife Mary Josephine and her family deserve prompt action," the senators said.
Asked to explain why the committee still had not acted four months later, McCain's spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said the panel was "actively working to evaluate the merits on the nomination."
"The facts surrounding General Lavelle's retirement were part of a complex historical record that included numerous Senate hearings, various testimony and conflicting accounts," she added. She did not respond to a question about whether McCain's views had been affected by his father's role.
A Democratic staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee said that "the matter has become more complex than we initially expected" but that the panel's staff hoped to finish its review "shortly."
Lavelle, nicknamed "Smiling Jack," became commander of U.S. air operations in Vietnam in July 1971. At the time, peace talks were underway and rules of engagement prohibited pilots from firing on targets in North Vietnam unless they were under attack or tracked by radar.
In April 1972, the Air Force announced that the general was retiring for health reasons. In fact, word soon leaked out that he had been demoted for ordering 28 unauthorized bombing missions.
Although Lavelle avoided court-martial, the Senate denied a request to allow him to retire with his four stars. He died in 1979, insisting to the end that he was merely following orders.
Lavelle's children say a reverse vote by the Senate would finally lift the stain on his reputation, adding that the sting of what happened 38 years ago has never gone away. "You don't forget it, ever," said one of his daughters, Jere Enloe, of Orlean, Va. "The pain was unreal."
But doubts about Lavelle persist. Charles A. Stevenson, a Johns Hopkins University lecturer who worked as a staffer for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1972, has urged lawmakers to oppose Lavelle's restoration of rank.
The evidence cited by Lavelle's attorneys, he said in an interview, is ambiguous, at best. He pointed to other White House tapes and government records that demonstrate that Nixon and Kissinger desperately wanted to avoid bombings in North Vietnam before the president's historic trip to China in February 1972.
Stevenson also noted that Nixon blew a lot of hot air in his Oval Office meetings, rants that shouldn't be mistaken as official policy.
"Nixon said an awful lot of things to his staff, that his staff wisely did not implement," Stevenson said. "Nixon had a practice of saying outrageous things as if they were orders."
Other former players in the Lavelle case, however, have changed their minds and now say it is time to correct an injustice.
Former CIA director R. James Woolsey led the Senate's investigation into Lavelle in 1972, when he served as chief counsel to the Armed Services Committee. He has met with the committee's present-day staff to argue onLavelle's behalf.
If the panel had known in 1972 what it knows now, he said, it would have "definitely" sided with the general.
"I don't think the committee ever felt that Lavelle was trying to cover up," Woolsey said. "They thought that on his own he had stretched the rules of engagement, when in fact he was told to by the secretary of defense."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.