Senate panel stalls on restoration of Vietnam-era general Lavelle's stars

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 7:23 PM

The ailing widow of a long-deceased Air Force general will have to wait a while longer to find out whether her husband's rank and reputation will be restored by the Senate.

Leaders of a Senate committee announced Wednesday that they were unable to reach a decision on whether to politically rehabilitate Maj. Gen. John D. Lavelle, who was fired and stripped of two stars in 1972 for allegedly authorizing rogue bombings in North Vietnam.

Instead, the Senate Armed Services Committee said it has asked the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to take another look at the case, citing "apparent inconsistencies in the historical record" regarding the actions of Lavelle, his military superiors and the Nixon White House during the Vietnam War.

The Defense Department "should give due consideration to all available information in considering this important nomination," Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman and ranking member of the committee, said in a statement. "We have asked Secretary Gates to do so."

The White House, with the backing of the Pentagon and the Air Force, formally asked the Senate in August to restore Lavelle to the rank of a four-star general. The nomination cited Nixon's taped conversations and declassified military records as evidence that Lavelle had received orders all the way up the chain of command to the White House.

At the time, Senate leaders said they were sympathetic to Lavelle's cause and pledged to act quickly, in part because the general's 92-year-old widow, Mary Josephine, is in poor health. (Lavelle died in 1979, insisting on his innocence to the end.)

But the nomination ran into resistance from other Nixon-era figures, including former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, who asserted that the former president's words were being distorted and that he never gave orders, directly or indirectly, for Lavelle to bomb North Vietnam between November 1971 and February 1972.

Another opponent was Charles A. Stevenson, a Johns Hopkins University lecturer who worked as a staffer for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1972. He cited recently released State Department records that were not considered by the Pentagon and Air Force when they reviewed a request by Lavelle's family to rehabilitate him posthumously.

"What this looks like to me is they're saying, 'You've got to redo your work,'" Stevenson said Wednesday of the Senate committee. "Obviously, I think there's enough evidence to reject the nomination."

But Patrick A. Casey, a lawyer representing Lavelle's wife and children, said the records cited by Stevenson "fully vindicated" the general.

"The Lavelle family lawyers seek the opportunity to come before the Senate Armed Services Committee to fully discuss the record, and look forward to a decision by a public vote," Casey said in an e-mail.

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