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Decades-long push for a general's exoneration gains new urgency

In 1972, four-star Air Force Gen. John D. Lavelle was demoted and relieved of command for allegedly ordering rogue bombings in North Vietnam. His son hopes his rank will be restored while the general's ailing widow, 92, is alive to see it.

December 22, 2010|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Gen. John D. Lavelle, shown in 1972, was accused of ordering a rogue bombing campaign against North Vietnam. A petition seeks to exonerate him.
Gen. John D. Lavelle, shown in 1972, was accused of ordering a rogue bombing… (Associated Press )

Dennis Lavelle was in high school in 1972 when his father, John D. Lavelle, an Air Force four-star general known as "Smiling Jack," was stripped of two stars and relieved of his command for allegedly ordering a rogue bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

The general, devastated by the demotion, went to his grave in 1979 insisting that the bombings were ordered by superiors. For 38 years, Dennis Lavelle, a management specialist in Paso Robles, has been fighting along with his widowed mother and six siblings to renew the general's honor.

Now, with 92-year-old Mary Jo Lavelle in precarious health after a hospital stay in Virginia this week, the family is pressing the Senate Armed Services Committee to act quickly on a petition to restore Lavelle's rank and reputation while his widow is still alive.

The Obama White House backs the family, which has a new trove of Pentagon documents that their lawyer says prove Lavelle was following orders. And recently released Nixon White House tapes reveal that President Nixon regretted that Lavelle had been wrongly blamed and made "a goat," or scapegoat.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking minority member, promised to "act expeditiously," saying Lavelle's widow and children "deserve prompt action." Because it was the armed services committee that had demoted Lavelle in 1972, it has the authority to restore his rank.

But the panel only has until the end of the lame-duck session of Congress, which could be Wednesday. And the vote to restore Lavelle's rank is not a sure thing.

Former national security advisor Henry Kissinger and a former committee staffer have told the panel that Nixon never issued formal orders for the bombings and that Lavelle repeatedly violated existing orders.

"Time is running out," said Dennis Lavelle, 56. "The facts speak for themselves."

Gen. Lavelle, who commanded air operations over Vietnam in 1972, said he was authorized to bomb targets in North Vietnam by Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird and by Gen. Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam.

Secret cables obtained by the family's lawyer, Patrick A. Casey, through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered commanders to be more aggressive in bombings.

On Feb. 7, 1972, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Thomas Moorer, told commanders they were authorized to conduct airstrikes against North Vietnam under certain conditions, but the attacks were to be kept secret, Moorer wrote.

R. James Woolsey, a Clinton-era CIA head who was chief counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee that punished Lavelle in 1972, said the new documents convinced him that Lavelle was wrongly accused.

In 2007, former Defense Secretary Laird wrote to Air Force Magazine that he had authorized Lavelle to apply rules of engagement "liberally." Last year, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records concluded that Lavelle had sufficient authorization for the raids and recommended he be restored to four-star rank.

White House tapes show that Nixon and Kissinger decided in early 1972 to expand the rules of engagement to permit more strikes against North Vietnam — but not to inform Congress or the public.

On Feb. 3, 1972, Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, asked Nixon in the Oval Office for expanded authority to bomb surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam.

Referring to Gen. Abrams, who was Lavelle's boss, Nixon told Bunker, "He can hit SAM sites, period, OK? But he is not to do it with a public declaration."

Kissinger urged Bunker to keep the decision secret; Nixon would make his historic visit to China later that month, and news of increased U.S. bombing of China's ally would threaten the trip.

According to the White House tapes:

On June 14, 1972, Nixon expressed regret that Lavelle was being punished.

"I just don't want him to be made a goat," Nixon told Kissinger.

Kissinger said: "What happened with that was, he [Lavelle] had reason to believe that we wanted him to [take] … aggressive steps."

Nixon responded: "That's right. That's right."

On June 26, Nixon told Kissinger: "I don't want to hurt an innocent man."

On Oct. 23, Nixon said he had told Laird to bomb targets without first being attacked, adding, "Lavelle apparently knew that, and received that at one time."

But Nixon refused to defend Lavelle in public. Asked about Lavelle at a news conference on June 29, 1972, Nixon said that because Lavelle had exceeded his authority, "it was proper for him to be relieved and retired."

In a telephone interview this week, Kissinger said Lavelle had no White House authority for the bombings. "There were no authorizations from the president," he said.

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