WASHINGTON — It was the scandal du jour. The year was 1972, the Vietnam War was still raging, nearing its bitter finale, and the Congress and press were in full-throated pursuit of a supposedly "rogue" general who'd exceeded his authority and waged his own air war over North Vietnam. There were false intelligence reports from the battlefield, to boot.
Air Force Gen. John D. Lavelle would be recalled from Saigon, busted down two grades in rank, to major general, and forced to retire. Special inquiries by the House and Senate would follow.
In the White House, however, where President Richard Nixon was gearing up for reelection, a different story was known — and discussed behind closed doors by the president and top aides Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig.
Nixon had, in fact, authorized Lavelle, the commander of the Seventh Air Force, to conduct what were known as "protective reaction strikes" — airstrikes on surface-to-air missile positions and other North Vietnamese emplacements threatening U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, even though at the time, the United States had halted the bombing of North Vietnam to encourage peace talks.
Secret White House tape recordings, reported by Air Force Magazine in February 2007, show that Nixon knew Lavelle was getting a raw deal, but for political reasons, the president shied away from intervening.
"Frankly, Henry, I don't feel right about our pushing him into this thing and then, and then giving him a bad rap," Nixon told Kissinger on June 26, 1972, as the Senate was preparing hearings on the issue.
Nixon concluded: "I want to keep it away if I can ... but I don't want to hurt an innocent man."
On Wednesday, more than 38 years after Lavelle was forced into retirement, and 30 years after his death, President Barack Obama nominated the general posthumously for advancement to the grade of four-star general. The nomination must still be approved by the same Senate which in 1972 refused Lavelle's request to be retired as a lieutentant general rather than major general.
A Defense Department press release cited the 2007 release of Nixon-era documents that showed "Lavelle was authorized by President Richard Nixon to conduct the bombing missions."
"Records found no evidence Lavelle caused, either directly or indirectly, the falsification of records, or that he was even aware of their existence," the statement continued.
Another facet of the case against Lavelle were four false intelligence reports filed by a Thailand-based air wing under Lavelle's command that reported hostile enemy action in response to the raids.
Those false reports, however, were based on a misunderstanding of Lavelle's orders. Once he learned of them, "Lavelle took action to ensure the practice was discontinued," the statement said.
Beth Gosselin, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Gen. Lavelle's family petitioned the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records in September 2008 for restoration of his rank. That panel found in October 2009 that his retirement rank was the result of "a material error," and passed its recommendation to the Secretary of the Air Force. It then went to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ultimately, Obama.
Efforts to contact Lavelle's family were unsuccessful, but The Associated Press quoted Lavelle's widow, Mary Jo Lavelle, 91, as thanking all involved.
"Jack was a good man, a good husband, a good father and a good officer," she said. "I wish he was alive to hear this news."
The debate over the rules of engagement for U.S. military aircraft over North Vietnam has a faint echo in today's controversy over U.S. forces' rules of engagement for using hostile force in Afghanistan.
From the available historical record, it seems clear that Lavelle pushed for maximum flexibility to conduct pre-emptive strikes against North Vietnamese targets threatening U.S. aircraft, as the North Vietnamese gathered forces for the 1972 "Easter invasion" of South Vietnam.
Lavelle told Congress, however, that in late 1971, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird had instructed him to "make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement."
In a May 2007 letter to Air Force magazine, Laird confirmed Lavelle's version of events.
"The new orders permitted hitting anti-aircraft installations and other dangerous targets if spotted on their missions, whether they were activated or not," Laird wrote. In other words, U.S. military aircraft did not have to be fired upon first before action could be taken.
Lavelle is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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