Commentary: 38 years later, Gen. Lavelle's reputation is restored

You've got to love Richard Nixon's paranoid obsession of taping conversations with his staff; those tapes are gifts that, almost 40 years later, keep on giving.

For example, revelations from recently declassified documents — including Nixon White House tapes — conclusively prove that Gen. John D. Lavelle, father of Paso Robles resident Dennis Lavelle, was railroaded out of the Air Force in 1972, getting busted from a four-star to two-star general while suffering public humiliation at the hands of, yes, The Press.

My colleague Bob Cuddy wrote about Lavelle in February 2007. Here's an update.

Lavelle was a decorated World War II pilot who flew almost 80 European strafing missions behind the stick of a P-47 Thunderbolt. After the war, he climbed the Air Force's ladder of command and was known for his meticulous attention to detail — whether on policy, procedure or personnel. He was, by all accounts, a smart guy.

Lavelle's ascension led him to service as vice commander in chief of Pacific Air Forces, and then to become commander of the 7th Air Force in Vietnam in 1971.

The timing of what happened over the next year is crucial: While running for re-election that year, Nixon was placating the Chinese, while Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was trying to get peace talks going in Paris with the North Vietnamese.

To grease the wheels for these entreaties, the Air Force was told that there would be no pre-emptive bombings against North Vietnamese targets. If the enemy engaged U.S. reconnaissance flights with fighter escorts, then they could have at it. It was called "protective reaction."

This became a problem after the North Vietnamese developed a radar system that could lock onto U.S. aircraft without our pilots knowing it. When casualties mounted, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird — with the White House's blessing — told Lavelle to "liberally interpret" protective reaction in relaxing their rules of engagement, which was a wink-wink form of plausible deniability.

Long story short, by March 1972, Lavelle was accused of filing four false reports and conducting 28 unauthorized missions out of 25,000 sorties. By May, Lavelle had been relieved of command, lost two of his stars and retired.

The Nixon tapes of June 14 show that the president and Kissinger both knew that Lavelle had been hung out to dry.

Nixon: "Let me ask you about Lavelle (he said to Kissinger). …I just don't want him to be made a goat. We all know what protective reaction is."

Nixon: "Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing (Lavelle's ouster) …?"

Kissinger: "Lavelle was removed at the end of March."

Nixon: "Why the hell did this happen?"

On June 26, 1972, Nixon told Kissinger: "Frankly, Henry, I don't feel right about our pushing him (Lavelle) into this thing and then, and then giving him a bad rap. … I don't want to hurt an innocent man."

Newsweek magazine at the time ran a story called "The Private War of General Lavelle" and said it was a "widespread conspiracy," and "scores of pilots, squadron and wing commanders, intelligence and operations officers, and ordinary airmen were caught up in the plot." Time magazine and The Washington Post both said Lavelle had taken the war into his own hands. And George C. Wilson of The Washington Post noted the situation had "obvious grave implications for the nation in this nuclear age."

There you had it: A rogue general running his own sky war in Vietnam — except it wasn't true, none of it.

Although Lavelle explained that he was following policy and protocol until he died in 1979, he was a good soldier until the end and didn't call for an investigation into higher-ups who had made "liberal protective reaction" a policy.

It wasn't until 2007, when Aloysius Casey, a retired Air Force general, and his son, Patrick, wrote an article for Air Force Magazine based on the Nixon tapes that the move to reinstate Lavelle's stars took concrete hold in Washington.

That effort led President Barack Obama last week to ask the Senate Armed Forces Committee to reinstate Lavelle's two stars and restore Lavelle's reputation — 38 years after the fact.

The Pentagon said, " … the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records found no evidence Lavelle caused, either directly or indirectly, the falsification of records, or that he was even aware of their existence."

According to Dennis Lavelle, the Senate Armed Services Committee is the last hurdle to full vindication for his father.

The co-chairs of that committee, Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., released a statement Aug. 5: "The Armed Services Committee has received the president's request to restore retired Air Force Major General John D. Lavelle to the rank of general, upholding the decision by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. We are sympathetic to the request and plan to act expeditiously on the matter."

In an April 1978 interview conducted by the Air Force History Office, Lavelle allowed that the congressional investigation into what was once called the "Lavelle Affair" wasn't thorough or fair.

"If anybody really wanted the total story or wanted the true story, no effort was made to gather it by historians, by the Senate, by the press, by the Air Force."

He added that he shouldn't have acted on private assurances that he'd be supported on "liberal protective reaction" strikes. And with echoes that resonate for today's Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, "Somewhere along there, we just should have said, 'Hey, either fight it or quit, but let's not waste all the money and the lives the way we are doing it.' "

As a final note, Nixon resigned the presidency 36 years ago this week on Aug. 9, 1974, thanks to those tapes that just keep on giving.

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