Air Force General John D. Lavelle (right) [here standing next to one of the greatest haters of the 20th century, Sen. John Stennis (D, Miss.)] made the rounds of the Senate in 1972, hoping to defend himself against charges of violating orders in the case of stepped-up bombings in North Vietnam.
As a history professor, and one who specializes in American history, the enigma that was Richard Nixon has always fascinated me. Perhaps no one captured Nixon better than the late Stephen Ambrose, in his three-volume biography of Nixon. The narcissism, paranoia, hubris, genius, and downright confounding riddle that was Nixon is brilliantly captured by Ambrose, and I highly recommend the trilogy to anyone interested in learning about Nixon. Actually, Nixon could have learned a lot about himself by reading the books.
Recently, one of those facets of Nixon's personality - perhaps more than one - revealed itself. It involves the name and reputation of a man dead 31 years now. His name was Air Force General John D. Lavelle.
Days before Nixon's plumbers broke into the Watergate hotel - bringing about the crisis of Nixon's abbreviated second term - the crisis of the first Nixon term dominated the news: Vietnam. By that summer of 1972, Lavelle's name and reputation had been thoroughly skewered thanks to numerous investigations by the Pentagon and Congress into 'unauthorized' bombings in North Vietnam. In the end, all of the investigations pointed to one thing: Lavelle - a four-star commander - had ordered the North Vietnamese bombings, and then tried to cover them up. His punishment was to be demoted to major general and forced into early retirement.
At the time - and until his death in 1979 - Lavelle maintained a stoic defense, saying he was acting on orders. No one believed him and he died with that blemish on his name, reputation and military career.
Now - 38 years later - we learn that he was telling the truth when he said he was following orders. As often happens in such cases, the government now says a Gilda Radner-like "Never mind", restores Lavelle's military rank and the man has his reputation back posthumously. Gee, thanks.
What does this have to do with Richard Nixon? Well, it turns out that the 38th President of the United States knew damned well that Lavelle was following orders. He knew for one very good reasons: he was the one who'd given the orders. And yet Nixon lifted not one pinky finger to help Lavelle. Granted, it would have been a political disaster for Nixon to make an admission he had ordered the bombings in North Vietnam. Indeed, while Nixon could have personally murdered someone on live television and still defeated his 1972 Democratic opponent, Sen. George McGovern [SD], an admission that Nixon was behind the bombings almost certainly would have destroyed Nixon's second term before Watergate had the opportunity to do so. Because of that reality, Nixon did nothing to clear Lavelle.
How do we know this? From an exhaustive reexamination of Lavelle's actions,thanks to historical records unearthed by accident. That evidence shows that Lavelle was indeed acting on orders to conduct the bombing missions and that the orders came from Nixon himself [although Lavelle went to his grave never knowing that they came directly from Nixon].
The proof of this - or one piece of evidence pointing to the truth - comes from transcripts of recorded Oval Office conversations, i.e. the Nixon tapes. The tapes demonstrate that - not only did Nixon give the secret orders, but that he stood by, as Lavelle suffered as the scapegoat.
To be fair, Nixon actually agonized over his silence. "I just don't want [Lavelle] to be made a goat, goddamnit," Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, on June 14, 1972. This was three days before the ill-fated Watergate break-in, and just a few days after it was disclosed that Lavelle had been demoted for the allegedly unauthorized attacks. Nixon went on to tell Kissinger, "You, you destroy a man's career. . . . Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing?" Then, June 26th, Nixon had another conversation with Kissinger. "Frankly, Henry, I don't feel right about our pushing [Lavelle] into this thing and then, and then giving him a bad rap. I don't want to hurt an innocent man."
Despite this Hamlet-worthy soliloquy, however, Nixon was unwilling to stand up publicly for the general. Five months before facing the voters, Nixon wasn't about to admit that he had secretly given permission to escalate bombing in North Vietnam.
Nixon took it a step further, blatantly lying at a June 29th news conference. When he was asked about Lavelle's case and the airstrikes Nixon said, "[The bombing decision] wasn't authorized. It was proper for [Lavelle] to be relieved and retired."
While Lavelle took responsibility for the military consequences of the bombings, he said they were justified to protect U.S. air patrols and surveillance missions over North Vietnam. Lavelle insisted that he never exceeded his authority. He said he was following rules of engagement communicated to him by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington as well as by Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird and Gen. Creighton Abrams. Like Nixon, those men did nothing to save Lavelle. "It is not pleasant to contemplate ending a long and distinguished military career with a catastrophic blemish on my record," Lavelle told Congress in 1972, "a blemish for conscientiously doing the job I was expected to do."
The saga of the truth about Lavelle began in 2007, when Aloysius Casey, a retired Air Force general, and his son, Patrick Casey, began research for an article both were writing for Air Force Magazine about the Lavelle case. While researching a biography about a different Air Force commander, the Caseys came across audio recordings of Nixon's conversations as well as now-declassified message traffic from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The material, they concluded, showed that Lavelle had "unequivocal authorization" from Nixon and senior military officials to conduct the North Vietnam airstrikes in late 1971 and early 1972.
The Caseys presented their findings to Lavelle's widow, Mary Jo, now 91-years old. They also told the couple's seven children. The family retained the younger Casey, a Pennsylvania lawyer, to help them ask the Air Force to reopen the case and restore Lavelle to the rank of full general.
The Lavelles applied to the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records. Surprisingly, the board endorsed Lavelle's exoneration in 2009. That decision was separately upheld by Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Finally, on August 4, 2010, President Obama gave his support as well. The case will now go to the Senate for final approval.
"Jack was a good man, a good husband, a good father, and a good officer," Mary Jo Lavelle said in a statement to the Washington Post. "I wish he was alive to hear this news."
Air Force officials said the Lavelle family does not stand to benefit financially from his posthumous promotion because - although he was demoted - military personnel rules in effect at the time enabled Lavelle to retire with a full pension.
With Senate confirmation, he will now have his full reputation back as well. While Nixon's reputation takes yet another - well-deserved - hit.
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