General Exonerated For Vietnam-Era Bombings

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to posthumously restore Air Force Maj. Gen. John Lavelle to the rank of general more than three decades after allegations he ordered the unauthorized bombing of North Vietnam.

Lavelle, who was reduced in rank in 1972, denied those charges until the day he died in 1979. But only recently, tape recordings revealed that the strikes were authorized by the White House.

Lavelle was in charge of U.S. air operations in Vietnam in 1972. His pilots were increasingly getting hit by North Vietnamese fire, and he wanted to strike back harder.

Defense Secretary Melvin Laird visited Vietnam and gave Lavelle approval to go ahead. There was a follow-up written approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But all that remained secret until three years ago, when researchers found tapes -- maintained by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum -- of Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Their conversation from 1972 indicates Lavelle had White House approval for the stepped-up bombing.

Nixon: Well, let me ask you about Lavelle. I was, I had it on my list this morning. I just don't want him to be made a goat goddamnit.

Kissinger: Right, I'll tell you what.

Nixon: We all know what protective reaction is, this damn Laird ... playing games ...

Kissinger: What happened with Lavelle was he had reason to believe that we wanted ... aggressive steps.

Nixon: Right, that's right.

Congress didn't know that -- nor did Air Force investigators who learned of the increased bombings and went after Lavelle.

Lavelle was recalled to Washington and relieved of command. He was unable to get a meeting with either Laird or top Air Force officials to defend himself.

His defense would only come secretly, in that Oval Office meeting in June. Nixon continued to talk to Kissinger about Lavelle.

Nixon: But come back to Lavelle. I don't want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. I just don't want it done. ... Now, what is this situation? ... This sounds, connects the feelings with making the guy a goat now. It's just not right.

That concern didn't find its way into Nixon's public statements. At a news conference just a few days after that White House conversation with Kissinger, Nixon told reporters Lavelle never got approval for the increased bombing. Lavelle, Nixon said, deserved what he got.

"It was proper for him to be relieved and retired," Nixon said.

Now, 38 years later, the same committee that demoted Lavelle is moving to restore his rank to general.

"We ... plan to act expeditiously on the matter," Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "After their decades-long fight to restore Gen. Lavelle's honor, his wife, Mary Josephine, and her family deserve prompt action."

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