John Daniel Lavelle
General, United States Air Force
During the summer of 1972, official Washington was dragging Air Force General John D. Lavelle's name and reputation through the mud. Multiple investigations by the Pentagon and Congress concluded that the four-star commander had ordered unauthorized bombing missions in North Vietnam and then tried to cover them up. He was demoted to major general and forced to retire, in disgrace.
On Wednesday, after an exhaustive reexamination of Lavelle's actions, President Obama asked the Senate to restore his honor and his missing stars. The decision officially sets the record straight about who really lied during the controversial chapter in the Vietnam War, who told the truth and who was left holding the bag.
Historical records unearthed by two biographers who came across the material by happenstance show that Lavelle was indeed acting on orders to conduct the bombing missions and that the orders came from the commander in chief himself: President Richard M. Nixon.
Not only did Nixon give the secret orders, but transcripts of his recorded Oval Office conversations show that he stood by, albeit uncomfortably, as Lavelle suffered a scapegoat's fate.
"I just don't want him to be made a goat, goddamnit," Nixon told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, on June 14, 1972, a few days after it was disclosed that Lavelle had been demoted for the allegedly unauthorized attacks. "You, you destroy a man's career. . . . Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing?"
On June 26, Nixon's conscience intervened in another conversation with Kissinger. "Frankly, Henry, I don't feel right about our pushing him into this thing and then, and then giving him a bad rap," the president said. "I don't want to hurt an innocent man."
But Nixon was unwilling to stand up publicly for the general. With many lawmakers and voters already uneasy about the war, he wasn't about to admit that he had secretly given permission to escalate bombing in North Vietnam. At a June 29 news conference, he was asked about Lavelle's case and the airstrikes.
"It wasn't authorized," Nixon told the reporters. "It was proper for him to be relieved and retired."
In testimony and in interviews before his death in 1979, Lavelle took responsibility for the military consequences of the bombings, which he said were justified to protect U.S. air patrols and surveillance missions over North Vietnam. But he 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 Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird and General Creighton Abrams. (There is no evidence that Lavelle ever knew that the directive originated with Nixon.)
"It is not pleasant to contemplate ending a long and distinguished military career with a catastrophic blemish on my record," Lavelle told Congress, "a blemish for conscientiously doing the job I was expected to do."
Removal of that blemish began in 2007, when Aloysius Casey, a retired Air Force general, and his son, Patrick Casey, wrote an article in Air Force Magazine about the case. While researching a biography about another Air Force commander, the Caseys came across audio recordings of Nixon's conversations as well as 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 findings were presented to Lavelle's widow, Mary Jo, now 91 and a resident of Marshall, Virginia, as well as the couple's seven children. The family retained Patrick 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, which endorsed the general's exoneration last year. That decision was separately upheld by Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. On Wednesday, 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 Wednesday. "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. Although he was demoted, military personnel rules in effect at the time enabled Lavelle to retire with a full pension, said Beth Gosselin, an Air Force spokeswoman.
Senator James Webb (D-Virginia), a Vietnam combat veteran who had urged the Air Force to hear Lavelle's petition, said the case is an example of the frustrations encountered by military commanders during Vietnam who thought they were given conflicting directions from lawmakers and civilian officials.
"We've still got a lot of unwinding to do from the debates at the end of the Vietnam War," Webb said. "But this restores his honor."
RECORD OF PROCEEDINGS
The new orders permitted hitting anti-aircraft
installations and other dangerous targets if spotted on their missions,
A former Congressional member of the House
Armed Services Committee reviewed the new evidence and indicated, 'If I
Applicant's complete submission, with attachments, is at Exhibit A.
STATEMENT OF FACTS:
Under the 1968 Rules of Engagement (ROE) , planes could not open fire or drop their bombs unless they were: 1) fired upon by anti-aircraft emplacements, 2) engaged by MiG fighters in the air, or 3) threatened by surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. Pilots could readily tell when they were in danger from SAMs because an indicator on their control panel would automatically light-up when a SAM'S tracking radar locked onto their planes. Any of these three conditions entitled pilots to take "protective reactions" and to use their ordnance against the enemy. For years Hanoi had utilized a nationwide Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system, which when working properly could detect most U.S. planes long before crossing the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) . However, in mid-December 1971, Hanoi began "netting" the radar into the lock-on radar capability of each local SAM site; thereby, alerting the SAM crews when a U.S. plane was coming within range. As a result, the general system guided missiles could destroy U.S. aircraft without the SAM sites using their own radar, which provided no warning to U.S. aircrews.
On 1 August 1971, the member was appointed
to the grade of (temporary) general and was assigned as the Commander,
The CSAF offered him the option of reassignment
at his permanent grade (lieutenant general), or retirement. On 31 March
1972, the member applied for retirement. A Medical Evaluation Board (MEB)
convened on 5 April 1972 based
On 12 June 1972, the Armed Services Investigating
Subcommittee for the Committee on Armed Services House of Representatives,
held a hearing to investigate the specific "irregularities. " The CSAF
and the member were the only witnesses. The
AIR FORCE EVALUATION:
During the intense Congressional and media
scrutiny of the member's alleged usurpation of civilian control of the
military, President Nixon repeatedly told his senior staff that he did
not want the member to be "made the goat" for doing what he had been ordered
to do. Nevertheless, President Nixon ultimately did nothing to follow through
or intervene in what was happening to the member. The information contained
in the White House tapes corroborated what the member had maintained all
along, i.e., that he had been authorized to bomb the targets and to instruct
Air Force crews to file post-mission reports characterizing the attacks
as they did.
Much weight is given to the statement from
the former SASC general Counsel that had the information been released,
The AF/JAA evaluation is at Exhibit C.
Counsel's complete response is at Exhibit E.
4. The applicant's case is adequately documented
and it has not been shown that a personal appearance with or without counsel
THE BOARD RECOMMENDS THAT:
The following members of the Board considered
Mrs. Mary J. Lavelle
Dear Mrs. Lavelle
Your application to the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, AFBCMRBC-2008-03624, has been finalized. The Board determined that the military records should be corrected as set forth in the attached copy of a Memorandum for the Chief of Staff United States Air Force.
Please be aware that it is beyond the authority of the Department of the Air Force to retire General Lavelle in the grade of general (0-10). Such action will require Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. However, the appropriate Air Force office will take the action required to initiate the nomination, confirmation and appointment process.
In the event General Lavelle is advanced to the retired grade of general, the pertinent military records of the Department of the Air Force will be corrected as set forth in the attached memorandum and the office responsible for making the correction will inform you when the records have been changed.
Because of the complexity of the nomination, confirmation and appointment process, you should expect some delay. We assure you, however, that every effort will be made to conclude this matter at the earliest practical date.
PHILLIP ORT TON
He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, United States Army Air Corps, 1940, and advanced through the grades to Major General, United States Air Force, 1965. He was commander, 6411th Supply Group, Tachikawa Air Force Base, Japan, 1951-52; 568th Air Defense Group, McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, 1952-53; Deputy Commander and Commander, 1611th ATW, McGuire AFB, 1954-56; Deputy Director of Requirements, Headquarters, USAF, 1957-58; Weapons Board, USAF, 1969-61; Deputy Director of Programs, USAF, 1961-62; Director, Aerospace Programs, USAF, 1964-66; Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Headquarters, 4th Tactical Air Force (NATO), Ramstein AFB, Germany, 1962-64; Commander, 17th Air Force, from 1966; later commanded the 7th Air Force in Southeast Asia.
He retired as a Lieutenant General in 1972. He had been a full General but was reduced in rank after a controversy over his command style in Vietnam when it was alleged that he had overstepped his command authority in ordering bombing runs in and around that country. During his career, he was awarded the Legion of Merit with 2 oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, and the Belgian Fourragere.
He resided in Fairfax, Virginia, and died on
July 10, 1979. He is buried in Section 11 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Photo (c) Michael Robert Patterson, September 1999
Courtesy of the United States Air Force
JOHN D. LAVELLE
General John Daniel Lavelle was commander of Seventh Air Force, with headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Airfield, Republic of Vietnam. He is also deputy commander for air operations, U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. As Seventh Air Force commander, he is responsible for all Air Force combat air strike, air support and air defense operations in mainland Southeast Asia. In his MACV capacity, he advises on all matters pertaining to effective use of tactical air support and coordinated Vietnamese Air Force and U.S. air operations of all units in the MACV area of responsibility.
General Lavelle was born in 1916, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended Cathedral Latin High School, and graduated from John Carroll University in 1938 with a bachelor of science degree. In 1939 he enlisted as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps and received pilot training at Randolph and Kelly fields, Texas. He received his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in June 1940.
He returned to Randolph Field as a flying instructor and in 1942 was assigned as part of a cadre to open Waco Army Air Field, where he served as squadron commander and director of flying. During World War II he saw combat in the European Theater of Operations, where he served with the 412th Fighter Squadron.
In January 1946 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio, as Deputy Chief of Statistical Services. When the U.S. Air Force was established as a separate Service in 1947, he was one of the two Air Force officers who negotiated with all seven Army Technical Services and wrote the agreements for the division of assets and the operating procedures to be effected during the buildup of the Air Force.
He was assigned in October 1949 as the Director of Management Analysis And later as the comptroller of the Far East Materiel Command at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan. During the Korean War, he was made commander of the Supply Depot at Tachikawa. In this assignment, he was awarded the Legion of Merit for the reorganization of the theater supply system and the establishment of a procedure for control of the transshipment of supplies direct from the United States to Korea.
In November 1952 he was assigned as commander of McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and the 568th Air Defense Group. During his tenure there, the Military Air Transport Service facilities and air terminal were constructed and McGuire Air Force Base became an East Coast aerial port. When the base was transferred to MATS, he became the MATS Transport Wing commander. While at McGuire Air Force Base, he established a community relations program which did much to ease the problems that normally befall an area where a military installation grows from approximately 1,500 to 10,000 personnel. General Lavelle is still considered an honorary citizen of many of the small communities around McGuire and an honorary member of the local Lions International and Kiwanis Club.
He attended the Air War College in 1956-1957 and then spent the next five years at Headquarters U.S. Air Force as deputy director of requirements; secretary of the Weapons Board; and deputy director of programs. While in the Pentagon, he was principally responsible for the reorganization of the Air Force Board system and the establishment of program control through the Program Review Committee and the Weapons Board. He was awarded an oak leaf cluster to his Legion of Merit at the end of this tour of duty.
General Lavelle went to Europe in July 1962 as deputy chief of staff for operations, Headquarters Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, NATO, which was comprised of numbered Air Force-size elements of the German, French and Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. For his accomplishments while in this headquarters, he was awarded a second oak leaf cluster to his Legion of Merit and the "Medaille de Merite Militaire" by France.
In September 1964 General Lavelle was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force as the director of aerospace programs, Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs and Resources. As director, he was principal backup witness in presenting and defending Air Force programs to the congress after such programs had been approved by the secretary of the Air Force and the secretary of defense. In addition, he served as chairman, Air Staff Board, and as chief, Southeast Asia Programs Team.
Command of the Seventeenth Air Force, headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, was General Lavelle's next assignment in July 1966. Seventeenth's operations spanned Germany, Italy and Libya. In this position, General Lavelle commanded a versatile, combat-ready force equipped with supersonic jet fighters and tactical missiles with nuclear, conventional and air-to-air capabilities. Seventeenth Air Force is a NATO-committed major subcommand of USAFE, one of America's strongest overseas air arms and a primary instrument of Western defense.
In December 1967 General Lavelle was assigned to the Defense Communications Planning Group located at the Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C., where he served as the Deputy Director for Forces. In February 1968 he assumed duties as the director of the Defense Communications Planning Group.
General Lavelle was assigned as vice commander in chief, Pacific Air Forces, with headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii in September 1970. He served in that capacity until assuming command of Seventh Air Force July 29, 1971.
He is a
command pilot. His military decorations and awards include the Distinguished
Service Medal, Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal
with oak leaf cluster and Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster.
LEADERSHIP BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
MAJ LEE E. DEREMER, USAF
Integrity requires the courage of sometimes
saying no-or at least apersistent asking "why?"- from all of us to others
of us who institute unexamined regulations that often require "no-win"
solutions for both the system and personal integrity.
WHAT IF AN operational leader told you that he had such conflicting demands that he was in a "no-win" dilemma? He could satisfy either demand but not both-and to fail to satisfy either would exact great professional and personal cost.Most people would say something like, "Sure, there's a solution. You just haven't considered all your options. Innovate. Improvise." Whatever the words, the message would be the same: find a solution. We expect that; it's our culture.
Our mind-set envisions success in spite of external constraints. The overriding assumption is that solutions to dilemmas do exist and that these solutions will be honorable to all parties without sacrificing the mission. A further assumption is the existence of clearly right and wrong choices in such dilemmas.
Life is not always so tidy. High military rank is often accompanied by competing or even conflicting interests. Problems can arise for which no painless options exist. For example, an organization's integrity may conflict with constraints that diminish the unit's safety and mission accomplishment. If that is the case, these demands are mutually exclusive. Since we can't compromise integrity, we must find a solution to the dilemma by changing the constraints. If that isn't possible, then rather than compromise integrity, leaders must sacrifice themselves professionally to change the constraints in order to resolve the dilemma and preserve the mission and the safety of their people.
Consider operational leaders faced with the legitimate concern for the effectiveness and safety of people under their command and with externally imposed constraints that not only complicate the mission but also unnecessarily imperil their people. These leaders face two realities. First, they don't have a lot of options. Second, none of the options are attractive.
General John D. Lavelle faced such a dilemma toward the close of the Vietnam War. As the commander of Seventh Air Force, he was responsible for conducting the air war in Southeast Asia. He was relieved of command on 6 April 1972. The problems he faced, the solution he chose, and the ramifications of his choices offer us lessons about decision making. This honorable officer would be retired as a major general rather than full general-the rank he held as commander of Seventh Air Force. Never before had such an action occurred in American military history
When General Lavelle assumed command of Seventh Air Force in Saigon, South Vietnam, on 1 August 1971, he inherited rules of engagement (ROE) that had evolved over three years. The ROE maintained the basic restrictions of a 1968 agreement by the Johnson administration and consisted of directives, wires, and messages defining the conditions under which US aircraft could attack enemy aircraft or weapons systems. Seventh Air Force consolidated those directives into a manual of "operating authorities" and disseminated it to the units. Aircrews received briefings on the ROE prior to each mission.
Essentially, aircrews could not fire unless they were threatened. Enemy surface-to-air missiles (SAM) or antiaircraft artillery (AAA) had to "activate against" aircrews before they could respond with a "protective reaction strike." Warning gear installed in the planes alerted aircrews that an enemy SAM firing site was tracking them.
American aircrews lost this advantage late in 1971, when the North Vietnamese took several actions to vastly improve their tracking capability, the most important being the integration of their early warning, surveillance, and AAA radars with the SAM sites. This integrated system allowed the North Vietnamese to launch their missiles without being detected by the radar warning gear of US aircraft.
General Lavelle believed that because those mutually supporting radar systems transmitted tracking data to the firing sites, the SAM system was activated against US aircraft anytime they were over North Vietnam. He also learned, through the bitter experience of losing planes and crews on two occasions, that US aircraft were much less likely to evade SAMs when the radars were so netted. He later testified that this experience provided sufficient rationale for planned protective-reaction strikes, noting that "the system was constantly activated against us."
The North Vietnamese also improved their tactics by using ground controlled intercept (GCI) radars to track US aircraft. Azimuth information developed by GCI surveillance was fed to fire-control radars. This netting effectively eliminated tracking with the Fan Song radar and allowed more than one missile site to be directed against a single US aircraft. General Lavelle later testified to Congress that he "alerted his superiors to the enemy's netting of his radars and advised them that the North Vietnamese now possessed the capability of firing with little or no warning."
The air war had changed. General Lavelle made repeated and futile attempts to get the ROE changed to reflect the new threat to his aircrews and planes. However, not only did Washington refuse to change the ROE but the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) severely criticized General Lavelle for a lack of aggressiveness in fighting the air war. He received a personal visit from the chairman of the JCS, who made it clear that he was to find ways of prosecuting the war more aggressively within the constraints of the ROE. The general had a problem. What took priority: the ROE or the safety and effectiveness of his command?
He chose the latter, authorizing a strike on 7 November 1971-the first of 20 to 28 missions from that date to 9 March 1972. Regarding these missions, Lavelle stated that he "made interpretations of the ROE that were probably beyond the literal intention of the rules." Each strike involved six to eight aircraft, for a total of 147 sorties out of approximately 25,000 flown during the period. Each mission attacked missile sites, missiles on transporters, airfields, 122 mm and 130 mm guns, or radars.
In response to a JCS inquiry about Seventh Air Force's authority to strike a GCI site on 5 January 1972, General Lavelle replied that, since his aircraft were authorized to hit radars that controlled missiles or AAA, he believed they were also authorized to strike GCI radars that controlled enemy aircraft. He later received another JCS message that, although sympathetic, said he had no authority to strike a GCI radar and that he should order no such strike again.
When a leader starts cuttingcorners in integrity (intentionally or unintentionally), that action can pervade the entire organization.
Although amended on 26 January 1972 to authorize strikes against primary GCI sites when airborne MiGs indicated hostile intent, the ROE still didn't address the netted SAM threat. This amendment was as close as General Lavelle got to persuading the JCS to adopt satisfactory rules of engagement.
On 8 March 1972, a senator forwarded to the Air Force chief of staff a letter written by an Air Force sergeant-an intelligence specialist in Seventh Air Force. It alleged ROE violations and ongoing falsification of daily reports on missions. The Air Force inspector general (IG) flew to Saigon to investigate the matter and confirmed that "irregularities existed in some of 7th Air Force's operational reports." General Lavelle immediately stopped all strikes in question and assigned three men to find a way to continue the protective-reaction sorties but report them accurately. The conclusion was that this couldn't be done.
On 23 March 1972, General Lavelle was offered reassignment at his permanent grade of major general or retirement. He opted for retirement, effective 7 April 1972. Little did he know what lay ahead.
The Air Force, having already announced that General Lavelle retired for personal reasons, would be forced to admit on 15 May 1972, after congressional inquiry, that the general had not only retired but had also been relieved of command because of "irregularities in the conduct of his command." This revelation led to hearings before the Armed Services Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services.
In his statements before the committee, General Lavelle convincingly maintained that he did not order the falsification of any reports. Although he insisted throughout the investigations by the Air Force and Congress that he learned of the falsified reports only after the IG investigation, as commander, he accepted full responsibility for those reports.
Reports on four of the missions were found to contain falsehoods. General Lavelle stated that he traced the probable cause of the false reporting to the first protective-reaction strike, which he had directed from the operations center. When his lead pilot reported by radio that the target had been destroyed and that they had encountered no enemy reaction, the general stated, "We cannot report `no reaction.'" As General Lavelle explained, "I could report enemy reaction, because we were reacted upon all the time [with the existence of the upgraded radar]." Unfortunately, since his instructions to the pilot were vague, aircrews made false statements on some subsequent operational reports.
Congress accepted General Lavelle's explanation of the confusion over his intent regarding the reporting of the protective-reaction strikes-but only after many months of inquiry. By that time, few people were interested in clearing his name; consequently, General Lavelle would be remembered as someone who disregarded the ROE, fought his own unauthorized war, and made everyone falsify reports to keep it secret.
Although none of these allegations appear to
be true, General Lavelle did make mistakes. His first was failing to make
clear that Seventh Air Force demanded absolute integrity of its people.
Had he done so, there would have been no mistaking his intent concerning
operational reports. Indeed, such action might have had the effect of curbing
widespread practices-unknown at the time-that were compromising the military's
integrity. Specifically, widespread disclosures were made of illegal bombing
and falsification of official records of these illegal raids, which had
been going on for years before General Lavelle even appeared on the scene.
These revelations caused the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
to drop his probe in August 1973. According to the chairman,
His second mistake lay in choosing to work around the ROE to accomplish the mission yet keep his crews safe. That meant bending the unrealistic ROE, an action that produced both positive and negative results.
From a positive viewpoint, despite the vastly improved North Vietnamese air defenses, no American lives or aircraft were lost during the raids in question. To that extent, General Lavelle's decision had the desired effect. Ironically, the conditions for protective-reaction strikes-relaxed in January 1972, as mentioned above-were abolished in March 1972, but not before the issue of integrity in reporting would cost General Lavelle his command.
General Lavelle's actions also had negative effects that he had no way of foreseeing. Therein lies the danger of working around bad ROE rather than having them changed. His decision to "interpret the ROE liberally" had several ramifications.
It led to continuing decay of the command's integrity, which contributed to the falsification of operational reports, which led to the sergeant's letter to the senator, which led to the IG investigation, which led to Lavelle's being relieved of command, which the Air Force kept secret, which led to a congressional investigation. This phenomenon is now commonly referred to as the "slippery slope effect." That is, when a leader starts cutting corners in integrity (intentionally or unintentionally), that action can pervade the entire organization.
A commandwide climate of integrity is indispensable.
For General Lavelle, it would get much worse. By this time, he really had no control of events, and some of the ramifications of his actions could have had strategic implications for peace negotiations and the credibility of the armed services.
Specifically, at the same time General Lavelle began strikes on the newly integrated radar-SAM/AAA network, Henry Kissinger was in Paris conducting secret peace talks with the North Vietnamese. General Lavelle had no way of knowing about the talks, and Kissinger didn't know about the bombing. But Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam knew about both. To him, Kissinger was either lying or very poorly informed. Shortly thereafter, the talks broke off abruptly.
General Lavelle, as well as the Air Force, Army, and Navy, would feel shock waves from his operational decision: Lavelle was accused of criminal misconduct; court-martial charges were filed against him and 22 other officers; the nomination of General Creighton Abrams as chief of staff of the Army was delayed for over four months; the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted an extensive and critical look at the command and control structure of the Air Force; General Lavelle's retirement rank was reduced to major general; naval aviators said that they had been involved in protective-reaction raids not authorized by the ROE; Department of Defense IGs now reported directly to the service secretaries rather than to their service chiefs; and the Senate Armed Services Committee placed an indefinite hold on promotions for about 160 Air Force officers. Amazingly, none of the threatened action against any of the affected officers came to fruition. Although the investigations were eventually dropped, they underscore the fact that operational decisions are not made in a vacuum and that negative effects, however unintentional, can be extensive.
History places some people incircumstances that require them to choose either to do the right thing or keep their careers intact.
Instead of choosing between continuing the missions under intolerable circumstances or obeying the poor ROE, General Lavelle could have averted the problems listed above by ceasing operations until authorities changed the ROE to reflect the reality of the threat. Doing so would have meant going outside the chain of command when his superiors were unresponsive-an action that almost surely would have cost him his command. The option existed, but he chose not to take it. As it turned out, he lost his command anyway. Had he lost his command while demanding proper ROE, he would have (1) forced a change in the rules instead of leaving them to chance, (2) provided an example of the importance of taking care of people under our command and maintaining integrity, and (3) avoided the personally and strategically undesirable outcomes he could not foresee.
Two important lessons should be clear for operational leaders. The first is understanding the importance of integrity at all levels of command. The second is accepting the fact that sometimes leaders may have to sacrifice themselves because it's the best thing for the organization, the people, and the country.
The first lesson isn't difficult to understand, but it's tough to apply because choices aren't always clear in positions of increased responsibility. Nevertheless, a commandwide climate of integrity is indispensable. To accept anything less than absolute integrity in personal and professional behavior is to invite breakdowns like the one described by the noncommissioned officer who broke the story on false reports in Seventh Air Force:
We went through the
normal debrief, and when I asked [the aircrew] if they'd received any AAA,
they said, "No, but we have to report it." I went to my NCOIC and asked
This speaks to the possibility of a wide problem. But in October 1972, the Air Force responded quickly and well to the challenge of reestablishing the standard by sending the following message to all units. It's as applicable today as it was then:
full and accurate disclosure-is the keystone of military service. Integrity
binds us together into an Air Force serving the country. Integrity in reporting,
Therefore, we may not compromise our integrity-our truthfulness. To do so is not only unlawful but also degrading. False reporting is a clear example of failure of integrity.Any order to compromise integrity is not a lawful order.
Integrity is the most important responsibility of command. Commanders are dependent on the integrity of those reporting to them in every decision they make. Integrity can be ordered, but it can only be achieved by encouragement and example.
I expect these points
to be disseminated to every individual in the Air Force-every individual.
I trust they help to clarify a standard we can continue to expect, and
That's the kind of message each commander needs to make clear from the outset-the kind of standard people should demand from each other. Still, a valid question remains: "Who can maintain absolute integrity? Not me and not you, so how useful or realistic is such a demand?" The answer begins with other questions. Without such a standard, how would you introduce yourself to your unit? By telling them you expect "really good integrity," "their best effort," "what suits each person"? The point is that the standard for integrity is just that-a standard. None of us will attain it every day, but we gain much by holding it before the unit. Consider this: if the standard doesn't apply fully and continuously, then what good is it as a core value? Its value exists precisely in its utility.
The second lesson is more difficult to discuss because the object of the lesson-sacrificing one's career if circumstances require it-is rather unpalatable. Indeed, people are often ridiculed for taking such a stand. Yet, history places some people in circumstances that require them to choose either to do the right thing or keep their careers intact. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus tells us in Enchiridion, "Remember, you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses-if short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be His pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple, or a ruler, see that you act it well. For this is your business-to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to Another."
Furthermore, we must recognize that playing the part can exact a great price. Doing the right thing doesn't always result in accolades. The Book of Ecclesiastes has a simple, timeless message: "I returned and saw that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise nor riches to men of understanding, nor favors to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all" (9:11). The Book of Job is even more blunt: Job learns that life isn't always fair and that bad things happen to good people. Despite this realization, people must lead-and they must lead within the roles in which history places them.
Abraham Lincoln once remarked that "if you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem." Indeed, as unpleasant as the realization might be, sometimes leaders face dilemmas for which no comfortable solution exists. It's not entirely fair for me to criticize General Lavelle for his decisions, since I didn't experience his dilemma. Indeed, if I had to choose between the alternatives he considered, I probably would have made the same choice.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that even if leaders are faced only with gray areas that offer no clear choice, that still does not absolve them from the dilemma. There is a better choice: demand change. If the issue is important enough, the decision maker should demand resolution of unsatisfactory constraints (in this case, the ROE). Even though this option will likely cost the leaders their careers, it is the best decision for the institution and for the people under their command.
This article represents just the first half of the effort. The follow-up work must be an assessment of command ethics. Once we agree that a climate of integrity is a critical leadership issue, we'll want to measure that climate. Such an assessment must identify valid, reliable indicators of the ethical health of a command. It should highlight positive signs as well as warning flags of behavior that need to be addressed before a problem arises. That, it seems to me, is the key: having enough situational awareness in the command to foresee a problem-or at least to recognize one as it is developing-rather than seeing it only in hindsight.
Each commander can accept this challenge informally
while preparing for new levels of leadership. Measuring how well the challenge
is met might not be possible. That is, ethical lapses might still occur,
and we have no way of knowing whether they would be more severe or more
frequent in the absence of such an effort. What is certain, however, is
that this examination-both before assuming command and during command-can
ultimately groom more professional people and produce more effective units.
I read with interest the article by John Correll on the ouster of General John D. Lavelle (November, page 58). As a Brigadier General in 1968, I was elected by Lavelle as his deputy for operations in the Defense Communications Planning Group (DCPG), which was a cover for the development of seismic and acoustic sensors to detect primarily truck traffic on the roads that made up the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. It was also known as the Igloo White Project. In 1969-70, he sent me to command Task Force Alpha located at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. TFA was the infiltration-surveillance center where sensor data relayed through EC-121 aircraft was processed by large computers — the speed, direction, number, and location of the truck traffic, as well as transshipment and storage areas were sent to FACs to direct immediate strikes and to 7th AF for subsequent Arc Light bomber targeting.
This idea was the brainchild of the Scientific Advisory Board and embraced by McNamara who made it a priority development under the direct control of SECAF Harold Brown and using primarily Air Force funds to budget it. General Ryan thought it a flawed concept and a waste of time and Air Force money.
Harold Brown, on one of his visits to 16th AF at Ramstein, had several briefings by then-Major General Lavelle and was astounded by his detailed knowledge of specifications and functioning of every element of weapons systems and operations in 16th AF in response to his, even trivial, questions. Not once did he need the support of any of his staff. He was the consummate micromanager (as was Brown). Therefore, when the position of director of DCPG came open, he personally appointed Lavelle to the job and promoted him to lieutenant general outside of the AF system. This did not sit well with General Ryan, who did not have the same appreciation of Lavelle’s qualifications as the SECAF.
With his close relationship with Brown and knowing that McNamara wanted to accelerate the Igloo White operational date, Lavelle pushed hard and was able to divert valuable AF assets to his program. This also did not please General Ryan. I attended several meetings between the two, and there was no love lost. It was quite apparent to General Ryan that he had little control over Lavelle with his direct access to DOD and Brown, even to his selection and assignment of AF personnel. Also, Lavelle was able to bypass 7th AF/13th AF at Clark AFB and 7th AF in Saigon and personally direct many operations at TFA in Thailand.
In 1971, when the job of commander 7th AF came open, Brown, over Ryan’s objections, appointed Lavelle (who had no operational experience) and promoted him to four stars. So, the battle lines were drawn. All that was left was for Lavelle to “screw up” and Ryan would crucify him. And it happened—there could have been other outcomes less injurious to the Air Force had Ryan not been focused on extracting his pound of flesh. He had every right to be upset by Brown usurping his prerogatives and Lavelle’s freewheeling antics and promotion to full general. But the effective disciplining of the man could have been achieved without all the ruckus, had Ryan used the more subtle pressures at this disposal and a little more political astuteness. In the final analysis, the stalemate was broken when Lavelle, not wanting to fight any longer, compromised—and this is important—he would accept his demotion to major general and retirement if he would get 100 percent military disability (not VA disability), which meant a substantial increase in his total retirement compensation.
In my three years of a very close relationship with General Lavelle, while frustrated by his micromanagement style, I admired his devotion to his job—his job was his life. Seven-day work weeks were the norm, and his workaholic civilian bosses rewarded him accordingly. Supremely confident, he did not fear “stove piping” General Ryan. After all, he got his third and fourth stars!!! On a personal note, being Lavelle’s prime military deputy for those years did not especially ingratiate me with Gen. Ryan or enhance my prospects for further advancement—but it was an intriguing “wild ride” while it lasted.
Brig. Gen. Chet Butcher,
Anyone having experienced Vietnam (or having read its extensive literature) should realize that General Lavelle and many others were thrust into circumstances that tested their manhood. General Lavelle’s misfortune was that he was not serving under Napoleon, who on November 2, 1809 wrote to Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessieres: “Be of firm character and will. ... Overcome all obstacles. I will disapprove your actions only if they are fainthearted and irresolute. Everything that is vigorous, firm, and discreet will meet with my approval.” I suppose the general wasn’t “discreet” enough and therefore had to take the fall.
Col. Kenneth L. Weber,
February 2007 , Vol. 90, No. 2
Tape recordings from the Nixon White House
shed new light on an old controversy.
Air Force General John D. Lavelle in July 1971 assumed command of all air operations in Vietnam. He was known in the Air Force as an honest, hard-working, and capable leader. Seven months later, however, Lavelle would be fired as a result of allegations that he had ordered bombing missions into North Vietnam which were never authorized. Congressional hearings arising from his case raised serious questions of encroachment by the military upon the principle of civil authority. Lavelle denied the allegations until his death in 1979.
The case was complicated, a fact made clear by John T. Correll’s expertly told article, “Lavelle,” published in the November 2006 issue of this magazine. However, not all of the facts were known until now.
Hard evidence, from an unimpeachable source, shows that Lavelle had unequivocal authorization from the highest civilian authority—President Richard Nixon—to conduct so-called “preplanned strikes” in North Vietnam in February and March 1972. Equally hard evidence shows that senior military officials had approved earlier strikes of the same nature.
These statements are based on recently released White House audio recordings of Oval Office conversations as well as formerly classified JCS message traffic. We came across these pieces of evidence while developing material for our book, Velocity: Speed With Direction, a biography of Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley, which will be published this summer by Air University Press.
The background of the Lavelle case is generally well-known. However, certain parts of it bear retelling.
The story begins with Lavelle’s arrival “in country.” At that time, the overall US military commander in South Vietnam was Army Gen. Creighton T. Abrams. Responsibility for the air war in turn was delegated to Lavelle, who commanded 7th Air Force. Lavelle had operational control of USAF aircraft, control which was implemented by Major General Alton D. Slay, his operations officer. Slay issued orders to wings, including the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, led by Colonel Charles A. Gabriel and his vice commander, Colonel Jerome F. O’Malley.
Lavelle inherited strange rules of engagement. In 1968, Washington suspended bombing in North Vietnam to induce Hanoi to talk peace. When he came to the White House in 1969, Nixon kept the policy, but USAF continued intensive airborne reconnaissance of the North, and fighter escorts were assigned. The rules of engagement in late 1971 (and early 1972) prohibited US warplanes from firing at targets in North Vietnam unless US aircraft were either (1) fired at or (2) activated against by enemy radar. In those cases, the escorts could carry out so-called “protective reaction” strikes.
In 1968, North Vietnam’s surface-to-air missiles were controlled by radar with a high-pulse recurring frequency, which keyed an alarm in the USAF aircraft. By late 1971, however, Hanoi had learned to “net” its long-range search radars with the missile sites. These additional sources of radar data allowed North Vietnam to turn on SAM radar at the last second, giving US crews virtually no warning.
Combat commanders believed it vital to let US aircraft defend themselves by attacking SAM sites and MiG airfields rather than waiting for a SAM site to launch a missile or a MiG to attack. Communiqués from Abrams to the JCS in Washington sought authority to destroy the MiG threat and recommended immediate strikes on Bai Thuong, Quan Lang, and Vinh airfields.
The JCS denied these requests, but urged commanders to make maximum use of authority allowable under existing ROE.
On November 8, 1971, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the JCS Chairman, arrived in Vietnam and personally approved a request from Lavelle to attack the MiG airfield at Dong Hoi. Moorer even reviewed the bomb damage assessment results that day, before departing Vietnam. Mission results also went to the Pentagon. Instead of questioning the mission, the JCS only suggested more careful planning.
The situation continued to grow more dire. In a top secret November 12 message to Moorer, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., head of US Pacific Command, warned, “I am deeply concerned over the mounting threat that the enemy’s integrated air defense network has posed against the B-52 force,” adding his conviction that “the enemy is more determined than ever to shoot down a B-52.”
On November 21, McCain sent another top-secret communiqué to Moorer, redoubling his effort to obtain more authority to bomb North Vietnamese targets. McCain made specific reference to the preplanned strikes previously authorized by Moorer himself. Moorer, in a top secret November 28 response, sounded understanding, but the Pentagon still declined to grant additional authority.
Another top official, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, visited the theater later in December. Lavelle met privately with the Pentagon chief in Saigon. At this meeting, Lavelle later asserted, Laird “told me I should make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement in the field and not come to Washington and ask him, under the political climate, to come out with an interpretation; I should make them in the field and he would back me up.”
Lavelle said he conveyed this information to Abrams, and “General Abrams said he agreed with Secretary Laird.”
By December 1971, US military forces had strong evidence that North Vietnam was preparing a massive conventional attack on the South. Combat losses heightened Lavelle’s concern about the operating rules and the effect on his crews. On Dec. 18, the 432nd lost three aircraft to enemy action, two to ground fire and one to MiG attack.
Early in 1972, a strike into North Vietnam raised anew the issue of authority for preplanned protective reaction strikes. A ground control intercept radar at Moc Chau, used to control MiGs, was a major threat as it provided current information on slow-moving US gunships. Abrams personally authorized a preplanned strike. US aircraft on Jan. 5 hit and disabled the Moc Chau site.
When informed, the JCS took a dim view of the Moc Chau raid. The Chiefs, in a message to US commanders, conceded “the logic” of the attack. “However,” they continued, “we are constrained by the specific operating authorities as written.”
US aircraft losses continued to mount. On January 17, 1972, the enemy hit two AC-130 gunships, with much loss of life. Three days later, the 432nd TRW lost an RF-4C fighter. Accordingly, Lavelle on January 23 ordered another preplanned protective reaction strike, this one against Dong Hoi airfield.
The strike was successful, but a miscue within the 7th Air Force headquarters command post caused a major misunderstanding. On his return flight, the USAF pilot radioed a report: “Expended all ordnance, the mission was successful, no enemy reaction.”
Lavelle, knowing enemy “reaction” was needed to justify every strike against targets in the North, snapped at his director of operations, Slay: “We can’t report ‘no reaction.'" The attacking pilot, Lavelle told Slay, “must report reaction.”
Lavelle later contended he meant that a pilot should report “hostile radar” as the enemy reaction, and that he earnestly believed that recording “hostile radar” complied with the ROE, since the netted enemy radar constituted an automatic “activation against” US aircraft. However, Lavelle went on to say that he did not take care to explain this to Slay.
Nor did Lavelle realize that the format of the official operations report for a mission would not permit the simple entry of the term “hostile radar” or “hostile reaction” without supporting details.
Slay told Gabriel and O’Malley, “You must assume by General Lavelle’s direction that you have reaction.” At subsequent preflight briefings, crews were told to record enemy “reaction,” whether or not it happened. While most of the missions caused real reaction—SAM, triple-A, or MiG fire—a few did not. On those occasions, crews reported “hostile enemy fire” anyway.
Eventually, this caused trouble. On January 25, 1972, Sergeant Lonnie D. Franks, an airman in the intelligence division of the 432nd TRW, was tasked to debrief crew members returning from a mission. He routinely asked whether they had received hostile fire. The crew responded, “No, we didn’t, but we have to report that we did.” Franks objected, but two superiors told him he was under orders to report enemy reaction.
Franks, troubled by this, reported the incident to Senator Harold E. Hughes (D-Iowa). This would produce military inquiries, Congressional hearings, and the sacking of Lavelle. In time, everything would become public.
Unbeknownst at the time, however, the issue of granting additional strike authority was being discussed at the highest levels of the US government.
The first such discussion began promptly at 10:53 on the morning of February 3, 1972, in the White House. President Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, his national security advisor, sat down in the Oval Office with Ambassador Ellsworth F. Bunker, the US envoy to Saigon. By virtue of the setup of the military assistance command in Vietnam, Bunker was in overall charge of all American operations in Vietnam.
Bunker was in Washington for a hearing on his renomination as ambassador. At this particular meeting, though, he spoke on behalf of Abrams, who was seeking greater air strike authority.
Bunker began, “If we could get authority to, to bomb these SAM sites ... Now the authority is for bombing when, when they fire at aircraft,” or “when the radars locked on. The problem is, that that’s, that’s late to start attacking.”
Kissinger chimed in, evidently supporting a more aggressive stance. He suggested that Nixon authorize US forces to strike any North Vietnamese SAM that had ever targeted a US aircraft.
He urged Nixon to “say Abrams can hit any SAM site that has locked on, even if it is no longer locked on.”
A lengthy discussion ensued. Finally, Nixon instructed Bunker to deliver to Abrams the following order:
“He [Abrams] is to call all of these things ‘protective reaction.’ Just call it protective reaction. All right? ... I am simply saying that we expand the definition of protective reaction to mean preventive reaction, to mean preventive reaction where a SAM site is concerned. ... Just call it ordinary protective reaction.” Then the President added, “Who knows or would say they didn’t fire?”
Kissinger, no doubt aware that any leak of such an ROE change could cause an uproar in Congress and the public at large, wanted to keep it a secret. He asked Bunker, “Now, could they stop from blabbing it at every bloody briefing?”
Nixon also wanted secrecy, for a specific reason. He was only weeks away from his historic February 21-28 visit to China, and he didn’t want a last-minute flare-up snarling his plan. This was clear from the context of his next comment.
Nixon told Bunker: “I want you to tell Abrams when you get back that he is to tell the military not to put out extensive briefings with regard to our military activities from now on—until we get back from China.”
Then Nixon went to some length to describe the new military dispensation.
“You’ve worked out the authority,” Nixon said to Bunker. “He [Abrams] can hit SAM sites, period. OK? But he is not to do it with a public declaration. All right? And, if it does get out, to the extent it does, he says it’s a protective reaction strike. He is to describe it as protective reaction. And he doesn’t have to spell it out. They struck, that’s all he needs, a SAM site. A protective reaction strike against a SAM site.”
As a result of the President’s words, the US military now had authorization from the highest level to attack certain North Vietnamese targets without the preceding condition of an enemy threat to aircraft. One would assume that Bunker, given his position, immediately would have forwarded the President’s instruction to US military authorities. However, the public record contains no direct evidence that this did or did not happen.
Operating forces were not permitted to make public disclosure of the change. Indeed, the details of this February 3, 1972 Nixon directive never became public—ever.
Moorer confirmed this order with a top secret February 7 communication to commanders in Vietnam. The admiral wrote:
“To help minimize the possibility that the North Vietnamese build a military capability within the DMZ [demilitarized zone] for sudden strikes across the PMDL [provisional military demarcation line], you are authorized to conduct tactical air strikes into the northern portion of the DMZ whenever COMUSMACV [Abrams] determines the North Vietnamese are using the area in preparation for an attack southward. Public affairs guidance. No public announcement of any kind will be made with regard to these actions.”
Thus did the White House and the Joint Chiefs work in sync to conceal Nixon’s directive from the public.
Soon, the Pentagon decided to mount another campaign of “limited duration” strikes and on Feb. 16 announced orders suspending any prestrike need for enemy reaction. On that day, a reconnaissance aircraft and 14 escorting fighter-bombers went north. A first wave of US aircraft struck the defending SAM sites and another struck heavy gun emplacements north of the DMZ.
According to Lavelle, Pentagon chief Melvin R. Laird (l) urged “a liberal interpretation of the rules.” Adm. Thomas H. Moorer (r), the JCS Chairman, met Lavelle in Vietnam and personally approved a November 8, 1971 preplanned attack on Dong Hoi airfield.
The US command officials portrayed these as “protective reaction” strikes. They announced that the sole objective was to strike positions in North Vietnam that had previously fired on American airplanes.
On February 25, USAF flew three more preplanned protective reaction missions using 17 escort aircraft. These types of raids went on unabated for another week or so. The preplanned missions were flown on March 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8.
It was on March 8 that the letter from Franks finally reached the office of Hughes. After ricocheting around Capitol Hill and the Pentagon, it finally landed with a thud on the desk of General John D. Ryan, the Air Force Chief of Staff. The Air Force inspector general was on an airplane to South Vietnam the next day.
Lavelle met right away with the inspector general. He withheld nothing. “You never go over North Vietnam that that system isn’t activated against you,” said Lavelle, because the North Vietnamese radar system was totally netted. The discovery of false reports surprised him. However, as the person who gave the order “not to report ‘no reaction'" he assumed full responsibility for the miscommunication.
This statement by Lavelle provided significant protection for all those officers below him in the chain of command.
On March 21, Moorer dispatched an odd top secret message to 7th Air Force, warning that “the increased number of protective reaction strikes since January 1, 1972 has attracted a considerable amount of high-level interest here and is receiving increasing attention from the press.”
Moorer went on to underscore the “extreme sensitivity” of this subject and requested that all crews be “thoroughly briefed that current authority permits protective reaction to be taken only—repeat only—when enemy air defenses either fire at or activated against friendly forces.”
On March 23, the Inspector General report found that “some missions had not been flown in accordance with the Rules of Engagement and that there were irregularities in the operational reports.” Lavelle, summoned to Washington, was instructed to go immediately to Ryan’s quarters. There, on March 26, the Chief of Staff told Lavelle he could retire as a Lieutenant General or take a new assignment in the grade of Major General.
Lavelle indicated he wished to speak directly with either Laird or Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Seamans Jr. The meeting concluded with an understanding that Lavelle would meet with one of the two. Lavelle spent the following week at the Pentagon waiting in vain for an audience. Realizing he would not succeed in overturning the decision, Lavelle agreed to retirement.
On March 30, North Vietnamese forces stormed across the DMZ, putting all of their weight behind a massive conventional invasion intended to be a knockout blow. Predictably, the US promptly abandoned the niceties of “protective reaction.” On April 7, American forces received unrestricted authority to bomb targets in the North, and B-52s over the next month flew more than 700 missions over communist territory.
Back in Washington, Ryan on April 7, 1972 released an Air Force statement saying Lavelle was retiring for “personal and health reasons.” Inevitably, however, the Lavelle matter leaked. On June 10, 1972, the New York Times reported that Lavelle was “demoted after ordering repeated and unauthorized bombing attacks of military targets in North Vietnam.”
The House Armed Services Committee called Lavelle and Ryan to testify on June 12. Instead of ending the controversy, however, the House hearing sparked calls for a Senate inquiry. Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) called for courts-martial. Hughes announced that he was planning to seek a full hearing on the matter before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At the White House, the issue of Lavelle’s authority had become a point of heated, behind-the-scenes discussion. On Wednesday, June 14, in a nearly 29-minute Oval Office meeting between Nixon and Kissinger, the issue of Lavelle came up repeatedly.
The President began: “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. We all know what protective reaction is. This damn Laird.” [Nixon evidently was responding in line with the views of Kissinger, who blamed Laird for the removal of Lavelle.]
Then Kissinger said: “And he had him already removed by the time I even learned about it.”
Nixon asked, “Why did he even remove him? You, you destroy a man’s career.”
Kissinger did not answer the question, but rather took up a different topic. Nixon, however, interrupted: “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.”
Still, Nixon does not receive a satisfactory answer from his national security advisor. The President continued:
“Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing or ... Why’d he even remove him?”
“Lavelle was removed at the end of March,” Kissinger noted.
“Because of this?” asked Nixon.
“Yeh,” said Kissinger.
Nixon was furious: “Why the hell did this happen? A decision of that magnitude, without— I should have known about it, Henry. Because this is something we told— You remember: We, we, we told Laird, ‘Keep pressure on there in March.'"
Nixon concludes: “Laird knows G------ well, that ah, I told him, I said, ‘It’s protective reaction.’ He winks, he says, ‘Oh, I understand.'"
At 8:57 a.m. on June 26, 1972, Nixon and Kissinger once again took up the Lavelle problem in the Oval Office. Nixon was recoiling from advice that he steer clear of any involvement in the forthcoming Senate inquiry into Lavelle’s actions.
“Frankly, Henry, I don’t feel right about our pushing him into this thing and then, and then giving him a bad rap,” Nixon declared. “You see what I mean?”
The discussion eventually concludes with Nixon expressing anxiety about the Senate hearing. “I want to keep it away if I can,” the President says, “but I don’t want to hurt an innocent man.”
Three days later, on June 29, Nixon squirmed at a televised news conference. Asked about Lavelle’s preplanned bombing, Nixon said, “It wasn’t authorized,” and thus “it was proper for him to be relieved and retired.” Yet he also said Lavelle attacked “only those military targets ... being used for firing on American planes.”
In the period September 11-28, 1972, the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted hearings. At issue were Lavelle’s planned retirement at the grade of Lieutenant General, matters relating to authority for certain bombing missions, Abrams’ nomination to become Army Chief of Staff, McCain’s planned retirement, and Moorer’s nomination for a second term as Chairman.
Alexander M. Haig Jr., when asked by Nixon on September 15, 1972 whether the White House could do something to save Lavelle, said only, “I don’t think so, sir. I’ve been watchin’ it.”
Lavelle himself led off the testimony on September 11, 1972, asserting unreservedly that all of his actions were authorized and taken to protect the lives of airmen in his command. He rejected assertions that he had exceeded his authority and said that he had applied the rules of engagement as he had been urged to by the JCS. He described his understanding that the enemy’s netted radar system automatically produced “reaction,” which authorized use of force.
He said that a commander is always ultimately responsible for the consequences his orders. “I have never suggested that the responsibility was other than my own,” he said. Lavelle concluded: “Mr. Chairman, it is not pleasant to contemplate ending a long and distinguished military career with a catastrophic blemish on my record—a blemish for conscientiously doing the job I was expected to do, and doing it with a minimum loss of American lives.”
On September 13, 1972, Abrams testified that Lavelle “acted against the rules” of engagement. Lavelle and Abrams, who always had worked well together in Vietnam, were now at odds on the crucial issue of Lavelle’s “authority to strike.”
Two days later, on September 15, 1972, Nixon met in the Oval Office with Haig, his deputy national security advisor. Nixon, running for re-election, apparently felt frustration at his inability to correct the injustice he thought he was witnessing in the daily Senate testimony on the Lavelle issue.
The President told Haig, “We’ve got to be able to do something on this ah, this Lavelle.”
Haig responded: “I don’t think so, sir. I’ve been watchin’ it.”
The President said, “We told Laird that, ‘If your guy Moorer isn’t sure if it is protective reaction, that to protect yourselves, we would back you to the hilt.’ [That’s] the way I look at it.”
For all that, the White House remained silent as the Senate hearings progressed.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on October 6, 1972 turned down Lavelle’s nomination for retirement as a Lieutenant General. The vote was 14 to two. Instead, Lavelle was retired at his permanent rank of Major General.
More than two weeks later, Nixon was still upset about the Lavelle incident. In an October 23, 1972 meeting with Haig in the Old Executive Office Building, Nixon unleashed a torrent of anger.
“All of this G------ crap about Lavelle,” said Nixon. “And I feel sorry for the fellow, because you and I know we did tell him about protective reaction being, very generally—”
“Very liberal,” Haig helpfully suggested.
“Yeh, very liberally, very liberally,” said Nixon. “Remember, I said it was, if they, if they hit there, go back and hit it again. Go back and do it right. You don’t have to wait till they fire before you fire back. Remember I told Laird that. And I meant it. Now Lavelle apparently knew that, and received that at some time.”
Six years after these events, Lavelle spoke at some length for an oral history project. “I did what was right,” he insisted. “I did what was authorized.”
Between November 7, 1971 and March 9, 1972, US aircraft flew scores of strike sorties. Of these, a total of just 28 documented missions, entailing about 147 sorties, were identified as the unauthorized “Lavelle Raids.”
Now, it seems clear enough that even that tiny handful of flights also were authorized.
General Aloysius G. Casey, USAF (Ret.), retired as the commander of Space
Division, Air Force Systems Command, in 1988. His son, Patrick A. Casey,
is a trial attorney with the firm Myers, Brier & Kelly, LLP, in Scranton,
Pennsylvania. This is their first article for Air Force Magazine.
Photograph By M. R. Patterson, October 2002
Page Updated: 11 December 1999 Updated: 20 May 2001 Updated: 6 January 2002 Updated: 12 October 2002 Updated: 17 August 2003 Updated: 28 June 2007 Updated: 7 August 2010
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 28 June 2003