Air Force Reviewing Petition to Restore Rank of Vietnam-Era General

Major General John Daniel Lavelle (Air Force Photo)
Major General John Daniel Lavelle (Air Force Photo)

A controversial Air Force case dating to the Nixon administration may once again spur debate in Congress over whether to restore a disgraced general's honor and rank.

The service has begun a review process that could lead to the posthumous restoration of two ranks to Maj. Gen John D. Lavelle, who was demoted and fired over alleged unauthorized airstrikes over North Vietnam, Military.com has exclusively learned.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has agreed to review the case before an official recommendation is made. If approved, the petition would head to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis before potential White House approval and a future Senate committee vote.

"The package on Maj. Gen. Lavelle is still under review," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said on Tuesday. "It would be inappropriate for the Air Force to comment further since the Air Force will make a recommendation on the case, but is not the decision authority."

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The Defense Department considers a medal restoration as critically as any medals upgrade, defense officials have told Military.com in recent weeks. Pentagon policy "prohibits any public comment" on the review process until an official announcement is made.

With the endorsement of then-President Barack Obama, Pentagon officials in 2010 petitioned members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to restore Lavelle's rank. The panel -- mainly Senators John McCain and Carl Levin -- rejected it due to "inconsistencies" in information provided at the time.

Dr. Mark Clodfelter, a former Air Force officer and ‎professor of military strategy at the National War College, part of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., has spearheaded bringing Lavelle's case back before the Air Force.

"There's no doubt in my mind he was thrown under the bus," Clodfelter recently told Military.com. "The most disconcerting part to me is that he received no support from the individuals involved in uniform."

In April 1972, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen John D. Ryan had fired the four-star Lavelle as the Seventh Air Force commander in Saigon for "allegedly conducting unauthorized airstrikes against North Vietnam and ordering the falsification of mission reports," Clodfelter writes in his research, "Violating Reality: The Lavelle Affair, Nixon and the Parsing of the Truth," published in 2016.

Researchers like Clodfelter have extensively studied the case to better understand rules of engagement surrounding America's wars.

In the Hot Seat

It began in 1968, when officials made an agreement to halt Operation Rolling Thunder, then-President Lyndon Johnson's bombing campaign against North Vietnam. From a U.S. perspective, the agreement stipulated that in exchange for stopping the bombing, the North Vietnamese would not attempt to shoot down American reconnaissance aircraft surveilling the area.

But tensions resumed, and armed U.S. Air Force and Navy fighters began escorting the recon aircraft in the surface-to-air missile laden area for safe measure.

During a news conference in late 1970, then-President Richard Nixon decreed, "If planes are fired upon, I will not only order that they return the fire, but I will order that the missile site be destroyed and that the military complex around that site which supports it also be destroyed by bombing."

The ROE at the time said that U.S. aircraft conducting missions over Laos or North Vietnam could not engage missile sites or enemy aircraft unless they were fired upon, or locked on by anti-aircraft artillery prior to firing. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese were expanding their air defenses -- from two to 13 SAM sites -- as well as from airfields hosting MiG aircraft.

Between 1971 and 1972, firings on U.S. aircraft increased tenfold.

Lavelle was increasingly concerned how best to proceed -- and if the ROE should be amended. In November 1971, then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird met with Lavelle to pursue options, or what Laird dubbed "protective action."

Lavelle later recounted their conversation in a 1978 interview, saying Laird "told me I should make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement in the field and not to 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. While on the other hand, if I asked for authority, he would probably have to turn it down for political reasons," he said, according to Clodfelter's research.

Laird in 2007 confirmed the conversation in a letter to the editor in Air Force Magazine:

"It was certainly true that in my meetings with Gen. John Lavelle, I told him that my order on 'protective reaction' should be viewed liberally," Laird wrote. "I invented the term 'protective reaction.' Prior to my order, there was no authorization (under [prior Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara or [Clark] Clifford) to destroy dangerous targets except when fired upon without special permission."

Laird went on to say that then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, his predecessor Army Gen. Bus Wheeler and U.S. commander in South Vietnam, Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, all agreed "with the liberal interpretation on my order on protective reaction."

"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 the letter.

'Preplanned Actions'

In February 1972, Lavelle took pre-planned actions -- which investigators say violated any interpretation of the ROE. Between February and March, bombing runs were conducted over airfields in North Vietnam, striking not only SAM sites but also additional artillery.

Sparked by a letter that made its way to then-Sen. Harold E. Hughes, D-Iowa, a critic of the Vietnam War, Gen. Louis L. Wilson, the Air Force inspector general, was asked to look into the campaign.

The letter -- written by Air Force Sgt. Lonnie Franks, an intelligence specialist with the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand -- alleged the bombing run accounts weren't accurate, and that the "wing's pilots regularly filed false reports after flying escort missions for reconnaissance aircraft over North Vietnam, claiming that they had received ground fire from North Vietnamese air defenses when they had not," Clodfelter wrote.

In all, Wilson found Lavelle had conducted "28 unauthorized missions, consisting of 147 sorties, during a four-month span in which Seventh Air Force flew between 25,000 and 40,000 total sorties," Clodfelter wrote.

When Lavelle returned to Washington, SASC began proceedings on the matter. Lavelle chose an "early retirement" and settled for the Senate's decision to demote him two ranks.

Between February 1971 and July 1973, President Richard Nixon secretly recorded 3,700 hours of his conversations, including a few concerning Lavelle. According to a tape from Feb. 3, 1972, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, discussed amending the rules of engagement, but in secret.

"You tell them I don't want to beat around any more. Tell 'em," Nixon said, according a taped discussion published in The Washington Post in 2010. "Do it, but don't say anything."

Nixon, according to other conversations with Kissinger, backed Lavelle's actions at first.

"I just don't want him to be made a goat, goddamnit," Nixon said months later on June 26, after actions were already taken to suspend Lavelle. "You, you destroy a man's career ... Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing?" The president said, "I don't want to hurt an innocent man."

Three days later however, Nixon publicly told reporters, "It wasn't authorized." According to the Post, he said, "It was proper for him to be relieved and retired," Nixon said.

Lavelle died in July 10, 1979.

Lingering Inconsistencies

In 2010, Sens. Levin and McCain were encouraged to see the Lavelle resurface but ultimately the two men couldn't rule in his favor in part because of the differing language for the rules of engagement during the Vietnam War and inconsistencies in Nixon's conversations.

The Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records "relies heavily on the Oval Office conversation of February 3, 1972; however it does not address inconsistencies these conversations create or the possibility that they had no effect," McCain and Levin wrote in their 2010 letter addressed to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The senators also said Laird's statements in Air Force Magazine contradicted a secondary account in his biography published in 2008.

McCain and Levin agreed the real reason behind Lavelle's firing was over the falsified records -- not the raids themselves.

Various testimony throughout supplemental investigations goes back and forth on whether Lavelle was involved, or if pilots indeed openly lied about their accounts while flying over North Vietnam.

But supplemental information -- for example, Lavelle's commitment to preserving the safety of his aircrews -- through Clodfelter's research may shed new light on the case.

Clodfelter said he plans in coming weeks to send his petition -- signed by former Air Force secretaries James G. Roche and Sheila Widnall, among 55 other former Air Force and defense officials and defense research historians -- to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The professor said he sent then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James the petition in 2016 -- but it came too close before her departure from the Pentagon in January. Furthermore, "the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records had not yet reached a conclusion on the Lavelle's family request, re-submitted in late 2015," Clodfelter said.

"It depends how quickly" officials such as Wilson, Mattis and President Trump "react to this restoration," Clodfelter said. "It could go forward quickly, or it could be held up for any number of reasons, simply because this is not an immediate requirement to further American national security," he said.

Clodfelter added the effort is about "righting a wrong, an injustice that's now existed for almost 45 years."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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