Violating Reality: The Lavelle Affair, Nixon, and the Parsing of the Truth

By Mark Clodfelter NWC Case Study

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Introduction

On December 20, 2010, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) denied the Pentagon’s request, endorsed by President Barack Obama, to advance posthumously Air Force Maj Gen John D. Lavelle to the retired list in the rank of general.1 Thirty-eight years earlier, 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. Senate hearings in September 1972 deemed Lavelle guilty of both offenses, resulting in his demotion to major general following retirement. Yet a careful reading of documentary and taped evidence, much of it recently discovered and not available at the time of the original Senate hearings, reveals that General Lavelle neither violated the rules of engagement (ROE) that prescribed America’s air war at the time of his dismissal nor falsified mission reports. Accordingly, Lavelle should have his rank restored, and the so-called Lavelle affair should serve as a cautionary tale for political and military leaders alike who question the proper conduct of “civil-military relations” in the complex and often confounding era of modern limited war.

The declassification and release of segments of President Richard Nixon’s White House tapes in 2002 and 2003 disclosed that Nixon had authorized many of the airstrikes that Lavelle had ordered. Those tapes, along with the release of formerly classified documents in the eighth volume on the Vietnam War in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series, papers in the National Archives to include several documents declassified in 2015, General Lavelle’s 1978 Air Force oral history interview, and recent interviews of individuals who participated in the events in question, shed new light on the 1972 SASC and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearings addressing Lavelle’s actions as Seventh Air Force Commander. Those hearings gained the most publicity, given that the June 1972 HASC hearing was the first to highlight the Lavelle affair in an attempt to discover what had transpired and why, and the September 1972 SASC hearings decided Lavelle’s retired rank. Two other hearings also offered insight on Lavelle’s conduct: the June 1972 SASC hearing that considered the reappointment of Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and the March 1973 SASC hearing to determine if 180 Air Force and Navy officers involved in allegedly unauthorized airstrikes should receive promotions. When combined, all of those sources show that Lavelle complied with the wishes of “higher authority” and accurately reported his actions to the command echelons in both military and civilian spheres. The materials now available further reveal that some general officer testimony provided under oath during House and Senate hearings was not always exact, and those discrepancies—along with the failure of the Nixon White House to acknowledge publicly its new bombing policy—helped to seal Lavelle’s undeserved fate.

Lavelle’s supposedly unauthorized bombing came to light in early March 1972, after General Ryan received a letter that Air Force Sgt. Lonnie Franks, an intelligence specialist with the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, had written to Senator Harold E. Hughes (D-IA), a critic of the Vietnam War. The letter alleged 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. Ryan dispatched Gen Louis L. Wilson, Jr., the Air Force Inspector General (IG), to Saigon to investigate Lavelle’s actions, and Wilson agreed with Franks’s assessment. The IG further determined that such missions violated the ROE then governing the air war over the North.2 Wilson reported that Lavelle had conducted 28 unauthorized missions, consisting of 147 sorties, during a 4-month span in which Seventh Air Force flew between 25,000 and 40,000 total sorties.3 General Ryan called Lavelle to Washington, telling him that he would be relieved of command and demoted to his permanent rank of major general should he decide to remain in the Air Force. Lavelle instead chose retirement, and the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 14–2 to keep him on the retired list as a major general.4 

The 1972 SASC, though, did not have access to much material relevant to the case (such as Wilson’s IG report), and additional information has since appeared. The 2010 Senate Armed Services Committee considered some of this material, but it did not consider all of it. In particular, the 2010 SASC failed to connect the numerous classified deletions in key testimony during the 1972 hearings to revelations found in the Nixon tapes and Lavelle’s 1978 interview. Such ties added new meaning to the testimony given in 1972 that the 2010 SASC did not take into account. Moreover, documents declassified after the 2010 SASC ruling support Lavelle’s contention that he acted with the knowledge—and backing—of his superiors, further demonstrating his innocence.

The case study that follows is not only an effort to help exonerate Lavelle for the unjust treatment he received, but it also reveals much about how American civil-military relations can function during a controversial limited conflict in which disparate personalities often played a dominant role. By the time of the Lavelle affair, the Vietnam War had cost the United States more than 50,000 Americans killed and exceeded $125 billion in monetary expenditures— enormous outlays in both lives and treasure for no tangible result after 7 years of combat. The war had ripped apart the fabric of the Nation and made the 1968 Presidential race that elected Richard Nixon one of the most contentious contests in American political history. The war’s limited character, resulting from the threat of active Chinese or Soviet intervention, not only confused many in the American public, but also baffled many in the American military. Generals and admirals chafed against restrictive ROE that constrained the actions they could take. Meanwhile, beginning with President Lyndon Johnson and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a mutual distrust developed between America’s political and military leadership, and that animosity endured into the Nixon administration. Nixon’s approach to Vietnam, though, differed from that of his predecessor, especially in terms of his steadfast reliance on National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at the expense of Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, which added a new wrinkle to the civil-military relationship.5 Congress, with its penchant for partisan politics, also played a key role in the Lavelle affair. The twists and turns of the following story offer much worthy of consideration for 21st-century American political and military leaders who will continue to fight limited wars.

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