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John W. Dean

A Reader's Guide To The Recent Correction Of A Terrible Nixon Injustice


Friday, October 1, 2010

Richard Nixon's secret White House taping system, and some diligent lawyering, have saved the honor of an Air Force general. The former president had falsely accused the general of unauthorized bombings during the Vietnam War -- accusations for which he was sacked and then vilified.

This story -- best described as a travesty that began in 1972 -- resurfaced on August 4, 2010, when President Obama sent the posthumous nomination of John D. Lavelle to the U.S. Senate to restore his full rank and honor based on the proceedings and recommendation of the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, which, in turn, had relied on Nixon's tapes.

This thankfully better-late-than-never correction of a terrible injustice was the work of Scranton, PA attorney Patrick Casey. Casey -- with his father, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Aloysius G. Casey -- discovered the truth when working on a biography of Air Force General Jerome F. O'Malley. When doing research on O'Malley's involvement with Lavelle, in what they describe in their biography as "one of the most controversial issues in the U.S. Air Force history," they found the truth in Nixon's recorded White House conversations. And that truth was further confirmed by secret Defense Department cable traffic from the time.

When this information arrived in the mainstream news media, and they covered it extensively after President Obama announced his actions, I received several calls. But since I had no firsthand information, I made no public comment. Then, when I read about what had occurred, I found myself so angry that I am not certain I could have said anything that would not have needed the expletives deleted.

I still feel that way, but because this is vintage Nixon, I am sharing the better URLs I gathered when looking at this episode, the ones I think are worth checking -- if one is interested in this period of history and in the process that has righted a serious wrong.

Solid Sources, Including the Apologists

For me, the best general journalistic print coverage of the story, following President Obama's action, was the overview report by Chris Whitlock for the Washington Post and then, digging a bit further, the piece by Amy Davidson for the New Yorker. The best television coverage was provided by "The Rachel Maddow Show". (Sorry, I did not check radio coverage.) And overall, the best single source for information about correcting Lavelle's record is found on the website of Patrick Casey's law firm, Meyers, Brier & Kelly, which represented Lavelle's family. Casey and his firm have posted all the key documents and Nixon tapes there.

Before the discovery of the information on the Nixon tapes, a report of the situation facing General Lavelle, and the somewhat complex facts, was nicely set forth by the former editor of Air Force Magazine, John T. Correll, in November 2006. The father and son Casey team wrote of their findings on the Nixon White House tapes in the February 2007, Air Force Magazine, and they have now posted Chapter 10 of their O'Malley biography, which addressed the Lavelle situation and their findings as well, on their own site, linked above.

For the Nixon defenders (found at the Murdoch publications), here is the rundown: The neo-cons at The Weekly Standard believe that Lavelle was sacrificed for the sake of statecraft -- their usual outlook where national security trumps everything. The Wall Street Journal claims that it was all the fault of the New York Times and the anti-war movement, merely "the fog of war."

Not all conservatives, however, feel kindly disposed toward Nixon's remarkable act of political cowardice and craven dishonesty: The American Conservative, which is still grounded in reality, reported, "Great for the Lavelle family, which includes a widow and seven children who have had to live with this blemish all their lives. Bad for Richard Nixon's family, which has to face yet another embarrassing revelation about the late president."

These links no doubt provide more information than most people want, so I will boil this fascinating story down to its key points. For this was not the fog of war, nor standard statecraft, that accounted for the travesty that occurred.

Worse Than the Fog of War And Standard Statecraft

Without going down into the weeds, where this story fully unfolds, here's a bare-bones version of what happened: General Lavelle (when wearing his four stars) was in charged of the Air Force operations in Vietnam. When Nixon started drawing down troops, only air-power kept the North Vietnamese from invading and taking control of South Vietnam. Air-power gave the Nixon Administration's proposed "Vietnamization" (the concept that South Vietnamese soldiers, trained by Americans, could fend for themselves) credence, when, in fact, it was a myth to enable America to get out of a non-winnable war "with honor," as Nixon liked to say. Because of widespread public opposition to the war, however, Nixon dared not openly bomb North Vietnam. So the "rules of engagement" were very limited, not to mention confused, as Nixon tried to negotiate a secret settlement -- occasionally bombing the North to keep them at the table while protecting South Vietnam.

But the limited rules of engagement were costing American lives, so battlefield commanders kept requesting authority to hit back, or to knock out the missile bases in the North. In response, the Department of Defense, following Nixon's orders, refused to publicly grant such permission. Nixon knew that if he openly fought the war, he would be a one-term president. When American Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker explained the dire situation to Nixon in the Oval Office in February, 1972, Nixon authorized the increased use of "protective reactions," meaning responses to enemy fire on American pilots, as well as the fixing of radar -- which could be followed by fire -- on American planes. Nixon can be heard clearly expanding the category of "protective reactions" to include "preventative reactions"-- thus, taking out enemy military capability before the enemy fired on Americans. This, and the follow-up order from the Defense Department, was done with greater-than-usual secrecy.

The Trigger for the Controversy: Sergeant Lonnie Frank's Letter

Following orders, Lavelle started bombing. Because of confusion in these new rules of engagement, pilots radioing reports back from their sorties reported no enemy reaction. Because these reports violated other rules of engagement, unknown to Lavelle, lower-ranking officers were falsifying reports.

One sergeant, unhappy about having to write a false report, but afraid to raise it with commanders, sent a letter to his U.S. Senator, Harold Hughes, an Iowa Democrat who was an outspoken critic of the war.

Sergeant Lonnie Frank's letter unraveled it all, bouncing from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon, which called Lavelle back to Washington, where he was fired -- or retired for medical reason since he did have early coronary and other medical problems. The firing was leaked to the press, and the matter went back to Capitol Hill, where Lavelle would testify he was only following orders. But the Department of Defense and the White House left Lavelle twisting in the wind, and he was soon publicly tarred and feathered as a supposed rogue general. Ironically, by this time Nixon was openly bombing the North to prevent them from invading the South.

The Nixon tapes show that the president had some pangs of conscience about what was happening to Lavelle, for he understood full well that the general had been following his (Nixon's) orders. But he participated in smearing Lavelle nonetheless.

At a June 29, 1972 press conference, Nixon was asked if Lavelle's bombings had "affect[ed] any diplomatic negotiations going on at that time." The President said it had not. Then he addressed the hearing taking place before Congress: "As far as this is concerned, as Admiral Moorer [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] testified today, it wasn't authorized. It was directed against only those military targets which were the areas that were being used for firing on American planes, but since it did exceed authorization, it was proper for him to be relieved and retired. And I think that it was the proper action to take. And I believe that will assure that that kind of activity may not occur in the future." [Emphases added.]

As his earlier recorded conversations show, that was about as bald-faced a lie as Nixon's Watergate claim, "I'm not a crook."

Nixon Was Not Alone

General Lavelle had his fourth star removed, his pension reduced, and his reputation ruined. Now, fortunately, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records has repaired General Lavelle's record. They have concluded that he was relieved of his command and demoted based on incomplete and erroneous information. He was denied due process, and as the Board notes, made a "scapegoat." He falsified no reports; rather, he took full responsibility for all his actions. President Obama has requested that he be restored his full rank retroactively.

But General Lavelle himself will never know that his reputation has been restored, for he is now deceased. His widow, now 91, and his children have fought all these years for their father's reputation. Let us hope that they take some satisfaction in the very belated correction of a deep injustice.

During this incident, Nixon's behavior was entirely in character: He was doing what Nixon always did. Remarkably, the media coverage of this story has thus far all but ignored the other players who could have stepped forward, when Nixon, Admiral Moorer, and others in the Air Force and at the Defense Department simply lied and destroyed this man.

For example, where were Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, who knew the truth? It took some three-plus decades, but former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird did finally admit that General Lavelle had been simply following orders.

Now we must wait to see if the Republicans in the U.S. Senate will filibuster this effort to correct the wrong and injustice that was done General Lavelle, merely because it was requested by President Obama. We must also wait to see whether the U.S. Senate is going to let General Lavelle's widow pass away without knowing the end of this awful story. Senators, on both sides of the aisle, please have some decency, and heart, and act quickly.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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