USAF Lieutenant General John D. Lavelle (above) retired abruptly in the summer of 1972. He did not want to end his long, distinguished military career, which had begun in 1940 when he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and ended prematurely after he had commanded the 7th Air Force in Southeast Asia.
The Air Force forced Gen. Lavelle to step down over allegations—which he strongly denied—that he had overstepped his command authority in ordering (and covering up) unauthorized bombing missions over North Vietnam in 1971 and early 1972.
The forced retirement included a demotion to major general and added up to a severe stain on Lavelle’s record. The General maintained till his dying day at age 62 in 1979 that he did not initiate the bombing orders and that he was following orders in doing so.
“It is not pleasant to contemplate ending a long and distinguished military career with a catastrophic blemish on my record, ” Lavelle said during a congressional hearing, “a blemish for conscientiously doing the job I was expected to do.”
Now the facts finally have come out. Lavelle, it turns out, was indeed following orders. And the orders originated from his commander-in-chief Richard Nixon (although Lavelle didn’t know it; he only knew they came from someone who outranked him).
The truth came out only after two historians doing research on another USAF general came across the Nixon secret orders, as well as transcripts of conversations between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, that unequivocally showed that the President made the bombing call and then, when the political heat reached a boiling point over what appeared to be an unauthorized escalation of the war, let Lavelle take the fall for the unauthorized bombing.
Even more damning is the fact that Nixon lied about the situation in public. At a June 29, 1972, press conference, when asked about Lavelle’s case and the airstrikes, the President said: “It was un authorized…. Since it did exceed authorization, it was proper for him to be relieved and retired.”
On August 4, the Obama Administration, asked the U.S. Senate to restore Lavelle’s rank and reputation. The administration made the recommendation to clear Lavelle’s name after the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records had investigated the case and recommended his exoneration last year. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reviewed the record and concurred.