Washington: The Lavelle Case

The Lavelle Case

The case of General John D. Lavelle shows in microcosm how a half war like Vietnam can get out of control. It is another story of military frustration and civilian coverup, as one commander takes the war into his own hands. And then after the facts finally do come to light—thanks to a lone sergeant among the thousands in a large Air Force command—the nation’s top military officers declare that the same alarming breakdown of control could happen again.

The place to begin is with General Lavelle, and the war as he found it late last year when he decided to bomb North Vietnam his own way. The result was an official total of twenty-four bombing missions that the Air Force said were carried out in violation of the rules for ‘"protective reaction.” “Protective reaction” is the Pentagon term for the aerial code which says, don’t bomb unless fired upon. At least one senator believes that the unauthorized raids against the North may have damaged the secret peace talks going on at the time.


John Daniel Lavelle, married and the father of seven children, rose to four-star rank without going through the usual path of military academy and service with the Strategic Air Command. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, the fifty-six-yearold Lavelle graduated from John Carroll University in Cleveland in 1938, and enlisted as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps in 1939. Lavelle served in three wars. He began as a pilot in Europe during World War II. When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, Lavelle was one of two Air Force officers who negotiated with seven Army technical services in setting up the new branch. In Korea Lavelle served in a more routine post, commanding a supply depot in Japan.

After the Korean War, Lavelle occupied a series of staff jobs, worked on several research and procurement programs, including some secret ones in the communications field, and rose in the Air Force hierarchy. In 1962 he became Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations with the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force in Europe. When he took over command of the eleven-thousand-man Seventh Air Force in July, 1971 — his first Vietnam post—he quickly gained a reputation as a personable and popular officer with a sensitivity to the needs of the men under him. “My men would do back flips for me,” Lavelle said with some justification, speaking of his period as chief of the Seventh Air Force.

The command Lavelle held is the Air Force’s only one in Indochina (the Navy has a separate one). His associates say that he felt deep frustration about constraints on the air war, and about the fact that airmen were killed because of those constraints. In his first months with the Seventh Air Force, the word around MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) headquarters in Saigon was that Lavelle was cautious about conducting high-risk missions, especially when an aircraft had been lost.


The air war in Vietnam was very much alive as fall began in 1971. On September 21, the United States command in Saigon reported two hundred strikes flown against North Vietnam in retaliation against enemy gunners who fired on American reconnaissance planes. The “understandings” negotiated by President Johnson, which led to the bombing halt of 1968, allowed American reconnaissance planes to fly over the North to keep track of military activities; at any rate, former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford said that the understandings provided for such unarmed flights.

But just in case Hanoi’s gunners should fire on the picture-taking planes, bomb-laden F-4 fighterbombers and other attack aircraft flew along as escorts. If the North Vietnamese fired on a reconnaissance plane, or if the North Vietnamese gunners signaled such intent by focusing radar on the plane, the escorts could swoop down and bomb the gun sites and related facilities under protective reaction rules. In with President Nixon’s “hard knock” philosophy, the retaliatory strikes sometimes came not just during the reconnaissance mission itself but days after the North Vietnamese gunners had fired. So, by the time Lavelle took his new command, the distinction had blurred between the policy of selective strikes to underscore the Johnson Administration’s understanding about the right to fly reconnaissance and the more intensive bombing of the North being conducted in 1971 in retaliation against enemy anti-aircraft fire.

Late in 1971 his pilots brought back photographic evidence of an enemy buildup in the North. Lavelle agonized over the strengthening of enemy air-base facilities which directly threatened his pilots, such as lengthened runways for Mig fighter planes and new anti-aircraft guns around the fields. Two such fields were Dong Hoi, forty miles north of the demilitarized zone separating the two Vietnams, and Quang Lang, 165 miles north of the DMZ.

Both Dong Hoi and Quang Lang were launch pads for Mig-21 fighter attacks on American aircraft. The giant B-52’s were the Migs’ prime target. One North Vietnamese pilot used to fly down to those fields from safer bases in the far north. He would refuel at Quang Lang, for example, and then race to a flight of B-52’s spotted by North Vietnamese radar. The North Vietnamese ground control radar operators would watch the blips on their scopes and guide him to the giant B-52’s. His usual tactic was to fire a missile and then dash for home. The more southern location of Dong Hoi made such Mig hit-andrun attacks a threat all the way down to Da Nang, the big American air base in South Vietnam. This pilot was so effective that the Americans gave him a distinguished nickname, the Red Baron.

As Lavelle saw it, he had three options as he pondered what to do about Dong Hoi and Quang Lang: monitor the buildup through steady reconnaissance flights over the fields; send in a reconnaissance plane extraordinarily low to provoke the fire needed to justify protective reaction bombing; or bend the rules to meet what he considered a changed situation. Option one failed to reduce the threat to his pilots; option two meant “trolling” with a live pilot for bait, with the distinct possibility of his being killed; option three could get him in trouble if anyone above him found out.

At the time, Lavelle knew nothing about the White House’s secret peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Nobody told him that Washington and Hanoi had agreed on October 25 to hold secret talks, with the first one scheduled for November 20. The air war was Lavelle’s preoccupation. Like other commanders in a war in which the body count measures progress, Lavelle felt pressure to show positive military results for his operation.


He chose option three: bend the rules. According to the Air Force, Lavelle ordered the bombing of Dong Hoi on November 7, 1971, whether or not North Vietnamese gunners fired at the reconnaissance plane and its four fighter-bomber escorts. That order to bomb regardless of enemy reaction violated the civilian-imposed protective reaction rules.

To cover that violation, Lavelle— according to his operations officerordered subordinates to write two sets of reports on the mission, one true and one false. The true one, again according to Lavelle’s operations officer, went no further than Lavelle’s own headquarters in Saigon. The falsified one went far and wide in the military hierarchy, and right on up to the Secretary of Defense.

So great was the secrecy that Major General Alton D. Slay, Lavelle’s operations officer at the Seventh Air Force headquarters in Saigon, passed the orders to bomb over a secure telephone line to wing commanders. Quang Lang was bombed in the same secretive way on November 8, 1971. An Associated Press dispatch out of Saigon reporting those November raids quoted the U.S. command as saying that “in all cases, the fighter-bombers attacked only after enemy ground gunners fired on the reconnaissance planes.”

Hanoi radio broadcast a different version of the raids:

“Particularly serious was the fact that on 7 and 8 November, the United States sent many planes at a number of populated areas around the Dong Hoi provincial capital, Quang Binh Province, and a number of localities in Nghe An Province, causing losses in manpower and property to the local populace. These extremely serious acts of war prove that the obdurate and warlike U.S. imperialists are still plotting military adventures against the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam]. . . .”

In an announcement that could have been inspired by the November bombings (no one seems to know for sure), Hanoi said on November 17 that because Le Due Tho was ill, Xuan Thuy would meet with Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser. The switch appeared to downgrade the talks, since Tho is the highranking North Vietnamese Politburo member and Thuy merely the formal leader of Hanoi’s delegation at the Paris peace talks. Given Tho’s illness, said the U.S. government on November 19, “no point would be served by a meeting.” Did a hope for peace thus become another bombing casualty of the war?

“Take the rules”

Following the November raids against Dong Hoi and Quang Lang, Lavelle continued to see a menacing buildup of enemy weapons as an apparent prelude to a new North Vietnamese offensive. Both he and his superiors in Washington fretted about it. This military concern was formalized in a commanders’ conference in Honolulu on December 4 and 5, 1971. Lieutenant General John W. Vogt, director of the staff of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, presided. There is agreement on all sides that the word was: be more aggressive. Or to quote Lavelle himself on that conference in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee months later:

“The director of the Joint Staff stated that field commanders were not aggressive enough; we should be more aggressive in using the authorities that were available to us; that we should increase the number of reconnaissance aircraft in the buildup in North Vietnam. . . . So having been instructed we were not aggressive enough, we were not using the authorities we had—increase our reconnaissance flights, increase our escorts to be more effective—I assumed I should take the rules that I had and interpret them as fully as I could to operate under them and be more aggressive.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lavelle asserted in reporting on what Vogt had said at that conference, “would not question our aiming points [targets] on protective reaction strikes. In the advent of adverse publicity, we could expect full backing from the JCS.” Furthermore, Lavelle declared, Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird told him in Saigon in December, in essence: “Don’t come into Washington and ask for additional approvals or authorities; it was an inopportune time. Make maximum use of the authorities we had, and he’d support us in Washington.”

In making such statements, Lavelle invited the conclusion that he was only a minion doing the bidding of kings. He did not make plain how directly he involved himself in planning the raids against the North and in falsifying reports on them. Lavelle’s former operations officer in Vietnam, Major General Slay, gives a more detailed picture of Lavelle’s direct involvement in the unauthorized bombing:

“General Lavelle would look over the photograph and he would say, ‘I would like a strike mounted against this particular SAM [surface-to-air missile] site,’ and it was very clear that he wanted this to be a planned protective reaction strike. And his instructions were always that ‘you will assume reaction.’ . . .”

The bombing strikes. Slay said, “were preplanned. There is no question under the sun about that. . . . General Lavelle personally directed each one of these. . . . It was General Lavelle’s comment at the time that ‘no one can fly over North Vietnam without being fired at, so why should I risk my pilots’ lives by going up and waiting until I see a burst?’” Slay added that Lavelle “explained the facts of life to us, that ‘anytime you are over North Vietnam, people are going to shoot at you, so you must report that you have been reacted upon.’ ”


In January of this year, acting in response to the continued enemy buildup and to what he later claimed was the urging of his superiors at the Honolulu meeting to adopt more aggressive tactics, Lavelle initiated a new round of twenty-two bombing missions against targets in North Vietnam. The bombing of Dong Hoi again on March 9, 1972, was the last of the twenty-four rule-breaking missions, because of a young Air Force sergeant named Lonnie Franks. Franks, stationed at Udorn air base in northern Thailand, blew the whistle on Lavelle by writing a letter to Senator Harold E. Hughes, Democrat of Iowa.

The Udorn base is an American island unto itself. Pilots between missions drink Budweiser at the officers’ club, eat ice cream sundaes, and talk about the war in an atmosphere free from the miseries which the foot soldier in Vietnam so often encounters. The creature comforts and splendid isolation did not ease Franks’s concern about what he and others in the Seventh Air Force command were doing. He had talked to his immediate superiors about the false reports, asking them if it was proper for him to fill them out. They told him not to worry. Franks did worry, and one day last February he wrote to Senator Hughes.

“I and other members” of the intelligence section of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn “have been falsifying classified reports for missions into North Vietnam,” he said in his letter. “That is, we have been reporting that our planes have received hostile reactions such as AAA [anti-aircraft] and SAM firings whether they have or not. We have also been falsifying targets struck and bomb damage assessments.”

A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Franks picked out Hughes “because I admired him a great deal, and I thought he would handle my letter as well as anyone would handle it.” Hughes gave a copy of Franks’s letter to a colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee, former Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington, Democrat of Missouri. Senator Symington’s copy, in turn, went to General John D. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff.

General Ryan read the letter on March 8, 1972, and sent his Inspector General, Lieutenant General Louis L. Wilson, flying off to Vietnam the next day to investigate Franks’s charges. They checked out. Lavelle himself confirmed them, both to Wilson in Saigon and to Ryan in a face-to-face meeting in Washington on March 23. That posed the ticklish question of what to do about Lavelle. He had been in the four-star billet of Seventh Air Force commander for less than a year. Ryan, who had personally picked Lavelle for the job, had the painful duty of deciding on the punishment.

Ryan is a colorless, all-business commander who shows flashes of anger to his aides but little other emotion. Ryan might have been expected to temper his judgment of Lavelle, knowing the concern Lavelle had shown for the lives of his pilots. (His own son, an Air Force captain, was killed in January, 1970, when his F-4 crashed on takeoff at a California air base.) But Ryan knew from the moment the case came to his desk that Lavelle was an officer who had committed an unforgivable sin: disobeying orders. Considering punishment through the eyes of an Air Force officer—a very different perspective from that which civilians would have—Ryan concluded that removing Lavelle from command and downgrading him in rank would be a stern penalty.

So Ryan settled for removing Lavelle from his command, and giving him the choice of retiring from the Air Force or taking a lesser billet at the pay and rank of major general (two stars), not full general (four stars) as he had been in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Laird, Air Force Secretary Robert C. Seamans, Jr., and Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all concurred in Ryan’s actions regarding Lavelle. Nobody mentioned a court-martial. And Laird, according to Ryan, refused to let Ryan tell the House and Senate Armed Services Committee chairmen the truth about how Lavelle had exceeded his authority.


Lavelle chose retirement. The Defense Department decided to be coy about the real reason, and announced on April 7, 1972, that the general was “retiring, for personal and health reasons.”No mention was made of any irregularities. The official cover-up was worse in form, if not in substance, than in the case of My Lai, for this time the Pentagon’s civilian and military hierarchy conspired to keep the truth from the public. The My Lai cover-up was a decision made at lower levels, in the field.

If Representative Otis G. Pike, Democrat of New York, a prickly member of the House Armed Services Committee, had not become curious about the Lavelle case, the Pentagon might have been successful in its attempt to hush it up. But, taking to the floor of the House, Pike asked why Lavelle was removed from command so suddenly. And he urged four newspapermen to look into the situation before a fifth, Seymour Hersh of the New York Times, came along and decided to explore the subject fully. Hersh’s story went further than other printed reports about why Lavelle was relieved, and the Times put the Lavelle story on page one.

The House Armed Services Committee did its best to make the whole episode a mere one-day sensation. Chairman F. Edward Hebert, Democrat of Louisiana, called Lavelle before the committee for a brief morning session in public on June 12.

In questioning Lavelle, the congressmen could not have been kinder. “What you did,” said Representative John E. Hunt, Republican of New Jersey, “was attack the enemy with successful strikes.” Lavelle agreed with that. The strikes were “very” successful, he said. The general portrayed himself as making what he called “a very liberal interpretation of these rules of engagement” that in “certain instances” were “probably beyond the literal intention of the rules.”

To Chairman Hebert and committee members like Hunt, the whole question about breaking the protective reaction rules had become academic in the wake of Hanoi’s Easter offensive in South Vietnam.

President Nixon, in response to that offensive, liberalized the rules himself so that missile sites, trucks, guns, airfields—the same type of targets Lavelle had decided to hit on his own before the invasion—could be bombed. What is more, Lavelle had said in his testimony that General Creighton W. Abrams, his immediate superior in Vietnam when the unauthorized bombing runs were made, knew “what I was doing.” Lavelle stopped short of asserting that Abrams had told him to go ahead and break the protective reaction rules and file false reports on the raids.

As brief as the House inquiry was, questions arose in the minds of members of the committee about how far above Lavelle the responsibility for breaking the old rules went.

Did Abrams know about and wink at the violations? Did Admiral John S. McCain, who as commander of Pacific forces was in charge of deep penetration missions over North Vietnam, tell Ryan to “damn the rules, full speed ahead” with the bombing? How about Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had talked to Lavelle the day before the Quang Lang mission and cleared it with the Navy, which normally covered that area? Also, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had expressed their interest in bombing results, as opposed to reconnaissance photos. Ryan, for example, had complained through McCain’s command in Honolulu that Lavelle’s pilots had done a poor job of bombing Quang Lang on November 8, 1971. And then, of course, there was that meeting in Honolulu in December demanding that Lavelle and other commanders in Vietnam be more aggressive.

It was obvious that only some kind of quasi-judicial inquiry could break through the military secrecy surrounding these questions. The Air Force was not going to conduct any kind of court of inquiry to give the public a glimpse of the facts. The House had closed the book after a quick look. And there was just so much that newspapers could do in the absence of a strong public outcry. Only the Senate could save the Lavelle affair from a hasty, quiet burial. But the Senate Armed Services Committee, like its House counterpart, had also been sympathetic to the military through the years and felt that the civilian leaders had saddled the generals with an impossible job in Vietnam by restricting combat operations. Would the committee act?

Easing in

For a long while chances of any kind of Senate investigation looked dim. Armed Services Committee Chairman John C. Stennis, Democrat of Mississippi, kept quiet about Lavelle. However, the committee has changed complexion since Stennis took over from the late Senator Richard Russell. To begin with, Stennis has replaced some committee staff members who were retired military officers with “whiz kid” civilians from the Pentagon. Secondly, the committee has gained some liberal members who help counterbalance the heft of senators who double as Reserve generals. Senators Hughes and Richard S. Schweiker, Republican of Pennsylvania, were two new members. Hughes pushed hard for an investigation of the Lavelle case, but not so hard as to lose Stennis’ cooperation.

He didn’t have to, because the committee had a way to ease into the Lavelle case. President Nixon had nominated General Abrams to be Army Chief of Staff. The Stennis committee would vote the recommendation up or down. And it could not logically do so until it had determined whether Abrams had approved or was otherwise implicated in Lavelle’s bombing violations.

Stennis finally responded, beginning a series of closed hearings on September 11, 1972. He met faithfully with the press after each session, proving to be an excellent reporter in summarizing the key points of the testimony. And he released partially censored transcripts of the hearings as his committee went along. Thus the press could keep the issue before the public and other members of Congress.

Adhere and control

As usually happens in such an inquiry, some questions were answered and more were raised. Lavelle’s testimony that his subordinates had taken him too literally and had gone further than he intended in filing false reports on the bombing raids was flatly contradicted by his former operations officer, General Slay, but the Senate committee never arranged a confrontation of the two generals to see who was lying. The Navy’s practice of bending or breaking the protective reaction rules to bomb targets was never fully explored. And the whole inquiry was suspended in October, and Congress adjourned for the year without the committee having recommended any kind of overhaul of command and control procedures to keep another Lavelle from dropping bombs when and where he saw fit, civilian rules or not. Abrams was routinely confirmed as Chief of Staff.

The Senate’s September inquiry failed to show that Abrams or any other officer above Lavelle had authorized rule breaking or the filing of false reports. The top commanders all said that they kept track of the bombing raids made by the Seventh Air Force, and had discussed the problem of the enemy buildup in North Vietnam, sometimes in sessions with Lavelle himself. But at no time, said his superiors in sworn testimony, did they authorize Lavelle to break the rules or file false reports. Abrams, while conceding that the rules for fighting the Vietnam War were frustrating to commanders in the field, gave this explanation of why they cannot be disobeyed:

“If I or any other commander of similar rank picks and chooses among the rules, his subordinates are then going to pick and choose among the rules that he gives them. There is no way to stop it, and as long as this is the way the mission must be performed, you must adhere to it or it will unravel in a way that you will never be able to control.”

Suspicions still linger, however, and several senators hope that fresh evidence will come in from somebody up or down the chain of command to show more clearly whether there was a conspiracy, and if so, what the extent of it was. The Defense Department, on Stennis’ orders, is now supposed to come up with reforms to reduce chances of another Lavelle case. However, Air Force Chief of Staff Ryan told the Senate in the hearings that he could not guarantee that the same process would not repeat itself. Admiral Moorer, the nation’s top-ranking military officer, has deprecated the significance of the Lavelle case. He told reporters that it did not represent a breakdown of civilian control but merely a case of one commander breaking a military regulation.

In one of his sessions with reporters covering the Lavelle case, Moorer was asked if he disapproved of Franks’s action in reporting the violations. “It depends on the circumstances,” replied Moorer. “Of course, it’s a free country and a man has to live with his own conscience.”

In the Lavelle case, consciences obviously vary. The Air Force, with the approval of Defense Secretary Laird and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, satisfied its conscience by relieving Lavelle of command and, in the end, recommending that he be promoted from major general (two stars) to lieutenant general (three stars) in the retirement book. Lavelle, since he has a 70 percent disability rating (for back trouble and other ailments), will collect the $27,000-a-year retirement pay of a four-star general anyway, the highest billet he held during active duty. Senator William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, has demanded that Lavelle be court-martialed. And Senator Hughes, who said that the falsification of reports was an outright violation of the law, summed up the issue at the heart of the Lavelle affair: “The basic issue is whether civilians have lost control over the military and the military has lost control over itself.”

“Bad apple”

The facts as developed so far show that Lavelle broke the rules on his own authority; that nobody above him told him to forget about the restrictions and fight the war his own way. In that sense, Lavelle and only Lavelle is to blame. Or as Air Force Chief of Staff Ryan put it, “The bad apple was the head apple.”

Ryan did take that apple out of the barrel. Maybe that was not punishment enough. The question of discipline, however, is a much easier one than the question of whether it is wise to leave war to generals and warriors. Even in this “limited” war, some top military commanders have said that they would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons if the situation was desperate. What if a general under pressures like those Lavelle says he faced wanted to put nuclear weapons on his planes?

Pilots are proud warriors. They do not paint peace symbols on their planes. They do not wear black antiwar armbands, as do some American infantrymen in Vietnam. They do what they are told without protest.

The President of the United States can thus deploy them free of many of the difficulties that accompany any commitment of ground troops. Yet sitting in the cockpit of a plane under anti-aircraft fire is every bit as terrifying for the pilot as mortar fire is for the infantryman. Hundreds have gone to fiery deaths, or into captivity, flying over Vietnam at 500 miles per hour.

Mindful of the long list of do’s and don’t’s that pilots must follow in combat, Abrams himself has raised the question of whether the airmen were wisely used. Consider this exchange between Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Stennis and General Abrams:

Senator Stennis: “What Lavelle did, all this bombing and everything, that you have now learned about—that was from a military standpoint, that was beneficial to our side, was it not? Leaving aside whatever disobedience there was in it? Leaving it just strictly military bombing and destruction and all, that was favorable to our side, was it not?”

General Abrams: “In my opinion, it had a minimal favorable effect for our side. In my professional judgment. it was insignificant.”