March 15, 2016
Violating Reality: The Lavelle Affair, Nixon, and the Parsing of the Truth
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.