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“It’s a bad rap for him”

Protective-Reaction, John D. Lavelle and the Nixon Tapes

On August 4, 2010, a wartime American President took steps to correct a mistake another wartime President made 38 years earlier. Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported that President Obama has asked the Senate to restore the honor and rank of Air Force General John D. Lavelle, who was demoted and forced to retire in disgrace for allegedly unauthorized bombing raids over North Vietnam in 1972. Whitlock wrote, “The decision officially sets the record straight about who really lied during the controversial chapter in the Vietnam War, who told the truth and who was left holding the bag.”[1] The Nixon Tapes have provided the evidence to correct the injustice against General Lavelle, who maintained that he had acted under legitimate orders until his death in 1979.[2]

On a number of occasions, President Richard M. Nixon saw “protective-reaction strikes” as both a justification for bombing North Vietnam in retaliation for radar locks on U.S. planes and as a plausible pretext to inflict damage beyond the Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites. For example, during the American-backed South Vietnamese attack into Laos and Cambodia in early 1971, Nixon instructed his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, to tell Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that American air power was only responding to missile launches by North Vietnamese SAM sites:

Nixon: No, I think you should say this: “Mr. [Ambassador]…the President asked me to call you in…He said, ‘Now the one thing you must understand as far as bombing of the North is concerned, there have been these missiles that have been fired, and there will have to be some strikes on those missiles.’” I’d tell him.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Actually, I’d strike the shit out of a few other places…The advantage of this one is…that we can call it “protective-reaction” while blasting the bejeezus out of them.[3]

Nixon also advocated the use of protective-reaction strikes during the fall of 1971, when he perceived North Vietnamese duplicity at peace negotiations in Paris and their preparations for a major offensive against U.S.-ally South Vietnam.

Nixon: If you can find the provocation, any kind of a provocation, just for a little pop.

Kissinger: I agree.

Nixon: …I want to stir it up a little. Now, find something that they can hit [3 second withdrawal] It’s protective-reaction. They shot at our planes. Who the hell’s gonna complain? Who’s gonna prove they didn’t? …All right, you tell [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Thomas] Moorer to give me a couple of targets…and knock the shit out of them…Now, incidentally, I’ll say they were building up for an attack on our forces as we were withdrawing, and I’m using the airpower.[4]

The loose definition of protective-reaction strikes later became something of a controversy that cost Lavelle his career. As an Air Force veteran, Aloysius Casey, and his son, Patrick Casey, discovered in 2007, Lavelle was made the scapegoat for allegedly unauthorized strikes.[5] With some additional digging, we have discovered the moment of decision in a Cabinet Room conversation on February 2, 1972, in which Nixon clearly ordered a change to a more liberal interpretation of protective reaction-strikes in the context of countering the predicted North Vietnamese spring offensive:

Nixon: Do I understand, that we in effect—that after the enemy launches its massive attack, that he [6] then on a case-by-case basis he’s got to get authority to take out a SAM site?

Moorer: Yes, sir, that’s what we’re talked about. What we’ve asked—

Nixon: Let’s change that. [emphasis added]

The President pressed the issue about a difference of interpretation and got into a mild argument with his Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird.

Nixon: I know that there’s been some disagreements as to what to do and so forth.

Laird: I don’t think there’s any disagreement.

Nixon: Well, what I meant is I just want to be sure that there’s a clear understanding here as to the two different phases: what do we do now; what do we do when it starts. Without, of course, getting the commanders in the field the right to start a nuclear war, once the major offensive has begun the situation totally changes…We’re not going to go through this crap saying we have to approve every goddamn thing. It’s not going to be done that way and I want to—

Laird: I don’t think there’s any question.

Nixon: No, there is. That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about in both places. If they start an offensive, we’re not going to go through this nonsense of saying that we’ll wait until a SAM shoots and then we’ll knock it out.[7]

The Caseys also rediscovered a tape in which President Nixon hinted at his own culpability in and regret for the bombing strikes for which Lavelle was blamed:

Nixon: Well, let me ask you about Lavelle…I had it on my list this morning. I just don’t want him to be made a goat, Goddamnit…We all know what protective-reaction is—

Kissinger:  You see, what happened—

Nixon: Is this damn Laird playing games with us—?

Kissinger: What happened with Lavelle was [that] he had every reason to believe that we wanted him to aggressive steps—

Nixon did not want Lavelle to be made the scapegoat, but he failed to prevent it from happening after it had become public knowledge during an election year and the same month as the Watergate break-in/bugging that would eventually lead to the only presidential resignation in U.S. history.

Nixon:  Well, come back to Lavelle now…Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing, or—?

Kissinger: [No, now it’s with congressional]—

[…]

Nixon:  Why the hell did this happen to him? A decision of that magnitude without—?

Kissinger: [They never told you]—

Nixon: I should have known about it, Henry, because this…this involves something we told—You remember, we told Laird to keep pressure on there in March.

Kissinger: By the time I knew about it, it had already been done. There was no point in…involving you anymore. Because he ran it by me after the guy had already been removed.

Nixon next asked how to handle the situation “public-relations-wise.” Kissinger responded, “I think this will go away…After all, we took corrective steps. We could have easily hidden it. I think we might as well make a virtue of necessity.” Nixon still felt uncomfortable as it was a “bad rap” for Lavelle. Kissinger replied that it was “the way the press plays things.” Kissinger having touched a nerve, Nixon rhetorically asked if the press was “just eager to get at us on Vietnam? Isn’t that it?”[8]

Nixon and Kissinger had a similar conversation twelve days later:

Kissinger: But it—But also sometimes when we did these three-day strikes we called it “protective-reaction…just to make clear that we weren’t resuming the bombing of the North.

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: When we were hitting Vinh, and so forth, last December [1971], that was not “protective-reaction” in the strict sense. That was a punishment for their acts, and that hasn’t been made clear here.

Nixon: Well, the thing is, you and I know and we told Laird. Maybe, I just don’t want—Frankly, Henry, I don’t feel right about our pushing him into this thing...and then...giving him a bad rap.[9]

President Obama’s commitment to correct a mistake of an earlier conflict is important today as a reminder to avoid the mistakes of the past as U.S. and Allied troops are in currently in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can take a long time for justice, but the truth eventually comes out.

Conversations that reference Lavelle

Conversation Number

Date

Time

Participants*

Logs

Audio for Complete Conversation

733-003a

6/14/72

10:04 - 11:07 am

P, HAK, WPR, Unk, WHO, JLMcC

doc

mp3 (22.1m)

733-003b mp3 (26.9m)

733-006

6/14/72

11:15 - 11:55 am

P, HAK, Unk (SBB?)

doc

mp3 (30.4m)

735-007

6/15/72

12:49 - 1:26 pm

P, HAK, Unk

doc

mp3 (26.7m)

025-123

6/22/72

12:56 - 1:08 pm

P, RLZ

doc

mp3 (8.3m)

740-003

6/22/72

3:44 - 4:06 pm

P, HRH, RLZ, SBB, APB

doc

mp3 (12.5m)

742-006

6/26/72

8:57 - 9:40 am

P, HAK, SBB

doc

mp3 (31m)

742-008

6/26/72

9:50 - 10:45 am

P, RMW, HRH

doc

mp3 (36.2m)

742-013

6/26/72

11:31 am - 12:08 pm

P, PMF, SBB, WHO, HAK, GPS, HRH

doc

mp3 (25.6m)

743-006

6/27/72

unknown time between 11:57 am and 1:50 pm

P, RMW, HRH, APB, Unk, HAK, RLZ, MS, WHO

doc

mp3 (84.4m)

135-006

6/29/72

1:00 - 1:28 pm

P, CWC

doc

mp3 (15.2m)

345-010

6/29/72

2:40 - 3:50 pm

P, HRH, APB, HAK, Unk

doc

mp3 (47m)

745-002

6/30/72

4:30 - 6:15 pm

P, CMacG, HRH, DCH, RLZ, RMW, SBB

doc

n/a

761-007a

8/4/72

Unknown time after 10:37 am - 1:48 pm

P, HRH, EFRC, TNC, KCR, GKG, KMS, AMHa, ALM, LDJ, TMD, SBB, WHP, RLZ, Unk, JDE, WHO, RKC

doc

mp3 (29.8m)

761-007b   mp3 (38.8m)

778-005

9/15/72

Unknown between 8:36 and 9:58 am

P, HRH, JBC, AMH

doc

mp3 (12.6m)

781-021

9/18/72

1:00 - 1:09 pm

P, APB

doc

mp3 (1.8m)

781-026

9/18/72

Unknown between 1:12 and 1:25 pm

P, JDE

doc

mp3 (3m)

371-019a

10/23/72

8:34 - 9:17 am

P, AMH

doc

mp3 (20.2m)

371-019b

       

mp3 (9.8m)

 



Produced by Richard Moss and Luke A. Nichter in a private capacity. The views presented here do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or our employers. Although we have reviewed each conversation multiple times, readers are encouraged to consult the audio and come to their own conclusions.

[1] Craig Whitlock, “Honor restored for general blamed after Nixon denied authorizing Vietnam bombing,” Washington Post (August 5, 2010) Online:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/04/AR2010080407297.html?wprss=rss_nation&loc=interstitialskip <accessed August 6, 2010>

[2] John T. Correll, “Lavelle,” Air Force Magazine (November 2006), online: http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2006/November%202006/1106lavelle.aspx <accessed August 6, 2010>

[3] Nixon Tapes, Oval Office Conversation No. 742-006, June 26, 1972, 8:57 am - 9:40 am

[4] Nixon Tapes, Oval Office Conv. No. 733-6, June 14, 1972, 11:15 - 11:55 a.m. This transcript it based on one that appeared online at:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/04/AR2010080407297.html?wprss=rss_nation&loc=interstitialskip <accessed August 6, 2010>

[5] Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker (March 26, 2007); Aloysius Casey and Patrick Casey, “Lavelle, Nixon, and the White House Tapes,” Air Force Magazine (February 2007) online: http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2007/February%202007/0207tapes.aspx <accessed August 6, 2010>

[6] General Creighton Abrams, Commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) until June 28, 1972; Chief of Staff, USA, after October 12, 1972. Until his removal, Lavelle was the commander of the air campaign in Southeast Asia, coordinating operations with General Abrams.

[7] Nixon Tapes, Cabinet Room Conv. No. 89-1, February 2, 1972, 10:05 a.m. – 12:16 p.m. The complete conversation was published in Document 13, “National Security Council Meeting,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Vietnam, volume VIII (Washington DC: GPO, 2010) pp.44-70, and is one of the longest transcripts ever published from the Nixon Tapes.

[8] Nixon Tapes, Oval Office Conv. No. 574-3, September 17, 1971, 9:08 – 10:03 a.m.

[9] Nixon Tapes, Oval Office Conv. No. 462-5, March 5, 1971, 8:30 – 10:15 a.m.

 

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