The Washington Post reports today on the posthumous rehabilitation of Air Force General John D. Lavelle. In 1972, Lavelle was forced to retire with a reduced rank in disgrace for conducting unauthorized bombing missions in North Vietnam, and then covering it up.
Thanks to two articles in 2006 and 2007 in Air Force magazine, it became unequivocally clear that Lavelle had been railroaded, forced to assume responsibility for decisions taken in secret by the Nixon White House and left pinned on him. With the true facts now out, President Obama has asked the Senate to restore his rank.
Secrecy in wartime is often essential, as the WikiLeaks flap forcefully reminds us. In this instance, Nixon was anxious not to be involved in a public furor over the Vietnam war on the eve of his secret visit to China. The exigencies of statecraft took precedence over openness, honesty and, also, human decency. White House tape recordings tell the story: “I want to keep it away if I can,” said Nixon to Henry Kissinger as they stood by in knowing silence while Lavelle’s reputation was destroyed, “but I don’t want to hurt an innocent man.”
“Admirable secrecy,” is how Machiavelli once credited the Florentine court because “no one speaks of things respecting which silence is to be observed.” But Machiavellian secrecy, conducted in this instance by our most Machiavellian president, sits very uneasily with our democratic institutions. The Lavelle affair, in which a man was sacrificed for the sake of statecraft, is a case in point.