The Iran-Contra Affair represented a policy conflict between the American executive and legislative branches. President Reagan wished to supply aid to anti-communist Contra forces in Nicaragua. At the same time, he hoped to free American hostages in the Middle East. However, an increasingly isolationist congress rebuffed administration attempts to remove a communist regime in Nicaragua. As a result, the Reagan Administration moved to circumvent congress by selling arms to Iranian extremists in the hopes of funding the Contras and freeing hostages. At its core, the resulting scandal germinated from the executive branch’s right to run foreign policy and the legislative branch’s right to oversight and control of the purse. However, the scandal briefly threatened the Reagan Administration before the president regained his footing emerging from the fray more popular.
The public learned of Iran-Contra in late 1986. Ironically, the story broke in a small Lebanese newspaper that the mainstream press would generally ignore as a propaganda outlet. Essentially, the Reagan Administration sold weapons to Iran in the face of an arms embargo. In return, Iran promised to use their influence over Middle East terrorists to free six American hostages held in the region. Afterward, the proceeds from the arms sales went to fund the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
The arrangement with Iran allowed the administration to evade several obstacles to achieving their foreign policy goals. First, Reagan desperately wanted to free the six hostages at all costs. Since the terrorists held the Americans at various points in the region, intelligence services failed to pinpoint their location. The people behind the scandal hoped Iran could use its influence with the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution to release the hostages.
In order to gain Iran’s assistance, the U.S. ignored an arms embargo against the terror nation. Iran sponsored international terrorism from the time of its revolution in 1979. The Islamic Republic itself engaged in terror attacks and committed an act of war when it held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days from 1979-81. As a result of their actions, the U.S. initiated an arms embargo.
Freeing hostages provided only part of the motivation for selling arms to Iran. From 1982-84, Congress passed three amendments designed to cut off aid to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. By 1986, insiders referred to all three as the Boland Amendment named after Edward Boland of Massachusetts who authored the prohibition. Congress worried about a “Latin American” Vietnam and decided to move against the administration. For its part, the Reagan Administration hoped to eliminate communism in the western hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine and its various corollaries established both precedent and legitimacy for its actions. Despite this, congress had grown isolationist since the early seventies. Additionally, congressional leadership scoffed at the supposed communist threat and did not seem concerned with human rights violations that occurred under these regimes.
Lt. Colonel Oliver North masterminded the final plan. After the story broke, congress held hearings, liberals hoped to impeach Reagan and the press compared the scandal to Watergate. At first, public confidence in Reagan evaporated. The president told the public his administration did not trade arms for hostages. Evidence proved otherwise making Reagan look like Johnson or Nixon. However, the administration’s luck changed with North on the stand.
Administration opponents were building a case for impeachment when North completely undermined their case. The congress salivated at the prospect of grilling the marine colonel. North shredded and altered many documents relating to Iran-Contra. Others also destroyed evidence furthering the appearance of guilt. North appeared before the body in his uniform and claimed he was trying to save the lives of operatives. The marine made congress look ignorant and he heroic. North’s appearance swung public opinion making the Marine a national phenomenon. North’s fans took down the “H” in the Hollywood sign as a show of support. On March 4, 1987, Reagan told the country that his administration traded arms for hostages and he apologized taking full responsibility despite not knowing of the program.
There has never been any clear evidence of Reagan’s involvement in the scandal. He created the Tower Commission around Thanksgiving 1986 to investigate. When Reagan appeared before the commission, he claimed to have authorized the shipments, but later said he did not have any knowledge. On another occasion, the president said he did not remember. At the time, people blamed age for the president’s confusion. Others pointed out Reagan’s acting background postulating that perhaps the president was using those talents to obfuscate. In 1994, Reagan admitted to suffering from Alzheimer’s. In light of this revelation, many believe that he might very well have been demonstrating early symptoms.
The Tower Commission released its report on February 26, 1987. The 200-page report cleared Reagan of any wrongdoing while focusing on the actions of North, National Security Advisor John Poindexter, and Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. It did criticize the president for his lax management style, which allowed the scandal to germinate. After the report, the scandal waned in the public consciousness and Reagan’s popularity rebounded.
On June 12 1987, Reagan visited Berlin demanding, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Shortly thereafter, the two signed the IMF Treaty destroying an entire class of nuclear weapons. Relations between the two nations thawed dramatically. When he visited Moscow in 1988, someone asked if he thought the U.S.S.R. was still an “evil empire.” Reagan responded, “No, I was talking about another time, another era.” The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. Reagan is widely credited for destroying communism.
Although Reagan and his legacy escaped unscathed, an independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, indicted and convicted several others. In a highly politicized, and inappropriate, move he indicted Weinberger for one count of making false statements. Based on the timing and charge, Walsh designed the move to influence the 1992 election. At the time, President Bush tied Governor Clinton in the polls. Walsh implicated Bush in the scandal clearly hoping to sway the election. In response, Bush undermined Walsh by pardoning six officials targeted by the independent counsel. The scandal faded from public view quickly afterward.
The Iran-Contra Affair could have destroyed the Reagan presidency. The administration traded arms for hostages while sending the funds to help Nicaraguan rebels. The arms deals and aid to the rebels both circumvented the law. Despite this, the public eventually sided with the Reagan Administration thoroughly frustrating investigators and administration critics. What began as a policy dispute between branches of government, ended in a multi-million dollar investigation that essentially led nowhere.