Robert Busby: The Scandal that Almost Destroyed Ronald Reagan

Roundup: Talking About History

[Busby is the author of Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair: The Politics of Presidential Recovery.]

On Nov. 13, 1986, President Reagan declared in a national address, "We did not -- repeat -- did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages -- nor will we." His assertion ran counter to covert operations that had been ongoing for several years. Reagan was faced with an uncomfortable question, transposed from the Watergate scandal, which threatened to strike at his credibility. What did the president know and when did he know it? Having secured a landslide win against Walter Mondale in 1984, Reagan’s second term appeared to be one in which the Cold War, arms control and relations with the Soviet Union would dominate the presidential agenda. Instead, Reagan found himself in the midst of a crisis that threatened his presidency.
Covert arms transactions with Iran and the diversion of profits of the sales to the Contra guerrilla force in Nicaragua lay at the heart of the controversy. The arms sales in the first instance were supposed to act as leverage to assist in getting American hostages released from Lebanon. Missile shipments were significant. Two thousand and four TOW missiles were transferred, along with 18 HAWK missiles. The arms sales were covert. Both Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger claimed at the time to have been unaware of the actions. They were carried out by members of the National Security Council, including National Security Advisors Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North, an NSC staff member. On account of the Iran-Iraq war, restrictions on arms sales to Iran were in place at the time of the weapons transfers. Members of Reagan's own administration and members of Congress believed that the administration’s decree that there should be no deals with terrorists was being adhered to....

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