A Historiography of the Iran-Contra Affair

A Historiography of the Iran-Contra Affair

Captive: One of the 52 U.S. hostages is displayed to the crowd outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by his captors, a few days into their ordeal. Photo: AP


The Iran-Contra Affair was a scandal that was at first the main focus on everyone’s mind in the late 1980s. Since then, the scandal has become an afterthought following major events that occurred in the 1990s and it was since been forgotten by many people. Since then, a number of books have been written and published about the scandal, most of them being firsthand accounts. The books primarily focus on one of these events; the arms deal with the Iranians, or the hearings that followed suit. The books chosen for this historiography focuses on both topics, however, more emphasis goes towards the hearings than the arms dealings. The books chosen (in chronological order) are as follow; Men of Zeal: A Candid inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings (1988) by William S. Cohen and George J. Mitchell; Special Trust (1994) by Robert C. McFarlane; Firewall (1997) by Lawrence E. Walsh; Covert Actions as a Tool of Presidential Foreign Policy: From the Bay of Pigs to Iran Contra (2006) by Dr. John J. Carter; and Iran-Contra: Reagans Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (2014) by Malcolm Byrne. The first three books listed were firsthand accounts of those involved in the hearings. Each of the books brings up a number of topics of the scandal. These topics include whether certain people should have been brought in to testify considering how much they knew about the scandal and the blame narrative. This blame narrative is the narrative of who should be held responsible for the failure of key conviction during the hearings. The blame is shared among those in the congressional committee, those in the Reagan administration, and others including the independent council. Each of the books put the majority of the blame on one or more of these groups. As time passed, the blame has shifted from the original group mention in the first book.

Before we examine the books, it is important to know the facts and details of the scandal. In the mid-1980s, the country of Nicaragua was under the control of a left-wing political group called the Sandinistas. Around that time as well, other countries in Central and South America were under threat by left-winged political groups. Nicaragua, however, was the main focus since they were the only country that fell under the control by a left-winged group. In response, the U.S. began supporting the opposition to these left-wing groups in these countries including in Nicaragua. The Contras were the right-wing opposition that challenged the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The U.S. supported them by giving them money and weapons. This continued until Congress passed the Boland Amendment in 1982 which prevented any funding or arms to the Contras. Congress would later pass additional part of the Boland Amendment in 1984 and in 1985, making it difficult to help the Contras. This complicated matters for the Reagan administration. In 1984, seven Americans were taken as hostages in Lebanon by Iranian terrorist and the Reagan administration had to negotiate with Iran for their release. The Iranians demanded weapons in exchange for the hostages as they were in a midst of a war with Iraq. At the time, Iran lacked international support and needed the weapons to fight the war. The Reagan administration agreed to their demands. The Reagan administration, however, demanded payments for the weapons along with the hostages. Throughout 1985 and 1986, multiple transactions took place between the two countries. This was a result of the Iranians not releasing all of the hostages and only releasing a few of them from time to time. The money they received was used to secretly fund the Contras through a private bank system. In late 1986, the Sandinistas shot down a plane carrying supplies and a Lebanese newspaper reported the U.S sold arms to Iran.[1] President Reagan denied these allegations however the Iranians confirm their actions. Congress formed a congressional committee to investigate the matter. The main objective of the investigation dealt with the Contras since there was no specific law against sending arms to Iran for hostages. As the committee found more details of these transactions, they brought in a number of people in the Reagan administration to testify their actions and to determine whether they violated the Boland Amendment. Two key individuals that were not investigated were President Reagan and Vice-President Bush. The main figures that were brought in to testify were Oliver North and John Poindexter. During 1987, many of the evidence were destroyed or withheld, causing problems in the investigation. In the end, the committee only charged those involved with either perjury or destruction of evidence. Many of them, however, would be pardoned by President Bush on Christmas Eve in 1992. The scandal became a distant memory to the public after Reagan left office in 1989. With no major convictions or consequences to those involved, the scandal had no major impact to the public. In additions, other key events such as the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf War made the scandal feel of little importance to the public.

When the investigations and hearings concluded in 1987, many authors began to write about the scandal based on the knowledge given during the hearings and investigations. One of the first books written about the scandal was called Men of Zeal: A Candid inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings by William S. Cohen (b. 1940) and George J. Mitchell (b. 1933). The book was written and published in 1988, only a few months after the hearings and investigations concluded. Both Cohen and Mitchell were Senators from Maine in the 1980s, with Cohen being a Republican while Mitchell being a Democrat. Both authors graduated from Bowdoin College in different years and both authors attended different law schools to become attorneys.[2] Cohen was elected to the House in 1972 and would be involved in the investigation of the Watergate scandal. Cohen favored the impeachment of Nixon, disregarding his Republican ideology. He was elected Senator of Maine in 1978 and served until 1997. Mitchell was appointed the other Senator from Maine in 1980 after the previous one resigned. Mitchell would stay in the Senate until 1995. Their intent on writing this book was to show how Congress and the American people were lied to by the President and his administration, the laws that were bent and broken and how power was abused.[3]

The authors were involved in the events as they were part of the committee chosen to investigate and handle the hearings. Since they were in the committee, a majority of the book focuses on those investigations and hearings. They only briefly mention the arms deals with Iran and the funding to the Contras. The information in the book includes documents that were presented to them at the time and the hearings by some of the people involved. Because of this, the authors use mostly firsthand account and what they can recall in order to write their book. The authors, however, had a few issues in writing their book. They were not able to specifically use some of the names of the individuals on the committee and in the hearings because the scandal was still relatively recent. In additions, a number of documents and writings were not declassified at the time and could not be used by the senators. One of the main points by the authors is determining how the congressional committee failed in trying to get some of the people, mainly Oliver North, to be found guilty of their actions. The authors state that the committee action and the members were the cause of their failure. The committee were made up of 26 members of Congress, including the authors, and the Democrats that were chosen from the House of Representatives were “far more partisan than in the Senate and they see little benefit in sharing power with Republicans.”[4] Because of this, the authors knew that the committee would have problems working with each other from the start. Along with that, the committee set deadlines that would end up hurting them than helping them. According to the authors, setting a deadline was a compromise set by the committee to appease Democrats, who wanted no time limitation, and Republicans who wanted a set time limitation.[5] The fact that the committee compromised often in their choices led them to their failures, according to the authors. Naturally, problems would arise before the deadline of August 1st, 1987. With a deadline place on them, the committee had to examine a number of documents that were difficult to obtain. The documents were held by other agency, and they deliberately withheld some of them. The committee also had to examine witnesses and they had to compromise to determine how to examine the witness and who should examine them. These actions were all done in a short time period. In additions, each of the members had to resume their own congressional duties. This put a serious restraint on their jobs on the committee. Because of this, a portion of the investigation had to be handled by their staff lawyers and their work would be hampered by the committee. The deadline also helped out those who would be called by the committee. Prior to the formation of the committee, many agencies and people in the Reagan administration began to destroy evidence when the Lebanese newspaper made the scandal public. When the deadline was announced, those in the Reagan administration that knew they would be called up would have time to formulate their own plans when they had to testify. The deadline would be moved up to October, however that only made things complicated for the committee.

The authors mention Lawrence Walsh’s involvement in the investigation. Walsh was the independent counsel involved in the investigation to determine whether members of the Reagan administration had engaged in criminal statues on their actions.[6] The authors knew that Walsh and the committee would come into conflict with each other from the start. We’ll see later Walsh’s perspective on the committee and their actions. Walsh, according to the authors, had problems with whether criminal charges could be placed on those involved. Walsh lacked evidence and the committee could not go ahead with his plan for a number of reasons. These reasons included the defendants invoking their Fifth Amendment’s rights, and they could not guarantee that a trial would occurred had there been enough evidence.[7] The committee, however, could not ignore Walsh’s request and they compromised to benefit both Walsh and themselves. The notion of using a compromise would end up backfiring on the committee again. A factor that the authors acknowledge was how the hearings would be portrayed on television. To the committee, they focused on the investigations and did not take into account the consequences of the coverage and how television would dramatize the exchanges between members and witness, detailing every expression that was not noticed on both sides.[8] Having the hearings televise made the committee appeared as the bad guys and some of the witnesses would use this as an advantage. One such case was the testimony of Fawn Hall, the secretary for North. The authors state that “one of the commandants of litigation is never make a woman cry under examination or allow her to persuade a jury that they made her cry.”[9] In most scenarios, cases and litigations are lost by those who make go against this rule. Hall turned the tables on the committee by putting them on the defensive by coming off as vulnerable that got sympathy from the television audience on the first day of her testimony. She then changed her style and method following the first day of testimony and took advantage of the committee. Following her testimony, the committee received negative mail that attacked them for how they question and treated Hall. They did receive positive mail that praised them for treating her as any other person instead of as a sex goddess.[10] Regardless of the positive mail, the negative mail and the testimony’s portrayal on television meant that she had defeated the committee.

The authors would note that the involvement of both President Reagan and Vice-President Bush. The committee, according to the authors, did not focus on Bush because they did not have any evidence that Bush was involved in the scandal.[11] Despite this, the authors would find out that Bush was aware of the situation and would be involved but Bush would deny it at the time. To the authors, the questions of Bush’s involvement was crucial since he would run for (and be elected) President in 1988. The question as to why the committee decided not to investigate Bush and brought him into the hearings were never answered by the authors. As for Reagan, the committee did acknowledge his involvement but felt that the people did not want a repeat of Watergate. In addition, Reagan was well liked in comparison to Nixon and the public would not deem his actions as a case to remove him from office.[12] The authors also state that his actions were not to be considered to be impeachable offenses, or high crimes or misdemeanors.[13] They felt his actions were not going to be deemed as a high crime. In additions, they point out that this was a matter of foreign affairs, unlike Watergate which was a domestic matter. The authors note that it is difficult for Congress to determine certain foreign affair policies considering that it is not entirely their responsibility. To the committee, it was difficult to determine whether or not Reagan knew of what was occurring in his administration. One question that is brought up but never answered by the author is which members of the committee and of Congress chose not to pursue after both Reagan and Bush. Given Cohen’s background on the Watergate scandal, it is possible that he could have suggested having both Reagan and Bush investigated. In the end, the idea to investigate both was rejected by his colleagues. Because this book was written by two Senators, the book is already considered to be biased. The authors at the end of the introduction state the following:

The views expressed in this book are refracted through our personalities and predisposition. Other members of the Committee, no doubt viewed events and witnesses differently. There are at least twenty-six versions of what happened during the Iran-Contra investigations. Each bears its own stamp of truth.[14]


The authors knew that their work was going to be biased and they want the reader to acknowledge that before going forward. It is because of this biased that the authors tend to criticize and analyze more from the committee than from those in the Reagan administration. Along with that, the senators were unable to say much about the other committee members. Considering that more than half of those in the committee were up for election in 1988, including Mitchell, both Senators had to consider they choice of words carefully when describing them.

In 1994, long after the scandal had ended, Robert C. McFarlane (b. 1937) wrote a book that focuses on his life and the Iran-Contra Affair. The book is entitled Special Trust. McFarlane was born in Texas, attended Naval Academy where he would later serve in the Marine Corps. McFarlane served in the Marine Corps starting in 1959 and served two combat tours in Vietnam during the 1960s before retiring from the Marine Corps in 1979. He was chosen to become the Counselor to the Department of State by President Reagan in 1981 and later the National Security Advisor in 1983 until he resigned in 1985. He would continue to be a part of the Reagan administration in 1986 until the scandal became public. He would attempt suicide in 1987 months before he would be called to testify in the hearings. The book is a collection of memoirs by McFarlane, listing his achievements, accomplishment but also mentions his fault and the actions of the Iran-Contra Affair. Unlike the Senators, McFarlane was a part of the Reagan administration and was one of the people who had to testify in the hearings. His story greatly differs based on perspectives and most of the story focuses on the scandal than the hearings.

McFarlane was the one who negotiated the deals with the Iranians for the release of the hostages. Eventually, the idea to send arms in exchange for the hostages came up and McFarlane asked President Reagan for his permission to go on ahead with the plan. Reagan agreed to the idea and Reagan said it was the right thing to do.[15] It’s important to note that because Reagan denied his involvement and said he was not in control of his administration. The difference between the Senators’ book and McFarlane’s book is the fact that the Senators view it from a committee perspective and mostly focuses on the hearings while McFarlane focuses on the scandal and the hearings from his perspective. In addition, McFarlane had more information available than the Senators had back in 1988. The Senators lacked a few information given that they only had the documents that were not destroyed. For McFarlane, he feels that those in the Reagan administration were at fault for having these deals be done and to continue in making these deals. McFarlane also blames himself as he thought he could have prevented more arms to be shipped to Iran. McFarlane mostly uses his memoir and his own recollection as evidence on writing this book. The main problem is that the book is from one’s own perspective and McFarlane only provides what he knows about the scandal. At the time, McFarlane saw himself as a betrayer to the people. One reason why he decided to write this book was not only to showcase his achievements and tell more about the scandal but also try to regain the trust of the people of the country and rebuild his shattered career.

In terms of the hearings, McFarlane focuses on his testimony but does mention a few others, namely Oliver North. According to McFarlane, North backstabbed him when he said that McFarlane was the one who masterminded the idea, approved and oversaw the exchange with the Iranians and handle the cover up.[16] McFarlane pointed out that he did not do everything that North said. McFarlane also points out that both President Reagan and Vice President Bush knew of the arms deals but both denied their role in the scandal. The Senators in Men of Zeal make little mention of both Reagan and Bush in terms of them being a part of the scandal. However, unlike the Senators, McFarlane doesn’t blame the committee for its failure. Most of the blame are on those in the Reagan administration as a few denied their actions while others such as North made McFarlane be the scapegoat. The Senators in Men of Zeal did write a chapter, entitled “A Crowd of Sorrows,” that focuses on McFarlane testimony. According to the Senators, “the committee were sympathetic to him because of he was considered a decent man who in the past had carried little of the ideological fervor that seemed so prevalent in the White House.”[17] For the Senators, they were a bit shocked and surprise that a man with McFarlane background would be responsible for the action that he did in the scandal. From McFarlane’s viewpoint, he was the only one who testified that had not declared immunity or plead the Fifth Amendment, the right to refuse to testify. To declare immunity, in this case, meant that a person can be exempt from criminal prosecution in exchange for their cooperation in a criminal investigation and they could not be charged based on their Fifth Amendment rights.[18] McFarlane felt it was the right thing to not declare immunity but as time passed following the hearing, McFarlane felt that he was becoming isolated from the others involved. That came true as he criticizes the actions of the other people. He was disappointed in the behavior of the people he worked with in the White House who were running for the nearest cover and looked after themselves.[19] As for Reagan, McFarland felt anger towards him since he refused to acknowledge the facts and was protected by the advisers around him.[20] These actions were not discussed by the Senators mainly because Reagan was not the primary focus. Even though he criticizes Reagan’s actions, McFarlane does not completely attack Reagan. In fact McFarlane he praises him for some of his actions that occurred before the investigations. He is critical in his denial of his involvement in the scandal. McFarlane published the book in 1994, long after the scandal had taken place and after President Bush pardoned those who were found guilty of their crime in covering up the scandal and in destroying the evidence. It’s important to note that had McFarlane published his book between 1989 and 1992, he would be criticized heavily for his work. This is mainly on the events that had occurred during Bush’s presidency including the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the Persian Gulf War. To write against then President Bush about lying and denying his involvement in the scandal while the U.S. were achieving these victories in foreign policy would be considered risky and dangerous on his part. In addition, McFarlane pleaded guilty in covering up his actions and during that time he was seen as a criminal to the public based on the testimony by North. He would be pardoned by President Bush in 1992. The political climate changed when Bill Clinton won the 1992 election. With Clinton elected, the major figures of the Reagan administrations were out of office. For McFarland, publishing it once Bush left office in 1993 meant that he would not face heavy criticism.

In 1997, after publishing a number of reports, books, and documents, Lawrence E. Walsh (1912-2014) published one final book of the scandal that focuses on his time as the independent counsel. The book is entitled Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. Walsh was an attorney and a counsel in the 1930s and 1940s, served as Deputy Attorney General under President Eisenhower in 1957 before returning to his profession as an attorney in 1960. In 1986 when the scandal became public, Walsh was hired as the independent counsel to investigate the matter at hand. His role was to determine whether those involved in the scandal had broken any laws and whether they should face criminal charges. Prior to 1997, Walsh had released his own reports of the investigation, culminating in releasing his final report in 1993. The main point of Firewall was to show how many parties were responsible for the failure of the hearings and the failure of the indictment of key figures. Following the scandal and publishing his work, Walsh would hold lectures and speeches regarding his role in the scandal. Walsh retired a few years later and died in 2014 at the age of 102. The year 1997 would mark 10 years since Walsh began his investigation. One reason as to why Walsh wrote this book was to reflect on his actions 10 years later. By 1997, similar to McFarland, many people in the Reagan administration were no longer in office. Also by 1997, the United States experience a relatively quiet period in terms of politics. During the Clinton Presidency, the political climate was calmed and remained so until the turn of the century.

In Walsh’s view, he blamed everyone involved in the investigation and in the hearings including the committee, those in the Reagan administration and himself for failing in convicting and proving whether or not any laws were broken. Walsh had to include more groups that hindered his cases including judges and government agency such as the CIA and the Defense Department. Considering Walsh’s role, he had to present evidence to a number of judges and to the committee in order to try to indict some of the people on criminal charges. It is because of his role that he would include more groups that he considered being factors in the failures of the indictment. One of the first groups he would blame would be Congress and the committee. Walsh first comes into conflict with both from the start. He said that the committee role was to give an account to the public of the scandal while his role was to uncover any violations of the law and punish those involved.[21] Both had different agendas and Walsh said that he had to cooperate with others and that conflict with others would be unavoidable that would not be resolved in time.[22] Similar to the Senators in Men of Zeal, Walsh agreed that having a deadline imposed by the committee was a problem for both the committee and himself. The deadline, as mention before, was done as a compromise by the committee to appeased both Republican and Democrats. It is because of the deadline, Walsh was put under heavy pressure to move quickly and try to gather as much evidence as he can before the committee moved forward with their plan.[23] He added that in order to indict those involved, mainly Oliver North and Poindexter, he had to gather enough evidence in order to get the indictment through. However, the committee did their own actions regardless of Walsh’s investigation and that affected Walsh’s action. Walsh had to drop people from his list of possible indictments as they were called upon to the committee to testify. Walsh also had to gather enough evidence in time before either North or Poindexter would be called by the committee to testify. This is one of the reasons as to why Walsh blamed the committee. Walsh also touched upon the fact that members of Congress were annoyed by his investigation and the both parties, especially the Republicans, did not want the scandal to affect the 1988 elections. One major factor was the presidential election of 1988. The republicans did not have control of either the House or the Senate. In order for them to have some sort of control in government, they needed to win the presidency to have a chance.

Walsh expanded the blame narrative to include other government agencies and judges. It is because of this rush that the government agency denied him access to documents that had anything related to both North and Poindexter. The CIA, for example, had withheld documents of Charles Allen, who worked closely with North.[24] Walsh also did not expect the amount of legal power that the agencies had in store for him. He said that the national security agencies such as the defense department and the CIA were the most protected entities with their own legal staff and a large number of lawyers.[25] These agencies were well protected and prepare to prevent Walsh and his staff from gaining access to major evidence. The agencies protected the Reagan administration from scrutiny and hindered Walsh’s investigations.

Walsh then focuses on the judicial actions that occurred during numerous trials. The result of the hearings from the committee caused a few problems. Since many declared immunity, they could not be charged with any crimes. The result of these immunities affected a number of trials. One such instance involved Oliver North. North would be found guilty for destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice. In 1990, North decided to appeal his conviction and took it to the appellate court based on the fact that he could not be convicted since he declared immunity. Walsh and his group had to argue to the court in order to uphold North’s conviction. The focus of the appellate court was to determine “whether Congress’s need for prompt exposure of a government scandal had been successfully reconciled with the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which protects the accused from being compelled to incriminate himself.”[26] In other words, the question is did Congress correctly applied the Fifth Amendment in a government scandal to those involved. A major factor in the appeals trial were the judges chosen to oversee it. A three-judge panel was selected to oversee the trials. One problem that Walsh faced was the possible groups that he could face. One group of judges that were appointed by the democrats were more concerned with protecting one’s constitutional rights while another group were appointed by Reagan and Bush and they sided with North and said that they would not convict him.[27] Facing two different groups of judges that would end up having agendas that went against Walsh put him in a difficult position. When the judges were chosen, Walsh and his group had to argue against one judge that was against him. One of the judges chosen was named Judge Laurence E. Silberman and Silberman was against his actions from the start. He states that Silberman wrote in the court’s opinion holding that authorizing the appointment of independent counsel was unconstitutional however the Supreme Court reverse his holding.[28] Even though the Supreme Court ruling did not go his way, Silberman was still vocal in Walsh’s actions. This is because Silberman belong to the group of judges that were appointed by Reagan and Bush. From Walsh’s perspective, he would have a very difficult time trying to push his agenda in front of a conservative judge who had been against his actions as the independent counsel from the start of the investigations. That proved to be vital as Judge Silberman hindered Walsh’s colleague Professor Gerard Lynch during the North trial. Lynch acted as the prosecuted in the appeals trial and tried his best to convince the three judges to uphold North’s conviction. Judge Silberman, however, was hostile towards Lynch. One example was reducing Lynch’s oral argument. That led to a brief explanation about what Lynch defines as criminal intent and Judge Silberman could misread that on purpose based on how brief the response was and confused their interpretation.[29] North would win his appeal and have his convictions overturned. Walsh states that a fair judge would allow more time for them to explain their deposition, or in their case, Congress deposition.[30] Multiple factors lead to Walsh’s failure. They include the time constraints by the committee and their actions, the denial of documents by government agencies, and the judges chosen along with their actions. All these factors put Walsh in a dilemma of whether he should move forward with the indictment of North and others or let them testify in front of the committee and risk losing the chance of indicting them. Similar to McFarlane, Walsh judges himself harshly, even questions whether or not he did the right thing. Since writing this book, he had to ask himself a serious of questions including whether he achieved too much and where his objective frustrated by everyone involved or by his own errors.[31]

In 2006, Dr. John J. Carter published a book that focuses on the covert action that was done by the U.S. in the late 20th century and he includes the Iran-Contra Affair towards the end. The book is entitled Covert Actions as a Tool of Presidential Foreign Policy: From the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra. Carter is a professor of History and Political Science at the Central Methodist University in Missouri and he previously worked on the intelligence history of the U.S. prior to writing this book. Unlike the previous authors, Carter was not involved in the scandal nor in the investigations and hearings. His views are that from an outsider perspective. Carter examines and provides all of the covert action that had occurred since the Kennedy administration up until the Reagan administration. Carter wrote this book during the post 9/11 era and the U.S. war on terrorism. The U.S. during that time period we in a state of war against terrorism and the country had changed dramatically since the events of the Iran-Contra Affair. During that time, people were critical of any work that is against the U.S. and its action. This heightened period resulted in fewer works that are against the country and its previous leaders. It is because of the events during this time period that Carter is less critical of the actions done by Reagan. He instead goes after those in the Reagan administration. Carter acknowledged that the covert actions of the past had led to “rising tide of international lawlessness that has come to characterize the post-Cold War period.”[32] By Carter’s viewpoint, the use of covert action had died down during Jimmy Carter’s Presidency but they had been renewed by the Reagan administration, particularly by the result of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Carter uses the evidence made available including those of Walsh and other tell the Iran-Contra Affair. Carter finds that those in the Reagan administrations were responsible for the scandal occurring. Using the Reagan administration as an example, Carter says that “presidents with a clear foreign policy vision may find it difficult to control the proclivity to act covertly among their more zealous advisors and intelligence professionals.”[33] In other words, even the president would not be able to control the actions of his administration if they want to achieve the president’s foreign policy. Carter adds the following:

All of the Iran-Contra investigations agreed that for our democratic system of checks and balances to work properly the presidents need to be in control of all facets of their administrations’ foreign policy overt and covert. Only then those responsible can be held accountable.[34]


From Carter’s viewpoint, Reagan should have been responsible for the actions of those in his administration. It is because of the lack of control that the investigations failed in convicting the key members of the scandal. Carter adds the political effects on those in the Reagan administration and how their political careers were ruined. In addition, he adds that the confidence in the system of congressional oversight was eroded based on the investigations and how they handled it.[35] Carter also mentions that both Reagan and Bush had the knowledge of the actions of those in the administrations and could have stopped them if they wanted to.[36] Overall, Carter defends Reagan and does not blame him entirely. He only says that Reagan should have been aware of the actions done by his administration. Given the time period, Carter would not go after Reagan as much as he feels he was not fully responsible. This notion would change in time and it would be showed in the next book.  

In 2014, almost thirty years after the scandal became public, Malcolm Byrne published his book that focuses on Reagan and his administration. The book is entitled Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. Byrne is the Deputy Director and Director of Research of the National Security Archive. The Archive is a non-government institution that has the largest amount of declassified documents outside of the U.S. government. The Archive was founded in 1985 and have been gathering numerous declassified documents of any event since its founding. Byrne has work in the Archive since 1986 and he has had access to a number of declassified documents. One of the books that focused on the scandal which he previously edited was entitled The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History. The book was published in 1993 and it provided a number of documents from the scandal that were made available to the public up until 1992. Since then, the Archive had gathered more declassified documents in relations to the Iran-Contra Scandal. Byrne uses the documents made available at the Archive and the work of others as evidence for his books including those by Walsh and McFarlane along with interviews from other people. For Byrne, the blame of the scandal and the failure of the committee all points towards President Reagan and his administration. Similar to Carter, Byrne had written this book during the post 9/11 era. The difference between the two is the time period. In 2006, Carter and others could not openly criticize the country or its leaders because of the war on terrorism without facing heavy backlash. As time passed, people were becoming more critical of its leaders and actions done by the government. Given the advancement in technology, people could have access to information of its leaders either legally or illegally and use that to express their own opinions and criticize them. Also by this time period, many of those involved in the scandal had either retired from their positions and their jobs or had died, including Reagan in 2004 and Walsh in 2014.

Byrne points out that President Reagan and his administrations were involved in the negotiation of arms to Iran and in the cover-up of the scandal which led to the failure of the committee to convict the key figures involved. Byrne, however, focuses on every aspect of the scandal, from the beginning of the arms dealing towards the hearings of the committee and its aftermath. In addition, Byrne expands on some of the points made by Walsh and also blames the committee and Walsh for their failures. Despite this, he feels that the majority of the blames is on Reagan and his administration. He expands on some of the points made by the Senators in Men of Zeal including the committee approving a deadline and the ones chosen in terms of their political parties. The deadline that the committee imposed meant that they had an enormous time constraint and pressure to review all the documents, examining the witnesses, and deal with who will appear on television to testify.[37] Byrne also brought up the possibility of impeaching Reagan. Byrne, however, found that the process of impeachment would take a while and by then Reagan would leave office.[38] His viewpoints on whether Reagan should be impeachment were similar to the senators in Men of Zeal. All three, Byrne and the two Senators, agreed that impeachment should have been considered. Byrne expands on the points made by the Senators by saying that there had to be a separate investigation as to whether or not Reagan did commit crimes worthy of impeachment. He also adds that despite what had occurred Reagan was still popular with the public and was still a potent weapon for the Republicans.[39] The timing of the impeachment process was also considered. The process would have been exhausting and time-consuming that it would not have mattered. By the time the impeachment process would begin, Reagan would be in his final months in office and it would not have made much difference. In addition, the Democrats said that if the impeachment process were to occur it would affect the foreign affair with the Soviet Union. Byrne uses Arthur Liman to quote the following: “We were mindful that if an impeachment process was started, that opportunity would be lost. We were mindful that this country would’ve been paralyzed.”[40] Given the opportunity, Democrats knew that this would heavily affect the U.S. and Soviet Union relations during a critical time period between the two countries. Numerous factors as to why impeachment was considered but not used were detailed. Democrats had a chance but factor every possible outcome and scenario that would occurred and decided to take the safe route.

Byrne continues the blame of the investigations and of the hearings towards the committee mainly because of the members’ individual political motives. He points out that the Republicans wanted to avoid beating itself similar to the events at Watergate and they would protect Reagan from any consequence while the Democrats saw this as an opportunity.[41] As mention by Walsh, the 1988 election was crucial for both parties especially the Republicans. Knowing that if the investigation would continue towards 1988, the Republican’s chances of winning the presidency would be in jeopardy. Considering that Reagan was not the primary focus, Democrats would use this to try and hindered the Republicans’ attempt in the 1988 election. In their final report, the committee gave a critical view of the scandal and how it occurred. Eight of the eleven republicans in the committee, however, went against the majority report and did their own minority report.[42] The minority report protected Reagan and his actions saying it was a mistake in judgment.[43] In addition they attack Congress attempts to regulate the president’s foreign policy. They defend Reagan and wanted to limit Congress actions on foreign affairs and “expand the president’s flexibility in dealing with ‘continuing resolutions’ such as the Boland Amendment.”[44] One of the Republicans who did not side with the minority report was William S. Cohen, one of the authors in Men of Zeal. As mention earlier, Cohen’s background in the Watergate affected his decisions in the committee, and he would be against the president’s actions regardless of their political ideology. Byrne also adds that the committee’s actions affected Walsh’s work and would lead towards his failure. The route the committee took affected the outcome of the hearings. In addition, the decision of not going after Reagan “undermined the impact of the congressional investigation and the majority’s goal of restoring public confidence in the political system.”[45] Byrne also examines the works done by Walsh as the independent counsel. Walsh had stated that his failure was the result of a number of factors including his mistakes and the methods he uses to pursue the cases. Byrne acknowledges that Walsh himself lead to his own failure mainly because he had high expectation and wanted to push through with a number of actions knowing the risk involved. Byrne criticized his actions but yet praises him for his efforts despite failing. Above all else, Byrne focuses on the Reagan administration. When the scandal became public in 1986, the administration had to focus on protecting President Reagan, themselves, the administration and the Republican Party from the possible consequences that were coming towards them. The first speech that Reagan gave after the scandal became public was him denying the actions done by the administration. According to Byrne, his speech rose more questions than answers. The public wanted more to the story and later speeches prove the inconsistency as to which country were the arms being sent to.[46] While Reagan and Shultz, the Secretary of State during Reagan’s presidency, were giving press conferences and confusing the public, agencies and other people began their cover up. This lead to Oliver North destroying key documents that would hinder the committee and Walsh’s investigations. When it came time for the investigation, a number of factors affected Walsh and the committee from having access to the documents including the agencies and the Reagan administration.

When the scandal became public in 1986, people have been trying to figure out what was happening in the Reagan administration. Following the investigations and hearings, more facts about the scandal had been known to the public. With each passing year, new information and new analysis of what had transpired were written. Since then, the question of the involvement of both Reagan and Bush had changed along with which group were responsible for the failure in the investigations. At first, it was determine that both Reagan and Bush were not fully involved and because of that they could not be held responsible. As time passed and more information became available, it was determine that both Reagan and Bush knew of what was occurring and network of protection transpired with government agencies, government officials, and Congressional members. In the early 2000s, the notion of their involvement changed to lack of control. Instead of heavily criticizing both Reagan and Bush, the people began to say that it was a result of the other members in the administration and both Reagan and Bush lacked control of their administration. In the 2010s, people began to change their views and acknowledge that both Reagan and Bush were responsible for the scandal occurring and getting out of hand. As for the failure of the hearings, it was first determined that the congressional committee were the main ones responsible. As time passed, the blame expanded to include those in the Reagan administration, and later on it included government agency, judicial members, and congressional members. The blame has expanded overtime and included multiple group. All are responsible for their actions and that lead to the investigations and hearings to fail. Overall this was a war between the branches of government and in the end the executive branch got away with their actions. There would be no changes to power in terms of legislations and this impacted the country heading towards the next era.


[1] William S. Cohen and George J. Mitchell, Men of Zeal: A Candid inside Story of the Iran Contra Hearings (New York: Viking, 1988), xxviii.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Ibid., 41.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid., 131.

[10] Ibid., 138.

[11] Ibid., 264.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 8.

[15] Robert C. McFarlane and Zofia Smardz, Special Trust (New York: Cadell & Davis, 1994), 34.

[16] Ibid., 350.

[17] Cohen and Mitchell, Men of Zeal, 81.

[18] Ibid., 37.

[19] McFarland and Smardz, Special Trust, 104.

[20] Ibid., 106.

[21] Lawrence E. Walsh, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover Up (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 50.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 32.

[24] Ibid., 112.

[25] Ibid., 51.

[26] Ibid., 251.

[27] Ibid., 248.

[28] Ibid., 249.

[29] Ibid., 250.

[30] Ibid., 253.

[31] Ibid., xv.

[32] John J. Carter, Covert Actions as a Tool of Presidential Foreign Policy: From the Bay of Pigs to Iran Contra (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 225.

[33] Ibid., 224.

[34] Ibid., 219-220.

[35] Ibid., 219.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Malcolm Byrne, Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 283.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 284.

[41] Ibid., 279.

[42] Ibid., 303.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 304.

[45] Ibid., 306.

[46] Ibid., 262.


Santiago Hernández.