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«U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran-Contra Affair: Was Oliver North a Patriot, a Pawn, or an Outlaw? Author: Catherine Holden, Franklin High School, ...»

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Reagan had promised to confront the spread of communism and restore American’s faith in their economy and government. As historian Gil Troy described in Morning in America, “In foreign and domestic policy, he *Reagan+ believed that America could pursue peace by strengthening the military.”3 In Nicaragua, Reagan supported the rebel forces attempting to overthrow the communist Sandinista government and military. In December 1981, Reagan sent the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) into Nicaragua as a paramilitary force to help the Contras. Congress did not support the rebels and outlawed assisting them with Boland Amendment in 1982 and again in 1984. In the Second Boland Amendment, Congress clearly stated that “none of the funds…may be used by the Central Intelligence Agency of the Department of Defense to furnish military equipment, military training or advice, other support for military activities, to any group or individual, not part of a country’s armed forces, for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras.”4 Nevertheless, the CIA acquired weapons confiscated from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the Israeli government in May 1983 and July 1984 and supplied the Contras with the weapons in Nicaragua. During this time, in June 1984, Reagan met with Vice President George Bush, and other chief aids to find other means to help the Contras. During this meeting, the idea to assist the Contras through a third party emerged. In March 1985, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, proposed to National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane that Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and Iran serve as possible third party donors.5 In April, President Reagan had called President Roberto Suazo Córdova of Honduras to assure him that that the United States was committed to helping the Contras even without financial assistance from Congress. Support for the Contras was not favored in the country, with the American people divided about whether or not to interfere in Nicaragua. Public opinion polls showed shifts ranging from 47% to 65% against assistance for the Contras.6 In the summer of 1986, Oliver North began raising funds for the secret operations in Nicaragua by meeting with officials from Brunei and Panama. In August of 1986, North met with General Manuel Noriega, the military dictator of Panama and a known drug trafficker, to organize an arrangement between the two countries. In a message to National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, North Educational materials developed through the Baltimore County History Labs Program, a partnership between Baltimore County Public Schools and the UMBC Center for History Education.

explained Noriega’s willingness to “take care of the Sandinista leadership” in return for U.S. assistance in “cleaning up” his image. Though an exchange never occurred, it demonstrated the extent to which the administration was willing to go in order to meet its foreign policy goals in Latin America.7 Between 1985 and 1986, the arms deals between Israel, Iran, and the United States were in motion.

The CIA made arrangements with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian businessman, to broker the exchange of weapons. On August 20, 1985, the Israelis provided the Iranians with 96 TOW anti-tank missiles. In September, 408 more TOW missiles were delivered to Iran and one hostage was released the same day. In October, another hostage was reportedly killed despite Iran’s guarantees. The United States continued the covert supply of weapons to Israel for sale to Iran. In November, the Israelis sent eighteen HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, but they were rejected. Consequently, in December of 1985, the CIA determined that they could no longer provide arms without explicit presidential approval.

The United States took a more direct role in the exchange process when Reagan insisted that his administration could not pass up an opportunity to free the hostages.8 In February 1986, an American and Iranian contact met to discuss the details of another exchange and

concluded the following:

”The USG would establish its good faith…by immediately providing 1,000 TOW missiles for sale to Iran. This transaction was covertly completed on February 21, 1986 using a private U.S. firm and the Israelis as intermediaries.

A subsequent meeting would be held in Iran with senior U.S. and Iranian officials during which the U.S. hostages would be released.

Immediately after the hostages were safely in our hands, the U.S. would sell an additional 3,000 TOW missiles to Iran using the same procedure employed during the September 1985 transfer.”9 Despite the exchange of weapons on two occasions in February, no other hostages were released.

In early March, the Iranians demanded more weapons and U.S. officials refused to accept these demands, but then in April a new agreement had been reached. Using the Israelis, the administration organized the sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of the profits to the Contras in Nicaragua under a plan known as “Enterprise” led by Oliver North. “Enterprise received approximately $16.1 million in profits from the Iran arms sales by marking up the price charged to Iran over the price paid to the U.S.

Government… approximately $3.8 million was ‘diverted’ from the arms proceeds to the freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.10 On November 2, 1986, an Iranian official leaked the news that the U.S.

government had been selling arms to Iran.

In 1987, members of Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra Affair to determine who had taken part and to what extent President Reagan was involved. The Democrats had managed to maintain their majority hold on Congress despite Reagan’s Republican, presidential victory. As the joint committee of the House and Senate prepared for their investigation, Reagan assured the American public that the Educational materials developed through the Baltimore County History Labs Program, a partnership between Baltimore County Public Schools and the UMBC Center for History Education.

United States government did not negotiate with terrorists and ordered his own White House investigation, the Tower Commission, to look into affair in late 1986.

On March 4, 1987, Reagan again spoke to the American public and informed them that his administration had taken part in an arms-for-hostages program without his knowledge and as president, he assumed the blame. In his address, Reagan claimed that he overlooked the specifics of the freeing of the hostages because he was more concerned about their welfare than the specifics of the plan. On May 5, 1987 joint committee hearings were held to investigate the covert arms sale. On August 12, Reagan again addressed the nation to quell public concerns. This time, he took the blame, but insisted that he was unaware of the complexity of the Iran-Nicaraguan exchange.

Congress released its report on November 16, 1987 and revealed that members within the U.S. military and Reagan’s administration were aware of the details of the exchanges. The document, compiled primarily by Democrats on the House and Senate Select Committee, claimed that Reagan was unknowing of the operations; however, the report did blame him by stating that “if the President did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.” The Majority Report by the Congress stressed the importance of the powers of Congress and the need for the executive branch to recognize the legislative branch’s role in foreign policy decisions.11 On the other hand, the Minority Report of the Iran-Contra Congressional Report, compiled primarily by Republican members, offered a different perspective and criticized the congressional committee as a witch hunt. The Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives stressed that “there was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for “the rule of law,” no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or cover up.” The Minority Report stressed that the Boland Amendment was an attempt by Congress to control the executive branch and determine foreign policy in Latin America. The Republican generated report stressed that the executive branch had the right to act decisively in order to safe guard the United States of America.12 The Minority and Majority Reports for the Iran-Contra Affair demonstrated the growing tension that had existed between the Executive and Legislative branches since the Vietnam War. The divergent findings of the reports underscored this partisanship.

Following the Congressional Report, numerous members of the Reagan administration were indicted for providing false testimony, conspiracy, and diversion. Oliver North was indicted and charged with 16 counts. In January 1989, North’s trial began and Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel in the IranContra Investigation, noted “the trial would….reveal…how much high level support the Contras had received from the Reagan administration in defiance of the Boland amendments.”13 The defense’s witnesses portrayed North as a hero and savior, while the prosecution relied on witness testimonies that depicted him as a thief and liar. During the trial, North admitted to altering documents and misinforming Congress about the events related to the Contras; however, he insisted that it was not unlawful because he was carrying out orders. Lawrence Walsh noted that the trial became about whether or not Oliver North was a “pawn or knight errant.” In the end, the jury found North guilty of Educational materials developed through the Baltimore County History Labs Program, a partnership between Baltimore County Public Schools and the UMBC Center for History Education.

“aiding and abetting the preparation of the false testimony for the Congressional testimony…, destruction of NSC documents, and…acceptance of illegal gratuity.”14 Following the trial, Walsh claimed that the verdict “nailed North as the felon he was,” yet he was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Afterwards, North emerged as a national figure. North’s fame allowed him to become the host of War Stories, a military documentary on Fox News Channel, an author of eleven books, and a public speaker. In 1994, U.S. News and World Report noted that 45 percent of Americans had a “positive opinion of North” and 62 percent believed he did what was best for the country.15 Based on Oliver North’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, America’s foreign policy stance during the Cold War, and American public sentiment towards North’s actions, how should Oliver North’s role in the Iran-Contra Affair be remembered? Was Oliver North a patriot, a pawn or an outlaw?


Ronald Reagan, “Remarks Announcing the Review of the National Security Council’s Role in the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy.” 25 November 1986. Available from University of Texas at Austin http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1986/112586a.htm. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Charles Krauthammer, “Essay: The Reagan Doctrine,” Time, 1 April 1985.

Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 239.

“Appropriations – Deficiency Act, 11 September 1984,” United States Government Accountability Office, available from http://redbook.gao.gov/14/fl0067296.php. Accessed 27 June 2011.

National Security Archives, “The Iran Contra Affair 20 Years On,” George Washington University, available from http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB210/index.htm. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Gil Troy, Morning in America.

Alexander Cockburn, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (New York: New Left Books, 1998) 287-288.

“Iran-Contra Report: Arms, Hostages and Contras: How a Secret Foreign Policy Unraveled,” The New York Times, 19 November 1987.

National Security Archives, “White House, John M. Poindexter Memorandum to President Reagan, Covert Action Finding Regarding Iran, 17 January 1986, available from George Washington University.


American Presidency Project. “Excerpts from the Tower Commission’s Reports.” University of California Santa Barbara, available from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/PS157/assignment%20files%20public/TOWER%20EXCERPTS.htm.

Accessed 27 June 2011.

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