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This Day in History: Reagan Addresses the Nation on Iran-Contra

President Ronald Reagan Addresses the Nation on Iran-Contra, March 4, 1987

In a March 4, 1987 broadcast, President Ronald Reagan addressed the American people from the Oval Office, promising to tell the nation the truth regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, and admitting he had made mistakes. Reagan told the nation:

A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.

In the address, Regan also promised to go beyond the recommendations of the Tower Commission’s recommendations by taking action in three basic areas: personnel, national security policy, and the process for making sure that the system works. Various inquiries into the affair had revealed lax management and enormous detachment on Reagan's part, as well as appalling conduct by members of the National Security Council staff. The president announced new national security personnel, including former Senator Howard Baker as Chief of Staff, Frank Carlucci as national security adviser, and William Webster as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also announced a comprehensive review of covert operations and new processes to ensure the integrity of future national security decisions.

The Iran-Contra Affair actually involved two separate initiatives. The first was the clandestine sale of U.S. military equipment to Iran, which had the support of the Israeli government, in contradiction of the Reagan administration's public policy of remaining neutral in the Iran-Iraq War. In exchange for the arms sales, American hostages being held by terrorists in Lebanon were released. The second was the attempt by a small group of National Security Council staff members and former military men to funnel proceeds from the sale of these weapons to the Contra rebels opposing the Nicaraguan government. While President Reagan attached great importance during this period to the success of the contra effort, he insisted he had no knowledge of the diversion of funds to the Contras. However, he wrote in his diary and eventually acknowledged to the American people that he authorized the Iran arms sales.

The nature of the president’s involvement in the affair was the overriding concern for the American public. In an oral history interview with the Miller Center, Peter Wallison recollected the Iran-Contra affair in remarkable detail, covering the evolution of the misguided operation, its effect on the White House and President Reagan, the congressional and independent counsel investigations, and his departure from the White House in March 1987. Wallison told the Miller Center that he recommended early in the controversy that President Reagan waive executive privilege in the Iran-Contra matter and “let everything out.” According to Wallison:

My theory was that this is not something you want to cover up. You don’t ever want the allegation made that you’re covering this up, because no matter what has happened here, it’s just a policy decision. So what? Maybe you made some kind of bonehead play here. Who cares? The real problem would be if it looks as though you’re covering up—that’s going to be much worse than if you’ve made a mistake or have done some dumb thing. I still believe that.

Actually, I think the American people—if Reagan had said at the time, “Boy, did I blow this one! This was really stupid. I really made a mistake”—the American people would have forgiven that. They don’t expect the President to be perfect every time. All they want is honesty. It would have been all over, and he wouldn’t have had the Iran-Contra matter hanging over his head for four months.

Nancy Reagan similarly believed that in order to recover his credibility to be effective during the remainder of his presidency, the president needed to apologize to the American people for authorizing the arms sales to Iran. She brought outsiders into the White House, including the Democratic kingmaker Robert Strauss, in an effort to convince her husband. Eventually, the president did, accepting “full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration” in the March 4, 1987 address.

When the affair was first made public by the Lebanese newspaper “Al-Shiraa,” polls showed that only 14 percent of Americans believed the president when he said he had not traded arms for hostages. However, his popularity rebounded. Polls following the March 4, 1987 address showed that the public treated Iran-Contra as a blunder and largely forgave the president, reflecting the public’s general trust of Reagan and acceptance of his motivations to free the Americans held hostage in Lebanon.

Read more about the Iran-Contra Affair here and download Peter Wallison’s full oral history interview here.

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