Rewriting the Iran-Contra Story

Men of Zeal: A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings

by Senators William S. Cohen, by George J. Mitchell
Viking, 350 pp., $19.95

Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North

by Ben Bradlee Jr.
Donald I. Fine, 572 pp., $21.95

The Iranian Triangle: The Untold Story of Israel’s Role in the Iran-Contra Affair

by Samuel Segev, translated by Haim Watzman
Free Press, 340 pp., $22.50

Perilous Statecraft: An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair

by Michael A. Ledeen
Scribner’s, 307 pp., $19.95

Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988

by Jane Mayer, by Doyle McManus
Houghton Mifflin, 468 pp., $21.95

We are now getting the first wave of books on the Iran and contra affairs. I use the plural, because there was no Iran-contra affair, as the title of the congressional investigation had it. There was an Iran affair and a contra affair, which most of the time were separate and distinct. They intersected at a point usually called the “diversion,” and some of the same characters, notably Oliver North, appeared in both affairs. Nevertheless, it was never one affair but two, and each had its own raison d’être.

The first wave of books on an important historical event has virtues and vices peculiar to itself. It is necessarily closer to journalism than to historical scholarship. It falls somewhere between news and history, not as hot as the first, not as cold as the second. Since there is never a final stage, we are doomed to get successive waves or stages, each with its distinctive virtues and vices.

The first wave of books on the Iran-contra affairs has been peculiarly unlucky. The books have largely based themselves on the public hearings of the select congressional committees in May—July 1987. What was not to be expected was the appearance in the meantime of the private testimony, or depositions, given to the joint committees in preparation for the public hearings.

These depositions are in many respects richer and more detailed than the public hearings. Many of these depositions are critical for a full understanding of the events. Most were given by participants who did not testify in the public hearings. Since the depositions were not televised, they did not suffer from the pressures of time and publicity that plagued the public hearings. Their early publication was unexpected, because the testimony had ostensibly been given with assurances of secrecy. For example, the former chief of staff, Donald Regan, gave his deposition on the assumption that it was “Top Secret.” But now we have almost two hundred pages of it in print.

Anyone working on the Iran-contra affairs would today be confronted with the following:

27 volumes containing 202 depositions for a total of 31,458 pages (Appendix B);

12 volumes of public hearings for a total of 9,902 pages;

3 volumes of documents for a total of 4,751 pages (hundreds of other documents are also contained in the volumes of depositions and hearings) (Appendix A);

5 volumes of a Testimonial Chronology, Witness Accounts, Supplemented by Documents for a total of 4,625 pages (Appendix D).

1 volume of Chronology with 194 pages (Appendix C);

1 volume of the “Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair” with 690 pages;

1 volume of the “Report of the President’s Special Review Board” (Tower Report) with 285 pages.

And, as if these were not enough, hundreds of thousands of documents stored in the committees’ archives in Washington, DC, are not available in print.

The task of studying at least 50,000 printed pages is alone daunting. The editing of these …

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