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Iran-Contra: The Mystery Solved

Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State

by George P. Shultz
Scribner’s, 1,184 pp., $30.00

Fourth Interim Report to Congress

by Lawrence E. Walsh. Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters

With Reagan: The Inside Story

by Edwin Meese III
Regnery Gateway, 362 pp., $24.95


Like Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger strongly opposed the policy of trading arms for hostages when that policy came up for discussion on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986. Afterward, however, Weinberger took a different path. As in the case of Shultz, but in his own way, Weinberger raises a peculiarly American problem.

What should a leading member of an administration do if he opposes a policy which he considers to be disastrous to the interests of the country? After January 7, 1986, Weinberger starkly faced this question.

Much attention has been paid to the charges of Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, about what Weinberger knew but did not reveal to Congress. This claim about Weinberger’s behavior was made possible by the discovery of his voluminous notes and diaries in the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, former President George Bush’s pardon of Weinberger cut short the legal process whereby Walsh’s evidence could have been presented in court and Weinberger could have had the opportunity to explain his words and actions.

My main interest is not the same as that of the independent counsel. He was interested in establishing conflicts between what Weinberger knew and what he said he knew, and for this purpose he produced those notes and diaries. I am more interested in what they tell us about the events themselves and Weinberger’s part in them.

We already had one version from Weinberger. In 1990, he published a book, Fighting for Peace, in which he has a chapter on “Iran and the Hostages.” These pages can only be described as a travesty of the events. Weinberger made former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane almost wholly responsible for all that went wrong. But McFarlane had resigned in December 1985. Most of the deals and the “diversion” to the contras had taken place in 1986 under his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, who barely gets mentioned. According to Weinberger, President Reagan was merely an innocent victim of McFarlane’s machinations, whereas Shultz in his book Turmoil and Triumph had made him a victim of Poindexter’s. As for his own role, after telling about his opposition on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986, Weinberger has little to say about himself—with one notable exception.

In January 1986, the Defense Department was told to provide arms to Iran. Weinberger objected on the ground that a direct transfer violated the Arms Export Control Act and he insisted that the arms had to go through the CIA. When he had his way, he cooperated in the slightly more roundabout route. In his book, he revealed that he had “seriously contemplated resignation” when Admiral Poindexter informed him that President Reagan had approved the transfer through the CIA. But he did not resign, ostensibly because the transaction was secret, and he could not “have been able to make any kind of a statement that would be effective in stopping the operation.”1

Both Weinberger and Shultz basically opposed the operation for much the same reason—that it violated the publicly announced policy of “not ransoming hostages,” especially by trading arms for them, directly or indirectly. Both were especially troubled by the duplicity of conducting a secret operation to deliver arms to Iran, while, as Shultz puts it, we “preached to and pressured” other governments not to do what we were doing. Weinberger believed that it “could only bring great harm and damage to the President and America.” Shultz was convinced that it had “a crushing impact” on his conduct of foreign policy.2 For both, this was not an ordinary political dispute; it was a choice between what was good and what was disastrous for the country.

Instead of resigning, Weinberger gave up the struggle against the operation. He made himself an accessory by legalistically preferring one way of getting the missiles to Iran to another. Nothing could have shaken President Reagan’s determination to go through with the transfer of arms to Iran more than the resignation of his secretary of defense or secretary of state, and especially both. Once Weinberger decided to stifle his qualms, he became a hostage to a policy that he says he detested and which greatly harmed the country. By contemplating resignation, he clearly recognized that he was being told to violate his deepest convictions. Yet, when he had to choose between his loyalties and his conscience, his conscience did not win out. It prevails so rarely in American politics that one is not even surprised by his choice.

Weinberger opened himself to one of Walsh’s counts against him by denying in his testimony to Congress that he had known about the November 1985 arms-for-hostages operation. His notes published in Walsh’s Fourth Interim Report to Congress show that he was kept closely informed by McFarlane and immediately objected. A note on November 9, 1985, reads in part:

Bud McFarlane…wants to start negot[iations]. Exploration with Iranians (& Israelis) to give Iranian weapons for our hostages—I objected.3

This statement is typical of the evidence Walsh wanted to use in his case against Weinberger, which hinged on what the latter denied he knew. On December 10, 1985, three days after the meeting at which he registered his strong opposition, Weinberger attended another meeting at the White House at which McFarlane reported in detail on options for rescuing the hostages. Weinberger made a note:

President—worried about hostages—let Israelis go ahead with arms sales—we’ll get hostages back.4

From this, it is clear that Weinberger had no illusions about Reagan’s backing of an arms-for-hostages deal, though at this early stage the President wanted to do it through Israel. Except for his objection to a direct delivery to Iran, which he considered to be illegal, Weinberger went along as a good soldier taking orders from above. The haunting question is whether someone in his position should have taken the easy way out and for months merely relapsed into silence.

Once Weinberger decided to stay on, he deliberately stayed out of the line of fire until the arms deal with Iran was publicly revealed by a Lebanese weekly, Al-Shiraa, on November 3, 1986. From then on, we can pick up his trail again and see how he reacted to the ensuing crisis.

On November 5, 1986, Weinberger made the following note in his diary:

Called John Poindexter—Shultz has suggested “telling all” on attempts to deal with Iran to get their help—strongly objected. I said we should simply say nothing—John agrees.5

At this point, then, Weinberger and Shultz went their separate ways. Walsh carefully excludes Weinberger from those who conspired to cover up the shipment of HAWK missiles to Iran in November 1985. Instead, Walsh accuses Weinberger of attending a meeting on November 10, 1986, at which Poindexter told a cock-and-bull story about the early deals with Iran. Weinberger is said to have known that it was false but said nothing. It was at this meeting that Shultz began to raise inconvenient questions and finally settled for the omission of one word in the collective statement, changing “unanimous support for the President’s decision” to “unanimous support for the President.” On this occasion, Weinberger’s comments were marginal. Afterward, Weinberger and Shultz discussed the situation at lunch. Shultz reported to Charles Hill, his executive assistant, “He sort of supports me. But not vehemently.”6

Weinberger and Shultz then drew further and further apart. On November 16, Weinberger told Poindexter that Shultz was “distancing himself” from the Iran arms sales—noteworthy only because Weinberger was not distancing himself.7 On the same day, Shultz reluctantly admitted in a television program that he did not speak for the administration. As a result, he had to make up his mind whether to resign. On November 19, Shultz told Reagan, “I can’t exist as Secretary of State in this environment.” Notes made by Charles Hill that day are headed “Shultz to Resign?” Hill wrote: “White House aides furious with Shultz but fear his resignation would make it worse.” Shultz himself said: “I see no alternative to resigning.” But when the press picked up a rumor that Shultz had resigned, he held back: “I’m still Secretary of State, as of now.”8

Shultz, as we have seen, appeased his conscience by telling himself that he had the mission of saving Reagan from himself. This rationale made it possible for Shultz to avoid going through with his many threatened resignations, despite his repeated failure to convince Reagan that he was being misled and deceived.

While Shultz labored in vain after November 10, 1986, Weinberger increasingly separated himself from Shultz. When Shultz advocated coming out with the story of the deals, Weinberger moved over to the side of Poindexter, who adamantly resisted making any public accounting. On November 21, Weinberger met with the President and Poindexter, and Weinberger noted in his diary: “Also re Iran—I urged that we all stop talking about it.”9 Earlier that same day, Weinberger received a telephone call from William P. Clark, one of Reagan’s intimates, the former national security adviser and then secretary of the interior. Clark, Weinberger noted, “wants me to be Secretary of State & if he’d come back as NSC adviser to President.” 10

As the crisis proceeded inexorably toward a climax, Weinberger continued to say nothing to displease Reagan. On November 24, 1986, at the last top-level meeting before Meese’s revelations the next day, Weinberger let Shultz do all the dissenting. Shultz reported testily: “Cap [Weinberger] talked for a long time, but I was the only one who challenged it.”11

Weinberger and Shultz were the only leading officials who offered any opposition to the arms-for-hostages deals. They were unable to stop them, Shultz because he failed to convince Reagan, Weinberger because he stopped trying. Once he decided to favor loyalty at the expense of conscience, Weinberger took the line that the whole thing would go away if everyone simply stopped talking about it. It did not go away, and for almost a year he did nothing to make it go away.12


Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese III, has two chapters on the Iran-contra affairs in his new book, With Reagan: The Inside Story. According to him, the policy was perfectly legal and constitutionally unassailable. He offers little of substantive value to our knowledge of the affairs, and the chief interest in his book is the way he goes about defending the indefensible.

Meese rests his case mainly on the claim that the arms-for-hostages deals were indirect. Thus Meese pleads that the President was “dealing, not with the hostage takers, but with third parties who had a degree of influence over them.”

In fact, Meese cites me as authority for the statement that “the Americans had to negotiate with the Iranians, and the Iranians with the Lebanese.”13 But he neglects to mention, as I also pointed out, that this three-way negotiation only emerged in May 1986, almost a year after the first deal with Iran through Israel, during the illfated McFarlane-led mission to Tehran. Until then, I wrote, the Americans “had been working on the premise that the hostages were Iran’s to release, or at least that Iran had enough influence with the Lebanese captors to get them released if Iran was paid enough.”14 They continued to work on this premise after May 1986, because it was still an arms-for-hostages deal whether or not the payment went to Iran or to the hostage takers.

  1. 1

    Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace (Warner, 1990), pp. 377, 383–384.

  2. 2

    Fighting for Peace, pp. 369, 383; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 789.

  3. 3

    Walsh’s fourth interim report, Tab 38.

  4. 4

    Tab 47.

  5. 5

    Tab 48.

  6. 6

    Hill notes, November 10, 1986 (Tab 49).

  7. 7

    Tab 56.

  8. 8

    Hill notes (Tab 59).

  9. 9

    Weinberger diary, November 21, 1986 (Tab 61).

  10. 10

    Weinberger’s notes, November 21, 1986 (Tab 62).

  11. 11

    Hill notes, November 24, 1986 (Tab 69).

  12. 12

    One of Walsh’s tactics is bothersome. In his treatment of the meeting on November 24, 1986, Walsh complains about statements made by Poindexter and Meese that, Walsh says, Weinberger, Shultz, and others knew to be false but against which they did not object. This assertion of guilt by silence raises a troubling question. That Weinberger did not rise up at the meeting to disagree with or denounce Meese and Poindexter hardly seems to be a reason for making it part of a legal case against him. This line of attack rests on what Weinberger did not say rather than on what he did say. Yet Walsh goes from one to the other, as if they were equally malfeasant, and as if he were desperate to condemn Weinberger by any means, fair or flimsy.

  13. 13

    With Reagan, p. 260, from A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (Hill and Wang, 1991), p. 322.

  14. 14

    A Very Thin Line, p. 322.

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