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The Iran-Contra Secrets

Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State

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

Undue Process: A Story of How Political Differences Are Turned into Crimes

by Elliott Abrams
Free Press, 243 pp., $22.95

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


The Iran-contra affairs refuse to go away. New information forces us to revisit them again and again. In the recent past, five new sources stand out—a book, Turmoil and Triumph, by former Secretary of State George Shultz; another book, Undue Process, by former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams; the fourth interim report by Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel, containing voluminous notes by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; forty-five pages of extracts from the diary of then Vice-President George Bush from November 4, 1986, to January 2, 1987; and still another book, With Reagan, by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

The new material is self-revelatory about its authors. But it does more. It casts new light on a sixth figure in the story and enables us to answer the question: Who was finally responsible for the arms-for-hostages deals?

These sources do not come without problems. They need to be read critically and often reveal more than their authors intended. They raise questions of what is credible in them, what is consistent with everything else that we know, and what the same authors have said elsewhere. Typical of the problems is the section on the Iran affair in Shultz’s book.1

Turmoil and Triumph is in large part an apologia pro vita sua. It seeks to establish that George Shultz was an indefatigable, intrepid warrior against the arms-for-hostages deals from beginning to end. If he had not tried to claim so much, his account would raise fewer questions.

Yet it needs to be said at the outset that of all the leading figures in these events, Shultz was the least responsible for them, and, in the end, played the most honorable role. He was one of the two cabinet members—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was the other—who at an early stage protested against the arms-for-hostages deals and tried to stop them.

The finest moments of both Shultz and Weinberger came early on. A first arms-for-hostages deal had occurred in August—September 1985 through the delivery of missiles to Iran from Israel. The deal was approved by Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane and, as we now know, by Reagan himself. The Israelis attempted to deliver more missiles to Iran in November 1985 with the knowledge and implicit approval of McFarlane and Reagan, but this one misfired. On December 7, 1985, at a meeting called by President Ronald Reagan of his top-level advisers, Shultz and Weinberger, who had already made their opposition known in August, came out strongly against any arms-for-hostages deals with Iran. At another meeting on January 7, 1986, Shultz and Weinberger again made clear their opposition.

Yet Shultz is not content to take credit for these two occasions and lays claim to “three major battles” and on a later page to a “fourth time.”2 In the reference to three battles, he says that “each time I felt—or had been assured—that my view had prevailed.” Curiously, his own account belies the claim that he had ever “prevailed.” The only incidents that might remotely qualify as “battles” occurred on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986. All that happened was that both Shultz and Weinberger stated their positions firmly. In no version is there any hint of an altercation.

Moreover, Shultz’s book imprudently exaggerates his success on both occasions. In his congressional testimony, Shultz said of the first “battle” on December 7, 1985, that he felt he and Weinberger “had made a real dent” and “perhaps we had won the argument,” though he also noted that the President had made no decision and was “rather annoyed with me.”3 In his book, Shultz goes somewhat beyond his testimony and says that “my sense was that the point of view that Cap [Weinberger] and I argued had won the day,” though no decision was made at the meeting. In fact, Reagan’s own book disclosed that he had even then ended to reject the position of Shultz and Weinberger.4 If Shultz felt or thought he had been assured that he had “prevailed,” he was deceiving himself.

As for the second time, on January 7, 1986, Shultz testified that he and Weinberger had found themselves isolated and alone, with the President clearly on the other side.5 Later, Reagan’s book revealed that he had definitely ruled against them. On January 7, 1986, there was no more of a “battle” than there had been on December 7, 1985, unless a statement of opinion is elevated to the status of a “battle.” Even less than on the previous occasion could Shultz have felt or received assurances that his view had “prevailed.”

After waging the two early “battles”—if that is what they can be called—Shultz stayed out of trouble. Once the President had made up his mind, Shultz minded his own business and does not claim that he did otherwise, except for a confused incident in May 1986, which is made into a “third battle.”

This incident concerned an approach to Roland W. (Tiny) Rowland in London by Manucher Ghorbanifar, the chief con man, Adnan Khashoggi, his Saudi backer, and Amiram Nir, the Israeli emissary. They allegedly tried to get Rowland, head of the Lonrho group of companies, to join in a scheme to sell grain, spare parts, and weapons to Iran. Oliver North soon told the national security adviser, John Poindexter, that the Rowland connection was a “cover story,” not a real approach, and in any case the connection had been terminated. In Tokyo, Shultz received a cable about the incident, took it seriously, and went to see President Reagan to protest. Shultz could not find Reagan and instead talked to Donald Regan, the chief of staff, who was also “upset.” Shultz was soon assured by Poindexter that “this is not our deal.”6

In his book, Shultz says that he told Regan, “Stop! This is crazy.” He asked Regan to go to the President and “Get him to end this matter once and for all…. If this activity continues, the president will be gravely damaged.” In fact, Shultz had no more than a hazy idea of what the real story was and had no one with whom to do battle. All that Shultz accomplished was to get Regan “alarmed,” but nothing else happened. This little contretemps had no effect on future events and hardly deserves to be blown up into a third “battle.”

In this incident and others like it, Poindexter, who replaced McFarlane in December 1985, was far more important than Regan. If there is a villain in Shultz’s book, it is John Poindexter, an admiral in the US Navy—worth noting only because of the kind of charges Shultz makes against him. Shultz accuses him of having “fabricated a high-toned rationale for a sordid swap”; of “lying”; of “rearranging the facts”; of being “arrogant and aloof”; of being so “pedantic, pedagogical and patronizing” that he was capable of “lecturing” Shultz on the lines of “You see, George, the Arabs don’t like the Israelis”; and of being “barely civil.”

In effect, Shultz was a victim of the pattern set by Henry Kissinger as Nixon’s national security adviser. By systematically humiliating and displacing Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, Kissinger changed the character of cabinet government by making the national security adviser superior in practice to the secretary of state. Shultz claims to have been given the same treatment by Poindexter. After Kissinger, national security advisers were prone to delusions of grandeur.

In part, Shultz had only himself to blame. He admittedly allowed Poindexter to be his “channel to the White House and, on day-to-day matters, to the president.” Poindexter had far greater access to the President than Shultz had. Poindexter briefed the President every morning, while Shultz saw him intermittently, mainly through Poindexter. Shultz demanded and obtained personal access to Reagan only after the Iran-contra scandal had eliminated Poindexter. One wonders why he permitted his access to the President through Poindexter to go on for so long.

On one occasion, Shultz gave Poindexter a reason to believe that he, Shultz, did not want to know too much about the Iran affair. Poindexter testified that Shultz had said “he didn’t particularly want to know the details. He said just, in effect, tell me what I need to know.”7 Shultz described the conversation not very differently: “What I did say to Admiral Poindexter was that I wanted to be informed of the things I needed to know to do my job as Secretary of State. But he didn’t need to keep me posted on the details, the operational details of what he was doing.”8 Poindexter wanted to keep Shultz out anyway, but Shultz gave him a license to decide what Poindexter wanted to tell him. Too late, Shultz says, he “would learn to regret” this remark.

Shultz did not come out of virtual hibernation until a top-level meeting on November 10, 1986, seven days after the arms deal with Iran was first revealed to the public by a Lebanese weekly on November 3. It was a turning point for Shultz. At this meeting, Shultz asked such inconvenient questions that he made himself a marked man. Both Shultz and Weinberger were astonished to learn for the first time about a finding signed by Reagan in January 1986 to legitimate the arms-for-hostages deals. When the meeting was over, Shultz told a small group of his closest associates in the department: “I was the problem child.”9

But the end of this story is something of a letdown. Shultz’s problem came about when Reagan, CIA Director William Casey, and Attorney General Meese wanted to put out a press release saying that all those present had given “unanimous support for the president’s decisions.” Shultz relates that he exclaimed, apparently in the privacy of his office, “That’s a lie. It’s Watergate all over again.” Shultz protested to Poindexter and demanded the removal of a single word, “decisions.” As usual, Poindexter treated him disrespectfully, but in the end the press release went out without the offending word, so that the press release read “unanimous support for the President.”

The incident again shows Shultz straining to claim that he had won another “battle.” The omission of a single word amounted to little more than a distinction without a difference and could not have been appreciated by any ordinary reader of the press release.

Yet something had happened to Shultz which seemed to transform him. He had been humiliated by finding out that he had been deliberately left in the dark about the deals with Iran. He was keenly aware that the men around Reagan, especially Casey and Poindexter, considered him to be an enemy and treated him as one. Shultz’s previous restraint did not save him from the wrath of those around Reagan, and his days as secretary of state seemed numbered.

From November 10, 1986, on, the great drama in Shultz’s book is his tortured relationship with Reagan. It tells as much about Reagan as it tells about Shultz.

  1. 1

    Shultz’s book is over 1,000 pages long, but I am concerned here only with the 141 pages devoted to the Iran-contra affairs.

  2. 2

    Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 784, 807. In the excerpts of the book published in Time, February 8, 1993, the text reads “four major battles between mid-1985 and fall 1986” (p. 39). There could not have been a “battle” in mid-1985, because nothing had yet happened to bring one on. Yet the book also refers incautiously to a “fourth time.”

  3. 3

    Testimony in Joint Hearings before the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, Volume 100-9, pp. 31–32. Hereafter cited as Congressional Hearings.

  4. 4

    Ronald Reagan, An American Life (Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 510–513.

  5. 5

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-9, p. 33.

  6. 6

    The story is more fully told in my book A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (Hill and Wang, 1991), pp. 307–310, based on the testimony and documentation in the Congressional Hearings.

  7. 7

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-8, p.71.

  8. 8

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-9, p.6.

  9. 9

    This statement comes from the hand-written notes kept by Charles Hill, Shultz’s executive assistant, made available in the fourth interim report of Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel (Tab 49).

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