Robert McFarlane is a repentant sinner. His book tells how he sinned and tried to repent. One wants to sympathize with him, but he presents some peculiar problems. He did not sin as much as he thought he did, and he repented mainly for what others should have repented.

His book is not merely about his sin and repentance. It contains 124 pages on the Iran-contra affairs, in which repentance obviously has its place. But it contains 241 pages on the rest of his career, about which he has no qualms. This proportion seems to make the latter more important than the former, though we are chiefly interested in the former. Nevertheless, McFarlane’s career has an interest of its own as an example of making one’s way in Washington, its swift turnabout, and its psychological price.

McFarlane’s career, from the time he entered the Naval Academy in 1955 to his downfall in 1986, went from one success to another. He commanded the first Marine artillery unit to land in Vietnam in March 1965. The Marine Corps clearly prepared McFarlane for bigger things. He was sent for two years to study at the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva. He spent three years at the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, a posting which enabled him to work with representatives of the other services.

But in 1971, McFarlane made a move that suggested where he was heading. He obtained a White House Fellowship that took him for a year into the political powerhouse of the country. After that, still a marine, he succeeded in joining the staff of Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser. By 1975, he was Kissinger’s military assistant and later chief of staff. This experience showed him how power was used and reputations made in Washington: “Not only was Kissinger demanding and dogmatic, a man who did not tolerate rational argument with temperance or any measure of good grace, he was also distrustful, hypocritical, routinely dishonest and abusive to his friends.”

After five years of civilian service under Nixon and Ford, McFarlane spent a year and a half writing a book, Crisis Resolution, at the National War College. We are not told what happened to it. Now a lieutenant colonel, he put on the Marine uniform again and shipped out to Okinawa for his final tour. His long absence from the Marines now put him at a disadvantage, as he discovered when he was refused command of a battalion. Fortunately, he received the Naval Institute’s Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Literary Achievement—again we are not told for what—which took him back to Washington for the awards ceremony. He made the most of the opportunity by getting Senator John Tower of Texas to hire him as a staff aide for the Republican minority of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1979 and worked in Washington for the next eighteen months.

By this time, McFarlane was prepared for his big chance. He had spent twenty-five years in and out of the Marines, specializing in strategic studies, which were not exactly what the Marines specialized in. McFarlane’s opportunity to enter the big-time Washington bureaucracy came in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan as president and Reagan’s choice of Alexander Haig as his first secretary of state. McFarlane had worked with Haig in Kissinger’s national security staff, and Haig now chose McFarlane as counselor to the Department of State.

McFarlane continued to bask in good fortune. In early 1982, when Richard Allen was booted out as national security adviser and replaced by Reagan’s old California crony, William P. Clark, McFarlane benefited. Clark admittedly knew little about foreign affairs, the essence of his new job; he cast about for a deputy to make up for his failings and hit on McFarlane.

McFarlane’s next break was just as fortuitous. Clark, out of his depth, decided to resign, and Reagan wanted to appoint in his place James A. Baker III, his chief of staff. If Reagan had chosen someone more amenable to Clark, McFarlane would not have unexpectedly received his next promotion. Clark thought that Baker was not conservative enough and organized a cabal of Edwin Meese, the president’s counselor, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz, and CIA Director William J. Casey to block the appointment of Baker. Clark used McFarlane to keep Baker out of the job. In this backhanded way, McFarlane became national security adviser in 1983 and started on the road that led him into the center of the Iran-contra affairs.

One aspect of McFarlane’s career deserves more attention than it has received. Why did the Marine Corps encourage his half-in half-out military career? He spent almost half of his years as a Marine working elsewhere. Oliver North benefited from similar magnanimity. In 1981, North was sent to work in the national security staff for two years and stayed for six. He even testified in uniform at the congressional hearings, which turned him into a popular hero.


This pattern was carried on by John M. Poindexter, McFarlane’s successor. He was a rear admiral with a background in nuclear physics. He was appointed military assistant to the national security adviser in 1981 and made deputy in 1983. He should have returned to the Navy after three years away in 1984 and was offered command of the Sixth Fleet. But he chose to remain in Washington and McFarlane recommended him to be his successor in November 1985. In effect, one active Marine, Oliver North, one recently retired Marine, Robert McFarlane, and one active rear admiral, John Poindexter, were largely responsible for carrying out President Reagan’s wishes in the Iran-contra affairs.

The preponderance of naval personnel in Reagan’s national security staff was a striking feature of the Irancontra affairs. In 1986, when they escalated to a climax, Poindexter was in charge. McFarlane was capable on occasion of challenging Reagan’s policy, but there is no indication that Poindexter ever questioned whatever Reagan wanted. If any national security adviser was responsible for most of the damage, it was Poindexter, who never showed the slightest remorse. He thought he did not have to be remorseful, because he was merely carrying out Reagan’s wishes.

Historians will pick up bits and pieces of information and gossip from McFarlane’s account of various events and policies in the previous period. For thirty years, McFarlane’s career in the government was sufficiently varied and highly placed, if not at the very top, to make him a participant in much of the foreign policy of the American government. He worked closely, even intimately, with presidents, cabinet members, congressional chieftains, and foreign leaders. Yet he would be remembered as no more than a minor bureaucrat if he had not been caught up in the Iran-contra affairs. He himself seems to recognize this by devoting the first six chapters of his book to the “Crisis: Iran-contra” and by ending his book with three more chapters that look back on it.

For four years he dealt with the President with an intimacy that few in the government matched. Reagan, as McFarlane knew him, was not an easy executive to work with. He was as limited intellectually as he was personally likable. He had a few favorite causes and knew or cared little about anything else. McFarlane tells of having given Reagan a notebook with twelve studies for a proposed agenda in the second term, from which Reagan was supposed to select the most important issues. After holding on to them for days, Reagan handed them back to McFarlane with the lighthearted words: “Let’s do them all!” McFarlane comments: “My heart sank.” He realized that Reagan had not studied the proposals, on which his staff had put in heavy work. The incident was typical of Reagan’s executive style.

The two cabinet posts of most importance to McFarlane were State and Defense. They were held by two of Reagan’s friends, Shultz and Weinberger, who could not tolerate each other. McFarlane says that their rivalry was “extreme, endemic and ultimately corrosive.” Weinberger gets most of McFarlane’s ire. In 1983, when the Marine barracks were bombed in Beirut at the cost of 241 Marine lives, Reagan approved a retaliatory strike by the nearby US fleet against the barracks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Weinberger refused to order the attack. “It was outrageous,” McFarlane says. “Weinberger had directly violated a presidential order.” But Weinberger got away with it, and not for the last time, because Reagan could not “embarrass an old friend.”

McFarlane also had trouble with Donald Regan, Reagan’s chief of staff. They got off on the wrong foot, because Regan blamed McFarlane for failure to advise him quickly enough about the killing of a US Army major in East Germany. As McFarlane tells the story, Regan attempted to tell off McFarlane as if he were a menial subordinate. McFarlane fought back and Regan backed down, but they never got along. McFarlane was also told that Regan or his office had spread a rumor that McFarlane was having an affair with a White House television journalist. Regan denied that he or his staff had anything to do with the story, but it refused to go away. By such profound issues were shaped the personal relations between Reagan’s top aides.

In fact, very few American leaders come off very well in McFarlane’s view. President Kennedy was “a fundamentally deceptive person.” President Johnson “through deception and distortion of events, had gotten us into a war.” President Reagan had “no sense of history and no interest in foreign affairs.” In his interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes on September 11, 1994, McFarlane in effect accused Vice-President Bush of having lied about his ignorance of the arms-for-hostages deals while they were going on. He thus challenged, and convincingly so, Bush’s longstanding claim that he was not informed about the deals until December 1986. At the congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affairs, McFarlane said, higher-ups “were telling half-truths at best, out-and-out lies at worst.” One is reminded of Edmund Burke’s unheeded warning that “a great empire and little minds go ill together.”


One thing has been made incontrovertible by McFarlane’s book. It is that President Ronald Reagan was most responsible for the Iran-contra affairs. He was the only one in the US government who had enough authority to give it momentum.

In the first phase, McFarlane was responsible for drawing in the President. His opening move was innocent enough. He brought to Reagan the news that David Kimche, the director general of the Israel Foreign Ministry, had come to see him on July 3, 1985, and had told him that the Israelis had made contact with disaffected Iranians. At this stage, Kimche led McFarlane to believe that he had been offered the release of all seven American hostages in exchange for an American “dialogue” with the alleged Iranian dissidents. McFarlane understood that he might meet with Iranian rebels, who, according to Kimche, sought support to overthrow the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Then another Israeli, an arms merchant named Adolf Schwimmer, a personal emissary of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, came to Washington with more news from the purported Iranian dissidents. This time the Iranian price for the release of hostages rose to include at least one hundred TOW missiles. The only Iranian dissident mentioned was an Iranian émigré living in Paris, Manucher Ghorbanifar. In this way, McFarlane was drawn step by step into dealing with alleged Iranian dissidents through the Israelis.

To this point, McFarlane had done nothing on his own, except for his cautious discussion with Kimche. On July 18, 1985, he communicated the new developments to President Reagan, who was then recovering from an operation in the Bethesda Naval Hospital. In his book, McFarlane says that Reagan agreed that US arms could not be used but “we do want to talk.” He saw Reagan again the next day and Reagan asked if there weren’t some way “to help those guys you were talking about.” Toward the end of the month, Reagan took the initiative to get in touch with McFarlane about the matter. McFarlane says that Reagan told him he had been thinking about that “Israeli thing” and liked it the more he thought about it. “Couldn’t you use some imagination and try to find a way to make it work?” Reagan asked. McFarlane noted that both Shultz and Weinberger had expressed their opposition to dealing with the alleged Iranians. Reagan replied: “I know, but I look at it differently. I want to find a way to do this.”

Before McFarlane left his post, he went to London to meet with Ghorbanifar. He came back convinced that Ghorbanifar was a fraud and said so at a meeting of Reagan and his top aides on December 10, 1985. Both Shultz and Weinberger thought that “the baby has been strangled in its crib,” as Weinberger put it. At this meeting, Shultz and Weinberger, Vice-President George Bush, and Chief of Staff Regan for once agreed with McFarlane that the Iran initiative should be called off. But McFarlane cites Reagan: “I’m sorry to hear all this, he said, more than once, I think this has real promise.”1

At the end of 1985, McFarlane voluntarily gave up his last post as national security adviser and retired honorably. He was thanked effusively by President Ronald Reagan who told him, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” He told Reagan that if the Iran initiative “should develop to a point where a real political dialogue was possible,” he would be glad to return to help the government. If McFarlane had gone off quietly and minded his own business after his resignation, he would have avoided most of the trouble that came to him in the next two years.

There is a mystery at the heart of McFarlane’s story.

He tried to commit suicide in February 1987, after the Iran-contra scandal had erupted publicly. His reason was the “shame and despair” which he felt about his own role in it. He saw his suicide as the only way “that would compensate for the wrong I believed I had done my country.” For some reason, he regarded the scandal as “all my fault.”

The mystery is why McFarlane should have been beset by such self-accusation. He fully acknowledges his responsibility in the first phase of the affair. Yet nothing of major significance had happened by the time of his official resignation on December 4, 1985. He could blame himself for having urged that the job of national security adviser go to Poindexter, but that was hardly a cause for taking his own life. He now says that it “had been an injustice” to Poindexter to make him the national security adviser, because he was not cut out for the job. Poindexter, he says, was strong on “discipline, loyalty to his boss, disdain for Congress and the press.” Yet McFarlane adds that “I understood the policy judgments he had made, and I felt a measure of responsibility for having put him in a position for which he was unsuited.”

McFarlane’s resignation from the office of national security adviser is somewhat obscure. He tells us that he began to think of resigning from the government to go into private work as early as 1983. Instead, he could not resist the offer of the post of national security adviser. As soon as he left that office two years later, he admits, he regretted leaving and waited for a call to return to action. From this time on, nothing seemed to go right for him.

After his resignation, McFarlane was tested on two occasions. In December 1985, as we have seen, he went to London to meet with Ghorbanifar, became disillusioned, and recommended calling off the entire deal. In April 1986 Poindexter called him to say that Reagan wanted him to lead a mission to Iran, and on May 25 he arrived in Tehran.2 He expected to meet with the top Iranian leaders but instead the group found itself at the Tehran airport with no one there to receive them. The mission was a fiasco; McFarlane came back empty-handed; he again reported total failure. He now blames the “lies and deceptions” of North and Ghorbanifar for the collapse of the mission. On both these occasions, McFarlane had reason to feel sorry for himself for coming back with bad news, but it was also bad news for the arms-for-hostages deals.

Two other incidents were held against him. In 1985, he had covered up for North’s aid to the Nicaraguan contras in replies to two congressional committees. He now says that North had lied to him, even making the fatuous claim that his family’s dog, who had died of old age and cancer, had been poisoned, presumably by enemies. In November 1986, he was drawn into discussions in which North and others had tried to concoct a false chronology of events. He explains that North gave him little time to think and remember, with the result that he made some small comments that left the record uncorrected. In both cases he was culpable, but they were common-place in the Reagan administration.

McFarlane’s role as national security adviser and after was hardly the stuff that should have led him to an attempted suicide. He was in no way as guilty as Reagan, Poindexter, and North, and had even tried to cut short the deals with Iran. Of all the principals in the Iran-contra affairs, McFarlane did the least wrong and has suffered the most.

The central drama in McFarlane’s book is his self-accusation and self-punishment. Whatever may be thought about McFarlane’s reasons for attempting to commit suicide, at least it showed that he was remorseful—too remorseful—about his role in the Iran-contra affairs. Yet he has been the only one to show remorse. Reagan has gone on blissfully believing in his unblemished virtue. Poindexter has refused to make any amends. Casey died unrepentant. Bush has never admitted knowing about the arms-for-hostages deals when they were made. North is counting on his Iran-contra notoriety to take him all the way to the US Senate.

McFarlane’s chief source of pain and regret is his relationship with Oliver North. When North came into the national security staff as a novice in 1981, McFarlane was already an old-timer in Washington. McFarlane treated North as a fellow Marine and gave him opportunities to get ahead. Until the mission to Tehran in May 1986, McFarlane says, he saw North as “a resolute, hardworking and well-intentioned professional who gave every task assigned to him every ounce of heart that he had.” They had worked together for four years and McFarlane had seen nothing wrong in North’s character.

That spring, however, McFarlane had talked to the Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelley about North. McFarlane’s purpose had been to get North command of a battalion on his return to the Corps. Kelley had told McFarlane that he thought North “has trouble with the truth sometimes.” But McFarlane wanted to keep North on his staff a while longer. McFarlane confesses that he still had no doubt about North’s honesty, that he had not seen “the manipulative skill, the easy betrayal, the hubris, and the fierce ambition for personal advancement.”

As late as March 1989, when McFarlane testified at North’s trial, he says that “I was determined to help, not hurt, North, and all my testimony was designed to assume responsibility for whatever he had done on my watch.” He blamed Reagan more than North, and “couldn’t say that North had done anything the President hadn’t wanted him to do.” North “never went to jail, and never paid a fine, largely due to my testimony.” Yet McFarlane never heard from North, who showed no gratitude for McFarlane’s favor.

When did McFarlane wake up to North’s moral turpitude? McFarlane tells us that it was only after North’s trial in 1989 that he realized North had “lost his moral compass” through “a combination of hubris, lack of character and pride.” McFarlane began to reconsider events retrospectively; he came to realize, for example, that North had tricked him into taking Nir along on the Tehran mission.

McFarlane’s case, then, is not a simple one. It took him a long time to come to the point at which he could tell Mike Wallace about Oliver North: “He lies to me, to the Congress, to the President. This is not somebody you want in public life. Betrayal.” He was unfair to himself when he took all the blame and even thought that his suicide would be necessary to pay back for his guilt. His book is also part of this payment and sets him apart from all the other principals of the Iran-contra affairs.

This Issue

November 3, 1994