Photo: Karl Schumacher/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
As the Reagan administration entered its second term, it began to dramatically escalate covert U.S. involvement in dirty wars in Central America and carried out a secret extrajudicial plan to circumvent Congress in an effort to fund and arm the Contra death squads in Nicaragua. In 1986, details began to emerge on the program, including the secret sales of weapons to the Iranian regime in an effort to free U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. It was also revealed that proceeds from those sales were then funneled to the Contras behind Congress’s back.
The White House initially claimed that the reports were false, and in November 1986, President Ronald Reagan gave a televised address on the emerging scandal. “The charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, that the United States undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists. Those charges are utterly false,” Reagan declared. “The United States has not made concessions to those who hold our people captive in Lebanon. And we will not. The United States has not swapped boatloads or planeloads of American weapons for the return of American hostages. And we will not.”
When news of the Iran-Contra scandal first broke, Joe Biden spoke in forceful terms about its implications, outspoken in his belief that Reagan needed to be held accountable. “If the president is lying, he’s finished,” Biden warned. “He is absolutely finished.” Biden sponsored legislation that sought to require congressional authorization for weapons sales and transfers. His initiative never gained momentum.
“If the president is lying, he’s finished. He is absolutely finished.”
After months of prolonged silence, during which details emerged showing that Reagan had lied, the president was forced to give another nationally televised address. Reagan now admitted that the thrust of the allegations was true, but he offered a bizarre and twisted logic for his earlier denials. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” Reagan said in March 1987. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Reagan’s logical gymnastics were also promoted in the official Tower Commission report on the scandal, which portrayed rogue U.S. operatives conducting the actions and only directly faulted Reagan for not effectively monitoring what was being done by his underlings. “I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration,” Reagan said. “As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I am still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior.”
Biden broke with many of his Democratic colleagues and said he believed Reagan. ”I’m not angry with the president,” Biden said, as he began his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987. “I think his action was one from the heart. I think his action was not one that was political. I think his action was not one done with any malevolence.” Biden justified Reagan’s motivations, saying, “I think he bled for those hostages.” Biden said that through Reagan’s sincere desire to win the hostages’ release, he had been misled “by people who had no competence in the area of foreign policy.” In his book on the affair, Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was the public face of the scandal, wrote: “Ronald Reagan knew of and approved a great deal of what went on with both the Iranian initiative and private efforts on behalf of the contras and he received regular, detailed briefings on both.” In a deposition after he left power, according to press reports, Reagan “said he was unable to recall virtually any specific details of the affair.”
In the 10-year Contra War, which deescalated with a shift in U.S. policy, some 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed.