When news of the Iran-Contra affair in 1986, Harvard professors believed that President Ronald Reagan’s powerful hold over American politics would come to an end in light of the scandal.
For months, Washington was consumed by the fallout from the revelation that President Ronald Reagan’s administration had violated two Congressional impositions—surreptitiously selling weapons to Iran and then using that money to fund the Contras, an anti-communist rebel group located in Nicaragua.
“I think [the affair] marked the end of the Reagan Administration,” said Assistant Professor of Government Laurie Mylroie in a Crimson article published at the time. “It’s going to be a black mark. It’s not going to be forgotten.”
But the Iran-Contra scandal seemingly failed to become the “black mark” on the Reagan administration’s legacy that Harvard professors speculated it would be. And though the furtive affair captivated the nation, Harvard’s fairly liberal campus seem insulated from much of the buzz surrounding the scandal.
FALLOUT AND SPECULATIONS
The initial shock seemed to shake Reagan’s image on the national stage, according to Harvard professors.
“There was a sense of shock—President Reagan had framed his foreign policy in moral terms, and had argued against dealing with terrorists,” said Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Both faculty and students were surprised to discover the discrepancy between his words and actions.”
The Iran-Contra affair began as an arms-for-hostage exchange, set into motion when Iran secretly asked to purchase weapons from the U.S. in 1985. The Reagan administration was divided on the issue, as some saw this proposal as an opportunity to bring home seven American hostages held by a terrorist group with Iranian ties.
Reagan administrators, following the plan created by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, ultimately decided to make the sale and then diverted profits from the weapons sales to support the Contras, despite Congress’s restrictions.
“One issue that people wondered about was whether the President knew about the efforts to get the Iranians involved,” said Marvin Kalb, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The Reagan-appointed Tower Commission investigated the scandal and found Reagan to have had no knowledge of the dealings, though his back-seat management style of the White House had facilitated the exchange.
Reagan’s connections to the scandal led to a significant dip in his popularity.
“What the hearings showed us was that Ronald Reagan was not exactly micromanaging things at the White House,” said Frank E. Lockwood ’89, a former Crimson editor. “Staffers there had gone rogue, and it seemed to be flying under his radar.”
At the time, Nye believed that the Iran-Contra scandal had weakened Reagan’s presidency.
“At one point, before his open acknowledgement, there was even talk of impeachment,” Nye said.