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Iran-Contra Affair Fails to Stir Campus

By Victoria Fydrych and David Song, Crimson Staff Writers

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.

Lockwood said the dangers to Reagan’s administration were particularly strong in light of the Watergate scandal, a highly controversial political cover-up that forced the resignation of Reagan’s predecessor in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon.

“There was a sense for a time that the Reagan presidency could be in jeopardy. This was only a few years after Watergate,” Lockwood said.

In the end however, conversations about the most recent political scandal made Reagan’s flaws seem small in comparison.

“President Reagan had made mistakes, but he was no Nixon, not even close,” Lockwood said.

A POLITICAL ANOMALY

Carrying 49 of 50 states in the 1984 presidential election, Reagan was a well-liked president in almost every corner of the country. Harvard, however, proved to be an exception.

“Harvard was one of the few places in the country where Ronald Reagan wasn’t popular,” Lockwood said. “There was a lot of opposition to President Reagan from the time he entered office to the time he left.”

The Iran-Contra affair only added to Harvard students’ widespread dissatisfaction with Reagan.

When the news of the scandal broke, liberal students reacted with astonishment.

“Among the people that were more left-oriented, it was kind of shocking,” said Mitchell A. Orenstein ’89, a former Crimson editor. Orenstein recalled that liberal students were concerned that the clandestine affair might escalate to a proxy war in Latin America, presumably under the guise of “fighting communism.”

Conservatives’ response to the scandal was tempered by their relatively small numbers on campus. “Republicans would’ve been a lot more sympathetic [to Reagan], but they were heavily, heavily outnumbered on campus,” Lockwood said.

Harvard Republicans did not place much emphasis on the Iran-Contra issue and chose to focus on United States’ relationship with the Contras, according to Kris W. Kobach ’88, president of the Harvard Republicans Club when the scandal came to light.

Even on a campus where Reagan was overwhelmingly unpopular, the Iran-Contra affair failed to attract significant attention among the student body. “When it became clear that [Reagan] had no personal knowledge of the affair, the scandal moved from outrage to the back burner,” Kobach said.

“I don’t remember that there was any great reaction on campus to the story,” said Kalb. “There were certainly a number of questions asked in class at the Kennedy School, but they were asked in a way that suggested more curiosity and interest than anger.”

Many Harvard students were mobilized by issues such as the South African apartheid, but the Iran-Contra affair did not elicit a similar response.

“The Contra stuff didn’t take off nearly to the same extent as the anti-apartheid movement,” said Orenstein. “There were people who tried to get things going, but it wasn’t something that had a huge amount of activism.”

Some political groups still engaged with the issue of U.S. involvement with the Contras, but the Reagan scandal took a subsidiary role.

“The question of whether the U.S. should be supporting the Contras was the number two issue on campus, but the Iran-Contra affair itself wasn’t really a big issue,” Kobach said. “It didn’t generate its own student protest...[or] major debates.”

LASTING DAMAGE?

Despite speculation from Harvard professors and students that the scandal’s damage to Reagan’s legacy would be lasting, many today admit that Reagan’s reputation has survived the initial attacks.

“I don’t think that the public impression of the Reagan administration was forever soiled by the public response to the Iran-Contra,” Kalb said. “Yes, at the time, it was a major story and an embarrassing story. But Reagan had a quality about him that did not encourage flamboyant criticism.”

Nye found that Reagan’s effective damage control after the scandal won back favor.

“By owning up to the problem, and changing the personnel in the White House, Reagan was able to recover his balance in the last two years of his presidency,” Nye said.

More than two decades after the incident, Reagan is seen as a beacon of contemporary conservatism, ranked as one of the most popular presidents in history according to a 2011 Gallup poll.

“Obviously there were people who disagreed with him and thought it was a very foolish mistake,” Kalb said. “But Reagan was a Teflon president,”

Reagan’s ability to recover from the scandal was also helped significantly by his reputation as a personable figure.

“Ronald Reagan had real charm, real charisma. They called him ‘The Great Communicator,’” Lockwood said. “People just flat-out liked him.”

—Staff writer Victoria Fydrych can be reached at fydrych@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer David Song can be reached at davidsong@college.harvard.edu.

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PoliticsHarvard in the WorldCommencement 2012Class of 1987