WASHINGTON — Robert C. McFarlane, a decorated former Navy officer who rose in civilian life to become President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and then fell out of favor in the Iran-Contra scandal, has died Thursday in Lansing, Michigan. He was 84 years old.
Mr. McFarlane, who lived in Washington, was visiting family in Michigan at the time. A family friend, Bill Greener, said the death was due to an unspecified previous lung condition.
Mr McFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to charges of withholding information from Congress in his investigation of the case, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran from 1985 in exchange for freedom Western hostages in Lebanon. Profits from the arms sales were then secretly funneled to contra rebels in Nicaragua, who were trying to overthrow the country’s Marxist regime, known as the Sandinistas.
Both sides of the scheme were illegal; Congress had imposed an arms embargo on Iran and banned US aid to the contras.
Mr McFarlane, Bud to his friends and associates, was one of many actors in the operation, which was carried out from the White House with the cooperation of the Central Intelligence Agency. But he stood out in his aftermath for his full and unequivocal acceptance of blame for his actions. Everyone else involved either defended the operation as fair and wise or sought to deny responsibility.
The episode tainted the Reagan administration and raised questions about how much the president knew about what was going on in his own White House.
And its fallout left Mr. McFarlane so guilt-ridden that he attempted suicide at home in February 1987. While his wife, Jonda, a high school English teacher, was upstairs grading papers, he took an overdose of Valium and got into bed next to him. his. When he couldn’t be woken up in the morning, he was taken to the hospital and revived. He then underwent several weeks of psychiatric therapy at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
It was an amazing act in official Washington. Many considered it an undisguised howl of pain from someone they would least expect – one of the most self-reliant and powerful public men in the capital.
Committing suicide, Mr McFarlane believed at the time, was “the honorable thing to do”, he said in an interview for this obituary in January 2016 at his home in Washington’s Watergate complex.
“I let the country down so much,” he said.
Earlier, he had attempted to explain his actions by citing the ancient Japanese tradition of honorable suicide. But he realized, he said in the interview, that these mannerisms had no resonance in modern American culture and that most people could not understand such behavior.
Mr McFarlane has always claimed – and it was supported by evidence – that he was involved primarily in the Iranian part of the scandal, and that he ignored the most obviously illegal part, the sending of profits from the sales of weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras.
Mr. McFarlane had been a strong advocate for repairing relations with Iran – so much so that after leaving the White House he made a secret visit there in 1987, traveling incognito, at the request of President Reagan. There he met with various officials but found the meetings a waste of time, he said.
The results of the arms sales themselves have not been much better: a few hostages have been released sporadically by Iran’s allies in Lebanon – less than promised – and, in any case, new hostages have been released. subsequently captured.
The scheme began to unravel on October 5, 1986, when a plane supplying the contras with weapons was shot down in Nicaragua, exposing the mission and prompting an investigation by a joint congressional committee and televised hearings. Called to testify, Mr. McFarlane and his former deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North – White House figures little known to the public until then – appeared in the national publicity spotlight as key players in the ‘affair.
Colonel North, still an active duty officer at the time, was an enthusiastic player in the project. He denounced before a joint congressional commission of inquiry in full dress uniform (he had preferred business suits in the White House), sometimes expressing defiance, at other times insisting that he had was motivated by patriotism.
Colonel North’s testimony made him a national hero for many conservatives, and he later used that support to host a talk show, write books and run, albeit unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate from Virginia. as a Republican candidate. (He later served as president of the National Rifle Association for less than a year.)
Mr. McFarlane, on the other hand, has not garnered such public adulation or even much support. The job offers were taken down, he wrote, and he was asked to resign from a board.
In his memoir, he recalls that at first he liked Colonel North, his fellow Marine, and thought they had a lot in common. That changed after he discovered, he said, that Colonel North had deceived him about many of his activities.
He wrote that in misjudging Colonel North he “failed to see what was really there, the skill of manipulation, the easy betrayal, the hubris, and the ferocious ambition for self-advancement”. He campaigned against him in the Virginia election.
Mr. McFarlane, however, won the approval of some of those who had investigated the Iran-Contra affair.
A member of the investigative committee, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, praised her testimony, saying there was “no ‘cute,’ no escapism.” “I’m here, I’ll tell you everything I know.”
Independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, frustrated by the fierce resistance of others involved in the operation, admitted he was so moved by Mr. McFarlane’s candor and contrition that he chose to leave. charge with only four misdemeanors. account.
Mr McFarlane served 200 hours of community service, in part helping to establish an independent living program for people with disabilities in suburban Washington and setting up a computer program listing recreation programs extracurricular activities for young people in the region.
Before leaving office, President George HW Bush pardoned Mr. McFarlane on Christmas Eve 1992, along with others involved in the Iran-Contra affair, including Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
An unresolved issue central to the Iran-Contra affair was the extent of President Reagan’s knowledge and support. The episode has been an important area of study for researchers who wonder if Reagan – who after retirement was found to have Alzheimer’s disease – had begun to lose his mental acuity in the White House. Mr. McFarlane, in interviews and in his memoirs, portrayed the president as sometimes confused or vague about the details of what was going on with Iran and the contras. But he portrayed Mr. Reagan as mostly in charge.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937, the son of Democratic Congressman William McFarlane of the Texas Panhandle and grandson of a Texas Ranger. Despite those roots, he must have had a little Texas in him, growing up in the Washington area.
He graduated top of his class in 1959 from the Annapolis Naval Academy; married his high school girlfriend, Jonda Riley; and joined the Marines. As a captain, he led one of the first combat operations in Vietnam. He described the operation as almost far-fetched.
His commanding general, he recalled in an interview, insisted that he take his troops ashore during a difficult landing by water, even though it would have been easier to get to their destination. by simply docking at a nearby pier. Landing ashore suited the Marines better, the general told him. Mr McFarlane said his heart sank as he watched his command jeep plunge to the bottom of a hidden lagoon.
In the 2016 interview with The Times, Mr. McFarlane lamented that, while serving as national security adviser, he failed to emphasize the basic lesson he thought he learned in Vietnam: that the America should not go to war without clear and strong support at home. He said the Reagan administration was wrong to try to help the contras because there was little public support, as evidenced by Congress’ ban on helping them.
Mr. McFarlane was a surprise choice to succeed William P. Clark Jr. in October 1983 as Reagan’s second national security adviser, the person in the White House responsible for policy coordination between the State Departments and Defense and other government agencies. He was generally considered a staff member, a notable contrast to some of his better-known predecessors, who overflowed with abundant self-confidence and published scholarly works, such as Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
He began his rise in the national security establishment while still a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, when he won a White House scholarship and worked for Mr. Kissinger and then Brent Scowcroft when they were national security advisers. He has also held leadership positions with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State Department.
According to contemporary accounts, he played an important role in complex and important arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and, in particular, in promoting and guiding President Reagan’s missile defense program known as the Star Wars name. The system was never implemented, but it would have forced Moscow to dramatically accelerate military spending at the expense of the Soviet Union, precipitating its collapse.
After leaving government, Mr. McFarlane founded an international business consultancy specializing in energy issues.
His survivors include his wife; three children, Lauren, Melissa and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
Jordan Allen contributed reporting.