Robert C. McFarlane, a decorated former Navy officer who rose through civilian life to become President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and then fell from grace in the Iran-contra scandal, 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 prior lung condition.
Mr. McFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to charges of withholding information from Congress in its investigation of the affair, in which the Reagan administration covertly sold weapons to Iran beginning in 1985 in exchange for the freedom of Western hostages in the Libano. Proceeds from the arms sales were then secretly funneled to contra rebels in Nicaragua, who were trying to topple the country’s Marxist regime, known as the Sandinistas.
Both parts of the plan were illegal; Congress had imposed an arms embargo against Iran and banned US aid to the Contras.
Mr. McFarlane, Bud to his friends and associates, was one of many participants in the operation, which was carried out from the White House with the cooperation of the Central Intelligence Agency. But he later distinguished himself by his full and unequivocal acceptance of blame for his actions. Everyone else involved defended the operation as fair and wise or tried to deny responsibility.
The episode scarred the Reagan administration and raised questions about how much the president knew about what was going on in his own White House.
And its aftermath left Mr. McFarlane so wracked with guilt that he attempted suicide at home in February 1987. While his wife, Jonda, a high school English teacher, was upstairs grading papers, he overdosed on Valium and slept next to her. to the. she. When he could not be woken up in the morning, he was taken to a hospital and resuscitated. He subsequently underwent many weeks of psychiatric therapy at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
It was an impressive act in official Washington. Many considered it an undisguised howl of pain from someone from whom they would least have expected it: one of the most autonomous public and powerful men in the capital.
McFarlane believed at the time that killing himself was “the most honorable thing to do,” he said in an interview for this obituary in January 2016 at his home in the Watergate complex in Washington.
“I let the country down so much,” he said.
He had previously tried to explain his actions by citing the ancient Japanese tradition of honorable suicide. But he realized, he said in the interview, that those ways had no resonance in modern American culture and that most people couldn’t understand such behavior.
Mr. McFarlane always claimed, and the evidence supported him, that he had been primarily involved in the Iran part of the scandal, and that he had ignored the most blatantly illegal part, sending the proceeds of arms sales to the United States. Joined. Nicaraguan contras.
McFarlane had been an ardent advocate of repairing relations with Iran, so much so that after leaving the White House he paid a secret visit there in 1987, traveling incognito, at the request of President Reagan. There he met with various officials but found the meetings to be a waste of time, he said.
The results of the arms sales themselves were slightly better: Iran’s allies in Lebanon sporadically released some hostages (fewer than promised) and, in any case, new hostages were subsequently captured.
The plan began to unravel on October 5, 1986, when a plane supplying arms to the contras was shot down in Nicaragua, exposing the mission and prompting an investigation by a joint congressional committee and televised hearings. Summoned to testify, McFarlane and his former deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North — previously little-known White House figures to the public — emerged in the glare of national publicity as key players in the affair.
Colonel North, still an active duty officer at the time, was an enthusiastic player in the plan. He appeared before a joint congressional investigative committee in full dress uniform (he had favored business suits in the White House), sometimes expressing defiance, at other times insisting he had been motivated by patriotism.
Colonel North’s testimony made him a national hero to many conservatives, and he later capitalized on that support to host a talk show, write books, and run, albeit unsuccessfully, for the United States Senate from Virginia as a Republican candidate. (He later became president of the National Rifle Association for less than a year.)
Mr. McFarlane, by contrast, garnered neither such public adulation nor much support. Job offers were withdrawn, he wrote, and he was asked to resign from a corporate board.
In his memoirs, he recalled that he had initially liked Colonel North, his fellow Marine, and thought that they had a lot in common. That changed after he discovered, he said, that Colonel North had misled him about many of his activities.
He wrote that in misjudging Colonel North, he “failed to see what was really there, the manipulative skill, the easy betrayal, the arrogance, and the fierce ambition for personal advancement.” He campaigned against him in the Virginia election.
However, McFarlane won the approval of some of those who had investigated the Iran-Contra affair.
A member of the investigative committee, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, praised her testimony, saying “there was no ‘cute’, no evasion. ‘I’m here, I’ll tell you everything I know.’ ”
The independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, who was frustrated by the stiff resistance of others who had been involved in the operation, acknowledged that he had been so moved by Mr. McFarlane’s candor and remorse that he decided to charge him with just four minor offences. bill
Mr. McFarlane served a sentence of 200 hours of community service, in part helping to establish an independent living program for the disabled in suburban Washington and setting up a computer program that lists after-school recreational programs for area youth.
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 at the heart of the Iran-Contra affair was President Reagan’s degree of awareness and support. The episode has been an important area of study for scholars who wonder whether Reagan, who was admitted to have Alzheimer’s after his retirement, had begun to lose his mental acuity in the White House. McFarlane, in interviews and in his memoirs, described the president as somewhat confused or vague about the details of what was happening with Iran and the contras. But he described Reagan as mostly in control.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937, the son of a Democratic congressman, William McFarlane, from the Texas Panhandle and the grandson of a Texas Ranger. Despite those roots, he was going to have a bit of Texas in him, growing up in the Washington area.
He graduated top of his class in 1959 from the Annapolis Naval Academy; he married his high school sweetheart, Jonda Riley; and joined the Navy. As a captain, he led one of the first combat operations in Vietnam. He described the operation as almost a farce.
His commanding general, he recalled in an interview, insisted that he bring his troops ashore in a difficult water landing, even though it would have been easier to reach their destination simply by docking at a nearby pier. A landing on land was more suitable for the Marines, the general told him. Mr. McFarlane said his heart sank when he saw his command jeep sink to the bottom of a hidden pond.
In the 2016 interview with The Times, Mr. McFarlane lamented that while he was the national security adviser, he did not insist on the basic lesson he thought he had learned in Vietnam: that the United States should not wage war without clear and supportive support. strong nationally. House. He said the Reagan administration had been wrong to try to help the Contras because there was little public support, as evidenced by Congress’s ban on aiding 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 coordinating policy between the State and Defense Departments and other governmental agencies. He was generally considered a staff member, a notable contrast to some of his better-known predecessors, who brimmed with great 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 Marine Corps, when he won a White House fellowship and worked for Kissinger and later Brent Scowcroft when they were national security advisers. He also held senior positions on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Department of State.
According to contemporary accounts, he played important roles in complicated and significant arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, and especially in promoting and guiding President Reagan’s missile defense program known as Star Wars. The system was never implemented, but it is said that it forced Moscow to greatly accelerate military spending to the detriment of the Soviet Union, hastening its collapse.
After leaving government, Mr. McFarlane founded an international business consulting company specializing in energy issues.
His survivors include his wife; three children, Lauren, Melissa and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
Jordan Allen contributed reporting.