WASHINGTON — Robert C. McFarlane, a former decorated Marine officer who rose through civilian life to become President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and then fell out of favor in the Iran-counter-Iran scandal, died Thursday in Lansing, Michigan. He was 84.
Mr. McFarlane, who lived in Washington, was visiting relatives in Michigan at the time. A family friend, Bill Greener, said the death was the result of an unspecified prior lung condition.
Mr. McFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to charges of withholding information from Congress in his investigation into the affair, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran from 1985 in exchange for the freedom of Western hostages in Lebanon. Profits from arms sales were then secretly funneled into counter-rebels in Nicaragua, who sought to overthrow the country’s Marxist regime known as the Sandinistas.
Both parts 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 several players in the operation, which was led out of the White House with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency. But he stood out in its aftermath for his full and unequivocal acceptance of blame for his actions. Everyone else involved had either defended the operation as just and wise or tried to deny responsibility.
The episode mocked the Reagan administration and raised the question of the president’s knowledge of what was happening in his own White House.
And because of its consequences, Mr. McFarlane so guilty that he attempted suicide in his home in February 1987. While his wife, Jonda, a high school English teacher, was checking papers, he overdosed on Valium and crawled next to her. When he couldn’t be woken in the morning, he was taken to a hospital and revived. He then underwent many weeks of psychiatric therapy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
It was a stunning act in official Washington. Many regarded it as an unconcealed howl of pain from someone they least expected – one of the capital’s most solitary public and powerful men.
Suicide, Mr McFarlane argued at the time, was “the 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’ve let the country down like that,” he said.
He had previously tried to explain his actions by citing the ancient Japanese tradition of honorable suicide. But he came to realize, 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 he was backed up by evidence – that he had been mainly involved in the Iran part of the scandal and that he had been ignorant of the more blatantly illegal part, sending profits from arms sales to the Nicaraguan government. contras.
Mr. McFarlane had been a staunch advocate of restoring relations with Iran — so much so that after leaving the White House, he made a secret visit there in 1987, traveling incognito, at President Reagan’s request. There he met several officials but found the meetings a waste of time, he said.
The results of the arms sales themselves were not much better: a few hostages were sporadically released by Iran’s allies in Lebanon – less than had been promised – and at least new hostages were subsequently seized.
The plan began to unravel on October 5, 1986, when a plane delivering weapons to the Contras was shot down in Nicaragua, exposing the mission and triggering 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 hitherto little known to the public — emerged in the face of national publicity as key players in the affair. .
Colonel North, then an active-duty officer, was an enthusiastic player in the plan. He held it before a joint congressional committee of inquiry in a fully clothed uniform (he had preferred business suits in the White House), at times expressing his opposition, at other times insisting that he was motivated by patriotism.
Colonel North’s testimony made him a national hero to many conservatives, and he later used that support to host a talk show, write books and, though unsuccessfully, run for the United States Senate from Virginia as the Republican candidate. (He was president of the National Rifle Association for less than a year later.)
Mr. McFarlane, on the other hand, did not garner much public admiration or even much support. Job offers were withdrawn, he wrote, and he was asked to resign from a corporate board.
In his memoirs, he recalled having initially 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 cheated him about many of his activities.
He wrote that by misjudging Colonel North, he “failed to see what was really there, the manipulative skill, the easy betrayal, the hubris, and the fierce ambition for personal advancement.” He campaigned against him in the Virginia election.
However, Mr. McFarlane did gain the approval of some of those who had investigated the Iran counter-affair.
A member of the commission of inquiry, New York Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, praised his testimony, saying there was “no “cute,” no evasion. ‘I’m here, I’ll tell you everything I know.’”
Frustrated by the harsh opposition of others involved in the operation, Independent District Attorney Lawrence E. Walsh acknowledged that he was so moved by Mr. McFarlane’s candor and remorse that he chose to leave him alone. four offenses. counts.
Mr. McFarlane was serving a 200-hour community service sentence, in part by helping to establish an independent living program for the disabled in suburban Washington, and by setting up a computer program with after-school recreation programs for youth in the region.
Before leaving office, President George HW Bush pardoned Mr. McFarlane on Christmas Eve 1992, along with others involved in the Iran Counter Affair, including Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
An unresolved question at the heart of the Iran-counter issue has been President Reagan’s level of knowledge and support. The episode has been an important area of study for scientists wondering whether Reagan — who was recognized after retirement as having Alzheimer’s disease — began 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 happened to Iran and the Contras. But he portrayed Mr. Reagan as largely in charge.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937, the son of a Democratic Congressman, William McFarlane, of the Texas Panhandle and a grandson of a Texas Ranger. Despite those roots, he would have little Texas in him, growing up in the Washington area.
He graduated high in his class from the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1959; 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 a farce.
His commanding general, he recalled in an interview, insisted that he land his troops during a difficult water landing, although it would have been easier to reach their destination simply by docking at a nearby pier. . A wallanding was more suitable for Marines, the general told him. mr. McFarlane said his heart sank when he watched his commando jeep plunge to the bottom of a hidden lagoon.
In a 2016 interview with The Times, Mr. McFarlane complained that while he was the national security adviser, he failed to convey the basic lesson he thought he learned in Vietnam: that the United States should not go to war without clear and strong support from home. He said the Reagan administration had made a mistake in trying to help the Contras because there was little public support, as evidenced by the congressional ban on aiding them.
McFarlane was a surprising pick to 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 Departments of State and Defense and other government agencies. He was generally regarded as a staff member, a remarkable contrast to some of his more famous predecessors, who were brimming with confidence and published scholarly works, such as Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
He began his ascension into the National Security Service while still a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, when he won a White House fellowship and worked for Mr. Kissinger and then Brent Scowcroft when they were national security advisers. He also held senior staff positions with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State Department.
According to contemporary accounts, he played an important role in complicated and important arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, and in particular in promoting and directing President Reagan’s anti-missile defense program known as Star Wars. The system was never put in place, but it would have forced Moscow to massively increase military spending to the detriment of the Soviet Union, hastening its collapse.
After leaving government, Mr. McFarlane founded an international business consultancy specializing in energy issues.
His survivors are his wife; three children, Lauren, Melissa and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
Jordan Allen contributed to the reporting.