286. Radio Address by President Reagan to the Nation1

Radio Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy

I’m speaking to you today from Camp David, and because the atmosphere here is a bit more informal than everyday Washington, I thought it would be a good opportunity to think and reflect with you about those crucial foreign policy matters so much in the news lately. It’s also a chance to do something I’ve wanted to do throughout the course of these events: and that’s share some personal thoughts with you, to speak to you, the American people, from the heart.

I realize you must be disappointed and probably confused with all the furor of the last couple of weeks. You must be asking: What were we doing in the Middle East? What was our policy? Where was it wrong? Were we engaged in some kind of shenanigans that blew up in our face? I can understand if these are the questions you’re asking, and I’d like to provide some answers.

First of all, the Middle East is critically important to our nation’s security. Right now it’s a major trouble spot that could easily set off the sparks of a wider conflict. Much of our effort has been aimed at stopping terrorism—putting an end to the bombing of innocent civilians and the kidnaping of hostages, especially our own citizens—and bringing about an end to the bloody war between Iran and Iraq.

When word came to me that individuals in Iran, including some members of the Government there, had asked through an intermediary in a third country for a meeting with a representative of our government, I said yes. And even though these were responsible elements in Iran that might be able to assist us in stopping the violence and possibly helping us get back the hostages being held in Lebanon, there was a risk involved. But I believed then and believe now there was a greater risk in doing nothing, of not trying.

So, I gave the order to proceed. We had some notable success: There was some reduction in terrorism, and three of our hostages were [Page 1242] released—one at a time—and others were about to follow.2 Then someone in the Government of Iran leaked information about our contacts with Iran to a newspaper in Lebanon.3 You know the rest. This effort to establish a relationship with responsible moderates in Iran came to light and was broken off. But I think you can see the purposes behind our policy: to end the war in the Middle East, to prevent Soviet expansionism, to halt terrorism, and to help gain release of American hostages.

But now I want to speak to you about something else, not the policies themselves but how they were carried out. And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made. Let me just say it was not my intent to do business with Khomeini, to trade weapons for hostages, nor to undercut our policy of antiterrorism. And let me say again, I know the stories of the past few weeks have been distressing. I’m deeply disappointed this initiative has resulted in such a controversy, and I regret it’s caused such concern and consternation. But I pledge to you I will set things right.

That’s what I am doing now. When our Iranian initiative came to light, I spoke to you from the Oval Office and explained it.4 When revelations regarding a transfer of money from Iran to those attempting to fight the Sandinista government were reported to me, they were immediately shared with you and the Congress.5 I then appointed a distinguished, independent board chaired by former Senator and Ambassador John Tower to review our National Security Council staff apparatus.6 And to [Page 1243] ensure a complete legal inquiry, I urged the appointment of an independent counsel.7 They used to be called special prosecutors, and that’s what they are. They just changed the title. And finally, I have stated we will cooperate fully with the Congress as they undertake their proper review.8

If illegal acts were undertaken in the implementation of our policy, those who did so will be brought to justice. If actions in implementing my policy were taken without my authorization, knowledge, or concurrence, this will be exposed and appropriate corrective steps will be implemented. I will continue to make all the facts known surrounding this matter. We live in a country that requires we operate within rules and laws—all of us. Just cause and deep concern and noble ends can never be reason enough to justify improper actions or excessive means.

In these past 6 years we have done much together to restore the faith and confidence and respect of our people and our country. We’ve done so not by avoiding challenges or denying problems but when confronted with these problems dealing with them directly and honestly. We will continue to do so. Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

  1. Source: Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book II, pp. 1607–1608. The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. In his personal diary entry for December 6, the President noted, “Radio script was on Iran. I admitted there were mistakes in the implementing of policy but not in the policy itself.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, vol. II, November 1985–January 1989, p. 665)
  2. See footnote 4, Document 281.
  3. Reference is to the Beirut weekly magazine Al Shiraa (or Ash-Shiraa), which had reported on McFarlane’s recent discussions with Iranian officials concerning the exchange of ammunition and spare parts for Iran’s discontinuation of support for terrorist groups. (Ihsan A. Hijazi, “Hostage’s Release Is Linked to Shift In Iranian Policy: A More Pro-Western Element Is Ascendant in Teheran, Arab Diplomats Say,” New York Times, pp. A1, A10, and Nora Boustany, “Beirut Magazine Says McFarlane Secretly Visited Tehran,” Washington Post, p. A15; both November 4, 1986)
  4. See Document 281.
  5. Following the President’s November 25 remarks (see footnote 3, Document 283) Meese announced that the $10 to $30 million paid by Iran for the U.S. arms shipments was disbursed to the Contras via Swiss bank accounts. See Bernard Weinraub, “Disarray Deepens: Was Not ‘Fully Informed’ About Secret Moves, President Asserts,” New York Times, pp. A1, A11, and Walter Pincus and David B. Ottaway, “Up to $30 Million Transferred: Deposits Made During Congress’ Ban on Aid to Rebels,” Washington Post, pp. A1, A12; both November 26, 1986.
  6. During his November 25 remarks, the President indicated that he would appoint a Special Review Board for the National Security Council. (Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book II, p. 1587) On November 26, the White House released a statement indicating that Tower, Scowcroft, and Muskie would serve on the Board, with Tower serving as Chairman. The statement indicated that the Board “will conduct a comprehensive study of the future role and procedures of the National Security Council staff in the development, coordination, oversight, and conduct of foreign and national security policy.” (Ibid., p. 1588) For the text of Executive Order 12575, establishing the President’s Special Review Board, see ibid., pp. 1592–1593.
  7. In his December 2 address to the nation regarding the investigation of the Iran arms and Contra aid controversy, the President indicated that Meese had concluded “that further investigation by an independent counsel would be appropriate.” The President added that he had directed Meese “to apply to the court here in Washington for the appointment of an independent counsel.” (Ibid., p. 1594) In a December 19 statement, the President indicated: “I have urged and now welcome the appointment of such a distinguished jurist as Lawrence Walsh to serve as Independent Counsel. With the appointment of an Independent Counsel and with the efforts of the Senate and House Select Committees and the Special Review Board I established, all of the facts will come before the American people at the earliest possible time.” (Ibid., p. 1636)
  8. In his December 2 address, Reagan remarked: “I recognize fully the interest of Congress in this matter and the fact that in performing its important oversight and legislative role Congress will want to inquire into what occurred. We will cooperate fully with these inquiries.” (Ibid., p. 1595)