WASHINGTON — Robert C. McFarlane, a former decorated 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, died Thursday in Lansing, Mich. 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 withholding information from Congress in its investigation into the affair in which the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran in exchange for the freedom of Western hostages in Lebanon beginning in 1985. The profits from the arms sales were then secretly funneled to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, who were trying 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 American aid to the Contras.
Mr. McFarlane, Bud to his friends and associates, was one of many actors in the operation, conducted from the White House in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency. But he later distinguished himself by his full and unequivocal acknowledgment of guilt for his actions. Everyone else involved had either defended the operation as just and wise or tried to deny responsibility.
The episode sullied the Reagan administration and raised questions about how well the president knew what was going on in his own White House.
And its aftermath left Mr. McFarlane so guilt-ridden that he attempted suicide at his home in February 1987. While his wife Jonda, a high school English teacher, was grading papers upstairs, he overdosed on Valium and got into bed next to her. When he could not be woken up in the morning, he was taken to a hospital and revived. He then underwent several weeks of psychiatric therapy at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
It was a stunning act in official Washington. Many took it as an undisguised howl of pain from someone they least expected – one of the most autonomous public and powerful men in the capital.
Killing himself, Mr. McFarlane believed at the time, was “the honorable thing,” he said in an interview for this obituary in January 2016 at his home in Washington’s Watergate complex.
“I 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 recognized, he said in the interview, that these behaviors didn’t resonate with modern American culture and that most people couldn’t understand such behavior.
Mr McFarlane always maintained – and he was supported by evidence – that he was mainly involved in the Iran part of the scandal and that he was unaware of the obviously more illegal part, the transfer of profits from arms sales to Iran, as per Nicaraguan contras .
Mr. McFarlane was a passionate advocate of restoring ties with Iran – so much so that after leaving the White House in 1987, he paid a secret visit and traveled incognito at the request of President Reagan. There he met with various officials but found the meetings were a waste of time, he said.
The results of the arms sales themselves were little better: some hostages were sporadically released by Iran’s allies in Lebanon – fewer than promised – and in each case new hostages were subsequently seized.
The plan began to unravel on October 5, 1986, when a plane delivering arms to the Contras was shot down in Nicaragua, exposing the mission and prompting an investigation by a joint congressional committee and televised hearings. Mr. McFarlane and his former deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who were then little known to the public, were subpoenaed to testify and came into the national spotlight as key figures in the affair.
Colonel North, then an active-duty officer, was an enthusiastic player in the plan. He stood up before a joint congressional inquiry in his tuxedo uniform (he had preferred business suits in the White House), sometimes expressing defiance, sometimes insisting he was motivated by patriotism.
Colonel North’s testimony made him a national hero to many conservatives, and he later used that endorsement to host a talk show, write books, and run, albeit unsuccessfully, as the Republican nominee from Virginia for the United States Senate . (He later served as President of the National Rifle Association for less than a year.)
In contrast, Mr. McFarlane received no such public admiration or even much support. Job offers had been withdrawn, he wrote, and he had been asked to resign from a corporate board.
In his memoirs, he recalled initially liking Colonel North, his fellow Marine, and thought they had much in common. That changed after he discovered, he said, that Colonel North had deceived him about many of his activities.
He wrote that in Colonel North’s misjudgment he “did not see what was really there, the manipulative ability, the easy betrayal, the hubris, and the fierce ambition for personal advancement.” He campaigned against him in the Virginia elections.
However, Mr. McFarlane gained approval from 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 his testimony, saying there was “no ‘cute’, no dodging.” ‘I’m here, I’ll tell you everything I know.’”
Independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, frustrated by fierce opposition from others involved in the operation, admitted that he was so moved by Mr. McFarlane’s openness and remorse that he decided to try him for just four misdemeanors to accuse counts.
Mr. McFarlane was serving a 200-hour sentence of community service partly by helping to set up an independent living program for the handicapped in suburban Washington and by creating a computer program listing after-school recreational programs for local 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 question at the heart of the Iran-Contra issue was the extent of President Reagan’s knowledge and support. The episode was an important area of study for scholars pondering whether Reagan — who was known to have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease after retirement — had begun to lose his mental acuity in the White House. Mr. McFarlane, in interviews and in his memoirs, has portrayed the President as at times confused or vague about the details of what was happening to Iran and the Contras. But he portrayed Mr. Reagan as largely in control.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937 to a Democratic Congressman, William McFarlane, of the Texas Panhandle and the grandson of a Texas Ranger. Despite those roots, he was destined to have a little bit of Texas in him and grow up in the Washington area.
In 1959 he graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis with a high degree in his class; married his high school sweetheart 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 in a difficult water landing, when it would have been easier to get to their destination simply by docking at a nearby pier . Landing on land would be more suitable for marines, the general told him. Mr McFarlane said his heart sank when he saw his command jeep crash to the bottom of a hidden lagoon.
In the 2016 interview with The Times, Mr McFarlane lamented that while he was the national security adviser, he failed to emphasize the fundamental lesson he believed he learned in Vietnam: that the United States could not go to war without clear and strong support should lead homeland. He said the Reagan administration was wrong in trying to help the contras because there was little public support, as evidenced by the Congressional 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 coordinating policy between the State and Defense Departments and other government agencies. He was widely regarded as a collaborator, a striking contrast to some of his better-known, self-confident, published scholarly predecessors, 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 fellowship and worked for Mr. Kissinger and then Brent Scowcroft when they were national security advisers. He has also held senior positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State Department.
According to contemporary accounts, he played an important role in complex and significant arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, and particularly in promoting and directing President Reagan’s anti-missile defense program known as Star Wars. The system was never implemented, but it is said to have forced Moscow to significantly accelerate military spending to the detriment of the Soviet Union and hastened its collapse.
After leaving government, Mr. McFarlane founded an international management consultancy specializing in energy issues.
His survivors include his wife; three children, Lauren, Melissa and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
Jordan Allen contributed coverage.