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Parsing Ollie: How Conservatives and the Military Viewed Honor, Loyalty and Duty in the Prism of Lt. Col. Oliver North’s Role in Iran-Contra

Parsing Ollie: How Conservatives and the Military Viewed Honor, Loyalty and Duty in the Prism of Lt. Col. Oliver North’s Role in Iran-Contra

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Security and Defense Studies Review
Volume 11
Fall-WInter 2010 Issue
ISSN: 1533-2535

In parsing the story of Oliver North, a complex and often ambiguous portrait emerges of a conservative, anti-communist administration, torn between orthodox and political conservatism, and between loyalty to its goals of promoting democracy abroad and to a band of covert operators who skirted the rule of law at home while proclaiming their fealty to those same goals. The story of Iran-Contra and the role played by North is a reminder of the truths plumbed by historian Richard Gid Powers on the nature of American anti-communism, “a complex, pluralistic movement” made up of “Americans of very different beliefs and goals who disagreed among themselves almost as much as they disagreed with communism.”

In the case of Reagan’s conservative foreign policy, an anti-communism held aloft by high ideals lived side-by-side with extremists unencumbered by scruple, who—like those of other times, such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy—while “far from being representative of the American anti-communist movement, were for the most part digressions and distractions,” nevertheless often gave anticommunists the same mal odor that equating the history of medical malpractice to that of medicine would give to the latter.
Security and Defense Studies Review
Volume 11
Fall-WInter 2010 Issue
ISSN: 1533-2535

In parsing the story of Oliver North, a complex and often ambiguous portrait emerges of a conservative, anti-communist administration, torn between orthodox and political conservatism, and between loyalty to its goals of promoting democracy abroad and to a band of covert operators who skirted the rule of law at home while proclaiming their fealty to those same goals. The story of Iran-Contra and the role played by North is a reminder of the truths plumbed by historian Richard Gid Powers on the nature of American anti-communism, “a complex, pluralistic movement” made up of “Americans of very different beliefs and goals who disagreed among themselves almost as much as they disagreed with communism.”

In the case of Reagan’s conservative foreign policy, an anti-communism held aloft by high ideals lived side-by-side with extremists unencumbered by scruple, who—like those of other times, such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy—while “far from being representative of the American anti-communist movement, were for the most part digressions and distractions,” nevertheless often gave anticommunists the same mal odor that equating the history of medical malpractice to that of medicine would give to the latter.

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Published by: Martin Edwin Andersen on Jun 22, 2012
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 Parsing Ollie: How Conservatives and the Military Viewed Honor, Loyalty and Duty in the Prism of Lt. Col. Oliver Norths !ole in "ran#Contra
“I want to make it clear beyond any question that absolute integrity of an officer’s word, deed and signature is a matter that permits no compromise.”-- Gen. illiam !. estmoreland
"
 “#he greatest dangers to liberty lurk as insidious encroachments by men of $eal, well-meaning but without understanding.” -- %ustice &ouis 'randeis“(e presumed to sa)e his country without the consent of the emperor.”-- *dward Gibbon,
The Decline and Fall  of the
 
 Roman Empire,
!hapter +&
 By Martin Edwin Andersen
#he boyish, ramrod straight arine !orps officer emerged in %uly "/0 in full dress uniform to face a 1oint !ongressional committee in)estigating the Iran-!ontra scandal, in a 2enate !aucus 3oom where prior inquiries into the sinking of the #itanic, #eapot 4ome, %oseph c!arthy’s libels against the 5rmy, and atergate had been held. 5s he later recalled it, he had first entered the 2enate chamber thinking, “ho
are
these people and what am I doing here6”
7
 5 lieutenant colonel who had operated out of the basement of the 8ld *9ecuti)e 8ffice building as “a sort of underground 2ecretary of 2tate”
:
 and who was about to become a media sensation-cum-5merican icon, 8li)er &. ;orth was stepping out front and center in the middle of a constitutional crisis that was arguably largely of his own making. ith a stern and, at first, “insolent” <the word is his=
demeanor, for the ne9t se)eral days ;orth parried the queries of solons and committee lawyers, ducking into the ?ifth 5mendment when counseled by his lawyers to do so. (e was, he told his accusers and the rest of the country ri)eted by tele)ised co)erage of the e)ent, a soldier who would take a spear for God, country and @resident 3onald 3eagan.#oday, nearly two decades after ;orth’s appearance before !ongress, the role he played in the Iran-!ontra affair, one of the most important political scandals in the Anited 2tates in the latter half of the 7B
th
 !entury, offers critical insights into contemporary debates about foreign policy
"
 3ichard (alloran, “ashington #alkC #he 5rmed 2er)icesD 8fficers and Gentlemen and 2ituational &ying,”
The New York Times,
5ugust E, "/0, p. 57>.
7
 8li)er ;orth,
Under Fire An American !tory,
 p. :F".
:
 #he description of ;orth in @hilip eiss, “8li)er ;orth’s ;e9t ar,”
The New York Times,
%uly >, ":, p. 5. "7.
>
 ;orth, op. cit
 ,
 p. :E7.
 
mechanisms and the role of the military. ;orth’s responsibility as an indi)idual, combined with certain institutional enablers that flourished within the 3eagan 5dministration’s conduct of foreign policy, resulted in an ine9orable bifurcation between the traditional ethos of the A.2. armed forcesincluding such )alues as leadership, discipline and integrity that remain the  bedrock training for the arine !orpsHand the foreign policy aims and practices of a conser)ati)e administration, despite their sometimes conflation in the popular mind. (ow ;orth interpreted and applied the !orpsofficial motto,
!emper Fidelis
, <“5lways ?aithfulin &atin= while working at the ;2! reflected the conflicting demands for loyalty and ethical beha)ior  placed on the ;ational 2ecurity !ouncil <;2!= military aide and, in doing so, shed light on the  profound differences in philosophy and interests among conser)ati)es and within the armed forces as they picked their way through the origins of, the responsibilities for, and, later, the significance of Iran-!ontra.In parsing the story of 8li)er ;orth, a comple9 and often ambiguous portrait emerges of a conser)ati)e, anti-communist administration, torn between orthodo9 and political conser)atism, and between loyalty to its goals of promoting democracy abroad and to a band of co)ert operators who skirted the rule of law at home while proclaiming their fealty to those same goals. #he story of Iran-!ontra and the role played by ;orth is a reminder of the truths plumbed by historian 3ichard Gid @owers on the nature of 5merican anti-communism, “a comple9, pluralistic mo)ement” made up of “5mericans of )ery different beliefs and goals who disagreed among themsel)es almost as much as they disagreed with communism.” In the case of 3eagan’s conser)ati)e foreign policy, an anti-communism held aloft by high ideals li)ed side-by-side with e9tremists unencumbered by scruple, wholike those of other times, such as ?'I director %. *dgar (oo)er and 2enator %oseph c!arthywhile “far from being representati)e of the 5merican anti-communist mo)ement, were for the most part digressions and distractions,ne)ertheless often ga)e anticommunists the same mal odor that equating the history of medical malpractice to that of medicine would gi)e to the latter.
F
 #o facilitate understanding of two )ariants of a single political philosophy, in this study political conser)atism is equated with what historian %erry . uller has called “ideological conser)atism,” that is, that which “arises from the an9iety that )aluable institutions are endangered by contemporary de)elopments or by proposed reforms.”
E
 uller’s definition of
F
 @owers,
 Not "itho#t $onor% The $istory of American Anticomm#nism,
 ;ew JorkC #he ?ree @ress, pp. >7E->70, FB:.
E
 uller <ed.=,
&onser'atism, An Antholo(y of !ocial and )olitical Tho#(ht from Da'id $#me to the )resent,
@rincetonC @rinceton Ani)ersity @ress, "0, p. :. #he basic thrust of uller’s argument obtains e)en though, writing in at the end of the 3eagan 5dministration, former domestic policy chief artin 5nderson heralded the conser)ati)e
7
 
ideological conser)atism is particularly appropriate in the conte9t of the 3eagan 5dministration’s willingness to up the ante in the !old ar against the 2o)iet empireD its particular brand of anti-communism synonymous not with the “managing” of the status quo of his predecessors, but rather “winning” the twilight struggle against the 2o)iets.
0
 5lthough sharing 3eagan’s tough anti-communism, the military’s institutional conser)atism, especially during the "/Bs, was more akin to what uller calls “orthodo9y,” whose defense of institutions “depends on belief in their correspondence to some ultimate truth. K #he positi)e )alue ascribed to institutions by conser)atism contributes to its natural affinity for the
 stat#s *#o
, in contrast to liberalism’s innate hostility towards authority and establishments.” In this way, the military can been seen as a bulwark of “unbending )alues.”
/
 8r, as an institution that shares the assumption, as 3ussell Lirk posed it, that “there e9ists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.”
 4uring the period under study, howe)er, there were also indications that the military’s orthodo9 conser)atism was itself in the process of morphing into a more ideological brand. 5s one defense commentator noted, the military appeared to be “both
more
conser)ati)e than their predecessors, and more politically acti)e. #he e)idence is skimpy, and the definitions of Mconser)ati)e’ are unstated but almost certainly shifting. K #he military increasingly appears to lean toward partisan conser)atism.”
#he centrality of the role played in Iran-!ontra by ;orth, who had limited foreign affairs or intelligence e9perience, is without question, as was his meteoric ascent within the national security bureaucracy. <5s one of three military officers secunded to the hite (ouse, in "/"  ;orth was still making and holding charts used by 3eagan’s first national security ad)isor, 3ichard 5llen, in briefings.=
 riting si9 years after the scandal broke, one military obser)er noted that if only the decorated combat officer had remained a arine !orps leaderstaying at the margins of high politicsthe arines would ha)e retained “a highly competent senior
intellectual and political “re)olution” as “in many ways K profoundly nonconser)ati)e K its true characterradical and re)olutionaryfor it was aimed at sweeping out the status quo K because its aim was fundamental change in the e9isting political, economic and social order.” 5nderson,
 Re'ol#tion+ The Rea(an e(acy,
 ;ew JorkC (arcourt 'race %o)ano)ich, "//, pp. E-0.
0
 8n this point see, for e9ample,
 Ronald Rea(an -ral $istory )ro.ect,
 NInter)iew with 3ichard . 5llen,N iller !enter of @ublic 5ffairs, p. 7E. Geostrategist 5llen, 3eagan’s first national security ad)isor, related his sense of thrill when 3eagan confided in him that he wanted to “win” the !old arD he said he felt as if he had been hit with “a ton of  bricks. I couldn’t belie)e it. #he hair went up on the back of my neck.”
 
/
 2te)en &ee yers, “2candal Lept in ilitary @erspecti)e,”
The New York Times,
4ec. ", "/, 570.
 uller, op. cit, pp. >, ""D 3ussell Lirk <ed.=,
The )orta/le &onser'ati'e Reader,
 ;ew JorkC @enguin, "/7, p. 9). #ellingly, the inde9 in uller’s anthology lists neither “military” nor “armed forces” despite ubiquitous popular reference to both as “conser)ati)e” institutions in the A.2. conte9t.
"B
 3icks,
 Makin( the &orps,
 ;ew JorkC 2cribner, "0,
 
 pp. 70-7/7.
""
 
 Ronald Rea(an -ral $istory )ro.ect,
op. cit., p. FB.
:

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