The Iran Arms Scandal, Says a Historian, Shows How the Power of Myth Can Cloud a President's Mind

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

To most Americans, the Iran-contra scandal is a disquieting puzzle. Two months after its discovery, two congressional committees and a special prosecutor are only beginning the job of untangling the Byzantine international shell game that sent U.S. arms to the Iranian government and perhaps $10 million to the Reagan Administration's favorite revolutionaries. Beyond the question of who did what lingers the even more nettlesome question of why. On one level, the answers seem obvious; on another, the Administration's recklessness seems almost confounding. One commentator who looks beyond the conventional wisdom in such matters is Richard Slotkin, director of the American Studies program at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Slotkin's expertise is in cultural history—the study, he says, "not only of events but of the meanings Americans give them based on certain potent national myths." These myths, originating in actual happenings like the landing of the Pilgrims or the siege at the Alamo, continue to guide American behavior in times of crisis. Slotkin, the author of several respected books on the subject, is now at work on Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier From Roosevelt to Reagan. "Myth can't explain everything," he told Senior Writer David Van Biema while discussing the recent scandal, "but it can illuminate the emotional and irrational underside of political actions."

Which American myth seems to you to explain the Administration's decision to provide arms to Iran?

I call it the captivity myth. It dates back to the colonial Indian wars of 1622-1763, our oldest social conflict, but it's still a central theme in popular culture today. The myth centered originally on the figure of a white woman captured by Indians, an event that had great symbolic value: It represented the colonists' fear that their fundamental values were endangered by this "savage" race with its strange culture.

The "savages" were a daunting enemy; they didn't fight by the so-called civilized rules of combat. To rescue the captive and all she stood for required a certain sort of hero, someone I call The Man Who Knows Indians. He was a white man, but a frontier scout type, often someone who had lived with a tribe. The key to his success was that he did not play by "our" rules but by "theirs"; he beat them at their own game. If the Indians fought "dirty," then so did he. In the myth, he may show no mercy, take no prisoners and even take scalps. Normally a white hero would be forbidden this behavior. But because of the absolute moral necessity of saving the symbol of our values, it's justified.

And the myth endured?

Times change, but the captivity story has continued to exert tremendous influence. You can see it in our fiction; James Fenimore Cooper used it as a basic plot; Buffalo Bill made a living off it; it's at the core of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, almost any John Wayne Western, and even the movie Taxi Driver. The captive doesn't have to be a woman anymore; it can be any white person or recognizably "American" group. And the enemies don't have to be Indians; in different periods they have been portrayed as black, Vietnamese and Iranian. In Miami Vice these days they tend to be Latinos.

Who is the contemporary equivalent of The Man Who Knows Indians?

He's with us in various guises. He's Han Solo saving Princess Leia, Rambo rescuing POWs, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. And now, Oliver North.

The character exists in real life too?

Yes. Powerful myths aren't confined to literature; they can influence individual actions and national policy, and they certainly color the way we see them. The hint that you're dealing with mythological thinking is that the politicians, the media or the public assign excessive emotional weight and symbolism to a relatively small happening. The captivity myth is responsible for an enormous American reaction to any hostage situation. Take the Mayaguez incident of 1975, in which 41 Marines died rescuing 39 seamen who may not have needed rescuing—and President Ford claimed that it somehow redeemed the credibility we had lost in Vietnam. More recently, why was so little weight given the deaths of 243 Marines in Beirut in 1983, while the captivity of 52 hostages in Iran three years earlier had been a national psychodrama?

Do you believe the Administration may have been influenced by these feelings when the Iran arms sales were set up?

Sometimes politicians will consciously try to exploit the mythic appeal of certain symbols. But most people use myths unconsciously. They are a very basic set of stories, learned early, in schoolyards and at the movies, and they pop up almost automatically in response to certain situations. Of all our recent Presidents, Ronald Reagan seems the most given to mythological thinking. He prefers a good story to systematic analysis of history and policy and often doesn't seem to know whether the stories he tells actually happened, or are something he's read, or are scenes from movies he's watched or acted in. The problems begin when the stories you live by get too far away from the facts you have to deal with.

Is there any reason to think that Reagan was familiar with the captivity myth?

Aside from the fact that it was a staple plot for many of the movies of his time, including his own, he was involved with it from the moment of his election, through the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter was discredited at the time. Not only had the captives been taken on his watch but he had failed in his rescue attempt. Reagan was elected in part because he projected himself as a rescuer, and it seemed to work—the Iranians let the captives go, as if his election alone was enough to frighten them. Perhaps Reagan thought it was a role he could repeat.

You mean with the hostages taken in Beirut?

Yes. In this case the sign that mythological thinking was at work was that the means used to "rescue" the hostages were fantastically out of proportion to the size of the problem. The Administration risked, and in the end compromised, the nation's foreign policy. The deals made may have required officials to break the law, violate the public trust and aid a nation commonly regarded as an enemy. Those are trade-offs that only make sense to someone for whom the symbolism of rescuing captives is the most important thing.

How else does the scandal fit the specifics of the captivity myth?

The press has been calling Oliver North a "cowboy"—he's obviously being cast as The Man Who Knows Indians. Perhaps the President saw him that way too. North had a reputation as a jungle fighter in Vietnam; a friend joked that he had fought his way through an enemy unit with nothing but a plastic fork. That's got the appeal of legend, and probably had a basis in truth. The assumption seems to have been that having learned to fight one kind of "Indian," the Viet Cong, you're an expert on them all: Libyans, Sandinistas, Middle Eastern terrorists. It doesn't surprise me that North may have done a lot of this on his own. It's in keeping with what is expected of the man who plays his role. He probably was given the notion he could go outside of channels.

But wasn't the "rescue" in this case a failure?

So it seems. Only three hostages got out, and in that time three more were kidnapped in Beirut.

What happens when the hero doesn't succeed?

If the mission had gone through as planned, North would have stayed invisible and Reagan would have reaped the benefit as the symbolic rescuer. Due to the publicized failure, the images of North and Reagan have separated and each has suffered in its own way. One of the occupational hazards of being The Man Who Knows Indians has always been getting too close to the enemy, and being morally or psychologically tainted, like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Recent stories suggesting that North may once have been mentally troubled are consistent with that part of the myth. Reagan's loss of stature, in a way, is even worse. He has to distance himself from North, and that makes him look like an armchair warrior—a type who gets little respect in our mythology.

Will myth continue to play a role in the Iran-contra saga ?

When one story fails, we try to find another that will work for us. Both the President's men and the media are presumably searching for new scenarios. One myth-in-the-making likely to occur to the Democrats, at least, is the gripping courtroom drama that finally punishes the abuse of power. A precedent is the Watergate hearings.

Are we forever victims of our own myths?

Myths are so basic to our thinking that it's impossible for us to simply do away with them. What we can do Is learn what our myths are and why our society has developed them. Then we can recognize a mythic pattern when politicians or the media use one. Also, we have to learn the history that is hidden inside the myths—the things that we did and were done to us and have shaped our imagination ever since. Some of them are painful to remember accurately or admit to. But if we don't, we'll never understand our actions and never get beyond playing cowboys and Indians with world politics.

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