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David F. Schmitz

One of the most persistent and difficult problems that has faced the makers of American foreign policy, particularly in the twentieth century, has been the conflict between the desire to encourage democracy abroad and the need to protect perceived American interests around the world. Since its founding, the United States has been philosophically dedicated to supporting democracies and human rights abroad. This commitment is found in the most important documents and treaties of the nation, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has been proclaimed by presidents and secretaries of state since George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In addition, from its inception, the United States has been an expansive nation territorially, economically, and culturally. As a result, the American desire to promote democracy abroad has often conflicted with the support of dictatorships that promised stability, protected American trade and investments, and aligned themselves with Washington against enemies of the United States. American foreign policymakers have often supported right-wing dictatorships in their efforts to protect what they see as the national interest while opposing communist regimes and left-wing dictators. Dictatorships on the left have been seen as opposing both American political ideals and material interests. They have been, therefore, consistently criticized and opposed by the United States.


In order to understand American attitudes toward dictatorships, it is essential to survey the development of the ideology of American foreign policy during the nineteenth century. The desire for land and greater economic opportunity, combined with the commonly held view that the nation and its people were on a special mission, fueled the expansion of the United States. Territorial expansion was rapid, with the country growing from thirteen states on the Atlantic coast in 1789 to control over transcontinental North America by the end of the 1840s. The key was that this conquest was all done in the name of expanding liberty, as part of the mission of the United States to provide a moral example and guidance to the world. Expansion, therefore, was part of American political ideology from the outset. When establishing the Republic and the Constitution, one of the central questions the Founders grappled with was whether a vast territory could be compatible with a virtuous republic. Rome served as the most often-used historical precedent, and its lesson was that a republic could not expand and avoid the corruption and dictatorial power that emerged under Julius Caesar. It was generally believed that republics could only function and survive if they were the size of Greek city-states or Geneva. James Madison addressed this problem in Federalist No. 10 and provided an alternative view that solved the dilemma between expansion and a republic for the Federalists. Madison argued that expansion was a positive good for the nation and the ideology of republican values. With the proper constitution and checks on power, a large republic was not merely possible; it was necessary to maintain freedom. An expanding nation provided insurance against any faction, cabal, or region dominating national politics and seizing power. Institutional checks and balances were, therefore, aided by size. A large republic would guard against tyranny by making it impossible for a coherent majority or sizable minority to form and gain control.

The belief in an Empire of Liberty and vision of national greatness was captured well on the Great Seal of the United States with the inscription annuit coeptis; novus ordo seclorum (God has blessed this undertaking; a new order of the ages). Throughout the nineteenth century this continued to inspire and guide Americans' actions and helped fuel the rapid expansion across the continent that John O'Sullivan termed "manifest destiny" in 1845. The notion of manifest destiny rested on the view that Anglo-Saxons had a right to land because they, according to Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, one of the most articulate exponents of manifest destiny, used it according to the intentions of the creator. By this reasoning, the material gains of the United States were not selfish acts, but benevolent undertakings in line with the principles of the nation. Manifest destiny became the ideological shield used to justify Indian removal and the taking of land from Mexico in the name of liberty and freedom. Nineteenth-century Americans did not see their actions as doing violence to their own moral instincts, religion, or republican and democratic values. With the belief that God willed that the United States control the continent, these actions could be carried forward without creating an ideological crisis.

The full expression of the compatibility of expansion and liberty came in Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 "frontier thesis." Turner, speaking at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, set out to provide an understanding of American history and development in the first century since the adoption of the Constitution. Central to Turner's thesis was the idea that westward expansion and the frontier experience were the key influences on American life and the development of American democracy, and it was this that made U.S. history and the American people unique. The United States was seen as an exceptional nation, free from the vices of Europe and its corrupt institutions. He argued, "Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." The frontier created and recreated an independent people and formed and regenerated American democratic government and values.

Yet, from the outset, challenges would appear in the world that created a paradox around the expansion of liberty and the support of democracy and human rights. The first of these was the French Revolution in 1789. Initially, it was welcomed by most Americans as a repeat of the American Revolution. The French appeared to be following the American example and the overthrow of their monarchy was seen as a harbinger of change from autocratic rule to a republican and a democratic future guided by the same enlightenment values that inspired the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. As the events in Paris took a more radical course and the impact of the revolution brought international conflict, however, the Washington administration became divided over whether to support France or not. The ensuing disorder and wars in Europe harmed American trade and raised questions about the proper extent of change and democratic rule for other people. The question of supporting and promoting change and democratic values had quickly proven to be a complex and difficult proposition.

The revolutions that swept South America and then Central America in the first decades of the nineteenth century further complicated the question of how to respond to the collapse of colonial empire and the rule of monarchs. As with France, most Americans initially welcomed the fall of Spanish rule to the south, but concerns were quickly raised about the stability of the new nations and the danger of other European powers taking advantage of the upheaval to impose their own rule in the former Spanish empire. The United States responded to these threats with the Monroe Doctrine that declared that Spain could not reimpose its rule on the already independent states of the Western Hemisphere and that the United States would not permit any new colonization or military intervention by any European power. In turn, the United States promised not to meddle in European politics. Thus, the United States asserted its authority to determine the political future and course of events for the rest of the nations of the Americas. These developments prompted Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to issue a warning to his fellow citizens concerning the dangers of foreign intervention and the tension between expansion and democratic rule. Adams argued that the United States should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Rather, the nation was better served in international affairs by upholding its own values and leading by example. It could seek to impose its will on other areas of the world, but in the process it would damage its own institutions and succumb to corruption.

By the middle of the century, a clear policy had emerged in Washington that the United States would recognize any government that could maintain itself in power and meet the minimum obligations of government. In 1848, Secretary of State James Buchanan, summarizing this policy, stated: "We do not go behind the existing government to involve ourselves in the question of legitimacy. It is sufficient for us to know that a government exists, capable of maintaining itself; and then its recognition on our part inevitably follows."

Simultaneously, however, Americans developed other positions that would come to shape the nation's attitudes toward dictatorships in the twentieth century. Central to these were the notions of the racial inferiority of other peoples, the desire for stability and order in the world as necessary for the promotion and protection of American economic interests, and a growing fear of revolution. The concept of race has been an all-pervasive one in American history from the first contact with Native Americans and the importation of Africans as slaves. By the nineteenth century, an essentialist outlook dominated white Americans' thinking on race. Different people were placed in categories based on what were believed to be their inherent traits as peoples, groups, and nations. Anglo-Saxons were considered the most advanced race, carrying civilization wherever they went.

Groups were ranked in descending order of civilization and ability to govern and maintain stability. Other western Europeans were seen as near equals to Anglo-Saxons. The rest of the peoples of the world were categorized as either inherently dangerous or unfit for self-rule, and usually both. Latin Europeans and Slavs were seen as fundamentally undemocratic as people, and all non-Europeans were seen as inferior and in need of guidance and direction from "their betters." These views were buttressed by the development of the "scientific" idea of social Darwinism that held that the domination of western Europe and the United States over world affairs as well as their greater wealth were merely the working out of natural selection and the survival of the fittest.

These ideas were consolidated at the beginning of the twentieth century in the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. In the wake of the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of the Panama Canal zone, the maintenance of order in the Caribbean and Central America was becoming an ever-growing concern to the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt worried about the negative impact of unrest to the south on American trade and investments, and sought various means to preserve order through the assertion of police power over the other nations in the hemisphere. Roosevelt believed that the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations made it incumbent on what he saw as the civilized powers to insist on the proper behavior of other nations. In 1904, Roosevelt provided his rationale for why revolutions were dangerous and justification for American intervention in Latin America in what became the Roosevelt Corollary:

If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotency, to the exercise of an international policy power.

Soon after, U.S. troops were dispatched to Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras to maintain order.


Prior to World War I, therefore, the problems of unrest and disorder were seen as the manifestations of politically immature people, irresponsible individuals, or bandits. The postwar threats of nationalism and communism, unlike these previous disruptions, served to threaten the whole international system that the western nations operated within and forced American leaders to develop new approaches to these questions. In response to the broad revolutionary challenges of the 1910s, particularly the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a persistent concern with order and stability emerged among American officials. The revolutions in Mexico, China, and Russia could easily spread given the economic and political dislocation that had occurred during the previous decade. President Woodrow Wilson initially responded to these challenges with a policy that sought to promote self-determination and political democracy internationally as the best means to secure American interests and prevent the further spread of revolution. In 1917, he led the nation into World War I to destroy autocratic rule and militarism in Europe. Wilson hoped that by promoting liberal, democratic forces and states in Europe through his Fourteen Points he could solve the dual problem of war and revolution. The president placed his faith in the League of Nations as the mechanism that would allow peaceful, nonrevolutionary change to occur in Europe and guarantee collective security to prevent another war and concomitant revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution, however, shifted the president's attention from his battle with autocratic rule to the concern with revolution and containing communism.

President Wilson saw Bolshevism as a mistake that had to be resisted and corrected. He believed that the revolution in Russia was worse than anything represented by the kaiser, and that the Bolsheviks were a "group of men more cruel than the czar himself." A communist regime meant, according to Wilson, "government by terror, government by force, not government by vote." Furthermore, it ruled by the "poison of disorder, the poison of revolt, the poison of chaos." It was, the president believed, the "negation of everything that is American" and "had to be opposed." Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby reiterated Wilson's points when he set out the official United States policy of not recognizing the communist government in Moscow in August 1920. Colby wrote that U.S. policy was based on the premise that the "present rulers of Russia do not rule by the will or the consent of any considerable portion of the Russian people." The Bolsheviks had forcefully seized power and were using the "machinery of government with savage oppression to maintain themselves in power." Moreover, the "existing regime in Russia is based upon the negation of every principle of honor and good faith, and every usage and convention underlying the whole structure of international law." It was, therefore, "not possible for the government of the United States to recognize the present rulers of Russia."

The policy of nonrecognition was based on the claim that a regime was illegitimate due to how it came to power and because it was a dictatorship that ruled by force against the will and interest of the people. Such nations were, therefore, a threat to American values and interests in the world. This policy would become a standard American diplomatic weapon for demonstrating its opposition to left-wing dictatorships and was used, most notably against China in 1949 after Mao Zedong's successful establishment of the People's Republic of China, Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba in 1961, and Vietnam in 1975 after the defeat of South Vietnam, to deny legitimacy, trade, and international aid to these governments and force political change.

The upheavals of World War I also led to a reevaluation of American views on right-wing dictatorships after the war. Republican policymakers rejected Wilson's criticism of autocracy and sought to back any individual or group they thought could ensure order and stability while opposing communism and protecting U.S. trade, investments, and interests. Beginning in the 1920s, American policymakers developed and institutionalized the logic, rationale, and ideological justifications for U.S. support of right-wing dictatorships that has influenced American policy ever since.

American officials first articulated their emerging rationale for supporting right-wing dictatorships in response to the postWorld War I events in Italy. The United States came to support the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini based on a view that there was a Bolshevik threat in Italy and that the Italian people were not prepared for democratic rule. This unpreparedness and inability at self-government, American policymakers believed, created the instability that bred Bolshevism. These beliefs served to legitimize U.S. support of Mussolini in the name of defending liberalism. America's paternalistic racism combined with anticommunism to lead American officials to welcome the coming to power of fascism in Italy. The fascists, they believed, would bring the stability that would prevent Bolshevism and that was a precondition for economic recovery and increased trade.

This logic and rationale was quickly extended to other right-wing dictatorships, often after the overthrow of democratic governments, that were perceived to meet all of the qualifications for U.S. support: promise of political stability, anti-Bolshevism, and increased trade with the United States. The quest for order in a framework acceptable to Washington led the United States to support Anastasio Somoza Garcia in Nicaragua, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, and Francisco Franco in Spain, and the Fourth of August regime in Greece during the interwar years. Similar to the situation in Italy, the specter of communism and the argument that the people of these nations were not yet ready for democracy underlay the United States support for these dictators. Moreover, in Latin America this policy had another benefit to U.S. officials. It allowed the United States to find a new means to establish order in the region without direct military intervention. American forces had intervened no fewer than twelve times in different nations in the Caribbean basin. These actions, however, failed to provide long-term stability. Rather, as Henry L. Stimson, secretary of state from 1929 to 1933, noted, disorder continued to grow. Yet, if the United States tried to take the lead in the area, Latin Americans complained of American domination and imperialism. Right-wing dictators provided the desired solution by providing both imposed order while ending the cry against American imperialism.

U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships after World War I, therefore, represented a new development and departure from both the policy of promoting self-determination and political democracy internationally, and earlier tolerance of military and authoritarian regimes, particularly in Latin America. American leaders grew preoccupied by international order in the wake of the disruption of World War I, the rise of radical nationalism combined with a decline of Western power, a questioning of traditional authority in nations, and greater demands for self-determination. This emphasis on order came to permeate policymaking in Washington, and the United States found strong-arm rule, the maintenance of stability, anticommunism, and protection of investments sufficient reasons to support nondemocratic rulers on the right. The often-quoted apocryphal statement by Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning Somoza of Nicaragua, "he may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch," captures the American attitudes and policy toward right-wing dictatorships. While left-wing dictatorships would be opposed, those on the right found support in Washington. This "lesser-of-two-evils" approach to foreign policy, influenced by racism and at times irrational fears of communism, created blindness to the shortcomings of right-wing dictators, and led the United States to support and align itself with many of the most brutal regimes in the world.


This view, however, did not remain static. Pendulum swings in the policy appeared after times of crisis and failure. Most notably, the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II provided a fundamental challenge to the idea that supporting right-wing dictators enhanced American interests and brought the debate over support of authoritarian governments to the fore within the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations. Roosevelt confronted the problem of Nazi Germany at first by efforts to appease Hitler, a strategy he abandoned when it became clear that Germany was intent upon war. The wartime opposition to fascism and the triumph of the Allies made the promotion of democracy and change paramount concerns, and the opposition to authoritarian governments, such as Juan Perón's in Argentina and Francisco Franco's in Spain, became U.S. policy.

The Allied victory in World War II appeared to mark more than the defeat of Germany, Japan, and Italy. It was to be, for many, the beginning of a new epoch. Central to that vision was the defeat of fascism and the triumph of democratic ideals and values over dictatorship and authoritarian rule. The world's nations had not only joined together in an antifascist coalition on the battlefield; they also produced documents such as the Atlantic Charter and the Charter of the United Nations that extolled human rights, self-determination, and freedom. At home, Roosevelt spoke the lofty language of the Four Freedoms, criticized tyranny and colonialism, and talked of the expansion of American institutions and values to other parts of the world. For Americans, the postwar period promised the vindication of their nation's values and institutions. From these ideas emerged the remarkable achievements in postwar West Germany, Japan, and Italy of establishing democratic governments and the rebuilding of the economies of western Europe and Japan.

In other areas of the world, events looked equally promising as independence movements were on the march in Asia and Africa, and dictatorships were under attack and apparently destined to be a thing of the past. The fledgling United Nations refused to admit Spain, and most nations agreed with its request that they withdraw their ambassadors from Madrid in protest of Franco's rule, while Argentina's strongman Juan Perón found himself under attack for his refusal to break relations with Germany until the spring of 1945. Outside of the Soviet Union and the areas controlled by the Red Army, it seemed that democracy was the force of the future. Even postwar disputes with the Soviet Union and the emerging Cold War seemed to demand, in the name of consistency with American criticisms of the governments being established in Eastern Europe, that the United States oppose dictatorships and support the establishment of free governments. In 1946 the Truman administration adopted an official policy of opposition to all right-wing dictatorships.

Yet the question was not so clear-cut as American efforts at appeasement of Nazi Germany indicated. Franklin Roosevelt had still distinguished between a regime such as Hitler's that threatened peace and those, such as Somoza's, that apparently did not. Roosevelt and others often adopted a pragmatic rationale for defending dictatorships they favored, and moral judgments were only invoked when the government opposed a regime rather than provide a consistent principle on which to base decisions. Ultimately, the logic and policy developed during the interwar years would be carried into the postWorld War II period. The success of establishing democratic governments in Germany and Japan notwithstanding, with the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union, the policy pendulum swung back to the right. By 1947 the United States came again to prefer "stable" right-wing regimes in the Third World over indigenous radicalism and what it saw as dangerously unstable democratic governments. The pronouncement of the Truman Doctrine and the adoption of containment as the global policy of the United States brought about the change. Truman announced in March 1947 that the United States now faced a global contest between two competing and incompatible ways of life: democracy and totalitarian communism. Democracy represented government "based upon the will of the majority" expressed through "free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression." Communism meant the "will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies on terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms." It was now a bipolar world. It did not matter that many of the governments the United States came to support more resembled Truman's description of communism than democracy. If it was now a contest between only two ways of life, governments had to fit into one side of the divide or the other. Right-wing regimes became part of the free world no matter what the composition of their governments.

Truman had introduced important new variables into the basic assumptions of American foreign policy that were picked up by others. A distinction was now drawn between authoritarian dictators on the right and totalitarian dictators on the left. Autocratic regimes were seen as traditional and natural dictatorships for their societies while totalitarian regimes were classified as autocratic rule plus state control over the economy. The wartime view of fascism as the enemy had yielded to the danger of Soviet expansion. In this new understanding of the world, there was little room for moral arguments against right-wing dictators. They would be wedged into the free world, no matter what their record of abuses, as nations capable of being set on the course to democracy. No such hope was held out for communist nations. Authoritarian regimes now provided more than stability and the protection of American interests. They were a part of the "free world" and its struggle against communism.

In an analysis that became central to the Cold War justifications for supporting right-wing dictators, the Department of State argued that it was important to determine if a dictatorial regime was of the traditional Latin-American type, or if it was a communist or other police-state type. This distinction was crucial. The former were acceptable, but the latter had to be opposed. Further, it was necessary to distinguish between dictatorial governments who attempted to extend their influence beyond their own borders and those whose actions were not a threat to international peace and security. Communist states fell into the first category while authoritarian regimes did not. It was only totalitarian regimes that had to be opposed. Dictators such as Somoza in Nicaragua were mere authoritarians and deserved support. The Truman administration concluded that wherever dictatorships were overturned, the resulting governments were weak and unstable, making those nations susceptible to communist subversion. This idea was continued into the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, which believed that when a dictator was replaced, the communists gained. The United States, therefore, had to "back strong men" and dictators. The conclusion was clear. Right-wing dictatorships were historically part of the Third World, unavoidable, and deserving of American support. So-called totalitarian regimes, however, still had to be opposed in the name of freedom. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations, therefore, chose to work with authoritarian rulers or the local military, in nations such as Greece, Spain, Iran, and Guatemala rather than nationalist leaders or democratic forces that appeared vulnerable to communist takeovers.

In addition, American policymakers found new positive reasons to support right-wing dictators. Although the policy of supporting autocratic regimes violated the stated ideals of postwar American policy, officials believed it would serve the national interest of the United States and promote development in other nations. Based upon a paternalistic racism that continued to categorize nonwestern European peoples as inferior, vulnerable to radical ideas and solutions, and, therefore, in need of a firm government to maintain order, authoritarian regimes were viewed as the only way Third World nations could undergo economic improvements that would allow the development of more "mature" populations without succumbing to communism or radical nationalism. While this attitude undermined the avowed rectitude of American leaders, democracy was not seen as a viable option for newly independent nations or many countries in Latin America. Strong dictators, therefore, were believed to be necessary antidotes for the ills of political and social disorder and conduits for modernization. Hence, policymakers believed that support for authoritarian regimes protected liberalism internationally by preventing unstable areas from falling prey to Bolshevism while allowing time for nations to develop a middle class and democratic political institutions. Expediency overcame a commitment to the ideology of democracy because the policy appeared to provide immediate benefits. The United States gained friendlyif brutal and corruptallies who provided stability, support for U.S. policies, and a favorable atmosphere for American business.

Moreover, authoritarian regimes now provided more than stability and the protection of American interests. Through nation building they would be the instruments to the creation of strong and free societies. These views were supported by social scientists in the postwar years. Proponents of nation building and the moving of Third World nations through the proper "stages of economic growth" argued that stability and strong rule were a necessary stage in the development and maturation of these societies. The guiding premise of the Eisenhower administration was that "political and economic authoritarianism prevails throughout the underdeveloped world in general and represents the predominant environment in which the U.S. must associate its interests with those of the emergent and developing societies." In 1959 the Department of State concluded that right-wing regimes would be the conduits to modernization and provide a necessary stage in the development of Third World nations. Reflecting the influence and jargon of modernization theory, the Department of State noted that "our experience with the more highly developed Latin American states indicates that authoritarianism is required to lead backward societies through their socioeconomic revolutions." Moreover, if the "breakthrough occurs under noncommunist authoritarianism, trends toward democratic values emerge with the development of a literate middle class." Right-wing dictators would "remain the norm for a long period. The trend toward military authoritarianism will accelerate as developmental problems become more acute and the facades of democracy left by the colonial powers prove inadequate to immediate tasks."

"It is of course essential in the Cold War," the State Department report continued, "to seek to promote stability in the under-developed countries where instability may invite communism. A new, authoritarian regime, though less 'democratic' than its predecessor, may possess much more stability and may well lay the ground for ultimate return to a more firmly based 'democracy.'" The department found these to be "compelling reasons for maintaining relations" with authoritarian regimes in power. "In the bipolar world of the Cold War, our refusal to deal with a military or authoritarian regime" could lead to the establishment of regimes friendly with the Soviet Union. It was the task of the United States to discover "techniques whereby Western values can be grafted on modernizing indigenous developmental systems."

In the wake of the 1959 Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro's coming to power, the John F. Kennedy administration reevaluated U.S. policy toward Latin America and support for such regimes as Batista's. It decided to distance itself from authoritarian regimes and promote reform. Kennedy and his advisers worried that right-wing dictators were proving to be ineffective and even dangerous bulwarks against communism. They upset political stability as much as they protected it by frustrating desires for change and democracy, and they nurtured support for left-wing and communist opposition to their rule. The 1961 Alliance for Progress was the centerpiece of this vision, and the overthrow of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic a signal of change. This shift was not, however, primarily motivated by an ideological commitment to support constitutional governments at all times. Rather, it was seen as a better way to combat communism, and the administration's actions never matched the bold rhetoric of the policy. The problem was how to break the dependence on right-wing dictators for order and promote change without unleashing revolutionary movements. Kennedy provided an excellent example of his concern about this dilemma in 1961 when discussing the Dominican Republic. "There are three possibilities," he said, "in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can't renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third."

Kennedy's policy quickly came into conflict with other American interests and the growing conflict in Vietnam, and his administration backed away from its policy of opposition to right-wing dictators in 1962. In the face of the continuing challenges of revolutionary nationalism and the choice between order and social change, the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations opted to again support military dictators over democratic governments they feared were slipping toward communism. The swing of the political pendulum back to supporting right-wing dictators took on the now-familiar ring of the need for stability in nations that were too politically immature to defend themselves against communism. With the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in November 1963, the crisis in Vietnam came to dominate the making of American foreign policy. Unrest and potentially unreliable governments were seen as dangerous invitations to Soviet advances.

The repositioning of the political pendulum on the right was completed in the first months of the Johnson administration. Following the assassination of Kennedy, Johnson backed away from the idealistic rhetoric of the Alliance for Progress. Facing continual unrest in Latin America and a rapidly deteriorating military and political situation in Vietnam, Johnson sought to impose order. The Johnson administration supported the military overthrow of the João Goulart government in Brazil in 1964 as security and stability again took precedence over supporting social change and democratic rule. In 1965, when authoritarian rulers failed to provide the stability and bulwarks against communism that Washington demanded, Johnson decided that the United States had to impose order through military intervention in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. The Johnson administration's determination to establish stability and order acceptable to Washington, which had provided the basis for working with repressive dictators, forced the president to pursue the policy to its logical conclusion of a U.S. intervention to salvage the discredited regimes.


After 1965, American policy toward right-wing dictators became a contested issue. The Vietnam War served to undercut much of the logic and rationale used to justify American support of authoritarian regimes. Critics charged that in addition to the questionable morality of supporting right-wing dictators, the policy, while providing short-term benefits, usually led to larger problems for the United States in the long run, mainly long-term instability. Many supporters of the policy realized this danger, yet saw no other way to protect more pressing U.S. interests. Dictatorships created political polarization, blocked any effective means for reforms, destroyed the center, and created a backlash of anti-American sentiment that opened the door to radical nationalist movements that brought to power the exact type of governments the United States most opposed and originally sought to prevent. From Cuba to Iran to Nicaragua, and most tragically in Vietnam, the limits of this policy were discovered.

Support of authoritarian regimes was not completely abandoned by any means, as Richard Nixon's policy in Chile of supporting General Augusto Pinochet's overthrow of the government of Salvador Allende and the continued good relations with leaders such as the shah of Iran demonstrate. But the political climate had changed and policymakers were now forced to defend their position in public and take into account sustained criticisms of American support of dictatorships. For many, the Vietnam War and the postwar revelations of American covert actions in the Third World provided convincing evidence that the old policy of support for dictators was flawed and, more importantly, damaging to American interests and doomed to fail. Critics called for the United States to reorient its moral compass and to find methods other than covert activity and support of brutal dictators to advance American interests in the world. Although no complete swing of the policy pendulum took place, new views were heard and different approaches would be implemented, most notably President James Earl Carter's emphasis on human rights.

The establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Church Committee) provided a central focus for investigations into American covert actions and support of right-wing dictators. The committee chair, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, summarized the position of many critics when he argued during the bicentennial year of 1976 that it was time to return to the objective of the nation's founders and place the United States at the helm of moral leadership in the world. Yet, as his committee revealed, that notion had fallen by the wayside, replaced by the support of brutal dictators, Central Intelligence Agencyorchestrated coups in democratic nations, and assassination plots against foreign leaders. For all of its efforts, the nation found itself involved in a divisive, immoral war in Vietnam and allied to countries that mocked the professed ideals of the United States. Church concluded that American foreign policy had to conform once more to the country's historic ideals and the fundamental belief in freedom and popular government.

President Carter echoed Church's views in his inaugural address when he called upon the American people to "take on those moral duties which, when assumed, seem inevitably to be in our own best interests" and to let the "recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our nation." Carter adopted a new policy of human rights. He declared that the United States should have "a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence for humane purposes." The president was convinced that democracy was the wave of the future and the continued support of repressive dictatorships was not only against American ideals but also against the nation's self-interest. "Democracy's great successesin India, Portugal, Spain, Greeceshow that our confidence in this system is not misplaced." Moreover, Carter asserted that the nation was "now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear."

Carter succinctly summarized the criticisms of supporting right-wing dictators. "For too many years," the president announced, "we've been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We've fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach," he noted, "failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty." Carter, therefore, called for a policy based on a commitment to "human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy." The nation's policy must be guided by "a belief in human freedom." The old policy was, according to Carter, based on an inaccurate reading of history and the development of democracy. Strength and stability were not the prerequisites of freedom: "The great democracies are not free because we are strong and prosperous." Rather, Carter concluded, "we are strong and influential and prosperous because we are free."

Carter was aware of the limits of moral suasion, and did not believe that change would or should come overnight. Moreover, he realized that he would have to continue to support certain allies despite their record on human rights. As Carter noted, he was "determined to combine support for our more authoritarian allies and friends with the effective promotion of human rights with their countries." He hoped for reform to prevent revolution. "By inducing them to change their repressive policies," the president believed, "we would be enhancing freedom and democracy, and helping to remove the reasons for revolution that often erupt among those who suffer from persecution."

Advocates of the old policy of supporting right-wing dictators blamed Carter, rather than the widespread popular discontent in their two nations, for the overthrow of two dictators in 1979 who were among America's staunchest allies, Somoza in Nicaragua and the shah of Iran. The most vocal critic was the future Ronald Reagan administration ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. She captured attention in 1979 and again in 1981 with her blistering critiques of Carter's human-rights policy and public defense of supporting authoritarian regimes. Kirkpatrick contended that the United States need not apologize for its support of "moderate autocrats." Such a policy was in the national interest and not incompatible with the defense of freedom. Using Nicaragua and Iran as her examples, Kirkpatrick argued that autocratic governments were to be expected in these nations and the rule of Somoza and the shah of Iran was not as negative as their opponents claimed. In discussing the Somoza dynasty, Kirkpatrick claimed that that government "was moderately competent in encouraging economic development, moderately oppressive, and moderately corrupt." In addition, it was a bulwark against communism and a loyal ally of the United States. Little more could be expected, she believed, given the development of Nicaragua.

Central to Kirkpatrick's argument was the concept of the fundamental difference between right-wing and communist dictatorships, what she called authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The crucial distinction, according to Kirkpatrick, was that "traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources," and "they do not disturb the habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill." The almost exact opposite was true, she claimed, for life under communist rule. Left-wing regimes established totalitarian states that create the type of "social inequities, brutality, and poverty" that traditional autocrats merely "tolerate."

The key to Kirkpatrick's argument lay in her claim that because right-wing dictators left traditional societies in place, "given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government," their nations could evolve from autocratic states into democracies. Totalitarian communist states, she flatly asserted, could not. Indeed, by their very nature, communist nations shut off any of these avenues toward development and, therefore, democratic change. Hence, right-wing dictatorships were an inevitable and necessary stage of government for Third World nations. Support by Washington was not only in the national interest but was helping to provide the necessary conditions for modernization and the development of democracy.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he adopted Kirkpatrick's ideas as the basis for American policy and returned to supporting right-wing dictators while continuing American opposition to communism and heightening the Cold War. There was, of course, little that was new in Kirkpatrick's analysis or Reagan's policy. She had only publicly stated the rationale and arguments that were initially formed in the 1920s and further developed after World War II. It was rare, however, to have such a bold statement of the ideas and assumptions behind American policy toward dictatorshipson the right and the left that were usually only discussed in such terms in policy memorandums and private meetings. It laid bare the contradiction between the U.S. claims that opposition to the Soviet Union and communist regimes was based on their denial of political rights to their citizens, while Washington supported governments that were equally as guilty of human-rights abuses and the denial of basic civil liberties to their populations. Moreover, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 demonstrated the fallacy of these arguments as democracy took hold in many nations formerly considered totalitarian and incapable of political change.

The end of the Cold War challenged many of the ideas previously used to justify American support of right-wing dictators and opposition to left-wing regimes. Anticommunism no longer provided a unifying theme for American policy, and no other single policy replaced it. Still, the conflict between the American efforts to promote democracy in other nations and the need to protect other interests remains. While the 1990s provided examples of Washington's support for the democratic process from the Balkans to Southeast Asia, the United States has also continued to support many dictators in the name of stability and economic development. Moreover, as the only superpower, the United States has found itself drawn into conflicts around the world. Some of these interventions have led it to back local efforts at democracy and self-determination, while others have seen it support the status quo. Without a full commitment to make the promotion of democracy and human rights as the top priority over other interests and claims, the only thing certain is that the dilemma of what attitudes to take toward dictators will remain.


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See also Containment; Development Doctrine and Modernization Theory; Human Rights; Race and Ethnicity; Recognition; Self-Determination .