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 post–World 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.