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 Agency–orchestrated 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 successes—in India, Portugal, Spain, Greece—show 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 dictatorships—on 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.