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 post–World 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 non–western 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 friendly—if brutal and corrupt—allies 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.