Advocates of the old policy of supporting right-wing dictators, however, blamed Carter, rather than the widespread popular discontent in these nations, for the overthrow of these two long-term allies of the United States, and the debate over American policy was renewed. The most vocal and influential critic was a future ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who staunchly defended supporting authoritarian regimes as the best means to preserve American interests in the Third World by resurrecting the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Upon his election in 1980, Ronald Reagan adopted Kirkpatrick’s arguments. Once again, American policy was to support right-wing dictators throughout the world in the name of anticommunism, stability, and trade. Under the Reagan Doctrine, the president promised to promote democracy by supporting freedom fighters around the world while protecting American friends in the Third World.
Yet it would be impossible for Reagan to restore the policy of the pre-Vietnam years. In his efforts to support the brutal military regime in El Salvador, the racist apartheid government in South Africa, and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, Reagan faced significant opposition from both Congress and the American public that forced him to retreat from his efforts to provide unconditional support to authoritarian regimes.
When crises emerged in these nations, questions were raised concerning the efficacy and the morality of the policy, and about the wisdom of continued American support for unpopular, corrupt, and brutal leaders. In addition, employing the language of freedom and democracy in support of his renewed Cold War policies left Reagan open to charges of hypocrisy. While there was little that was new in Kirkpatrick’s analysis or Reagan’s policy, it was rare to have such bold public statements of the ideas and assumptions behind American policy. This openness laid bare the contradictions 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, and Washington’s support for governments that were equally undemocratic, guilty of human rights abuses, and denied basic civil liberties to their populations. Critics were able to use the same concepts in their efforts to oppose Reagan’s support for right-wing dictatorships, and by his second term the president had to retreat from the Reagan Doctrine. As the policy became a domestic political issue, support for right-wing dictators just because they were anticommunist and promised to support the United States was no longer automatic. The central contradictions and tensions inherent in supporting right-wing dictators in the name of freedom finally made the policy untenable as an overall approach, fundamentally altering a policy that had shaped American diplomacy since the 1920s.