The Reagan administration came to power in 1981 seeking to downplay Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America. Yet, by 1985 the administration had come to justify its policies towards Central America in the very same terms. This article examines the dramatic shift that occurred in policymaking toward Central America during Ronald Reagan’s first term. Synthesizing existing accounts while drawing on new and recently declassified material, the article looks beyond rhetoric to the political, intellectual, and bureaucratic dynamics that conditioned the emergence of a Reaganite human rights policy. The article shows that events in El Salvador suggested to administration officials—and to Reagan himself—that support for free elections could serve as a means of shoring up legitimacy for embattled allies abroad, while defending the administration against vociferous human rights criticism at home. In the case of Nicaragua, democracy promotion helped to eschew hard decisions between foreign policy objectives. The history of the Reagan Doctrine’s contentious roots provides a complex lens through which to evaluate subsequent U.S. attempts to foster democracy overseas.