The 1954 US-Backed Coup in Guatemala
The Dulles Bros Had More Tricks Up Their Sleeves
And we’re back for more!
Last time on Skipped History, we explored Allen and John Foster Dulles’ absurd attempt to start a civil war in Indonesia. Alas, a combo of psychological warfare and press manipulation gave them more success in Guatemala:
This week’s story comes from Bitter Fruit by Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger; The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins; and Empire’s Workshop by Greg Grandin. If you’re looking for a good, not-too-long synthesis of US activity in Latin America (and beyond), Empire’s Workshop is a fantastic read, and Grandin just released a revised/extended edition!
Next time on Skipped History…
We’ll head to the Philippines, home to the US’ first major war abroad. I’m excited to investigate one or two or ten of the sordid ramifications of that conflict together.
Paying subscribers will receive delicious behind-the-scenes content on Guatemala next week, including footage of an interview between me and Stephen Schlesinger, where he discusses United Fruit’s PR campaign in more depth (spoiler: Sigmund Freud’s nephew was involved).
If you’re keen on that kind of BTS, you can sign up below! Otherwise, see you in two weeks with our exploration of the Philippines.
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin, and welcome to Skipped History. I can’t feel my hands or my feet, but I feel joy at being here with you.
Today’s story is about the US-backed coup in Guatemala which, unfortunately, was more successful than the one we discussed in Indonesia. I read about it in Bitter Fruit, by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer, The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, and Empire’s Workshop, by Greg Grandin.
First, a little history. In 1951, Guatemalans elected Jacobo Arbenz as their second president. He succeeded Juan Jose Arevalo, the first elected president, who came to power after a teacher-led revolution in 1944 deposed dictator Jorge Ubico and ended over a century of successive dictatorships that’d been in place since the end of Spanish colonial rule. Before his timely demise, however, Ubico granted the Boston-based United Fruit Company control of the country’s railroads, control of the country’s only port, and a 99-year lease on their land, a length of time roughly equal to singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” two million times, assuming no one pulls the car over to murder your annoying cousin after one.
So when entering office, United Fruit was Guatemala’s largest landowner, and Arbenz’s chief goal was to reduce their hold on the economy by buying back the land the company wasn’t using and giving it to Guatemalan farmers—many of whom were employed in slave-like conditions on United Fruit’s banana plantations. The reform plan had popular support, and, in early 1954, Arbenz declared, “It is entirely up to Guatemala what kind of democracy she should have,” and demanded that outside powers treat Latin American countries as more than “objects of monopolistic investments and sources of raw materials.” But old habits die hard, and Arbenz overlooked just how many people in the US government did view Guatemala that way, beginning with our old pals the Dulles Brothers.
Last time, we discussed the failed attempt by Allen and John Foster Dulles to start a civil war in Indonesia in 1958. Serving as Director of the CIA and Secretary of State in the 1950s, and devoutly religious, the two saw the world as an eternal battleground between good and evil: between the capitalist USA and the communist USSR. Their obsessive focus on the Cold War powers left little room for knowledge of other countries, and as one historian wrote of Allen and his peers, “they knew almost nothing about the so-called developing world,” other than, of course, how to make a mean quesadilla with salsa.
But they knew a lot about doing business in other countries. Prior to holding office, the Dulles Brothers spent decades working for the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, where they negotiated contracts for clients who owned mines in Chile and Peru, sugar plantations in Cuba, oil wells in Colombia and the Middle East, and banana plantations in Guatemala. And they weren’t the only ones in the Eisenhower Administration with ties to United Fruit. John Moors Cabot, a senior member of the State Department, owned stock in the company. His cousin and UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge did, too. Anne Whitman, Eisenhower’s personal secretary, was married to the Director of PR for United Fruit. Even Heidi, Eisenhower’s dog, was littermates with the United Fruit company weimer—
Just kidding, but you get the picture, and with so much support for United Fruit in the US government, Allen and Foster, in 1953, moved to depose President Arbenz.
In the operation, called PBSuccess, the CIA spread rumors that the Guatemalan government would crack down on religious activity, expropriate all private property, and force children into reeducation centers. To generate further anxiety, US operatives produced and broadcast fake radio shows that made it seem like “rebels” were waging war all over the country. They also dropped propaganda leaflets that encouraged Guatemalans to join the violence, saying, “Sabotage, like all things in life, is good or bad depending on whether its objective is good or bad.” Yes, Sean Connery’s character from The Hunt for Red October was writing the copy for the CIA.
Meanwhile, the Dulles Brothers drummed up support in the US for the so-called “rebels” by calling in favors from their friends in the American press. When reporter Sydney Gruson tried to investigate who the “rebels'' actually were, Allen called his friend Arthur Sulzberger, then-publisher of the Times, to have him shut the story down. So the Times published articles claiming “The Arbenz government seemed to come more and more under Communist influence.” And after Arbenz’s rousing speech in early 1954, Henry Luce, publisher of Time Magazine and another close friend of the Dulles Bros, published a piece describing it as “the most forthright pro-Communist declaration the president has ever uttered,” a statement almost as insane as when Time Magazine called this genius baby a problem.
Of course, it didn’t matter whether or not there was actually a communist takeover in Guatemala. All the US government had to do was make it look like there was. And by and large, they succeeded. In June 1954, fearful of Washington’s wrath, the Guatemalan military refused to defend Arbenz any longer, and he fled the country. The Times quoted Foster as saying, “‘One grave danger’ to the hemisphere was removed.”
So to recap, the US, a country with an army 140 times the size of Guatemala’s, 90 times more territory, and a population 50 times as large, toppled the newly established democracy in Guatemala and by the way, installed a new dictator who had thousands of people executed within months. Remind me: why? Money was one motivation; power was another; a delusional, ignorant black-and-white view of the world played a part, too. And as Allen once admitted to a friend about foreign interventions, “Once one gets a taste for it, it’s hard to stop.” That statement has been true of US interventions ever since our first war abroad in the Philippines.
Tune in next time to learn more about that bit of Skipped History.
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