Guatemalan Coup Orchestrated by CIA

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Guatemalan Coup Orchestrated by CIA

Guatemala 1954


In 1954 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrated the overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected president, Jacóbo Arbenz. After World War II American leaders were committed to preventing the Soviet Union from spreading communism across the globe. This concern generated much of U.S. policy toward Guatemala during the 1950s. Historians debate whether the intervention in Guatemala was an overzealous attempt to stop the flow of communism or a calculated action to protect American business interests in the region.


  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1940: Hitler's troops sweep through Western Europe, annexing Norway and Denmark in April, and in May the Low Countries and France.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allies.
  • 1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted and sentenced to death for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
  • 1955: Warsaw Pact is signed by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.
  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1955: Over the course of the year, a number of key ingredients are added to the pantheon of American culture: the 1955 Chevrolet, the first of many classic models; Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Marilyn Monroe's performance in The Seven-Year Itch; Disneyland; and Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock."
  • 1955: Among the year's deaths are Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Dale Carnegie, Cy Young, and James Dean.
  • 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to move from her seat near the front of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. The incident touches off a boycott of Montgomery's bus system, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which will last well into 1956. The situation will attract national attention and garner support for the civil rights movement, before Montgomery agrees to desegregate its bus system on 21 December 1956—exactly a year after Parks's brave protest.
  • 1958: First U.S. satellite, Explorer I, goes into orbit.
  • 1962: As the Soviets begin a missile buildup in Cuba, for a few tense days in October it appears that World War III is imminent. President Kennedy calls for a Cuban blockade, forcing the Soviets to back down and ultimately diffusing the crisis.
  • 1970: President Nixon sends U.S. troops into Cambodia on 30 April. Five days later, National Guardsmen open fire on antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. By 24 June antiwar sentiment is so strong that the Senate repeals the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. On 29 June, Nixon orders troops back out of Cambodia.

Event and Its Context

Fears of communist infiltration in Guatemala date back to 1944, when a student revolt ended the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico Castañeda. During Ubico's rule, 2 percent of the population controlled more than 60 percent of the land, most of which was held by the American company United Fruit. The company also held a monopoly over the nation's banana, utility, and railroad industries and controlled the country's shipping center and activities at Puerto Barrios. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles negotiated this favorable arrangement while doing legal work at the firm of Sullivan and Cromwell in the 1930s. Following the defeat of Ubico's government, Guatemala's first elected president, Juan Jose Arevalo, threatened to reverse these profitable trade agreements.

Part of the threat of the reversal entailed mild land reform measures and the 1947 Labor Code, which gave nonunion workers the right to organize, to bargain for increased wages, and to strike. These activities had been forbidden under Ubico's dictatorship. Given that United Fruit employed more than 40,000 workers, such reforms unsettled the company's management. The fruit conglomerate reportedly funded a CIA coup of the Guatemalan government, code named Operation Fortune. The Truman administration eventually aborted the operation.

With the change of leadership in both the United States and Guatemala in the early 1950s, plans for a coup heated up. In 1951 Jacóbo Arbenz Guzman defeated Arevalo in the presidential race, and the new leader promised to implement agrarian reforms. Meanwhile, the incoming Eisenhower administration was bristling with confidence in its ability to thwart communism after successful operations in the Middle East. Arbenz's pledge to nationalize all arable land coupled with the close ties of the newly appointed secretary of sate, John Foster Dulles, to United Fruit provided fertile soil for the development of a plot for another coup. That scheme came to pass in 1954 after Arbenz passed Decree 900, which called for the government seizure of all uncultivated land. Although United Fruit owned more than 40 percent of the arable land in Guatemala, it cultivated only 10 percent of it. Arbenz seized 200,000 of the company's unused acres and offered the company $127,000, an amount equal to United Fruit's own estimate of the land's value for tax purposes. U.S. officials viewed the offer, which was well below market values, as an underhanded political maneuver. To U.S. observers, Arbenz appeared to be a Marxist dupe. As Eisenhower explained in his memoirs, the land measure constituted a "discriminatory and unfair seizure," clearly the work of "a puppet manipulated by Communists."

Dulles underscored the president's accusation, characterizing Arbenz as a ruthless communist. These charges proved difficult to sustain. Shortly after assuming office, Arbenz vowed to transform Guatemala from its depleted economic condition into a modern capitalist state. Many of his programs resembled the free-market economics praised by American leaders, such as constructing a highway to compete against United Fruit's transportation monopoly. As it became increasingly clear that Arbenz was not a communist, U.S. policymakers instead charged that Arbenz tolerated Marxist penetration in his government. Communists held four seats in the 51-member Guatemalan Congress, and 26 out of 350 administrators in the National Agrarian Department were socialists. Nevertheless, the toppling of Arbenz appears to have been motivated largely by his policies toward United Fruit, rather than by his sympathetic stance toward communism.

According to Schlesinger and Kinser's highly regarded study, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, each of the U.S. officials involved in the overthrow of Arbenz had connections to United Fruit. Not only did Dulles once serve as the company's counsel, he also invested in United Fruit. Another major shareholder, John Moors Cabot, was appointed assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs at the time of the overthrow. Cabot's brother had once been president of the fruit company. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a significant stockholder, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Finally, CIA director Walter Bedell Smith was seeking employment with the company during the plot and was later appointed to its board of directors.

The intricate connection between Washington, D.C., and United Fruit helps explain why the United States removed Arbenz from office. For example, E. Howard Hunt, a key U.S. agent in Guatemala during the coup who was later embroiled in the Watergate scandal, expressed some resentment that his duties appeared to be more missionary actions for United Fruit than a legitimate instance of fighting communism. It is interesting to note that Eisenhower acknowledged in his memoirs that Arbenz's land expropriation did not prove that he was a communist.

Agrarian reform was not an adequately alarming pretext to justify Arbenz's removal. The Alfhem incident provided the needed justification. Arbenz had ordered a shipment of weapons from communist Czechoslovakia, which sailed into Guatemala aboard the Alfhem in May 1954, under the watchful eyes of restless CIA agents. Secretary of State Dulles overstated the significance of the weapons shipment, telling reporters that the weapons were part of a larger strategy to create a communist base at the Panama Canal. Reports soon appeared in U.S. newspapers regarding Guatemala's design to spread communism throughout Central America. Missing from these reports was the fact that the U.S. had initiated an arms embargo against Guatemala before the shipment had arrived. Such restrictions led Guatemala's foreign minister to suspect that America was searching for an incident to rationalize its planned invasion. That the coup was already planned before the arms shipment confirms this suspicion.

Armed with a reason to remove Arbenz, the CIA launched Operation PBSUCCESS in June 1954. Bombings accompanied fabricated radio reports that a massive internal uprising was taking place. In reality, the United States relied on outside forces, particularly Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, to organize what was very much an external invasion. The air assault and psychological warfare successfully undermined Arbenz, who fled to Mexico City in July. The United States installed Castillo Armas to replace the democratically elected Arbenz.

Castillo Armas cancelled Decree 900 and returned all of the confiscated land to United Fruit. The authoritarian regime soon outlawed more than 500 labor organizations, including the Banana Workers' Federation, from which seven labor leaders were missing under questionable circumstances. Castillo Armas also prevented almost 75 percent of the population from voting and formed the National Committee of Defense against Communism at the request of the CIA. The group prevented the formation of political parties, blocked newspaper stories, and burned books. Dostoyevsky's works, Victor Hugo's writings, and those of Miguel Angel Asturias, a Nobel-prize recipient who had chastised United Fruit, were among the books set ablaze. Despite Armas's record on human rights, U.S. leaders initially supported his regime.

Critics across the globe felt differently about Castillo Armas's rule. The British Labor Party described U.S. actions as a naked act of aggression, and anti-American protests swept across Latin America. Che Guevara was among these protestors. He had traveled to Guatemala in the hope of witnessing Arbenz's reforms. Instead he watched as the CIA dismantled Guatemala's social progress. According to Guevara's wife, it was the Guatemalan experience that inspired him to take up arms against "Yankee imperialism." Guevara fled to Mexico City, where he met Fidel Castro. The two men traveled to Cuba to overthrow the government in 1959.

Key Players

Arbenz Guzman, Jacóbo (1913-1971): Arbenz served as a Guatemalan military officer for much of his adult life. He was also a strong advocate of agrarian reform and served as Guatemala's president from 15 March 1951 to 27 June1954, when he fled to Mexico. He later moved to Europe.

Castillo Armas, Carlos (1914-1957) Armas was Guatemala's head of state from 1954 to 1957, when he was assassinated by military opponents. He was commander of Guatemala's Forth Military zone in the 1940s before assuming leadership of the nation under the National Democratic Movement Party. His brief rule was characterized by antidemocratic measures.

Dulles, John Foster (1889-1959): Dulles served as secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In this capacity, he held great influence in foreign policy decisions. He died of cancer in 1959 shortly after resigning his post. His accomplishments include facilitating the Southeast Treaty Organization (SEATO) and receiving the Medal of Freedom.

Eisenhower, Dwight David (1890-1969): Eisenhower served as president of the United States from 1952 to 1961. His foreign policy focused on the containment of communism, but he would later warn of undue corporate influence on American diplomacy, which he called the "military-industrial complex."

Nixon, Richard Milhous (1913-1994): Nixon served as vice president of the United States under Eisenhower. He later became president during the Vietnam War, and his presidency was marred by the infamous Watergate scandal.

See also: United Fruit Company Strike.



Blum, William. "Guatemala 1953-1954: While the World Watched." In Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, edited by William Blum. Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995.

Schlesinger, Stephen, and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

—Carl Mirra