Back to top

The CIA in Guatemala

The CIA in Guatemala
The Foreign Policy of Intervention

Using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, recently opened archival collections, and interviews with the actual participants, Immerman provides us with a definitive, powerfully written, and tension-packed account of the United States' clandestine operations in Guatemala and their consequences in Latin America.

Series: Texas Pan American Series

April 1982
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
302 pages | 6 x 9 |

Using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, recently opened archival collections, and interviews with the actual participants, Immerman provides us with a definitive, powerfully written, and tension-packed account of the United States' clandestine operations in Guatemala and their consequences in Latin America today.

  • Preface
  • 1. Truman, Eisenhower, and the Cold War in Latin America
  • 2. Underdevelopment, Repression, and Revolution
  • 3. The Revolutionary Governments: Communism or Nationalism?
  • 4. The View from the North
  • S. From Truman to Eisenhower: The Road to Intervention
  • 6. Project PBSUCCESS: The Preparation
  • 7. Project PBSUCCESS: The Coup
  • 8. Project PBSUCCESS: The Legacy
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Browse this book with Google Preview »

On June 17, 1954, United States Ambassador to Guatemala John E. Peurifoy's son Danny burst into the embassy and gasped to his mother, "There's no school this afternoon because there is going to be a revolution at 5:00." Mrs. Peurifoy was surprised. Her husband had not dared to tell her that, shortly before dawn the day before, a motley band of some 150 Guatemalan émigrés and mercenaries from neighboring Central American countries had crossed the Honduran border to invade Guatemala. They were led by a fugitive Guatemalan colonel, Carlos Enrique Castillo Armas, who, except for his thin mustache, could have easily been mistaken for a native Maya. Castillo Armas and his raggle-taggle army had come to overthrow the revolutionary government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, to liberate their country from the yoke of Communist oppression. They believed Arbenz had become the tool of the Soviet Union, which had used intrigue, deceit, and terrorism to establish an outpost in the western hemisphere. As the world looked on, Castillo Armas and his legions took it upon themselves to restore Guatemala to its place in the Free World. They had the support and blessing of Ambassador Peurifoy.

What happened in the next ten days, however, was anything but a glorious military triumph. Castillo Armas had hoped to be met by throngs of Guatemalans, eager to lend their services to his patriotic cause. In fact he met no one. His forces too weak to approach the center of Arbenz's power, the colonel opted to camp just six miles across the border, at the Church of the Black Christ. There he would wait.

While he waited, a much broader scenario began to unfold. A clandestine radio station, broadcasting from some unidentifiable location, warned the Guatemalan people that a major force was ap proaching Guatemala City, crushing all opposition that stood in its way. Airplanes circled the capital, dropping any material capable of creating a loud explosion. The government responded by ordering a blackout. In the dark, the few hovering planes gave the impression of a squadron.

Children and parents panicked. Government officials panicked. Guatemala City's streets filled with throngs of people fleeing their homes for the safer recesses of the mountains. There were long periods of silence, followed by the noise of planes, bombs, and sirens, answered by a few impotent machine gun blasts from the National Palace. Armed with a shoulder holster and the only accurate information about what was really happening, the United States ambassador could be seen running around the capital. The regular army officers, fearing for their country and their lives, confronted Arbenz. His nerves shattered, the president addressed the nation by radio at 9:00 on the evening of June 27. He sadly told them that Guatemala was under attack by agents of the United States and the United Fruit Company and that he was turning over the government to his military chief, Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz. A few short months before its tenth anniversary, the Guatemalan revolution was over.

Nowhere were the events in Guatemala followed more closely than in the United States. For years concerned observers had watched as Guatemala seemed to move closer and closer to the Soviet orbit, and by February 1954 the New York Times reported that "the Communists were about ready to assume outright control." The State Department's first formal response to Castillo Armas' invasion declared that the United States government was encouraged, that the outbreak of hostilities "reflected a widely-held hope that these developments may in fact be signs that the people of Guatemala may have begun a movement in earnest against their government." Such an expression certainly did not portray the Eisenhower administration as attempting to be a good neighbor, but the cold war was underway, and sides had to be taken. Florida's Senator George A. Smathers put it bluntly when he declared, shortly before Arbenz capitulated, that a hands-off policy was "unrealistic and naive" and that "we must see that the people opposing communism in Guatemala win this particular battle."'

And win the battle the people did, at least according to our administration's official position. Of course there were protests, particularly from Latin Americans, that the Colossus of the North had once again wielded a big stick—but, as the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, explained, anyone who had ever had any contact with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles or President Eisenhower ("who is utterly devoted to the principles of democracy, to the rights of man, and who abhors all forms of imperialism") would know that any charges of United States intervention were absurd. Speaking before a radio and television audience on June 30, Dulles proclaimed, "The people of Guatemala have now been heard from.... Now the future of Guatemala lies at the disposal of the Guatemalan people themselves." Eisenhower was even more eloquent when he accepted the credentials of Castillo Armas' newly appointed ambassador to the United States, Lieutenant Colonel José Luis Cruz Salazar:

The people of Guatemala, in a magnificent effort, have liberated themselves from the shackles of international Communist direction, and reclaimed their right of self-determination. For the people of the United States and for myself, I pay tribute to the historic demonstration of devotion to the cause of freedom given by the people of Guatemala and their leaders. It constitutes living proof of the unity of ideals and aspirations which animate and join us together, and which form the basis of our profound faith in the future.

To the administration and to the informed public, the victory of Castillo Armas was "the first clear-cut victory for the West since the battle for Greece." They lauded the Guatemalan people, whose courage put the Soviets on notice that their brand of slavery would not be tolerated by those who loved freedom. State invited Castillo Armas to the United States in order to showcase him before the whole world as a true champion of democracy, as a hero to be emulated by oppressed people everywhere. The House of Representatives conducted special hearings to investigate the event, parading dozens of witnesses from the United States and Guatemala who praised the anti-Arbenz movement and testified to Communist atrocities. On January 19, 1955, when Eisenhower gave his first televised press conference and summarized his initial two years as president, he listed the elimination of the Communist threat from Guatemala as one of his proudest accomplishments. He did not reveal, however, that his administration had played the decisive role in this accomplishment. Later, in his memoirs, Eisenhower would discuss how he had loaned two planes to Castillo Armas. He would never discuss the covert activity of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

The ease with which Castillo Armas took power has contributed to the lack of any comprehensive analysis of the 1954 coup in subsequent years. Arbenz conceded defeat so readily that there was little time, or apparent reason, for investigation. Except for a few leftist journalists, the press concurred that this was a successful anti-Communist uprising. In the absence of investigative reporting, United States participation remained secret. The numerous books appearing within the next few years supported this account. Many were written by the same journalists who covered the initial story and accepted the official interpretation, while the more scholarly studies drew their conclusions from documents supplied by the United States or the Guatemalan government. As the cold war contest in the 1950s continued to develop, and the United States engaged in imbroglios over Suez, Quemoy, Matsu, U-2 surveillance, and Cuba, the victory of Castillo Armas became for the United States public a vague memory. Most even forgot the overarching issue of Communism, recalling the coup as only another banana revolt.

Despite the increasing accumulation of interpretive scholarship on United States involvement in the international arena following World War II, which has led to the evaluation and reevaluation of most episodes in the cold war, the intervention in Guatemala (and the one in Iran the year before) has received strikingly little attention. Writings to date tend to be short on detailed documentation and to treat the coup illustratively. Historians use the episode to provide background material for the escalating cold war, to underscore the inordinate influence of overseas investments on United States foreign policy, or to trace the historical evolution of the Central Intelligence Agency. Most analysts now accept the CIA's involvement in the overthrow, but the antecedents, sequences, and consequences of that involvement remain unclear.

This study argues that the fall of Arbenz was a significant link in the unfolding chain of cold war history. It examines the social and economic conditions in Guatemala which spawned the 1944 revolution, the nature of that revolutionary movement, the effect of the revolution on United States interests, and the steps taken by the Eisenhower administration, overtly and covertly, to overthrow the revolutionary government. But such a study would be incomplete without two further examinations: why the intervention took place and what its consequences were. This was not merely another instance of big stick diplomacy, similar to the many United States interventions in Latin America characteristic of the earlier years of the twentieth century. Rather, this was a critical event in the cold war, an illustration of the cold war ethos and its impact on diplomacy.

The intervention in Guatemala produced lasting effects on United States relations with the underdeveloped nations of the world in general and with Latin America in particular. As will be shown, one major reason for the failure at the Bay of Pigs was the fact that Washington based its strategy on the precedent established in Guatemala, while Castro and his advisers were well versed in their Guatemalan counterparts' experience. Moreover, the present-day revolutionaries in Guatemala are the direct descendants of Arbenz's supporters, and there are strong indications that the success in the 1950s may lead, as in Iran, to a serious failure in the 1980s. Developments in Guatemala, Cuba, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean reveal that, in 1954, the United States cried wolf.

After a detailed study of the overthrow, the connection between the 1954 Guatemalan coup and later events becomes clear. But the contextual framework must be discussed from the beginning. This consists of an underdeveloped country in a region traditionally viewed as vitally important to the United States, a nationalist and reformist political movement, the most powerful capitalist country in the world, and two administrations of that country whose overriding concern was to advance the capitalist system in the face of alleged Soviet expansion. The combination of such forces led to a major confrontation in the cold war.

Latin America and the Cold War: United States Interests

Students of foreign policy have written with increasing frequency that, since the Second World War, the center stage for the international drama has shifted to the Third World." Concerns for the traditional loci of United States interests, such as Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, are maintained, but the formerly peripheral areas have come to dominate the headlines. For the United States, Latin America's geographic proximity, along with its historic, economic, and political connections, gives it a position of paramount significance. As the New York Times editorialized three months before Arbenz capitulated, the government must make it "clear with finality" that it viewed all forms of Communist activity in the western hemisphere as alien and hostile to its ideals and as intrigue that could endanger the peace. Later that year, in his influential book on what one reviewer called "the most important test United States policy has faced in Latin America in half a century [Guatemala]," journalist Daniel James expanded on the Times' perspective:

... there can be no battle more decisive than the Battle of the Western Hemisphere. We can "afford" to be defeated in China, Indo-China, and even perhaps India and Western Europe; but the loss to our cause of the Republics next door would be fatal, for then we should be ringed by hostile nations in our own vicinity.

The reasons for these overwhelming fears are evident. Latin America is contiguous to the United States from Florida to California, including the eighteen hundred-mile open border with Mexico. It contains the Panama Canal, described by former Ambassador to Guatemala Peurifoy as "our greatest strategic installation anywhere in the world," the sites of at least two other potential interoceanic canals, and permanent and emergency military bases. It affords a proven air route to the east and is the source of readily accessible essential strategic materials. In 1952 longtime State Department authority on inter-American affairs Thomas Mann succinctly warned that, in the event of a global war, unobstructed access to Latin American resources "would be essential to the trans-oceanic projection of major United States offensive power."

While Latin America's strategic importance in the immediate postwar years is well known, its economic value is not. There have been numerous accounts of activities by such economic giants as the United Fruit Company, and, along with other underdeveloped regions, Latin America has figured prominently in the myriad dependency models. Analyses of United States economic priorities following World War II, nevertheless, repeatedly concentrate on the Marshall Plan and the development of the European Economic Community. Yet, as a market for commercial exports, Latin America during the early cold war was as important as all of Europe and more important than Asia, Africa, and Oceania combined. Private, long-term investment throughout the region surpassed the amount invested in any other part of the world except Canada. By the end of 1950 this investment had already reached about $6 billion, compared with direct private investments outside the western hemisphere of only $4.6 billion. In terms of the export market, Latin America in 1950 purchased about $2.7 billion worth of United States goods, which amounted to about 50 percent of its total imports from all sources. Dollar investments flowed into Latin America at an unprecedented rate, and experts predicted that this trend would continue to increase. Equally important, statistics for this same period show that about 35 percent of United States imports, valued at approximately $2.9 billion, came from the region, and a considerable part of these were strategic materials. Other imports, such as coffee, sugar, bananas, and wool, were also vital. The dollars provided to Latin America through the purchases of these commodities helped finance its purchase of transportation and industrial equipment, consumer goods, and, of course, the military hardware that the United States sold to all its allies.

Notwithstanding such evidence of Latin America's importance, the conventional view is that both Truman and Eisenhower paid scant attention to their neighbors to the south. As a consequence, compared with the voluminous scholarship on the Monroe Doctrine, dollar diplomacy and the early interventions, the Good Neighbor Policy, the Alliance for Progress, and more recent developments, studies examining United States relations with Latin America from 1945 to 1961 are quite scarce. This relative neglect can be misleading. Neither Truman nor Eisenhower was uninterested in Latin America; economically and strategically it was much too important. If they seemed to lose interest, it was because both presidents grounded their foreign policies on analyses of the cold war. Their strategies accentuated global, not just bilateral or regional, considerations. Latin American policy reflected the overarching objective of containing Communism. Since most Latin American countries, especially the dictatorships, posed no threat to the United States policy, the region generally received less attention and fewer resources than such areas as Europe and the Far East, which appeared more vulnerable to Communist expansion.

The Cold War Policy

The international cold war policy was outlined in the oft cited National Security Council's "Report by the Secretaries of State and Defense on 'United States Objectives for National Security,'" commonly known as NSC-68. Prepared during the second Truman administration while Dean Acheson and Louis Johnson headed these respective cabinet departments, its basic premise was that the world was divided into two antithetical camps, led by the United States and the Soviet Union. The principal objective of the Soviet camp was to acquire absolute hegemony; thus conflict between the two systems was endemic. Only when one side emerged as the clear victor would this conflict abate. And the struggle would be fierce. Indeed, such diplomatic pundits as John Foster Dulles considered the Soviet threat to exceed even that of Nazi Germany, because, as he explained to representatives of the American republics shortly before the 1954 intervention in Guatemala, Communism constituted "not a theory, not a doctrine, but an aggressive, tough, political force, backed by great resources and serving the most ruthless empire of modern times." This prevalent analysis did not leave much room for considering the specific needs of the underdeveloped areas. No one denied there was a Third World, but, in a bipolar life or death battle, United States policy makers believed only one world could survive.

Dulles and others considered Latin America to be a prime target for the Soviet conspiracy because the region was of crucial importance to the United States; George Kerman feared it was a fertile breeding ground where the Communists could "broadcast their seeds of provocation and hatred and busily tend the plants which sprout in such vigor and profusion." By the 1950s, alarmists claimed that the Kremlin was pouring hundreds of agents into Latin America from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, agents trained in the theory and techniques of sabotage, espionage, and propaganda at the Institute for the Study of Latin American Relations in Prague. The Communist aim was quite simple: the destruction of Washington's influence in the western hemisphere and the conversion of Latin America into a "hotbed of hostility and trouble for the United States." Then, once the proper environment was established in any of the nations, Moscow could easily send in troops, equipment, and whatever else was necessary to threaten Washington.

The horror with which United States leaders viewed the prospect of the Soviet Union operating in their own backyard can hardly be overemphasized. Their fear stemmed from two primary considerations. First of all, as Dulles explained in 1947, "Soviet policy in South America subjects the Monroe Doctrine to its severest test. There is a highly organized effort to extend to the South American Countries the Soviet system of proletariat dictatorship." In 1954 Dulles simply applied his analysis to the situation in Guatemala, asserting that the "intrusion of Soviet despotism was, of course, a direct challenge to our Monroe Doctrine—the first and most fundamental of our foreign policies" (emphasis added). Second, since the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine and of strategic and economic interests would require the United States to confront the challenge, it might well have to cut back its forces elsewhere in the world in order to take the action necessary. In short, Soviet intervention in Latin America would jeopardize the principles of the Monroe Doctrine and shake the foundation of the global policy of containment. It could readily precipitate a nuclear war.

Truman's Latin American Policy

President Harry S. Truman firmly constructed his Latin American policy on this prevailing cold war analysis. He did not merely "mark time," as one former State Department official contended, nor did his assuming the presidency augur the end of the Good Neighbor era. In truth Roosevelt's policies encountered difficulties from their beginning, and this truth became especially evident during the war years. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Roosevelt encountered substantial criticism for not doing more to foster Latin America's economic independence, and manifestations of this resentment surfaced with the expropriation of private property in Mexico and Bolivia. The war strained relations still further, for many of the republics viewed the United States efforts to bind the hemisphere together with mutual defense and security pacts as a Yankee attempt to create new structures that would restrict Latin America's autonomy. Truman inherited these deteriorating conditions, in addition to a deteriorating world situation that reinforced the defensive nature of United States-Latin American programs because of the perceived mandates of the cold war.

A recently declassified National Security Council document provides explicit evidence of Truman's concern over reconciling a desire to be Latin America's good neighbor with a commitment to preventing the spread of Communism. Written in 1952 and referred to by one of its authors as "the intellectual last will and testament in this area of security policy of the Truman Administration to the Eisenhower Administration," NSC-141, which was based on the overall assumptions generated by NSC-68, delineated the task in Latin America:

In Latin America we seek first and foremost an orderly political and economic development which will make the Latin American nations resistant to the internal growth of communism and to Soviet political warfare... Secondly, we seek hemisphere solidarity in support of our world policy and the cooperation of the Latin American nations in safeguarding the hemisphere through individual and collective defense measures against external aggression and internal subversion.

As became uncomfortably apparent with regard to Guatemala, the policy advisers who wrote NSC-141 could clearly stipulate policy objectives, but they could make no new recommendations as to how these objectives could be attained. In the final analysis they only advised the "improvement of present programs" and anticipated results to be no greater than "more rapid realization of our ultimate broad objectives." In retrospect, however, the existing programs were inherently ineffective. The most publicized of these was Point Four assistance. Predicated on the realization that worsening economic conditions could lead to increased social unrest and open the door to Communist subversion, Point Four called for a "bold, new program" of technical cooperation designed to elevate the masses of Latin America (and other underdeveloped areas) out of misery, disease, and illiteracy. It was financially doomed from the start. Since NSC-68 called for the United States to defend the Free World on a global front, it required massive military expenditures. For Truman to have gone before the depression-conscious American public, which was swinging toward Republican conservatism, to ask for the additional nonmilitary funds adequate for Point Four would have been certain political suicide. He had enough difficulty prying money out of Congress without having to explain the need in terms of potential threats.

Truman and those within his administration eyeing developments in Guatemala believed there was a threat to Latin America, even if they did not think they could get public support for more Point Four aid. Therefore NSC-141 outlined the United States "existing" military and political defense programs before it presented Point Four. First, it highlighted the institution of mutual security pacts, such as the Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, which was signed in Rio de Janeiro at the 1947 International Conference of American States. Second, it summarized the military grant-aid program for Latin America. The Mutual Security Act of 1951 appropriated $38,150,000 for fiscal year 1952 to cover military equipment, material, and training and promised more to follow in fiscal year 1953.

Understanding the ineffectiveness of these Truman programs is a prerequisite to understanding the development of the Guatemalan strategy under Eisenhower. Even if one argues that more extensive Point Four assistance could have alleviated the economic distress responsible for Guatemala's radical reforms, United States domestic considerations precluded this being a viable option. More can be learned by analyzing the military programs. Directed against an armed attack on any signatory nation, the Rio pact, along with the military grant-aid program, reflected the growing fear of Soviet aggression in Latin America. NSC-141 puts forth this position very clearly. The basic Truman policy for resisting Communist aggression was, of course, military containment. Because they believed containment was as appropriate to Latin America as anywhere else, NSC-141 analysts could rely on the continuation of existing programs in spite of Point Four's shortcomings.

But in Guatemala the collective security containment arrangements were inapplicable. Truman officials suspected that Soviet agents were actively subverting the government, but to invoke the Rio pact they had to have proof. The problem of definition compounded the problem of proof. United States policy makers discerned but a fine line separating nationalist reformers from Communist agitators, so fine a line that the distinguishing factor was often the effect of a reform on United States interests. During the Truman administration, the reforms in Guatemala were sufficiently anti-United States to create suspicion of Communist intrigue but insufficiently so to offer proof to many of the Latin American nations fearful of the historic big stick. Hence a military pact against outside aggression was inoperative. By 1951 the quandary had become so frustrating that State considered drafting a proposal for the Consultative Meeting of Foreign Ministers in order to establish a technical staff equipped to study means of identifying subversive elements in the American countries. The plan was rejected because no one knew how to implement it.

Eisenhower'S Diplomacy

NSC-141 might have been Truman's "last will and testament" to Eisenhower, but plainly the new president believed that it needed serious revisions. The New Look strategy which he proposed during the 1952 campaign attacked the Democratic policy of containment, criticizing it for spreading United States resources too thin, accepting the status quo too willingly, and concentrating too heavily on Western Europe. Eisenhower contended that the White House must wrest the initiative from the Kremlin and, if possible, "liberate" areas from Communist control. Eisenhower seemed so much tougher than Truman that, according to the Nashville Banner, "the day of sleepwalking is over. It passed with the exodus of Truman and Achesonism, and the policy of vigilance replacing Pollyanna diplomacy is evident. "

Yet historians have traditionally depicted Eisenhower as a bland, do-nothing, largely ineffective president. Many scholars see little new in his foreign policy. They contend that the New Look devel oped out of strategic concepts discussed by the Truman administration after the outbreak of the Korean War and that a 1949 National Security Council paper concerning Eastern Europe predicted the additional policy objective of "liberation." More important, this argument continues, the critical factor in Eisenhower's diplomacy was the doctrine of massive retaliation, which might have served as a deterrent to Soviet expansion but certainly did not affect those areas already within the Communist orbit. Nuclear weapons could not be used for "liberation."" Close scrutiny of recently opened archives, however, reveals Eisenhower in a new light. Massive retaliation was not the only basis for his strategy for combating international Communism. Covert operations also played a major role, and their use in Guatemala represented a significant departure from the policies of Truman."

The covert aspects of the Guatemalan strategy exhibit the personal imprint of the president and, consequently, necessitate another historical corrective. Conventional scholarship almost unanimously attributes Eisenhower's foreign policy to his controversial secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. To contemporary observers and later historians, the indefatigable Dulles appeared to dominate United States diplomacy in the 1950s to so great an extent that "he carried the State Department in his hat." The acknowledged power of his convictions, intellect, and rhetoric gave the impression of Dulles' preeminence with the president, the cabinet, the nation, and the international community. His frequent press conferences and interviews made him a favorite subject of the media, and to most he was the conceptual font and prime mover of United States policy.

Now available evidence seriously challenges this traditional interpretation. Rather than supporting the standard portrait of Dulles leading by the strings a passive president and an overawed collection of advisers, the papers of the Eisenhower administration reveal a foreign policy resulting from a high degree of multiple advocacy, with the final decisions remaining firmly within the Oval Offices' Eisenhower and Dulles had a great deal of mutual respect, and no decisions were reached without their having discussed the issues thoroughly during numerous conversations each day. Even when he was away from Washington, Dulles constantly communicated with Eisenhower by telephone or coded cablegram. The National Security Council, the Operations Coordinating Board, and more informal organs carefully reviewed and analyzed all policy proposals and options. Eisenhower and Dulles agreed on the fundamental principles of foreign policy. They collaborated; one man did not dominate the other.

Therefore, the final element required to understand the cold war confrontation in Guatemala is a brief synopsis of the views of both the president and the secretary of state. Because he favored summit meetings and pacific programs such as Atoms for Peace and Open Skies, and because he possessed a (generally assumed) amiable and conciliatory nature, Eisenhower is thought to have been much more compromising toward the Communists than was Dulles. In keeping with the conventional wisdom on their relationship, historians consistently contend that Dulles drove the president to emphasize brinkmanship, not negotiation. To support this they often cite the memoirs of Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's chief assistant until forced to resign in 1958. Adams wrote in 1961: "I think that the hard and uncompromising line that the United States took toward Soviet Russia and Red China between 1953 and the early months of 1959 [when Dulles died] was more a Dulles line than an Eisenhower one."

Although in public Eisenhower appeared more inclined to peaceful coexistence with the Communists than did his more vocal secretary of state, the fact is that both men firmly believed in the neces sity for constant vigilance against the Red menace. In a diary which reflected his private thoughts, Eisenhower recorded his complete agreement with one of the foremost architects of the United States cold war policies, former Secretary of the Navy and then Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal. Shortly after his friend committed suicide in 1949, Eisenhower recalled that Forrestal had been "the one man who, in the very midst of the war, always counselled caution and alertness in dealing with the Soviets." Eisenhower continued his personal eulogy by remembering that on several occasions, while he was Supreme Allied Commander, he had been visited by Forrestal, who carefully explained his thesis that the Communists would never cease trying to destroy all representative government. Eisenhower commented, "I never had cause to doubt the accuracy of his judgments on this point."

Eisenhower's diary entries regarding Forrestal also illustrate how infectious was the latter's cold war ideology, which resembled, in the words of one historian, "Ichabod Crane's terrified flight in Sleepy Hollow." While president of Columbia University, Eisenhower served as a special consultant to the Defense Department during the early months of its unification. In terms reflective of a national ethos permeated by the beginnings of McCarthyism, he noted that both he and Forrestal agreed that the United States "must wake up to prepare a position of strength," because "the free world is under threat by the monolithic mass of Communist Imperialism." Eisenhower must have felt that most people in and out of government had heeded the alarm, for six months later he wrote that "those who were then asleep [during the period of the United States-Soviet wartime alliance] now are professional patriots and Russian haters."

Eisenhower's espousal of the cold war ideology relates directly to his approval of the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala. Similar to but more explicitly than Truman, he confronted the relationship between Communism and nationalism. He well understood that the ultimate struggle between the Communist and Western worlds would occur in the underdeveloped regions. Here nationalist impulses and long years of economic and political repression bred unrest and instability. To Eisenhower the solution was the gradual and orderly transition of the Third World to capitalist democracies. But the people were impatient, and hence the Communists could fill their thoughts with aspirations of instant utopias. Poverty and illiteracy did not create Communists, but they did give the Soviet Union the opportunity to make Communists:

Nationalism is on the march and world Communism is taking advantage of that spirit of nationalism to cause dissension in the free world. Moscow leads many misguided people to believe that they can count on Communist help to achieve and sustain nationalistic ambitions. Actually what is going on is that the Communists are hoping to take advantage of the confusion resulting from destruction of existing relationships and in the difficulties and uncertainties of disrupted trade, security and understandings, to further the aims of world revolution and the Kremlin's domination of all people. (Emphasis added.)

A keen strategist, Eisenhower logically concluded that it would be counterproductive for the United States to try to oppose fierce nationalism with inflammatory programs. He recognized the pitfalls of Truman's attempt to contain Communism in the Third World by an overreliance on force. A month after the Guatemalan coup, he wrote his good friend William Robinson, executive vice-president of the New York Herald Tribune, that "there is a strong communist leaning among certain groups," and, if the United States pursued policies inimical to their nationalist tendencies, "we will almost certainly arouse more antagonism," and the "possibility of these countries turning communist would mount rapidly."

Guatemala presented special problems, because, according to Eisenhower and his advisers, it had already succumbed to Communist intrigue. How could the United States reverse this situation without wielding the type of big stick likely to incur the resentment of others? To someone who had presided over Mark Clark's covert mission to North Africa, the ULTRA secret, and Operation Double-Cross, the answer was evident—you do it clandestinely. World War II made Eisenhower an avid proponent of the intelligence establishment, and one of his initial reorganization projects after becoming president was to solicit his former wartime associate James H. Doolittle to "act as Chairman of a panel of consultants to conduct a study of the covert activities of the Central Intelligence Agency." The president instructed Doolittle to "insure, insofar as practicable, that the field of clandestine operations is adequately covered," and he added, "I desire that your report be made to me personally and classified TOP SECRET." Dwight Eisenhower believed covert operations were a crucial component of realizing United States foreign policy objectives, but they were effective only if they were used correctly and judiciously. Later, with great pride, he would look back at the Guatemalan coup as an operation that had been well conceived and well executed.

The extreme anti-Communism of the other member of the administration's foreign policy-making tandem, John Foster Dulles, has been much more widely noted. His hard-line attitudes developed from deep-seated theological, philosophical, and intellectual beliefs, as well as from profound concern for the political impact of McCarthyism. The son of a Presbyterian minister and former leader of the Federal Council of Churches, Dulles viewed the cold war as a confrontation between two antithetical universal faiths: Christianity against atheism. By the end of the Second World War, he had concluded that there could be no reasonable compromise with the Soviet objective of world domination and, as noted, he was particularly sensitive to the potential threat in Latin America. He assiduously studied the writings of Lenin and Stalin, comparing them to Hitler's Mein Kampf. Even after Stalin died in 1953 and his immediate successor expressed an interest in peaceful coexistence, Dulles remained girded for a permanent global struggle. His severe critic Townsend Hoopes is probably not far off the mark when he asserts, "He seemed to require temperamentally a form of communist opposition whose goal was no less than the total conquest of the world in the most literal and physical sense."

Converging with his religious faith was Dulles' sincere faith in the capitalist system. Long one of the highest-paid lawyers on Wall Street, he fervently believed in free enterprise and the expansion of corporate investments abroad. He assumed that these investments were threatened by the Soviet Union, whose agents throughout the world encouraged unwitting nationalists to expropriate property and generally create economic climates detrimental to United States interests. Since a basic tenet of the Eisenhower administration was that security was inextricably linked to economic well-being, Dulles, like others around the White House, viewed the fiscal health of the United States as a crucial component of its defense posture.

Thus, although neither Eisenhower nor Dulles was intimately familiar with Latin America in 1953, the above discussion explains why one of the early objectives of their foreign policy was to devise a more effective program toward that region than Truman's. At a cabinet meeting in the first year of his administration, the president underscored the generally unsatisfactory nature of United States policy toward Latin America, which he said stemmed from past preoccupations with European and Asiatic affairs. He urged the cabinet to remedy this potentially dangerous situation and, toward this end, sent his brother Milton on a fact-finding mission to South America. The purpose of this mission was to acknowledge the importance of hemispheric solidarity to the United States and to sell this importance to all United States citizens.

Milton Eisenhower did not visit Central America; his report, nevertheless, alluded to the developments in Guatemala. When Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith reported the mission's findings to the cabinet, affixed to the document was a memorandum. It read, "The most important question facing the Cabinet was to make up its mind that Latin America is important to the United States" and that "timely action was extremely desirable to prevent Communism from spreading seriously beyond Guatemala" (emphasis added)." The mission did not have to go to Guatemala in order to investigate Communist infiltration; such infiltration was already accepted as fact. In total agreement with his brother's diary entry almost a year before, Milton Eisenhower's report read:

The possible conquest of a Latin American nation today would not be, so far as anyone can foresee, by direct assault. It would come, rather, through the insidious process of infiltration, conspiracy, spreading of lies, and the undermining of free institutions, one by one. Highly disciplined groups of Communists are busy, night and day, illegally or openly, in the American republics, as they are in every nation of the world... One American nation has succumbed to Communist infiltration. (Emphasis added.)

The backdrop has now been provided for studying the steps taken by the Eisenhower administration to obviate this alleged threat to the hemisphere. The reasons for the United States allegations and the sequence of events, as well as their consequences for the future, warrant careful scrutiny. By analyzing the Guatemalan revolution from the viewpoint of the cold war ethos and developing a strategy which went beyond the Truman policy of military containment spiced with Point Four assistance, Eisenhower, Dulles, and the Republican policy makers ushered in a new era in inter-American relations, an era marked by a protracted struggle between the United States and an assumed international Communist conspiracy.


“... a valuable study of what Immerman correctly portrays as a seminal event, not just in the annals of the Cold War, but in U.S.-Latin American relations.”
The Washington Monthly

“... a damning indictment of American interference abroad.”
The Pittsburgh Press

“This story is much more thorough than the recent popularized account of the same events by Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger ...”


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca