President Dwight Eisenhower and Guatemala

excerpted from the book

Lying for Empire

How to Commit War Crimes With A Straight Face

by David Model

Common Courage Press, 2005, paper


In 1954, the American government successfully orchestrated the overthrow of the freely elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and replaced him with their hand-picked alternative.

... nationalist ambitions in developing country where the government sought to become independent of Washington's influence were usually interpreted on the surface as communist subversion whereas the greater threat was a weakening of the American sphere of influence. As well, redistributing wealth or land was usually a sign that the government was apparently poisoned by communist subversion. Gabriel Kolko, in Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy 1945-1980, points out that:
Both privately and publicly, each [Eisenhower and Truman] attributed to the Russians a transcendent ability to shape events in the most remote countries, and even when they did not initiate them they almost invariably knew how to exploit them... Russia "seeks world rule through the domination of all governments by the International Communist Party" as John Foster Dulles typically put it in 1957. Such conspiracies included "extreme nationalism" as one of its tools. And he found their alleged ability "to get control of mass movements" uncanny.

According to a number of scholars, the hypothesis that international Communism infiltrated developing world political and economic structures for the purpose of establishing a communist government was inaccurate and missed the real motivations for American foreign policy which was to expand the American Empire.

One possible rationale for American anti-communist policies was their notion that a government which implemented a social and economic system fundamentally different from the U.S. system must be infiltrated with communist conspirators. Governments which attempted to construct an economic system which was not based on the market system threatened the sanctity of the United States social and economic system which, in fact, serves the interests of the wealthy. The fear was that an alternative system that was perceived as more fair and equitable might undermine faith in the American system. The fear was well founded since today the United States has one of the highest poverty rates, infant mortality rates, incarceration rates, and murder rates in the industrialized world. It also has some of the poorest educational, health-care, and welfare systems. So when freely elected governments in Nicaragua or Guatemala implemented progressive land reforms, labour laws, and welfare systems that benefited everyone, they evoked fear in American elites that such ideas might become infectious. To discredit governments that posed these threats, the U.S. government condemned them as having been infiltrated by Communists. The United States claim that Nicaragua and Guatemala were threats to the U.S. because of communist infiltration was ludicrous. When President Reagan warned that Nicaragua was only two days from Brownsville Texas, his administration's intention was not to warn of a real threat (a silly notion) to U.S. security, but to evoke fear in order to justify intervention. William Blum, in Killing Hope: US. Military and CIA Intervention Since World War II, points out that:

In cases such as the above-mentioned Grenada, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, even if the particular target of intervention does not present an immediate lucrative economic opportunity for American multinationals, the target's socialist-revolutionary program and rhetoric does present a threat and a challenge, which the United States has repeatedly felt obliged to stamp out, to maintain the principle, and as a warning to others; for what the US has always feared from the Third World is the emergence of a good example: a flourishing socialist society independent of Washington.

Noam Chomsky, in Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, echoes the same theme when'-
Why do we have to get rid of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? In reality it's not because anybody really thinks that they're a communist power about to conquer the Hemisphere-it's because they were carrying out social programs that were beginning to succeed, and which would have appealed to other people in Latin America who want the same things.

... Edward Herman, in Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in the Age of Propaganda, offers the same analysis that:
A basic feature of the MIC [Military-Industrial Complex] is that it keeps developing weapons that the contractors want to sell. The point is to command resources, maintain and enlarge profits, and produce jobs. Missions are needed to justify weapons acquisition, and they are usually couched in terms of some threat, some niche that has to be filled to protect our national security.

William Blum, in Killing Hope, suggests that:
... one must examine the role of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. The members of this network need enemies-the military and the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]-because enemies are their reason d'etre; industry, specifically the defense contractors, because enemies are to be fought with increasingly sophisticated weaponry and aircraft systems.. . The executives of these corporations... who continue to use their positions, their wealth, and their influence ... to nourish and to perpetuate the fear of communism, the enemy ...

Seventy percent of the land [in Guatemala] was owned by only 2.2% of the population.

... the United Fruit Company whose major crop was bananas. The United Fruit Company was originally the Boston Fruit Company founded by Minor C. Keith whose original project was to build railways in Central America. In order to finance his railway business he began to sell bananas and by 1883 owned three banana companies which became known as the United Fruit Company in 1899. It had become the largest producers of bananas in the world. Much of the cultivated land was providing food for the United States and not for the hungry people of Guatemala.

United Fruit Company's president persuaded other landowners to support Jorge Ubico for president in the mid-nineteen thirties. The United Fruit Company was then granted more land and a 99-year lease on all its land which now comprised half of the land in Guatemala. The Company was also relieved of virtually any taxation, import duties, and export taxes and was allowed to greatly undervalue the worth of its land for taxation purposes. By 1936, the Company paid virtually no taxes.

Arbenz won the next election in 1951 with the support of everyone but the upper class receiving 60 percent of the vote. His intention was to expand the reforms and programs which were introduced by Arévalo. His objectives were to create an independent modern industrial economy in order to raise the living standards of Guatemalans and to reach out to the Mayan population in order to assess what they wanted.

While his programs were egalitarian, they were not communist in nature. He believed in capitalism with a heart.

The large landowners constituted 2.2% of the population but owned 70% of the land.

An example of the frustration of the Arbenz government over idle land was the fact that only 15% of the 550,000 acres of the United Fruit Company's land was under cultivation.

Washington's position toward Guatemala had begun to change after the revolution, particularly with every act of the Guatemalan Government that threatened U.S. corporate interests. It was a classical case of interpreting every attempt by the Guatemalan Government to improve conditions for its people as further proof that the government was infiltrated by communists whose ultimate aim was to take power and then infiltrate other countries in Latin America.

Labour codes were one of the first ostensible threats to American corporate interests. It raised suspicions in Washington about Guatemala succumbing to communist infiltrators. Beginning in 1946, a number of strikes were called against the United Fruit Company over wages, overtime, and vacations. One of the responses of the Company was to fire any workers who were actively involved. After the government threatened to confiscate some of the company's land, the company conceded but did not rehire the workers. Paying time and a half for overtime, granting workers ten days vacation every year, and paying $1.50 per day was not acceptable to the Company. Negotiations broke down and another strike occurred between 1948 and 1949. The United Fruit Company refused to negotiate in good faith and attacked the Labour Code as unfair despite the fact the Government was willing to send the dispute to arbitration. The United Fruit Company threatened to shut down its operations. In 1952, the Guatemalan labour court ordered the company to take back the workers who had been fired.

Washington's first reaction to events in Guatemala was that the government was discriminating against American companies and, therefore, threatening relations between the two countries. The CIA concluded that Guatemala was unfriendly to American corporations.

Even before the new labour codes, President Truman ordered the FBI to send agents to Guatemala to search for radical influences and assess the politics of both major and minor persons in the government. The FBI forwarded a number of reports to Washington in which the agents provided an analysis of the extent of communist infiltration. The objectivity of these reports was completely undermined by the fact that the sources of information were people who worked in the Ubico regime and who considered any activism to improve the lives of Guatemalans as subversive. Dictators in surrounding countries, such as Somoza in Nicaragua, who were clients of the United States and opposed to any progressive measures that might threaten their own positions continually condemned Guatemala as a communist threat. The American House Subcommittee on Communist Aggression was constantly identifying communists in the Guatemalan government. William Blum in Killing Hope reported that:

The party formed by the communists.., held four seats in Congress [in Guatemala], the smallest component of Arbenz's ruling coalition which commanded a total of 51 seats in the 1953-54 legislature. Communists held several important sub-cabinet posts but none was ever appointed to the cabinet.

Jim Huck, in 1954: Covert War in Guatemala, also points out the lack of communist influence in the legislature by explaining that:

In the 1953-1954 legislatures, Arbenz had a majority [government] and the communists only had 4 of 51 seats. But Secretary of State John Foster Dulles claimed that Guatemala was living under a "communism type of terrorism" and President Eisenhower portrayed the government in Guatemala as a "communist dictatorship."

William Blum noted that:

The Soviet Union could be excused if it was somewhat bewildered by all the rhetoric for the Russians had scant interest in Guatemala, did not provide the country with any kind of military assistance, did not even maintain diplomatic L relations with it, thus did not have the normally indispensable embassy from which to conduct such nefarious schemes.

In 1947, the unions in Guatemala celebrated May Day by marching ( through the capital. May Day or International Labour Day is celebrated in many countries around the world but the United States treated the celebration in Guatemala as a symptom of Communism because International Labour Day is also celebrated in the Soviet Union.

By the time that Arbenz implemented his new land reform program, Washington was completely convinced that the Soviet Union had successfully infiltrated the Arbenz administration and was preparing to take over the reigns of government as a stepping-stone to infiltrating other countries in the hemisphere.

As suspicions of Communism escalated, pressure in Washington intensified for some kind of response not only to the threat of Communism but also to the threat to American corporate interests. In 1950, Truman's administration decided that some action was needed but it was important that America's role be completely invisible. From the first action to the eventual overthrow of Arbenz, the American government was tenaciously committed to maintaining secrecy in order to prevent public knowledge of America's role.

Another dimension of Washington's plan was to launch a propaganda I campaign to create public awareness of events in Guatemala. Truman set up the Psychological Strategy Board. Truman's most effective propaganda weapon was the United Fruit Company's public relations counsel, Edward Bernays. He embarked on a campaign to clearly demonstrate the communist threat in Guatemala to the public. Bernays' greatest asset was the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. His Central American correspondent, Crede Calhoun, hired Will Lissner who wrote a number of stories with a powerful impact for the New York Times about the threat in Guatemala. Other major publications followed suit and published similar articles about Guatemala. In general, reporters were indoctrinated with cold war propaganda which shaped their perceptions of events and frequently determined how they framed their stories.

One of Bernays' coups was to invite a number of important publishers and editors on a fact-finding junket to Guatemala at the United Fruit Company's expense. Not only did the company's officials select the sights to be observed, but they were the major source of information for their guests ...

Under Eisenhower's administration, the State Department established the United States Information Agency. William Blum, in Killing Hope, observed that the operations of the United States Information Agency commenced when it:

... began to place unattributed articles in foreign newspapers labeling particular Guatemalan officials as communist and referring to various actions by the Guatemala Government as "communist-inspired." In the few weeks before Arbenz's fall alone, more than 200 articles about Guatemala were written and placed in scores of Latin American newspapers... articles placed in one country were picked up by newspapers in other countries, either as a result of CIA payment or unwittingly because the story was of interest.

The objective of the propaganda campaign was to persuade the American public that Communist infiltration in Guatemala posed a threat to American security. Fear of communism was an easier sell than the real motive which was the U.S. determination to protect American corporate interests in Guatemala. One of the explanations for this determination was the close ties between the government and the corporate sector.

By the time that President Eisenhower assumed office, the momentum for removing Arbenz from office was virtually unstoppable. According to Gabriel Kolko, in Confronting the Third World:

The principle of overthrowing the Arbenz government received the Eisenhower Administration's blessing immediately upon coming to office, and from this time onward it mounted a vast, sustained public-relations campaign to convince the U.S. public and the world that Guatemala had been taken over by communists. As before, United Fruit was involved in every phase of the administration's efforts...

Within months of assuming office, the Eisenhower administration began plotting the overthrow of the Arbenz government.

PBSUCCESS became the code name of the plot and its headquarters; was set up in Opa Locka, Florida, on the outskirts of Miami. The estimate of the costs of the operation was about $7 million and it utilized 100 CIA agents. About 30 planes were stationed in Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Canal Zone, which were to be flown by American pilots. To reinforce the charges of Soviet infiltration, Soviet-marked weapons were acquired to be o planted in Guatemala. Once Arbenz was overthrown, the planners would need someone from the Guatemalan opposition to become leader who was acceptable to the United States. The CIA finally decided on Carlos Enrique Castillo Armas, who received military training in the U.S. and was the son of a wealthy landowner in Guatemala.

As part of the propaganda campaign, the CIA had to promulgate the lie that the people of Guatemala revolted against the harsh dictator, Arbenz, and succeeded. Several quotes from President Eisenhower and others contributed to the propaganda about the dissatisfaction of the peasants with Arbenz, such as:

* "The major factor in the successful outcome was the disaffection of the Guatemalan armed forces and the population as a whole with the tyrannical regime of Arbenz." (Eisenhower, from Mandate for Change, The White House Years, 1953-1956)

* "...the people of Guatemala, in a magnificent effort, have liberated themselves from the shackles of international Communism." (Eisenhower from The CIA in Guatemala)

o "The Guatemalan regime enjoyed the full support of Soviet Russia... [the] situation is being cured by the Guatemalans themselves." (Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, in Killing Hope)

o "In conclusion, Mr. Chairmen, let me state that the menace of communism in Guatemala was courageously fought by the Guatemalan people themselves... Communist power was broken by the Guatemalans alone... They fought the battle which is the common battle of all free nations against Communist oppression." (John E. Peurifoy, Ambassador to Guatemala, Testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on Latin America).

Since the fall of Arbenz and the installation of an American handpicked leader, conditions in Guatemala have harshly degenerated in terms of basic freedoms, human rights, poverty, land ownership, health-care, and democracy. Armas was the first in a succession of dictators who, with American support, have inflicted a reign of terror and oppression on the Guatemalan people. The American-supported dictators converted the economy from one that served the interests of the people to one that served the interests of Americans and in particular American corporate interests.

These dictators depended on the United States for financial aid and for training of their army in counterinsurgency techniques. The U.S. set up a school called the School of the Americas, located in Fort Benning, Georgia, for the purpose of training soldiers and officers in Latin America in counter-insurgency and torture techniques. Guatemalan dictatorships were confronted with a number of insurgencies caused by a lack of freedoms and growing poverty. The United States' objective was to ensure that the Guatemalan army was prepared. In January 2001, the name of the school was changed to The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation because of reports from human right's groups condemning it as a school for training soldiers to violate human rights.

The economy was transformed into an export-oriented economy to serve the interests of the American multinationals located in Guatemala. Now there was an inverse relationship between the growing beef and agricultural exports and the prosperity of most Guatemalans. As exports grew, the population suffered. Land reform policies were reversed and the same concentration of land ownership, where two percent of the people owned twenty percent of the land, prevailed.

General Efráin Rios Montt took power by a coup in 1982 and promptly announced a state of siege. In the first six months of power he had not only murdered 1600 Mayans and peasants but he also brutally wiped 400 villages off the map. By 1993 conditions in Guatemala had degenerated to the point where:

* Guatemala had a higher level of malnutrition than Haiti; (UNICEF)


* One-quarter million children were orphaned;


* 87% of Guatemalans lived below the poverty line;


* 72% could not afford a minimal diet;


* 6 million had no access to health services;


* 3.6 million lacked clean drinking water;


* 2% controlled 70% of the land.

Richard H. Immerman, in The CIA in Guatemala, sums up the history since 1944 as follows:

Castillo Armas was but first in a line of Guatemalan presidents, all supported by the United States, who in the name of anti-Communism have ruled by terror and repression. Their effort to reverse the movement toward reform that began in 1944 has not produced the stability so eagerly sought in Washington. Rather, by pursuing programs inimical to the majority of Guatemalans... They must live with chronic unemployment, chronic malnutrition, high rate of illiteracy and infant mortality, and, for hundreds of thousands of peasants, little or no land.

William Blum, in Killing Hope
... the educated, urbane men of the State Department, the CIA, and the United Fruit Company, the pipe-smoking men of Princeton, Harvard, and Wall Street, decided that the illiterate peasants of Guatemala did not deserve the land which had been given to them, that the workers did not need their unions, that hunger and torture were a small price to pay for being rid of the scourge of Communism.

If the United States was so confident about their Communist-infiltration theory, then why was it necessary to manufacture outright lies about Arbenz imprisoning thousands of his opponents and the Guatemalan people leading the rebellion against Arbenz?

The United Fruit Company's publicity office distributed fake photographs of mass graves filled with victims of the atrocities committed by Arbenz. UFC's motive is easy to understand but why did Washington perpetrate lies to convince the world that there was a Communist threat to the entire hemisphere?

The CIA undertook a propaganda campaign directed at the people of Guatemala in an effort to turn them against Arbenz. According to Jim Huck, in 1954: Covert War in Guatemala:

.CIA planes dropped leaflets demanding Arbenz's resignation, while radio stations broadcast the same message. The CIA distributed over 100,000 pamphlets entitled "Chronology of Communism in Guatemala" and made three films critical of Arbenz. Over 27,000 anti-Arbenz posters and cartoons were distributed in Guatemala.

There is no doubt that Eisenhower lied. The evidence clearly reveals that there was no communist infiltration in Guatemala to establish a base from which to infiltrate other countries in the hemisphere. Arbenz was influenced by the ideals of the revolution of 1944 and set out to implement land, labour, educational, health, and political reforms to ameliorate conditions for the majority of Guatemalans. All the arguments invoked to reach the conclusion that Guatemala was infiltrated by communists are invalid and border on the absurd.

Eisenhower's lies were very costly. For the next 35 years, Guatemala was ruled by brutal dictators who were supported by the United States and who reversed all the progressive reforms of the revolution in addition to murdering approximately 200,000 people.

The example of American intervention in Guatemala is very instructive because of the pattern of American justification, motivation, scare tactics, and lies which repeats itself in many other cases of American intervention. The threat of Communism, protection of American corporate interests, and the threat to American security have characterized American foreign policy during the cold war.

Lying for Empire

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