PBSuccess: The 1954 Guatemalan Coup

The list of U.S.-backed, -led, and -sponsored coups in Latin America is lengthy and bloody. In one example from 1954, the United States intervened in the decade-old Guatemalan Revolution, deposing a popular and democratically elected leader in favor of a dictator who would be friendly to U.S. business interests. The following is a short recap of the 1954 coup, codenamed PBSuccess.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Guatemala was a haven for coffee and fruit companies headquartered in the United States. By bankrolling a series of rulers, corporations like the United Fruit Company (UFC) encouraged legislation that reduced UFC’s taxes, allowed it to take over land that had been forcibly taken from indigenous peoples, and granted UFC a de facto monopoly over banana exports from the country.1 In 1944, the people of Guatemala rose up against their government, toppling President Jorge Ubico, who had enjoyed U.S. support in exchange for allowing U.S. corporations to dominate his country’s economic affairs. After Ubico fled the country, the three-man junta he left to rule in his stead also fell in the October Revolution. By the end of 1944, the country was in the hands of Juan José Arévalo, who was mostly conservative but far less repressive than his predecessors.2

Juan José Arévalo - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Juan José Arévalo, the first democratically elected President of Guatemala.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Juan_jose_arevalo_bermejo_large.jpg

Elected by a majority in the country’s first free elections since independence, Arévalo implemented a number of reforms that cemented his popularity. Among the most notable changes under his administration were a minimum wage and an expansion of suffrage rights that made Guatemala more democratic.3 In 1949, Arévalo and his defense minister Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán defeated a major coup attempt, one of roughly two dozen attempted coups during his presidency. In 1951, Árbenz won the presidency and took over from Arévalo in a peaceful transfer of power.4 It would be the country’s final peaceful transition in three decades.

Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán
Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, the Guatemalan President considered too communist for the United States. Source: https://aprende.guatemala.com/historia/personajes/presidente-jacobo-arbenz-guzman-1951-1954/

Among the top items of Árbenz’s platform were sweeping land reforms designed to help peasants who owned no land. Soon after his election, he enacted a major reform that transferred plots of land from large landholders to smaller farmers, ensuring popularity among peasants but immediately running afoul of the corporations and their huge fruit plantations.5 This act—cast in the United States as full-fledged communist revolution—earned Árbenz the support of the Guatemalan Party of Labor (PGT), a communist political party. In the midst of the Cold War and fearing a communist revolution that might spread to Mexico or Panama, the United States took notice of Árbenz and the Guatemalan reforms. UFC was faced with the prospect of selling its land to the government at the same rate the company declared for tax purposes, but as UFC had consistently underreported value to avoid higher taxes, the company resisted the sale. Meanwhile, UFC’s profits dropped significantly after they were barred from some exploitative labor practices, prompting the corporation to lobby U.S. officials for intervention in Guatemala.6

As early as the spring of 1952, U.S. President Harry Truman authorized a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mission to overthrow Árbenz. It was delayed for months and eventually canceled, but the basic premise remained when Dwight Eisenhower took office.7 Sensing that Eisenhower wanted to develop a firm stance against communism, CIA Director Allen Dulles persuaded Eisenhower to move forward with the plan in 1953. Dulles intentionally inflated Árbenz’s communist leanings and persuaded Eisenhower that the Guatemalan leader was surrounded by communist advisors. CIA operatives planned Operation PBSuccess in a matter of several weeks, with the official launch date set for August of 1954.8 The operation hinged on a small force of fewer than 500 men under a Guatemalan military officer, Carlos Castillo Armas. Castillo Armas also received U.S. aircraft and funding for hundreds of mercenaries to participate in the attack.

Secret Agents, Secret Armies: The Spy Who Captured an Army | The National  WWII Museum | New Orleans
CIA Director Allen Dulles, who played a major role in approving the 1954 coup. Source: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/wwii-spy-allen-dulles

This force landed in Guatemala on June 18, 1954, supported by aircraft and a naval blockade of the country. While the military operation met with limited success, the psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns were much more effective. Radio announcements intended to weaken Árbenz’s government planted seeds of doubt among the army’s soldiers, while a propaganda radio station broadcast untrue reports of invaders’ military successes.9 Diplomatic pressures on neighboring countries, especially Mexico, prevented them from coming to Guatemala’s aid, while the threat of direct U.S. intervention cowed military officers. Despite initial success against the forces of Castillo Armas, the Guatemalan army stood down after just a few days of fighting. As a last resort, Árbenz attempted to arm civilians to resist the invasion, drawing on his robust support, especially among the peasant class.10 Failing to acquire the needed arms and munitions, though, he resigned on June 27, less than ten days after the launch of the invasion. Operation PBSuccess was, well, a success. Castillo Armas would take over as president in early July, reestablishing the precedent of U.S.-backed dictators that would plague the country for decades.11

The international community quickly condemned the coup, which pushed many nations away from the U.S. diplomatically. Anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, in particular, grew much stronger as a result of the operation, which indirectly led to further coups in other nations in an attempt to curb communist influence in the Americas.12 To justify its actions, the CIA launched another mission, Operation PBHistory, in an effort to find evidence of Soviet meddling in Guatemala before U.S. involvement. This operation ended in failure, as no evidence ever came to light, casting the U.S. as an even more dangerous aggressor.13

A map showing U.S.-backed coups and attempted coups in Latin America. Source: Zacherymoe – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90872331

In Guatemala, the coup terminated what had been a young but blossoming democratic society. Castillo Armas quickly assumed the role of dictator. He immediately ended the social reforms of Árbenz and Arévalo; he also abducted and tortured hundreds of political opponents. Political parties were banned in the country, as well.14 A civil war launched immediately, with left-leaning guerilla fighters drawing on strong popular support to wage an ongoing war with government forces. Castillo Armas and the later U.S.-backed dictators would fight brutally, with some turning to the genocide of indigenous Maya peoples, with U.S. participation.15 In the end, some 200,000 or more Guatemalans died in the Guatemalan Civil War, which finally ended in 1996, more than 30 years after it began. Ultimately, the United Fruit Company’s profits continued to decline, resulting in the company’s merger with AMK to become the United Brands Company; today, UFC’s legacy lives on in the popular Chiquita brand.

  1. Walter LaFeber. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, 76-77.
  2. Stephen M. Streeter. Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954–1961, 12-13.
  3. Streeter, 14-15.
  4. Piero Gleijeses. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954, 73-84.
  5. Richard H. Immerman. The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, 64-67.
  6. Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, 72-77.
  7. Gleijeses, 59-69.
  8. Schlesinger and Kinzer, 106-107.
  9. Immerman, 165.
  10. Max Gordon, “A Case History of U. S. Subversion: Guatemala, 1954,” in Science and Society (Summer 1971).
  11. Immerman, 173-178.
  12. Schlesinger and Kinzer, 215-219.
  13. Immerman, 185.
  14. Immerman, 198-201.
  15. https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-12-29/why-you-need-know-about-guatemalas-civil-war

Published by Alexander

I have always been a student of history: in undergrad I explored both Philosophy and History as double majors, while my MA program was in Global History. My primary focus is Latin American history, with a particular interest in Chilean history. I am highly interested in examining the world around me and working to ensure that it is an equitable place for all to live. I am currently furloughed from my work in Residence Life at a small, private university, so I'm using my time and energy to explore my passions and carve out a niche for myself in the world of academia. My hometown is Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but I've lived in a few East Coast states and Oklahoma during my lifetime. My major passions include baseball, naval history and culture, and exploring and adventuring with my Queensland Heeler named Sylens. You can usually catch me listening to pop or rock music, reading historical fiction and nonfiction, or playing strategic board and video games.

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