Small Wars Journal

The Guatemalan Prelude

Mon, 08/06/2012 - 12:31am

ABSTRACT: This essay examines the CIA’s first covert Latin American operation during the Cold War, and the way in which the agency’s leadership used the Monroe Doctrine to justify their actions. Although the Monroe Doctrine had been amended and changed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the culmination of this transformation was most apparent during operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS (1952-1954) in Guatemala. The way in which the Monroe Doctrine was interpreted by the Dulles brothers, presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and other high ranking U.S. policymakers sheds light on the origins of the Cold War transformation in American foreign policy, especially in the Western hemisphere. The construction of “International Communism” as a concrete, colonizing force rather than a political ideology was used to fit into the Monroe Doctrine’s prevention of hemispheric colonization by European powers. This essay concludes that the Washington-professed legitimacy of the now-infamous operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS in Guatemala were based primarily on a misguided interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine and the ‘International Communist’ threat against which it defended, thus conclusively ending the ‘grand American concert’ and uprooting American policy from its past.

The Monroe Doctrine defined American foreign policy in Cold War Latin America. By the 1950s, U.S. policymakers were using its message -- that “The American continents...are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization”[1] -- as a powerful legitimizer for their paramilitary interventions on the continent. Perhaps the most striking characteristics of this bold document were its underlying political implications, and the way in which these intimations would evolve in Cold War Latin America, most importantly between 1952 and 1954 during operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS in Guatemala.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Monroe’s Doctrine evolved, resulting in a document of interventionist rationale. By the 1950s, United States policymakers were invoking Monroe’s ideas to justify intervention in Communist-threatened states to prevent what was largely seen as an “ideological colonization.”[2] The Monroe Doctrine became the foundation upon which the United States’ Cold War policy in Latin America was built. At a macro-level, this importance applied to every facet of the covert war on Communism -- particularly the morally dubious nature of CIA operations across the southern continent -- but to fully appreciate the connections between 1823 and the 1950s it is most expedient to examine a single case: the legacy of United States Cold War operations in Guatemala.

The Washington-professed legitimacy of the now-infamous operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS in Guatemala were based primarily on a misguided interpretation of Monroe’s Doctrine and the ‘International Communist’ threat against which it defended, thus conclusively ending the ‘grand American concert’ and uprooting American policy from its past.

Only weeks before the start of the American-backed coup d’etat in Guatemala, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stood before an anxious crowd at the tenth Inter-American Conference (TIAC) in 1954, and using grandiose ‘Monrovian’ language, justified his country’s overt denunciation of the ‘Communist creep’ and impending violation of Guatemalan sovereignty. The crowd was anxious, and a quiet humming persisted throughout Dulles’ speech. The nuclear world which Dulles addressed in 1954 was one that the fundamentally pacifistic Monroe Doctrine could not attend, but to which it was nevertheless applied. The 1954 conference had originally been convened to consider hemispheric economic problems -- which had arisen out of the imbalance between United States and Latin American trade -- but was quickly transformed into a stage on which the United States could project its own form of ‘Monrovian diplomacy.’ The readjustment of the United States-Latin American trade pattern was the “least important item on Secretary Dulles’ schedule of priorities. [His] primary objective was to complete the diplomatic isolation of Guatemala.”[3] Dulles’ objectives were to be achieved by the passage of an anti-Communist resolution of his own making. The lever used to induce Latin American delegates to accept his implicitly anti-Guatemalan plan was strictly economic in nature. It is important to note that many Latin American delegates doubted the relevance of “International Communism” during Dulles’ presentation. But the fact that the United States delegation unilaterally postponed the discussion of the primary reason for which the TIAC was convened clearly “delineated the hierarchical power relationship in the Hemisphere, and set the tenor for the events to follow.”[4]

Although Latin Americans were dubious, most United States policymakers did not think that this ‘red fear’ was unfounded, and around the time that Dulles spoke in Caracas, the tendency to indict social and political reformers as Communists, part of the Soviet scheme for world domination, was most pronounced. Dulles certainly subscribed wholeheartedly to this philosophy, and he continued to believe that the USSR was expanding into Latin America throughout his career. This Cold War political theory was first tested in Guatemala, where liberal-minded reformers Juan Jose Arevalo and later Jacobo Arbenz introduced a radical policy of land-nationalization that challenged the traditional privilege held by local elites. These ominous liberal rumblings -- which culminated with Arbenz’s nationalization of United Fruit Company lands and purchase of barely functional World War II era weapons from Communist Czechoslovakia -- convinced Dulles of the need for immediate and decisive action.

Dulles called into question Latin America’s friendship to the United States, dividing the continent into two clear ideological factions -- Communist or Democratic -- leaving no room for diplomatic discussion. He sought a multinational blessing for a unilateral action, declaring that “neutrality has increasingly become obsolete and except under very exceptional circumstances, it is an immoral and shortsighted conception...every nation in the hemisphere had been penetrated by International Communists under Moscow's direction.” In essence, Dulles and his advisors sought to pan-Americanize the Monroe Doctrine.

At Caracas, the United States resolution was approved by a nearly unanimous vote, with the Guatemalan delegation voicing the sole dissension. Guatemala’s diplomatic defeat was finalized, and the “declaration of solidarity for the preservation of the political integrity of Latin American states against International Communist intervention”[5] was accepted as a Pan-American policy. Nearly a month later the CIA sponsored “invasion” of Guatemala by loyalist forces ousted Arbenz.

Jacobo Arbenz -- the object of American anger and fear -- was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 to continue a process of socioeconomic reforms begun by his predecessor that the CIA disdainfully referred to as “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic.’”[6] As early as 1952, the Truman administration viewed the Arbenz government with pronounced alarm, believing that it was violating the “spirit of the Monroe Doctrine.”[7] Although popularly elected, what was perceived as “increasing Communist influence within his government” gave rise to concern in the United States that Arbenz had established a working partnership with Moscow.[8] “Moreover,” a CIA memorandum noted, “Arbenz’s policies have damaged [United States] business interests in Guatemala; a sweeping agrarian reform calls for the expropriation and redistribution of the United Fruit Company’s land.”[9] The Dulles brothers, John and Allen, were both deeply intertwined with the corporate functions of United Fruit (UFCO); Allen, director of the CIA, was an executive board member, and John had worked as a corporate lawyer for United Fruit prior to his State Department career.

With Arbenz’s reforms targeting over 40% of UFCO land, such a “Communist front against American corporate interest” was “unacceptable,” striking directly at both the interests of United States leadership and, according to some, the nation’s economic health.[10] The United Fruit Company was seen in Washington -- perhaps because of its influence at the highest echelons of power -- as a purely “Yankee” institution. As the biggest banana growing empire in history, the UFCO controlled Central American radio, train networks, and vast tracts of land, creating what many cynics referred to as servile dictatorships in their host countries.[11] The UFCO had lost considerable investment during the Mexican Oil Expropriation in 1938. Thus, fearful of any more economic loss, it was the “primary architect responsible for the Guatemalan intervention,” working “throughout the project with the CIA.”[12] At the heart of UFCO and CIA operations was the utilization of indigenous personnel and the channeling of support through adjacent states to give the appearance of “metropolitan non-involvement.”[13] The nature of the preparations and the manner of implementation made it impossible for observers to dissemble the complicity or existence of the American intervention.

The redistribution of UFCO lands marked the culmination of a series of reform. Put into the context of the greater Cold War struggle, Arbenz’s redistribution was proof of a long-held suspicion that Communists were colonizing the Americas, on the United States’ geographic doorstep. These observations led historians to later develop “a dependency theory of Guatemalan intervention” which sought to explain the seeming hypocrisy of American involvement, given its justification. The two most pertinent tenets of this theory held that “The specter of International Communism, whether real or imaginary, was raised to lend credence to the mythical threat posed by the dominant metropole, the USSR.” Moreover, “This specter could only be pointed out if there was a struggle for power between the government and the governing class or multinational corporations [MNC].”[14] The general trend indicated that ideology was not, and had never been, the reason for such intervention. Rather, the defense of United States MNCs from the threat of expropriation in Latin America was a paramount concern of many in the North. It appeared, at least in Washington, that to the degree there “existed a clear and present danger to American MNCs abroad, there was also a threat to United States core interests internationally and domestically.”[15] Ultimately, it was this skewed definition of moral and political legitimacy that tenuously linked America’s Cold War policy to Monroe.

Declassified documents paint a picture of genuine fear at the highest levels of the United States intelligence community, contributing to the idea that Communism was threatening American sovereignty within United States national borders. However, wishing not to present the “spectacle of the elephant shaking with alarm before the mouse,”[16] the CIA urged public caution and pushed a policy of firm persuasion by withholding virtually all cooperative assistance and concluding all military pacts on the continent. Thus the development of the first covert action designed to topple the Arbenz government was born.

Judging by the wording of his doctrine, President Monroe would not have approved of what would then develop inside the halls at Langley and Washington. Following an April 1952 visit to Washington by Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza, president Truman ordered an agent, codenamed SEEKFORD, to “contact Guatemalan dissidents about an armed action against the Arbenz regime.”[17] Upon receiving the agent’s report, analysts proposed to then Deputy Director of the CIA Allen Dulles that the Agency supply Armas with arms and air support. This plan was quickly approved, and on 9 September 1952 PBFORTUNE went active.

Planning for PBFORTUNE had been underway nearly a month when the CIA received intelligence in October 1952 that their operation had been compromised. Although quickly cancelled, the Agency continued to intercept reports of assassination from Armas’ camp. In the years after the cancellation of PBFORTUNE, the CIA’s Guatemala City Station launched an ineffectual process of psychological warfare against suspected dissidents. Given their inability to effect any meaningful change in Guatemala by fall of 1953, U.S. policymakers, including CIA officials, were searching for a new overall program for dealing with Arbenz. Washington diplomats believed that he had moved closer to the Communists. In response, the National Security Council (NSC) authorized a drastic and immediate operation against Arbenz, giving the CIA full operational responsibility.[18]

Justifying their actions using the Clark Memorandum -- the 1930 addendum to Monroe’s Doctrine that “gave” the U.S. the right to intervene in Latin America -- CIA officials combined psychological warfare, economic, diplomatic, and paramilitary operations to oust Arbenz. Named PBSUCCESS, the operation endeavored “to remove covertly, and without bloodshed if possible, the menace of the present Communist-controlled government in Guatemala.”[19] The mission sought to remove a government that was “being influenced by a foreign ‘colonial’ power”[20] while at the same time supporting an indigenous movement.

This justification hid the CIA’s true basis for operations. As in PBFORTUNE, death letters were sent to top Guatemalan Communists, and a “nerve war against Communism” was launched.[21] However, PBSUCCESS was defined by a propensity towards using direct paramilitary intervention to counter what John Foster Dulles said was “the intrusion of Soviet despotic ideology in Guatemala: a direct challenge to our Monroe Doctrine, the first and most fundamental of our foreign policies.”[22] Thus CIA officials focused on training and equipping a minority of Nicaraguan-based forces loyal to Armas who would eventually come to overthrow the regime. And the next few months -- during operation PBSUCCESS -- witnessed the completion of the operational and rhetorical groundwork for the all-encompassing CIA brainchild: The Guatemalan coup d’etat.  

On 16 June 1954, Castillo Armas’ CIA-supported force of armed exiles entered the country, advancing tentatively but taking the capital within a few days. On 27 June, in a bitterly anti-American speech, Arbenz resigned his office. Secretary Dulles later remarked that it was a great day in American diplomatic history on which Arbenz fell, one of which president Monroe would have been proud. The seemingly unqualified success of the mission translated into a decade of American hubris. A CIA memorandum supported this idyllic perception of Communist “rats on the sinking Guatemalan ship.”[23]

In the wake of the “Guatemalan prelude,” Washington diplomats solidified their “culture of fear”[24] by contrasting “Communist despotism” to the idea of a “Monrovian paradise.”[25] So effective were these efforts to frighten Latin America into obedience that after the Guatemalan coup, only a select few countries -- including Mexico -- condemned it as unlawful. As revisionist historians now posit, it was not because the Guatemalan government had denied American business interests or embraced a liberal ideology that it incurred the United States’ wrath, but rather that “Jacobo Arbenz above all challenged Washington’s culture of fear, returning to 500,000 people land that they desperately needed.”[26]

The ostracism of Latin American nations deemed “undesirable” by the United States marked a severe turning point in the overall political system in Latin America. Hemispheric relationships faltered in the years following the 1954 coup. Many Latin American republics felt that United States influence would bring about further polarization of a system which had sustained continental trade and relative international peace for the 130 years. The Guatemalan coup, while celebrated in Washington, would create a far more dangerous world for United States diplomats to maneuver. Straying from the document’s original boldness, “Washington analysts had used Monroe’s Doctrine to justify their fear.”[27] This culture of fear formed much of the fabric of post-coup Guatemalan society.

In the years following the coup, Guatemala became a “kind of pilot project for Washington diplomats.”[28] The post 1954 period in the country provided Washington with its first practical experience using economic aid to stabilize a “liberated” Latin American polity. The Eisenhower Administration later announced that it was planning to make Guatemala “a showcase of democracy” using large sums of American economic assistance to turn the nation into a model of capitalist development. Accordingly, while foreign assistance to Guatemala had totaled only $2.5 million in the 1951-1954 period, this sum skyrocketed to over $101.2 million -- including $18 million from the United States controlled World Bank -- from 1955 through 1958.

Despite United States aid and technical assistance, Guatemala never became the envisaged model of democracy. By 1961, the country was back in the hands of the military elite, and oligarchy “paved the way for a police-state.”[29] This result highlighted Washington’s perversion of Monroe’s message most clearly, leading to the loss of its credibility on a grander scale than could be countered by any attempt at Latin American hearts and minds.

The Communist creep could not be confronted by the Monroe Doctrine, which was originally designed to defend against a concrete, nineteenth century colonial enemy. Nor could it be interpreted as loosely as it had been. Washington diplomats had, by the end of the 1954 coup, taken Monroe’s Doctrine too far; they had abused its original meaning too much so that its bruised message could no longer be recognized.

The Guatemalan people had seen American involvement in Latin American affairs until that point as fundamentally Monrovian, that is, based on the protection of their own welfare. However, by the end of 1954, the Monrovian ‘Pan-American utopia’ that had defined Latin American progress during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was gone, as one Guatemalan village leader declared to an American interviewer in 1999: “we are both now old. How is it that we came to fight each other, and almost lost our lives in what turned out to be a pointless battle between two who used to be such close friends?”[30]

The Monroe Doctrine had taken on a life of its own in the years following the coup. As Salvador de Madariaga noted in 1962, “I conclude that the Monroe Doctrine is a dogma. Not one dogma but two, to wit: the dogma of the infallibility of the American President and the dogma of the immaculate conception of American foreign policy.”[31]

At the heart of Madariaga’s confusion lies the ambiguous enemy against which the Monroe Doctrine was to defend during the Cold War, according to Washington: “International Communism.”[32] As the State Department vehemently warned, “the threat of International Communism is upon the Americas.”[33] But what was this International Communism?

As defined by the United States government, it was more than simply an idea or even an ideology. It was manifest in physical form. The Monroe Doctrine did not prevent or denounce an abstract colonization of the Americas by ideas. The United States in 1823 fostered no political ambition to prevent an alien idea to take root in Pan-American soil. There was no empire to protect, and no single menace, aside from colonialism itself. Most importantly, Latin America was not the central focus of the doctrine. At the time of its enunciation, it was intended essentially as a policy towards Europe; it was not a policy for the hemisphere. The Cold War finalized the reversal of this trend.

This distinction is very important, for it underscored Washington’s Cold War transformation of its most cherished foreign policy document. The Monroe Doctrine originated to prevent the future colonization of the American continents by European powers. However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, observers noted that two doctrines had formed from the first: “One promulgated by the President; and the other, the distorted Doctrine of the Corollaries. The authentic one [had] been pushed into the background.”[34] The suppression of the original message opened an avenue for ‘Cold Warriors’ to justify their hypocritical fear of self-determination in Latin America. The creation of “International Communism,” not simply “Communism” or even a “Communist menace,” was a key component of this development. By uprooting Communism from the nationalistic context, American policymakers distanced themselves from the patriotic indigenous movements they were trying to suppress. They viewed Communism as an extension of the Soviet mainland, as the manifestation of Russian soldiers, aircraft, and ships. To even to lean left politically in such an environment, meant, in essence, allowing colonization to happen.

To confront this “enemy,” the Monroe Doctrine was unilaterally forced to become a dialogue. Its spirit was in part preserved, but the avenues through which that spirit was expressed did not survive the Cold War. With the advent of “International Communism,” Washington divided the world in two, and universalized the struggle. The new Cold War Monroe Doctrine declared that there were no ideas except for the western conception of democracy. Communism constituted not a “theory nor a doctrine, but a tough political force backed by the resources of the most ruthless empire in modern times.”[35]  Thus, Dulles could qualify his 1954 statement in Caracas by arguing:

Today’s situation is no different than that in 1823. It is interesting to recall the menace which brought the doctrine itself into being was itself a menace born in Russia. It was the Russian Czar Alexander and his despotic allies in South America who, early in the last century, sought control of South America and the western part of North America. President Monroe confronted this challenge...These sentiments serves us well today.[36]

The United States’ operations in Guatemala between 1952 and 1954 marked a paradigm shift in the conception of socially liberal ideology. Despite every effort made in Washington, the ‘Pan-American harmony’ was effectively ended. With Washington refusing to admit any involvement in the Guatemalan coup until decades later, the American political elite remained stuck in their conceived paradise of morality until the end of the Cold War. It was this ultimate irony that most poignantly summarized the “Guatemalan Prelude,” and led many analysts to mutter, “the Monroe Doctrine is dead. Long live the Monroe Doctrine.”

[1] James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, "The Monroe Doctrine," 1823.

[2]  Ernest E. May, The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1992), 67.

[3] Jose Aybar de Soto, Dependency and Intervention (Westview Press, 1978), 278.

[4] Ibid., 239.

[5] Ibid., 239.

[6] Daniel James, Red Design for the Americas: The Guatemalan Prelude (New York City: John Day Company, 1954), 120.

[7] Ibid., 122.

[8] Ibid., 122.

[9] "CIA and Guatemalan Assassination Proposals 1952-1954," June 1995, National Security Agency Archives, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Aybar de Soto, 239.

[12] Ibid., 244.

[13] Ibid., 225.

[14]  Aybar de Soto, 293-295.

[15] Ibid., 295.

[16] "CIA and Guatemalan Assassination Proposals 1952-1954," June 1995, National Security Agency Archives, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981), 127.

[19] Ibid., 128.

[20] Introduction to International Communism, (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of State, 1954), 11-13.

[21] Dispatch COS Guatemala City to LINCOLN, "Death Notices" April 19, 1954, Box 99 (S), Central Intelligence Agency Archives, NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/cia-guatemala1_11.html.

[22] Introduction to International Communism, 11-13.

[23] "Jacobo Arbenz, ex-President of Guatemala -- operations against," May 15, 1957, Central Intelligence Agency Archives, Central Intelligence Agency, Freedom of Information Act,

[24] Nick Cullather, "The Culture of Fear," afterword to Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala 1952-1954 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 320.

[25] James, 386.

[26] Cullather, 322.

[27] Cullather, 323.

[28] Barry, 6-7.

[29] Ibid., 10.

[30] Ibid., 111.

[31] Salvador Madaragia, Latin America between the Eagle and the Bear (New York, 1962), 74.

[32] Introduction to International Communism, 15.

[33] Ibid., 16.

[34] Ibid., 159.

[35] Ibid., 14.

[36]  John Foster Dulles, "International Communism is Guatemala," in The Monroe Doctrine: Its Modern Significance, by Donald Marquand Dozer (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).


About the Author(s)

Matthew Schweitzer is the founding editor of The Post-War Watch, an online repository of original analysis about the legacy of western operations in the Middle East. He is the Dean's Scholar at the University of Chicago, where he is a Research Assistant in the History Department studying Russia and the Cold War.