Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Guatemalan Intervention (1954)

Covert U.S.-sponsored coup against the Guatemalan regime of Jacobo Arbenz, whose policies were deemed communistic and a threat to U.S. interests. The 1954 intervention in Guatemala represented a successful covert operation backed by the United States and engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a region that had often witnessed direct U.S. military intervention in the early twentieth century.

At the beginning of the Cold War, Latin America ranked low on the list of U.S. priorities. In fact, when the newly created CIA evaluated Soviet aims in Latin America in late 1947, it concluded that there was almost no possibility of a communist takeover anywhere in the area. At the same time, there existed a major disagreement over hemispheric priorities between the United States and Latin America. While the United States stressed strategic concerns, Latin American nations constantly pressed the United States to help promote economic development. Although the United States was primarily concerned with promoting stability in the area, it did not automatically oppose major change, as its substantial support for revolutionary Bolivia in the 1950s demonstrated.

The evolving situation in Guatemala, however, provoked a much different American response. U.S. policymakers' concerns with Guatemala began in 1944 upon the overthrow of longtime dictator General Jorge Ubico. The succeeding administrations of Juan José Arévalo (1945–1951), an educator, and Jacobo Arbenz (1951–1954), a reform-minded army colonel, implemented a nationalist, reformist program. These reforms soon led to a conflict between the government and foreign-owned companies, especially the powerful United Fruit Company (UFCO), an American-owned corporation. These companies had influential friends and lobbyists in Washington, and the U.S. government was increasingly concerned about the growing influence of communists in Guatemala, especially in the labor movement and in the agrarian reform program. Arbenz's new labor policy led the UFCO to pressure the U.S. government to impose economic sanctions, but the Truman administration refused to be drawn into the growing controversy. In June 1952 the Arbenz government implemented new agrarian legislation providing for the expropriation of uncultivated lands, with compensation in government bonds. In early 1953, the Guatemalan government used this legislation to expropriate the UFCO's unused land. The new U.S. administration of Dwight Eisenhower vigorously protested the action as discriminatory and the method of compensation as inadequate, although past American administrations had considered payment in bonds as satisfactory.

The Eisenhower administration responded with a two-track policy: a diplomatic track pursued by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and a military track under his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles. Both of the Dulles brothers had connections to the UFCO; John Foster Dulles had worked for a law firm representing UFCO, while brother Allen had served on the company's board of directors. At the diplomatic level, John Foster Dulles moved for action against Guatemala at the Tenth Inter-American Conference at Caracas in March 1954, where he personally headed the U.S. delegation. Dulles, however, encountered the usual Latin American desire to discuss economic problems, not the perceived communist threat to the American republics. After two weeks of negotiations, the conference unenthusiastically passed a resolution classifying international communism as a threat to the independence of American states and calling for a consultative meeting of foreign ministers to deal with specific cases. Neither Dulles nor the resolution specifically mentioned Guatemala, although Guatemala cast the only vote against the resolution.

The resolution of the Guatemalan situation ultimately reflected the second track being pursued by the United States. The CIA had already begun arming and training a group of Guatemalan exiles, led by Guatemalan Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, in late 1953. On 18 June 1954, this force of approximately 150 men invaded Guatemala from neighboring Honduras. Supporting the invasion force were three aircraft based in Nicaragua and flown by civilian pilots, most of whom were U.S. citizens or CIA operatives. The key to the intervention's success was neither the rebel force nor the CIA but rather the attitude assumed by the regular Guatemalan Army, which refused to mount any significant opposition to the invasion. When Arbenz took matters into his own hands and tried to arm his civilian supporters, the army prevented the move and instead forced the resignation of Arbenz on 27 June. A military junta appointed Armas provisional president on 7 July. Armas indicated the direction that his regime would take when he returned the UFCO lands expropriated under Arbenz. The U.S. government responded by recognizing the new government on 13 July and by providing military, economic, and technical aid to the new regime.

The Arbenz government had initially hoped for international support in the crisis. Guatemala twice appealed to the United Nations Security Council to end the fighting but received only a watered-down resolution calling for an end to any actions that might cause further bloodshed. The Organization of American States (OAS) responded to the Guatemalan situation on 28 June, the day after Arbenz resigned. The OAS Council called for a meeting of foreign ministers in Rio for 7 July, although the rapid consolidation of power by Armas ended the crisis, and the Rio meeting was never held.

The decision by the Eisenhower administration to intervene in Guatemala was influenced by the earlier (August–September 1953) CIA-backed coup in Iran, which had toppled a nationalist regime and restored the pro-American Shah of Iran to power. The lessons of Iran were applied to Guatemala. The lessons of Guatemala would in turn be applied to Cuba with disastrous results during the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961. The United States had successfully kept the Guatemalan crisis a hemispheric issue to be handled by the OAS, but the American role in Arbenz's ouster violated one of the most important provisions of the OAS Charter: the prohibition on intervention. The Eisenhower administration clearly believed that the Guatemalan operation was a major victory in the Cold War and that such covert operations offered an effective and inexpensive way of dealing with similar problems in the future. The intervention itself did little to promote peace or stability in Guatemala. Armas was assassinated in July 1957, and bitter political divisions and the socioeconomic issues behind them continue to haunt Guatemala in the twenty-first century.

Don M. Coerver


Further Reading
Immerman, Richard H. The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.; Schlesinger, Stephen, and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.; Schneider, Ronald M. Communism in Guatemala, 1944–1954. New York: Praeger, 1959.
 

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