By Jason Clingerman
In June 1954, Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown in a coup that was orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and carried out by the Guatemalan exile Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. Arbenz was targeted in large part because of his land reform policies that affected U.S. companies, namely the United Fruit Company. There was also fear that the Arbenz government was permeated with communists and that Guatemala would one day serve as a Soviet foothold in Latin America.
CIA methods employed in their Guatemalan operations included misinformation campaigns, propaganda distribution, psychological warfare, and sabotage. Assassination of key Guatemalan communists was also considered by the CIA.
While much literature has been published regarding the coup and the CIA’s involvement in it, records from the CIA operations supporting the coup tell a story of their own. In 1997 and again in 2003, the CIA performed a historical review of records relating to the coup and determined that certain documents could be released to the public. While many of these documents were redacted, they serve as the best source regarding details of the operations, known each as PBFORTUNE, PBSUCCESS, and PBHISTORY.
Hard copies of the documents released can be found at the National Archives in College Park, MD (Archives II) in the series “Records Relating to Activities in Guatemala, 1949-1996” (ARC Identifier 6106938) from Record Group 263.
Many of these documents are also available online at the CIA Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Electronic Reading Room. However, the series held at Archives II contains oversized maps and map overlays that cannot be found at the CIA FOIA Electronic Reading Room.
The CIA often used cryptonyms and pseudonyms in these documents, and explanations of what some of them mean can be found in the Department of State Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume on Guatemala. Notable individuals connected to the coup operations include Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala John E. Peurifoy; and CIA staff such as Director Allen Dulles, Richard M. Bissell, Tracy Barnes, Richard Helms, E. Howard Hunt, Walter Bedell Smith, David Atlee Phillips, J.C. King, Hans V. Tofte, and Frank Wisner.
Three particularly interesting documents can be found in this series:
- A copy of the 1994 text “Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954” by Nick Cullather, which provides the CIA’s own historical overview of the operation.
- A copy of the 1995 text “CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954” by Gerald K. Haines, which details the extent to which assassination was considered as an operational method.
- A copy of an undated training document entitled “A Study of Assassination” which explains various assassination techniques, presumably considered for use in the assassination of Guatemalan communists. (Made available by the National Security Archive)
Yet these three documents are only the tip of the iceberg for researchers. For those interested in the 1954 Guatemalan coup, or for those interested in historical CIA operations in general, the series “Records Relating to Activities in Guatemala, 1949-1996” (ARC Identifier 6106938) and the CIA FOIA Electronic Reading Room are invaluable resources. See what’s online, or come to Archives II to check out the documents for yourself!