The CIA in Guatemala

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.

Map of PBSUCCESS from Nick Cullather’s CIA history of the operation

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.

Chart of communications channels from a November 16, 1954 report on PBSUCCESS

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.

Drawing from an October 1, 1954 summary of PBHISTORY

Three particularly interesting documents can be found in this series:

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!

3 thoughts on “The CIA in Guatemala

  1. Good job, Jason. Love it when someone can use a knowledge of our holdings, a knowledge of holdings from other institutions (CIA, National Security Archive, etc), and a familiarity with secondary sources, to tie a research topic together. Your article is an example of what researchers really want from the professional staff at NARA. It’s a great example of “world class customer service.”

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