“War in the Modern World” Details Overthrow of Guatemala by CIA

eisenhower-approved plot led to CIA ouster of guatemalan president

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

In the 1950s, Guatemala elected Jacobo Arbenz as president. It was suspected he was secretly a Communist, and his policies hurt American business interests. This week on Wondrium Shorts, see how the CIA ousted him from office.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the “Good Neighbor Policy,” which began a period of cooperation between the United States and several Latin American countries. Just 21 years later, the CIA—with the approval of President Dwight Eisenhower—launched a campaign to overthrow Guatemala’s elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. It was a glaring difference of policy brought on by, among other factors, the Cold War.

So why and how did the Agency overthrow Arbenz? In his video series War in the Modern World, Dr. David R. Stone, the William E. Odom Professor of Russian Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, outlines the CIA plot that overthrew the Guatemalan government.

This Bit Is Bananas

What were the benefits of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy?

“Because most of these governments were right-wing and aimed at protecting private property—both foreign and elite—this put them in line with American priorities,” Dr. Stone said. “During the Cold War, right-wing Latin American governments were reliably anti-Communist. Jacobo Arbenz became Guatemala’s democratically elected president in 1951, and he advanced a program of social change begun by his predecessor.”

One component of Arbenz’s social reform program included land reform aimed at distributing property from landlords to peasants. According to Dr. Stone, this plan upset Guatemalan elites but also the U.S.-based United Front Company, now known as Chiquita, who had extensive business interests in Guatemalan banana plantations.

“United Fruit lobbied the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower against Arbenz,” Dr. Stone said. “And the U.S. government was always suspicious that Arbenz was a secret Communist. With Eisenhower’s approval, the CIA planned Arbenz’s overthrow.”

Like a Good Neighbor

During the Cold War, the CIA typically gave money, training, expertise, or weapons to local partners. Due to Latin America’s deeply divided politics at the time, finding allies was easy. Arbenz’s social changes had brought about much local opposition. With help from a disaffected army officer, the CIA carried out their plan in June 1954. Several hundred recruits entered Guatemala via Honduras and CIA planes buzzed around the capital.

“A CIA-sponsored radio station broadcast that the invasion was an overwhelming success, and that Guatemala’s army was abandoning Arbenz,” Dr. Stone said. “This became a self-fulfilling prophecy [and] Arbenz fled into exile in Mexico. His ouster didn’t bring peace and order, however; a long-running civil war led to as many as 200,000 dead—most at the hands of the government—until a tenuous peace was reached in 1996.”

According to Dr. Stone, the Arbenz ouster exhibited a pattern of Latin American politics with little variation: bitter disputes between left- and right-wing factions, sometimes with unspeakable bloodshed, and U.S. involvement to curb Communist and Communist-leaning interests.

Guatemala undid any progress made by Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and reignited Latin American suspicions of the United States’ motives and meddling.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily