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Is the CIA Necessary?

Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954 Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C.

by Nicholas Cullather. History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central
available from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 116 pp.

CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954

by Gerald K. Haines. CIA History Staff Analysis
available from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 12 pp.

Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs

by Richard M. Bissell Jr.
Yale University Press, 268 pp., $35.00

Secrecy: Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy

Chairmen: Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Larry Combest
Government Printing Office, 114 with appendices pp.


Of all the organizations that miss having the Soviet Union as an enemy, the CIA has undoubtedly been hit the hardest. The reason is that the CIA was specifically established in 1947 to struggle with the Soviet enemy. Whatever sins the CIA was later guilty of, they could always be excused by its defenders on the ground that the Soviet Union did the same things or worse; one had to fight fire with fire. But now, the enemy has vanished. Its most dedicated American antagonist has been deprived of its mission. The CIA wanders about in a wilderness of self-doubt and recrimination.

Just how serious the CIA’s present crisis is may be shown by what has happened to two of its proudest triumphs. For years, the CIA boasted of its success in overthrowing the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953 and the Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954. These feats came early in the development of the agency and enormously helped it to gain the confidence of presidents and other governmental leaders. In subsequent years, nothing the CIA did equaled the dispatch and economy with which these regimes were eliminated.

In 1992, the CIA took on a young historian, Nicholas Cullather, who had recently completed a Ph.D. dissertation. He spent a year at the CIA restudying the Guatemalan operation and came out with a 116-page narrative of the events, called Operation PBSUCCESS. It was classified “Secret” in 1994 and declassified in 1997. But it was also “sanitized,” and various portions, especially names, have been eliminated from the text. Nevertheless, it is substantially intact and tells the story with an authority that it has never had before. Cullather was lucky because the Guatemalan records were still available for study, unlike the records of some other CIA operations. 1

The CIA, according to Cullather, viewed the events in Guatemala “not in a Guatemalan context but as part of a global pattern of Communist activity.” Political changes had been going on in Guatemala for a decade since the overthrow of the dictator Jorge Ubico by a group of army officers in 1944. The election of one of those officers, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, in 1950, with the support of the army and leftist parties, was for Guatemalans another stage in the process. Among those parties, however, was a tiny Guatemalan Communist Party, and that was enough for the CIA. In a nation of almost three million, the party had fewer than two hundred active members. Guatemala had in fact been a virtual colony of the United Fruit Co., and Arbenz was determined to break its grip on the country.

It happens that I went to Guatemala, before the overthrow of Arbenz, as a correspondent for The Reporter magazine^2. When I wanted to travel by train, I found that the International Railways of Central Amer-ica, valued then at $80 million, were owned by United Fruit; the big complaint was that it was more interested in carrying freight than people. When I wanted to send a telegraph message, I was told that the telegraph was controlled by United Fruit. So was the local newspaper. When I went to the American embassy for information, I was told that the most complete files were possessed by the United Fruit office in Guatemala City. When I wanted to see the vast United Fruit banana plantation, I was taken there in a United Fruit plane, which was the only way to get there. The only decent hospital was run by United Fruit at its plantation. Except for a few minor coffee plantations and some handicrafts, United Fruit’s bananas were the only important industry in the country.

Cullather found that “there is evidence that the Truman administration encouraged the company to take a hard line” against the Arbenz regime. With the backing of the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, the CIA decided to overthrow Arbenz and put in his place a dissident Guatemalan army officer, Carlos Castillo Armas. Cullather retells in detail from CIA sources the partially comic-opera story of how Arbenz was deprived of support from the Guatemalan army and prevailed on to resign. Castillo Armas staged an “invasion” of Guatemala from Honduras with 480 troops; they presented no threat to the much larger Guatemalan army and could easily have been put down. But the regular army officers convinced themselves that Castillo Armas’s ragged followers were merely the advance guard of US Marines. If that had not been their belief, they might well have stuck with Arbenz, who did not threaten their privileges.

For “agency observers in Miami and Washington,” Cullather writes, “what happened in the next few days seemed curious and magical. Just as the entire operation seemed beyond saving, the Guatemalan government suddenly, inexplicably, collapsed. The Agency never found out why.” Instead, “an Agency legend developed.” The CIA spread the word that Arbenz had “lost his nerve” as a result of its psychological pressure and radio propaganda. In fact, Cullather writes, “Arbenz was deposed in a military coup.” The CIA’s shenanigans had had little to do with it.

After Arbenz resigned, five successive juntas took over the presidential palace in eleven days. Finally, the US ambassador, John Peurifoy, “bullied and cajoled” and managed to put together a successor administration, including Castillo Armas, who was later assassinated by a member of the presidential guard. Cullather makes it clear that the Guatemalan operation was so inept that it would have resulted in a complete disaster if the Guatemalan army and Arbenz had not panicked and caved in. Instead, the story “went into Agency lore as an unblemished triumph.”

When it was over, President Eisenhower was formally briefed by the operation’s managers. Eisenhower asked how many men Castillo Armas had lost. Only one was the answer. “Incredible,” Eisenhower remarked. It was incredible because, as Cullather states, the briefer had “lied.”

As if this were not enough, a much shorter CIA study by Gerald K. Haines has revealed the details of the “CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954.” It was also declassified in 1997. This work shows that Castillo Armas first proposed to the CIA the assassination of fifty-eight Guatemalans who he claimed were leftist supporters of Arbenz. “CIA planning for sabotage teams in early 1954,” Haines writes, “also included creating a ‘K’ group trained to perform assassinations.” A CIA official, whose name has been “sanitized,” thought that the assassination of a smaller number, “say 20, would be sufficient.” In April 1954, “CIA received further Department of State encouragement for assassination plotting.”

Haines sums up: “CIA officers responsible for planning and implementing covert action against the Arbenz government engaged in extensive discussions over a two-and-a-half year period about the possibility of assassinating Guatemalan officials [an additional phrase sanitized].” Within the CIA, “discussions of assassinations reached a high level.” But “no covert plan involving assassinations of Guatemalans was ever approved or implemented.” In both the CIA and the State Department, “officers were divided (and undecided) about using assassination.” But it took two decades after the Guatemalan events for William Colby, then the CIA’s director, to prohibit CIA involvement in assassination. Yet former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft recently admitted that President Bush authorized the CIA to create the conditions for the killing of Saddam Hussein by “some elements in the military.”3

Haines limits his story to CIA assassination proposals in Guatemala, and as a result he says nothing about the efforts of the CIA to enlist the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba.4 We now know of three aborted CIA plans to assassinate leaders in Guatemala, Cuba, and Iraq, but nothing about assassinations that were actually carried out.

No such CIA studies have been or can be done on the operation against Mossadegh in Iran. The agency has admitted that almost all the documents were deliberately destroyed in the 1960s.5 We know a good deal about the operation, especially from the CIA official in charge of it, Kermit Roosevelt, but that is not the same as a neutral historian’s study of the CIA documents.6 The records of other CIA operations have also been stripped bare. There could have been only one reason for this purge of the records. The CIA had much to hide and decided to do it in the most effective way—by destroying the official record. This auto-da-fé of the paperwork is a self-accusation, but it has deprived us of a clear and comprehensive insight into an important part of American history.

Yet the Guatemalan and Iranian operations were once considered “unblemished triumphs.” In retrospect, they became preludes to disaster. In Guatemala itself, a reign of terror by the army followed, especially against the indigenous Indians, and lasted for decades. The United States intervened to overthrow Arbenz but did little or nothing to stop the Guatemalan army from terrorizing the people. In the end, the operation against Arbenz helped to mislead the CIA into backing the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba. The Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was put back on the throne but later proved to be unable to resist the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose successors still rule in Iran. The “unblemished triumphs” did not wear well and ended in failures.

Cullather’s CIA study of the Guatemalan operation does not fully agree with the more recent, posthumously published version by a CIA veteran, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., who watched the events from inside the CIA. Bissell had joined the agency not long before the operation against Arbenz was launched; he attended the staff meetings held by Allen Dulles, the first director, and later participated in some of the preparations for the campaign against Arbenz. Bissell writes that the coup against him was “definitely on Eisenhower’s mind.” Eisenhower approved the plan to oust Arbenz and put Castillo Armas in his place.

Of the greatest interest, however, are Bissell’s second thoughts about the Guatemalan operation. While it was going on, he was all for aggressiveness and risk-taking. Although Cullather says that the CIA was mystified by the sudden turn in Arbenz’s fortunes, Bissell claims that “the CIA was not completely surprised by Arbenz’s confrontation with the military and his subsequent resignation.” Both agree that the major factor was that “Arbenz felt that he was up against the might of the United States.” But Bissell surprisingly claims that the CIA officials did not take this factor into consideration in their estimate of how Arbenz might react.

By the time he came to work on his memoirs, Bissell saw that the operations in Guatemala and Iran were not “unblemished triumphs.”

Regrettably, the success in Guatemala, combined with the previous success in Iran in 1953, led Washington policy makers to overestimate the agency’s abilities in the area of covert action. For many policy makers outside the CIA, covert action became a quick fix, an easy way to deal with hostile foreign leaders and renegade nation-states. Certainly the agency’s success in Guatemala against Arbenz influenced its judgment in mounting the Bay of Pigs operation against Castro.

  1. 1

    Cullather’s book will be published next year by Stanford University Press under the title The CIA’s Secret History of Its Guatemalan Coup. There have been previous academic studies of the Guatemala operation: Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (Doubleday, 1982); Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (University of Texas Press, 1982); Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954 (Princeton University Press, 1991). Cullather was able to use the CIA documents on the Guatemalan events because Stephen Schlesinger had filed a lawsuit to get them under the then relatively new Freedom of Information Act. The CIA won the lawsuit but was inhibited from destroying the documents. Schlesinger believes that the 1,400 pages on the Guatemalan events recently released by the CIA do not do justice to the 180,000 pages previously admitted to be in its possession. (See The Nation, July 14, 1997.)

  2. 3

    Unfinished Business—The CIA and Saddam Hussein,” ABC News special, June 26, 1997.

  3. 4

    The Cuban assassination scheme is discussed by the former CIA official Richard M. Bissell, Jr., in his posthumously published Reflections of a Cold Warrior, pp. 157-158. He says that the Mafia connection came under the CIA’s Office of Security. Bissell supported the plan but was not personally involved “mainly because I was not competent to handle relations with the Mafia.” Later, Bissell “came to believe that it had been a great mistake to involve the Mafia in an assassination attempt…. These were people who were not subject to any kind of security control by the agency, and they posed a great risk.”

  4. 5

    See Tim Weiner, “CIA Destroyed Files on 1953 Iran Coup,” The New York Times, May 29, 1997, p. A19.

  5. 6

    Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran (McGraw-Hill, 1981).

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