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 magazine2 (which has been defunct since the 1960s). 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…

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