Eisenhower on Guatemala, 1954

From Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mandate for Change, The White House Years, 1953-1956. Gaiden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1963. 421-426.

      The troubles had been long-standing, reaching back nine years to the Guatemalan revolution of 1944, which had resulted in the overthrow of the dictator General Jorge Ubico. Thereafter, the Communists busied themselves with agitating and with infiltrating labor unions, peasant organizations, and the press and radio. In 1950 a military officer, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, came to power and by his actions soon created the strong suspicion that he was merely a puppet manipulated by Communists.

      The American republics wanted no Communist regime within their midst. They recognized that subversion by Communism was only another form of aggression, even more evil than that achieved by naked military force. However, in unstable regions where revolutions and rioting were not uncommon, where some governments were being maintained by dictatorial means, where resentments against the United States were sometimes nurtured by groups other than Communist cells, it was difficult to differentiate positively between Communist influence and uncontrolled and politically rebellious groups. For example, on February 24, 1953, the Arbenz government announced its intention, under an agrarian reform law, to seize about 225,000 acres of unused United Fruit Company land. The company lost its appeal to the Guatemalan Supreme Court to prevent this discriminatory and unfair seizure. (Of all lands expropriated, two thirds belonged to United Fruit. In return the company was to receive the woefully inadequate compensation of $600,000 in long-term non-negotiable agrarian bonds.)

      Expropriation in itself does not, of course, prove Communism; expropriation of oil and agricultural properties years before in Mexico had not been fostered by Communists.

      Approximately six weeks after the announcement of the United Fruit Company land seizure, however, Guatemala withdrew from the five-nation Organization of Central American States, alleging aggression by Guatemala's neighbors. In this instance, the real reason was apparent: Guatemala could not risk participation in a debate on an anti-Communist resolution scheduled for presentation by El Salvador at a forthcoming meeting of the organization.

      Arbenz denied that his government was Communist, a denial that was issued in a speech at a May Day celebration featuring seventy thousand marchers. . . .

      About that time a new ambassador, John E. Peurifoy, was appointed to Guatemala. He was familiar with the tactics of the Communists in Greece, where he had served. Peurifoy soon reached definite conclusions on the nature of the Arbenz government. . . .

      Something had to be done quickly. The first task was to marshal and crystallize Latin American public opinion on the issue. The opportunity presented itself at the Tenth Inter-American Conference of the Organization of the American States (OAS) which met in Caracas, Venezuela, in March of 1954. At that meeting the United States urged the adoption of a joint condemnation of Communism, contending vigorously that it should not be permitted to control any state in the Western Hemisphere. [Secretary of State John] Foster Dulles, representing the United States, argued that if Communism should succeed to this extent, it should be treated as a threat to the peace. On March 6 he introduced a draft resolution of a "Declaration of Solidarity for the Preservation of the Political Integrity of the American States against International Communist Intervention.". . .

      On March 26, in plenary session, the organization approved the resolution by a vote of seventeen to one, with Guatemala opposing, and Argentina and Mexico abstaining--Costa Rica was absent. . . .

      In the two months from March to May, 1954, the agents of international Communism in Guatemala continued their efforts to penetrate and subvert their neighboring Central American states, using consular agents for their political purposes and fomenting political assassinations and strikes. In Guatemala itself the government answered protests by suspending constitutional rights, conducting mass arrests, and killing leaders in the political opposition.

      In May things came to a head. On the 17th of that month Foster Dulles reported to the press that the United States had reliable information on a shipment of arms from behind the Iron Curtain. The arms had been loaded on the Alfhem, a Swedish ship chartered by a British company, at the East German Baltic port of Stettin. The ship was at that moment being unloaded at Puerto Barrios in Guatemala. The ship had mysteriously changed its announced destination and its course three times en route, apparently in an effort to confuse observers. We learned that the cargo contained two thousand tons of small arms, ammunition, and light artillery pieces manufactured in the Skoda arms factory in Czechoslovakia. This quantity far exceeded any legitimate, normal requirements for the Guatemalan armed forces.

      On May 19 Nicaragua broke diplomatic ties with Guatemala. Five days later we announced that the United States was airlifting arms to Honduras and Nicaragua to help counter the danger created by the Czech shipment to Guatemala. Our initial shipment comprised only fifty tons of rifles, pistols, machine guns, and ammunition, hardly enough to create apprehension in neighboring states. . . .

      Meanwhile, in Guatemala, Arbenz had declared a state of siege and launched a reign of terror. Then on June 18 armed forces under Carlos Castillo Armas, an exiled former colonel in the Guatemalan Army, crossed the border from Honduras into Guatemala, initially with a mere handful of men--reportedly about two hundred. As he progressed he picked up recruits. Simultaneously three obsolete bombers, presumably under his direction, buzzed Guatemala City and bombed the ordnance depot. Things seemed to be going well for Castillo's small band until June 22. On that date [CIA Director] Allen Dulles reported to me that Castillo had lost two of the three old bombers with which he was supporting his "invasion.". . .

      "What do you think Castillo's chances would be," I asked Allen Dulles, "without the aircraft?"

      His answer was unequivocal: "About zero."

      "Suppose we supply the aircraft. What would the chances be then?"

      Again the CIA chief did not hesitate: "About 20 percent."

      I considered the matter carefully. I realized full well that United States intervention in Central America and Caribbean affairs earlier in the century has greatly injured our standing in all of Latin America. On the other hand, it seemed to me that to refuse to cooperate in providing indirect support to a strictly anti-Communist faction in this struggle would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Caracas resolution. I had faith in the strength of the inter-American resolve therein set forth. On the actual value of a shipment of planes, I knew from experience the important psychological impact of even a small amount of air support. In any event, our proper course of action--indeed my duty--was clear to me. We would replace the airplanes. . . .

      The major factor in the successful outcome was the disaffection of the Guatemalan armed forces and the population as a whole with the tyrannical regime of Arbenz. The air support enjoyed by Castillo Armas, though meager, was important in relative terms; it gave the regular armed forces an excuse to take action in their own hands to throw out Arbenz. The rest of Latin America was not in the least displeased. . . .

      By the middle of 1954 Latin America was free, for the time being at least, of any fixed outposts of Communism.



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