The 1954 CIA Guatemala Coup

03:25 PM ET 05/22/97

CIA to lift veil on 1954 coup in Guatemala

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuter) – The Central Intelligence Agency said Thursday that it was making good at last on a pledge to unveil records of its 1954 coup against Guatemala’s elected government.

In a first step toward fulfilling promises to take the wraps off 11 Cold War covert operations, the spy agency said about 1,400 pages of operational records would be made public  Friday along with about 300 tapes of propaganda broadcasts it beamed into Guatemala.

The audio tapes, never classified in the first place, and files on the toppling of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, will be released at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, the CIA said.

The records have been edited by the CIA and State Department, among other U.S. agencies, to protect intelligence sources and methods, as well as with an eye to ongoing foreign policy and privacy concerns, a CIA spokesman said.

For instance, the files will not disclose the name of the country from which the CIA broadcast messages aimed at destabilizing Arbenz, a supporter of land reform opposed by U.S.banana companies that dominated the economy.

Declassification review of such historically significant material was first promised five years ago by Robert Gates, then the CIA director. He also announced plans to declassify records on the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the 1953 coup that installed the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran.

Gates’ successor, R. James Woolsey, vowed in 1993 to open up CIA archives on 11 covert actions, “warts and all,” including anti-Communist missions in France and Italy in the 1940s and 1950s and operations in Indonesia, Tibet and Laos.

Rick Oborn, a CIA spokesman, said the Guatemala files covered three anti-Arbenz CIA operations, codenamed Fortune, Success and History, that took place from 1952 to 1954.

Arbenz, a social reformer elected on a New Deal-like platform, was toppled after seizing some holdings of U.S. banana firms for redistribution to Guatemalan peasants. At least 100,000 people died in a subsequent 36-year civil war, the region’s longest, which ended with a United Nations-brokered peace signed in December.

Oborn said the plan to declassify Cold War covert action records had been set back two years by a 1992 law requiring the CIA, and other U.S. agencies, to make public all documents related to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. That work on more than 200,000 pages of records took the CIA declassification staff away from working on the covert cold war actions.

Declassification of the Arbenz-related material was further held up by concerns that its release, even 43 years later, could somehow derail peace talks between Guatemala’s military-backed government and the rebels, a U.S. official said.

Historian George Herring, who recently dismissed as a “snow job” the CIA’s approach to carrying out two directors’ declared openness aims, said the value of the Guatemala material depended on how heavily censored it was and how much was held back.

“I’d be very cautious before jumping to the conclusion that this is a great event,” said Herring, a University of Kentucky professor and member of an outside panel for six years that advised the director of central intelligence on opening up CIA secrets. “It’s a start, I would hope.”

Oborn said the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, a kind of in-house think tank handling the declassification, hoped to complete the review of Bay of Pigs documents for release this fall.



CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents

Edited by Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4
For more information contact:
Kate Doyle or Peter Kornbluh at202/994-7000 or

Washington, D.C. – These documents, including an instructional guide on assassination found among the training files of the CIA’s covert “Operation PBSUCCESS,” were among several hundred records released by the Agency on May 23, 1997 on its involvement in the infamous 1954 coup in Guatemala. After years of answering Freedom of Information Act requests with its standard “we can neither confirm nor deny that such records exist,” the CIA has finally declassified some 1400 pages of over 100,000 estimated to be in its secret archives on the Guatemalan destabilization program. (The Agency’s press release stated that more records would be released before the end of the year.) An excerpt from the assassination manual appears on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times on Saturday, May 31, 1997.

The small, albeit dramatic, release comes more than five years after then CIA director Robert Gates declared that the CIA would “open” its shadowy past to post-cold war public scrutiny, and only days after a member of the CIA’s own historical review panel was quoted in the New York Times as calling the CIA’s commitment to openness “a brilliant public relations snow job.” (See Tim Weiner, “C.I.A.’s Openness Derided as a ‘Snow Job’,” The New York Times, May 20, 1997, p. A16)

Arbenz was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 to continue a process of socio- economic reforms that the CIA disdainfully refers to in its memoranda as “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic.'” The first CIA effort to overthrow the Guatemalan president–a CIA collaboration with Nicaraguan dictator Anastacio Somoza to support a disgruntled general named Carlos Castillo Armas and codenamed Operation PBFORTUNE–was authorized by President Truman in 1952. As early as February of that year, CIA Headquarters began generating memos with subject titles such as “Guatemalan Communist Personel to be disposed of during Military Operations,” outlining categories of persons to be neutralized “through Executive Action”–murder–or through imprisonment and exile. The “A” list of those to be assassinated contained 58 names–all of which the CIA has excised from the declassified documents.

PBSUCCESS, authorized by President Eisenhower in August 1953, carried a $2.7 million budget for “pychological warfare and political action” and “subversion,” among the other components of a small paramilitary war. But, according to the CIA’s own internal study of the agency’s so-called “K program,” up until the day Arbenz resigned on June 27, 1954, “the option of assassination was still being considered.” While the power of the CIA’s psychological-war, codenamed “Operation Sherwood,” against Arbenz rendered that option unnecessary, the last stage of PBSUCCESS called for “roll-up of Communists and collaborators.” Although Arbenz and his top aides were able to flee the country, after the CIA installed Castillo Armas in power, hundreds of Guatemalans were rounded up and killed. Between 1954 and 1990, human rights groups estimate, the repressive operatives of sucessive military regimes murdered more than 100,000 civilians

For the docs see