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The Guatemalan Prelude
The CIA?s Small War that Killed the Monroe Doctrine and
Marked a New Era of American Diplomacy
By Matthew Schweitzer
Journal Article | Aug 5 2012 - 11:31pm
ABSTRACT: This essay examines the CIA’s first covert Latin American operation during the Cold War,
and the way in which the agency’s leadership used the Monroe Doctrine to justify their actions. Although
the Monroe Doctrine had been amended and changed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
the culmination of this transformation was most apparent during operations PBFORTUNE and
PBSUCCESS (1952-1954) in Guatemala. The way in which the Monroe Doctrine was interpreted by the
Dulles brothers, presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and other high ranking U.S. policymakers sheds
light on the origins of the Cold War transformation in American foreign policy, especially in the Western
hemisphere. The construction of “International Communism” as a concrete, colonizing force rather than
a political ideology was used to fit into the Monroe Doctrine’s prevention of hemispheric colonization by
European powers. This essay concludes that the Washington-professed legitimacy of the now-infamous
operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS in Guatemala were based primarily on a misguided
interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine and the ‘International Communist’ threat against which it
defended, thus conclusively ending the ‘grand American concert’ and uprooting American policy from its
The Monroe Doctrine defined American foreign policy in Cold War Latin America. By the 1950s, U.S.
policymakers were using its message -- that “The American continents...are henceforth not to be
considered as subjects for future colonization”[1] -- as a powerful legitimizer for their paramilitary
interventions on the continent. Perhaps the most striking characteristics of this bold document were its
underlying political implications, and the way in which these intimations would evolve in Cold War Latin
America, most importantly between 1952 and 1954 during operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS in
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Monroe’s Doctrine evolved, resulting in a
document of interventionist rationale. By the 1950s, United States policymakers were invoking Monroe’s
ideas to justify intervention in Communist-threatened states to prevent what was largely seen as an
“ideological colonization.”[2] The Monroe Doctrine became the foundation upon which the United States’
Cold War policy in Latin America was built. At a macro-level, this importance applied to every facet of
the covert war on Communism -- particularly the morally dubious nature of CIA operations across the
southern continent -- but to fully appreciate the connections between 1823 and the 1950s it is most
expedient to examine a single case: the legacy of United States Cold War operations in Guatemala.
The Washington-professed legitimacy of the now-infamous operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS
in Guatemala were based primarily on a misguided interpretation of Monroe’s Doctrine and the
‘International Communist’ threat against which it defended, thus conclusively ending the ‘grand American
concert’ and uprooting American policy from its past.
Only weeks before the start of the American-backed coup d’etat in Guatemala, Secretary of State John
Foster Dulles stood before an anxious crowd at the tenth Inter-American Conference (TIAC) in 1954, and
using grandiose ‘Monrovian’ language, justified his country’s overt denunciation of the ‘Communist
creep’ and impending violation of Guatemalan sovereignty. The crowd was anxious, and a quiet humming
persisted throughout Dulles’ speech. The nuclear world which Dulles addressed in 1954 was one that the
fundamentally pacifistic Monroe Doctrine could not attend, but to which it was nevertheless applied. The
1954 conference had originally been convened to consider hemispheric economic problems -- which had
arisen out of the imbalance between United States and Latin American trade -- but was quickly
transformed into a stage on which the United States could project its own form of ‘Monrovian diplomacy.’
The readjustment of the United States-Latin American trade pattern was the “least important item on
Secretary Dulles’ schedule of priorities. [His] primary objective was to complete the diplomatic isolation
of Guatemala.”[3] Dulles’ objectives were to be achieved by the passage of an anti-Communist resolution
of his own making. The lever used to induce Latin American delegates to accept his implicitly antiGuatemalan plan was strictly economic in nature. It is important to note that many Latin American
delegates doubted the relevance of “International Communism” during Dulles’ presentation. But the fact
that the United States delegation unilaterally postponed the discussion of the primary reason for which the
TIAC was convened clearly “delineated the hierarchical power relationship in the Hemisphere, and set the
tenor for the events to follow.”[4]
Although Latin Americans were dubious, most United States policymakers did not think that this ‘red
fear’ was unfounded, and around the time that Dulles spoke in Caracas, the tendency to indict social and
political reformers as Communists, part of the Soviet scheme for world domination, was most
pronounced. Dulles certainly subscribed wholeheartedly to this philosophy, and he continued to believe
that the USSR was expanding into Latin America throughout his career. This Cold War political theory
was first tested in Guatemala, where liberal-minded reformers Juan Jose Arevalo and later Jacobo Arbenz
introduced a radical policy of land-nationalization that challenged the traditional privilege held by local
elites. These ominous liberal rumblings -- which culminated with Arbenz’s nationalization of United Fruit
Company lands and purchase of barely functional World War II era weapons from Communist
Czechoslovakia -- convinced Dulles of the need for immediate and decisive action.
Dulles called into question Latin America’s friendship to the United States, dividing the continent into two
clear ideological factions -- Communist or Democratic -- leaving no room for diplomatic discussion. He
sought a multinational blessing for a unilateral action, declaring that “neutrality has increasingly become
obsolete and except under very exceptional circumstances, it is an immoral and shortsighted
conception...every nation in the hemisphere had been penetrated by International Communists under
Moscow's direction.” In essence, Dulles and his advisors sought to pan-Americanize the Monroe Doctrine.
At Caracas, the United States resolution was approved by a nearly unanimous vote, with the Guatemalan
delegation voicing the sole dissension. Guatemala’s diplomatic defeat was finalized, and the “declaration
of solidarity for the preservation of the political integrity of Latin American states against International
Communist intervention”[5] was accepted as a Pan-American policy. Nearly a month later the CIA
sponsored “invasion” of Guatemala by loyalist forces ousted Arbenz.
Jacobo Arbenz -- the object of American anger and fear -- was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 to
continue a process of socioeconomic reforms begun by his predecessor that the CIA disdainfully referred
to as “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority
complex of the ‘Banana Republic.’”[6] As early as 1952, the Truman administration viewed the Arbenz
government with pronounced alarm, believing that it was violating the “spirit of the Monroe Doctrine.”[7]
Although popularly elected, what was perceived as “increasing Communist influence within his
government” gave rise to concern in the United States that Arbenz had established a working partnership
with Moscow.[8] “Moreover,” a CIA memorandum noted, “Arbenz’s policies have damaged [United
States] business interests in Guatemala; a sweeping agrarian reform calls for the expropriation and
redistribution of the United Fruit Company’s land.”[9] The Dulles brothers, John and Allen, were both
deeply intertwined with the corporate functions of United Fruit (UFCO); Allen, director of the CIA, was
an executive board member, and John had worked as a corporate lawyer for United Fruit prior to his State
Department career.
With Arbenz’s reforms targeting over 40% of UFCO land, such a “Communist front against American
corporate interest” was “unacceptable,” striking directly at both the interests of United States leadership
and, according to some, the nation’s economic health.[10] The United Fruit Company was seen in
Washington -- perhaps because of its influence at the highest echelons of power -- as a purely “Yankee”
institution. As the biggest banana growing empire in history, the UFCO controlled Central American
radio, train networks, and vast tracts of land, creating what many cynics referred to as servile dictatorships
in their host countries.[11] The UFCO had lost considerable investment during the Mexican Oil
Expropriation in 1938. Thus, fearful of any more economic loss, it was the “primary architect responsible
for the Guatemalan intervention,” working “throughout the project with the CIA.”[12] At the heart of
UFCO and CIA operations was the utilization of indigenous personnel and the channeling of support
through adjacent states to give the appearance of “metropolitan non-involvement.”[13] The nature of the
preparations and the manner of implementation made it impossible for observers to dissemble the
complicity or existence of the American intervention.
The redistribution of UFCO lands marked the culmination of a series of reform. Put into the context of the
greater Cold War struggle, Arbenz’s redistribution was proof of a long-held suspicion that Communists
were colonizing the Americas, on the United States’ geographic doorstep. These observations led
historians to later develop “a dependency theory of Guatemalan intervention” which sought to explain the
seeming hypocrisy of American involvement, given its justification. The two most pertinent tenets of this
theory held that “The specter of International Communism, whether real or imaginary, was raised to lend
credence to the mythical threat posed by the dominant metropole, the USSR.” Moreover, “This specter
could only be pointed out if there was a struggle for power between the government and the governing
class or multinational corporations [MNC].”[14] The general trend indicated that ideology was not, and
had never been, the reason for such intervention. Rather, the defense of United States MNCs from the
threat of expropriation in Latin America was a paramount concern of many in the North. It appeared, at
least in Washington, that to the degree there “existed a clear and present danger to American MNCs
abroad, there was also a threat to United States core interests internationally and domestically.”[15]
Ultimately, it was this skewed definition of moral and political legitimacy that tenuously linked America’s
Cold War policy to Monroe.
Declassified documents paint a picture of genuine fear at the highest levels of the United States
intelligence community, contributing to the idea that Communism was threatening American sovereignty
within United States national borders. However, wishing not to present the “spectacle of the elephant
shaking with alarm before the mouse,”[16] the CIA urged public caution and pushed a policy of firm
persuasion by withholding virtually all cooperative assistance and concluding all military pacts on the
continent. Thus the development of the first covert action designed to topple the Arbenz government was
Judging by the wording of his doctrine, President Monroe would not have approved of what would then
develop inside the halls at Langley and Washington. Following an April 1952 visit to Washington by
Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza, president Truman ordered an agent, codenamed SEEKFORD, to
“contact Guatemalan dissidents about an armed action against the Arbenz regime.”[17] Upon receiving the
agent’s report, analysts proposed to then Deputy Director of the CIA Allen Dulles that the Agency supply
Armas with arms and air support. This plan was quickly approved, and on 9 September 1952
PBFORTUNE went active.
Planning for PBFORTUNE had been underway nearly a month when the CIA received intelligence in
October 1952 that their operation had been compromised. Although quickly cancelled, the Agency
continued to intercept reports of assassination from Armas’ camp. In the years after the cancellation of
PBFORTUNE, the CIA’s Guatemala City Station launched an ineffectual process of psychological
warfare against suspected dissidents. Given their inability to effect any meaningful change in Guatemala
by fall of 1953, U.S. policymakers, including CIA officials, were searching for a new overall program for
dealing with Arbenz. Washington diplomats believed that he had moved closer to the Communists. In
response, the National Security Council (NSC) authorized a drastic and immediate operation against
Arbenz, giving the CIA full operational responsibility.[18]
Justifying their actions using the Clark Memorandum -- the 1930 addendum to Monroe’s Doctrine that
“gave” the U.S. the right to intervene in Latin America -- CIA officials combined psychological warfare,
economic, diplomatic, and paramilitary operations to oust Arbenz. Named PBSUCCESS, the operation
endeavored “to remove covertly, and without bloodshed if possible, the menace of the present Communistcontrolled government in Guatemala.”[19] The mission sought to remove a government that was “being
influenced by a foreign ‘colonial’ power”[20] while at the same time supporting an indigenous movement.
This justification hid the CIA’s true basis for operations. As in PBFORTUNE, death letters were sent to
top Guatemalan Communists, and a “nerve war against Communism” was launched.[21] However,
PBSUCCESS was defined by a propensity towards using direct paramilitary intervention to counter what
John Foster Dulles said was “the intrusion of Soviet despotic ideology in Guatemala: a direct challenge to
our Monroe Doctrine, the first and most fundamental of our foreign policies.”[22] Thus CIA officials
focused on training and equipping a minority of Nicaraguan-based forces loyal to Armas who would
eventually come to overthrow the regime. And the next few months -- during operation PBSUCCESS -witnessed the completion of the operational and rhetorical groundwork for the all-encompassing CIA
brainchild: The Guatemalan coup d’etat.
On 16 June 1954, Castillo Armas’ CIA-supported force of armed exiles entered the country, advancing
tentatively but taking the capital within a few days. On 27 June, in a bitterly anti-American speech,
Arbenz resigned his office. Secretary Dulles later remarked that it was a great day in American diplomatic
history on which Arbenz fell, one of which president Monroe would have been proud. The seemingly
unqualified success of the mission translated into a decade of American hubris. A CIA memorandum
supported this idyllic perception of Communist “rats on the sinking Guatemalan ship.”[23]
In the wake of the “Guatemalan prelude,” Washington diplomats solidified their “culture of fear”[24] by
contrasting “Communist despotism” to the idea of a “Monrovian paradise.”[25] So effective were these
efforts to frighten Latin America into obedience that after the Guatemalan coup, only a select few
countries -- including Mexico -- condemned it as unlawful. As revisionist historians now posit, it was not
because the Guatemalan government had denied American business interests or embraced a liberal
ideology that it incurred the United States’ wrath, but rather that “Jacobo Arbenz above all challenged
Washington’s culture of fear, returning to 500,000 people land that they desperately needed.”[26]
The ostracism of Latin American nations deemed “undesirable” by the United States marked a severe
turning point in the overall political system in Latin America. Hemispheric relationships faltered in the
years following the 1954 coup. Many Latin American republics felt that United States influence would
bring about further polarization of a system which had sustained continental trade and relative
international peace for the 130 years. The Guatemalan coup, while celebrated in Washington, would
create a far more dangerous world for United States diplomats to maneuver. Straying from the document’s
original boldness, “Washington analysts had used Monroe’s Doctrine to justify their fear.”[27] This culture
of fear formed much of the fabric of post-coup Guatemalan society.
In the years following the coup, Guatemala became a “kind of pilot project for Washington diplomats.”[28]
The post 1954 period in the country provided Washington with its first practical experience using
economic aid to stabilize a “liberated” Latin American polity. The Eisenhower Administration later
announced that it was planning to make Guatemala “a showcase of democracy” using large sums of
American economic assistance to turn the nation into a model of capitalist development. Accordingly,
while foreign assistance to Guatemala had totaled only $2.5 million in the 1951-1954 period, this sum
skyrocketed to over $101.2 million -- including $18 million from the United States controlled World
Bank -- from 1955 through 1958.
Despite United States aid and technical assistance, Guatemala never became the envisaged model of
democracy. By 1961, the country was back in the hands of the military elite, and oligarchy “paved the
way for a police-state.”[29] This result highlighted Washington’s perversion of Monroe’s message most
clearly, leading to the loss of its credibility on a grander scale than could be countered by any attempt at
Latin American hearts and minds.
The Communist creep could not be confronted by the Monroe Doctrine, which was originally designed to
defend against a concrete, nineteenth century colonial enemy. Nor could it be interpreted as loosely as it
had been. Washington diplomats had, by the end of the 1954 coup, taken Monroe’s Doctrine too far; they
had abused its original meaning too much so that its bruised message could no longer be recognized.
The Guatemalan people had seen American involvement in Latin American affairs until that point as
fundamentally Monrovian, that is, based on the protection of their own welfare. However, by the end of
1954, the Monrovian ‘Pan-American utopia’ that had defined Latin American progress during the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was gone, as one Guatemalan village leader declared to an
American interviewer in 1999: “we are both now old. How is it that we came to fight each other, and
almost lost our lives in what turned out to be a pointless battle between two who used to be such close
The Monroe Doctrine had taken on a life of its own in the years following the coup. As Salvador de
Madariaga noted in 1962, “I conclude that the Monroe Doctrine is a dogma. Not one dogma but two, to
wit: the dogma of the infallibility of the American President and the dogma of the immaculate conception
of American foreign policy.”[31]
At the heart of Madariaga’s confusion lies the ambiguous enemy against which the Monroe Doctrine was
to defend during the Cold War, according to Washington: “International Communism.”[32] As the State
Department vehemently warned, “the threat of International Communism is upon the Americas.”[33] But
what was this International Communism?
As defined by the United States government, it was more than simply an idea or even an ideology. It was
manifest in physical form. The Monroe Doctrine did not prevent or denounce an abstract colonization of
the Americas by ideas. The United States in 1823 fostered no political ambition to prevent an alien idea to
take root in Pan-American soil. There was no empire to protect, and no single menace, aside from
colonialism itself. Most importantly, Latin America was not the central focus of the doctrine. At the time
of its enunciation, it was intended essentially as a policy towards Europe; it was not a policy for the
hemisphere. The Cold War finalized the reversal of this trend.
This distinction is very important, for it underscored Washington’s Cold War transformation of its most
cherished foreign policy document. The Monroe Doctrine originated to prevent the future colonization of
the American continents by European powers. However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, observers noted that two doctrines had formed from the first: “One promulgated by the
President; and the other, the distorted Doctrine of the Corollaries. The authentic one [had] been pushed
into the background.”[34] The suppression of the original message opened an avenue for ‘Cold Warriors’
to justify their hypocritical fear of self-determination in Latin America. The creation of “International
Communism,” not simply “Communism” or even a “Communist menace,” was a key component of this
development. By uprooting Communism from the nationalistic context, American policymakers distanced
themselves from the patriotic indigenous movements they were trying to suppress. They viewed
Communism as an extension of the Soviet mainland, as the manifestation of Russian soldiers, aircraft, and
ships. To even to lean left politically in such an environment, meant, in essence, allowing colonization to
To confront this “enemy,” the Monroe Doctrine was unilaterally forced to become a dialogue. Its spirit
was in part preserved, but the avenues through which that spirit was expressed did not survive the Cold
War. With the advent of “International Communism,” Washington divided the world in two, and
universalized the struggle. The new Cold War Monroe Doctrine declared that there were no ideas except
for the western conception of democracy. Communism constituted not a “theory nor a doctrine, but a
tough political force backed by the resources of the most ruthless empire in modern times.”[35] Thus,
Dulles could qualify his 1954 statement in Caracas by arguing:
Today’s situation is no different than that in 1823. It is interesting to recall the menace which
brought the doctrine itself into being was itself a menace born in Russia. It was the Russian Czar
Alexander and his despotic allies in South America who, early in the last century, sought control of
South America and the western part of North America. President Monroe confronted this
challenge...These sentiments serves us well today.[36]
The United States’ operations in Guatemala between 1952 and 1954 marked a paradigm shift in the
conception of socially liberal ideology. Despite every effort made in Washington, the ‘Pan-American
harmony’ was effectively ended. With Washington refusing to admit any involvement in the Guatemalan
coup until decades later, the American political elite remained stuck in their conceived paradise of
morality until the end of the Cold War. It was this ultimate irony that most poignantly summarized the
“Guatemalan Prelude,” and led many analysts to mutter, “the Monroe Doctrine is dead. Long live the
Monroe Doctrine.”
[1] James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, "The Monroe Doctrine," 1823.
[2] Ernest E. May, The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University
Press, 1992), 67.
[3] Jose Aybar de Soto, Dependency and Intervention (Westview Press, 1978), 278.
[4] Ibid., 239.
[5] Ibid., 239.
[6] Daniel James, Red Design for the Americas: The Guatemalan Prelude (New York City: John Day
Company, 1954), 120.
[7] Ibid., 122.
[8] Ibid., 122.
[9] "CIA and Guatemalan Assassination Proposals 1952-1954," June 1995, National Security Agency
Archives, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.,
[10] Ibid.
[11] Aybar de Soto, 239.
[12] Ibid., 244.
[13] Ibid., 225.
[14] Aybar de Soto, 293-295.
[15] Ibid., 295.
[16] "CIA and Guatemalan Assassination Proposals 1952-1954," June 1995, National Security Agency
Archives, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.,
[17] Ibid.
[18] Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981), 127.
[19] Ibid., 128.
[20] Introduction to International Communism, (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of State,
1954), 11-13.
[21] Dispatch COS Guatemala City to LINCOLN, "Death Notices" April 19, 1954, Box 99 (S), Central
Intelligence Agency Archives, NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/ciaguatemala1_11.html.
[22] Introduction to International Communism, 11-13.
[23] "Jacobo Arbenz, ex-President of Guatemala -- operations against," May 15, 1957, Central Intelligence
Agency Archives, Central Intelligence Agency, Freedom of Information Act,
[24] Nick Cullather, "The Culture of Fear," afterword to Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of
its Operations in Guatemala 1952-1954 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 320.
[25] James, 386.
[26] Cullather, 322.
[27] Cullather, 323.
[28] Barry, 6-7.
[29] Ibid., 10.
[30] Ibid., 111.
[31] Salvador Madaragia, Latin America between the Eagle and the Bear (New York, 1962), 74.
[32] Introduction to International Communism, 15.
[33] Ibid., 16.
[34] Ibid., 159.
[35] Ibid., 14.
[36] John Foster Dulles, "International Communism is Guatemala," in The Monroe Doctrine: Its Modern
Significance, by Donald Marquand Dozer (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).
About the Author
Matthew Schweitzer
Matthew Schweitzer is the founding editor of The Post-War Watch, an online
repository of original analysis about the legacy of western operations in the Middle
East. He is the Dean's Scholar at the University of Chicago, where he is a Research
Assistant in the History Department studying Russia and the Cold War.
Available online at :
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