Nick Cullather. Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. xxxvi + 176 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-5467-5; $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-5468-2.
Reviewed by Mark Montesclaros (Department of Joint, Interagency and Multinational Operations, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College)
Published on H-War (July, 2008)
New Insight on an Old Regime Change
Nick Cullather sheds new light on an old regime change, assisted by documents initially made public during the tenure of former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director (and current Secretary of Defense) Robert Gates. Cullather's work is concise, detailed, and eminently readable, although some may find the redacted portions a minor distraction. The author wrote the original account, published in hardback, following a year-long stint with the CIA in which he was given access to thousands of documents pertaining to the U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1954. Cullather, a historian by trade, is an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Indiana.
With his new version, the author provides several useful appendices, including a PBSUCCESS (the operation's code name) chronology, an extensive bibliography, and a number of fascinating, declassified documents. Among these is one that contemplates the use of assassination: "'Killing a political leader whose burgeoning career is a clear and present danger to the cause of freedom may be held necessary'" (p. 138). Also included are a number of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that document the perceived national security threat posed by Guatemala to the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.
As noted in his introduction, the author chooses not to cover two subject areas--finance and radio propaganda efforts (known as SHERWOOD) connected with the operation--thereby reducing by a third the volume of declassified material through which to sort. Instead, Cullather focuses on the meat of the operation--the intelligence driving it, its planning and execution, and successes and failures--to inform and educate the current crop of CIA officers (one of the book's primary intended audiences) who may find themselves engaged in similar operations in more contemporary settings.
To this end, Cullather fares very well. In his description of events that precipitated PBSUCCESS, the author clearly and concisely portrays an American administration increasingly disturbed by events in Guatemala, where President Jacobo Arbenz sought to impose a land reform program while actively aligning himself with the Guatemalan Communist Party--events that placed Guatemala on the front burner almost one decade before the Bay of Pigs intervention, for which PBSUCCESS later served as the operational template.
Perhaps Cullather's greatest contribution to the existing literature is his portrayal of all aspects of the operation from the perspective of the frontline CIA case officers who worked the details. Cullather argues that even in early 1952 the CIA considered Guatemala to pose a national security threat to the United States, based on Arbenz's land reform legislation and his close ties with the Guatemalan Workers Party. As detailed in Cullather's work, this Cold War focus shaped the agency's perception of events and led it to recommend covert paramilitary operations as the primary means for the United States to confront and remove the Arbenz threat. The author shows that more than any other agency, the CIA equated Guatemalan communism to Soviet hegemonic demands in the Western Hemisphere, an untenable situation that demanded immediate response. The rest of the Washington interagency community eventually came around to this viewpoint, especially after it became known that Arbenz was secretly attempting to arm his militias via a weapons deal with the Czechs, in what became known as the Alfhem incident.
Cullather's effective analysis also shows that by operating in a relative vacuum, CIA case officers participated in a flawed strategic planning process hampered by a general lack of intelligence on Guatemala and, in particular, the military (arguably the "center of gravity" for PBSUCCESS and the focal point of CIA propaganda efforts directed at toppling the Arbenz regime). It is evident that CIA planners gave little thought beyond "regime change" and about what would happen once Castillo Armas assumed the reigns of power. Security leaks also plagued the planning process. Even after the operation's cover was blown by a Panamanian commercial attaché working in the Nicaraguan capital and it became obvious that Guatemala became well aware of PBSUCCESS, state and CIA officials decided that the operation was too far along and decided to proceed anyway. All this after a predecessor operation, PBFORTUNE, was called off based on security breaches by Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza, who disclosed classified information to his Central American counterparts. (Another unsavory Latin American dictator, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, also figured in the PBSUCCESS saga.)
What did the planners do well? To their credit, CIA case officers were somewhat adept in considering all elements of power--not just military or paramilitary--as the means in devising their strategy for Guatemala. As the designated "lead agency" for PBSUCCESS, CIA planners had other resources at their disposal, most notably the State Department and the Department of Defense. As a consequence, the full range of tools was considered--and employed--during PBSUCCESS, among them diplomacy, psychological operations, economic sanctions, and naval blockades. Cullather notes that psychological operations were particularly effective in Guatemala and contributed largely to the operation's success. Thus, covert paramilitary operations--the CIA specialty--was just one element of power employed in the strategy for PBSUCCESS. Cullather also demonstrates that the CIA was remarkably flexible and adapted quickly to changes on the ground. Dealing with the ebb and flow of events in Guatemala, including numerous security leaks as well as a dearth of usable assets in the country, case officers were nonetheless able to adjust on the fly and make things happen.
The actual execution of the paramilitary portion of operation PBSUCCESS was a tragicomedy, according to Cullather, and succeeded in spite of itself. The "invasion" of Guatemala by Armas and his band of 480 men (actually four separate bands making five separate incursions) against a superior Guatemalan army was almost laughable; one contingent entering Guatemala from El Salvador was arrested and incarcerated by local law enforcement. But Cullather is quick to point out that CIA case officers never put their full stock in Armas, and that his paramilitary force was seen as only one of a number of tools used to discredit President Arbenz and replace his regime. Other supporting programs, such as the "K" program designed to undermine the army's loyalty to the president, were just as critical if not more so.
Of course, the key question as the operation culminated--what caused President Arbenz to capitulate so suddenly--is effectively addressed by the author. Cullather disputes the CIA version that Arbenz caved due to pressure caused by effective psychological operations. Instead, the author claims that Arbenz fell victim to an old-fashioned military coup, as the Guatemalan army, despite tactical successes on the ground against Armas's army, deposed him, fearing direct intervention by the U.S. military.
How successful was PBSUCCESS? It depends on who you ask. Cullather contends that the operation had mixed results. While Arbenz was gone, Armas proved worse than inept as a leader and was later assassinated, paving the way for future, overt American involvement. In the book's afterword, Piero Gleijeses, an expert on the period, contends that the United States did more harm than good, leading Guatemala to future instability and ruin, as well as setting the stage for rampant anti-Americanism in the region.
In summary, Cullather provides a realistic and nuanced view of an otherwise well-covered operation, seen through the eyes of the agency that led PBSUCCESS. While Cullather reinforces the view that PBSUCCESS can best be understood by its Cold War context, the lessons it provides are applicable to anyone engaged in strategic planning--knowing the problem, determining the appropriate means and ends, and following it through to a logical (and hopefully positive) conclusion. By providing the insider's view of the operation, Cullather has offered invaluable detail and insight previously unavailable. For students of Latin America and U.S. national security policymaking in the region, Cullather has done a great service.
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Mark Montesclaros. Review of Cullather, Nick, Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954.
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