As dawn broke over Guatemala City, a C-47 transport plane lumbered low in the sky, flying from the south over nearby mountains. It was still early on the morning of June 18, 1954. The sun’s rays were weak in the east. The weather was cool and hazy.
The plane steered a direct course for the sleeping capital. As it reached the outskirts, the aircraft abruptly dove from its flight path toward the capital’s center where the stately National Palace stood. It swooped over the plaza facing the Palace, then swerved upward again, suddenly spewing thousands of small leaflets into the air. It veered away and sped out of the city, disappearing beyond the horizon.
The leaflets fluttered in the wind and gradually floated down,
settling onto city streets, market stalls, store roofs, courtyards and gutters. Passersby scooped some up; Guatemalan police retrieved others. The printed notices, in large block letters, carried a bold demand: Guatemala’s President, Jacobo Arbenz, must resign immediately. They warned further that the mysterious plane would return that afternoon and blow up the city’s main arsenal to assure Arbenz’s swift departure. If he had not quit by then, the circulars added, the aircraft would also bombard the Palace. The leaflets were signed “National Liberation Forces.”1
News of the craft’s morning visit spread quickly. The event deeply rattled an already shaken city. Every eleven days for the past month a plane—usually a U.S.-made Beechcraft—had made similar raids, first on May 26, next on the night of June 6 and then today. Each time, the ghost ship had descended like a hawk from the sky, scattered its leaflets and vanished. The messages grew more ominous with every call. In the earlier trips, the circulars had addressed the Guatemalan Army, warning its officers about a supposed secret plan by President Arbenz to replace the military with a citizens’ force and urging soldiers to rise up against the President. This latest leaflet was the first to demand that the President surrender.2
A great fear was overtaking Guatemala. Ominous and mysterious events had multiplied over the past few months. On May Day, traditionally a festive workers’ celebration in Guatemala, a new radio station suddenly appeared on the air broadcasting from “somewhere in Guatemala”; it demanded Arbenz’s overthrow. Most Guatemalans already knew enough to link the “Voice of Liberation” with the exile forces of Carlos Castillo Armas, a forty-year-old former army colonel and longtime enemy of President Arbenz who had been plotting against the government from neighboring Honduras. In recent days, Castillo Armas had grown bolder and issued appeals, declaring, “I am certain that 90 percent of the people of Guatemala are thoroughly ready to rise up and fight against the government.”3
Meantime Guatemalan newspapers printed reports of Castillo Armas’ men walking down the streets of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, talking openly of a forthcoming invasion of Guatemala. Some of the “troops” admitted they were receiving handsome wages, usually paid in American dollars. Many were not
Guatemalans, but foreign mercenaries. Several times Guatemalan President Arbenz had demanded that Honduras round up Castillo Armas and his followers, but nothing had happened. Foreign correspondents and photographers, especially from the United States, began to converge on Tegucigalpa, apparently aware that a battle was imminent.4
The Guatemalan government was understandably jumpy. It had survived more than thirty attempted coups by right-wing Guatemalans in the past nine years under Arbenz and his predecessor, Juan José Arévalo. Now the incidents were accelerating. Recently, the unknown dissidents had been scrawling the slogan “32” on city walls, referring to the constitutional clause prohibiting any political party from having a foreign affiliation and thus protesting the existence of a Communist party in the country. Raiders had tried to blow up Guatemala’s main railway to the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of May, the Guatemalan police uncovered a secret conspiracy to overthrow Arbenz. They arrested several plotters, and others quickly took refuge in foreign embassies.
On June 8, President Arbenz invoked the constitutional provision allowing him to suspend civil liberties for thirty days during an emergency. Six days later, an unmarked plane parachuted arms on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and villagers, who recovered some of the rifles, noticed Soviet markings suggesting that somebody was trying to frame Arbenz as a Soviet puppet, or that the Russians were somehow involved in a bizarre espionage stunt. The President now sent his children out of the country to Mexico City. He began to call for loyalty from around the country. Everyone could feel tension in the air; a confrontation appeared imminent.5
As the breakfast hours passed on June 18, President Arbenz strode tight-lipped along the underground tunnel that led from his living quarters via an elevator to the presidential office on the second floor of the National Palace. A vigorous forty-one, he was in the fourth year of his six-year term. He was only Guatemala’s second President elected under a democratic constitution in 133 years of independence.6
Arbenz arrived at his suite. Grim-faced, he heard fresh news from aides: a plane or planes had just attacked the Pacific port
of San José, strafing buildings and puncturing holes in the sides of some gas storage tanks; the aircraft also hit the inland city of Retalhuleu. Worse, Honduran newspapers had reported that chartered DC-3S were airlifting troops loyal to rebel leader Castillo Armas from Tegucigalpa to camps near the Guatemalan border. Some of these insurgents had that morning crossed into Guatemala and overrun the frontier post at La Florida, advancing into the country under a banner of “God, Fatherland and Liberty” (“Dios, Patria y Libertad”). Arbenz and his advisers recognized that the long-promised National Liberation offensive led by Castillo Armas heralded by the morning leafleting was finally underway along the Honduran border.7
The reports were still sketchy. President Arbenz talked at length with his military commanders, Foreign Minister Guillermo Toriello and various political advisers. Acting as befitted a former commander of the armed forces, Arbenz decided to place his 6,000-man army and 3,000-man police force on alert, but he determined to hold the army strength in reserve, confining most troops to their barracks until further notice. As the midday conference thrashed out different alternatives, Foreign Minister Toriello, a liberal landowner-turned-diplomat and spokesman for his country’s cause abroad, urged an immediate appeal to the United Nations Security Council. He also suggested that Guatemala send a message to the Inter-American Peace Committee of the Organization of American States (OAS) requesting a fact-finding mission to set up a truce.8
Toriello argued that Guatemala must first consider how its actions might be seen overseas before it took any military action. His small country was in an extremely delicate position. A month earlier, an international outcry had arisen over Guatemala’s purchase of arms from Czechoslovakia. The United States had leaked the story to the press as the weapons were being unloaded at a Guatemalan seaport. Arbenz’s government had reluctantly acknowledged the accuracy of the American report but defended its need to re-equip its army.
At a press conference on May 19, President Dwight Eisenhower had escalated the verbal jousting between the two nations by castigating Guatemala for accepting the Czech weapons,
warning of a possible Communist “outpost on this continent.” Soon afterward, Eisenhower publicly authorized large airlifts of military aid to Honduras and Nicaragua, Central American dictatorships closely allied with the United States. The U.S. press began to print accounts of mass arrests and tortures allegedly perpetrated by the Arbenz regime. On June 15, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that Guatemalans were living under a “Communist-type reign of terror” while carefully adding that only they themselves possessed the “capability of cleaning their own house.”9
Hoping to show the world the untruth of the U.S. assessments, Foreign Minister Toriello did not wish Guatemalan troops to engage the invaders that morning, either on the ground or in the air. He wanted to make clear that the Guatemalan government was not the cause but the victim of the invasion. Nor did Toriello, a shrewd former ambassador to Washington, want to give the United States an opportunity to capitalize on any inadvertent frontier infraction to accuse Guatemala of aggression against Honduras. Instead, Toriello recommended that Guatemala indict its neighbors, from whose territory the unmarked planes and invading soldiers were apparently coming. Honduras never seriously denied the obvious: that its territory was the jumping-off point for the men crossing the border. And Honduras or Nicaragua seemed the most likely base for the mysterious aircraft, since the small planes had limited range and could only have flown from close by.
Toriello and Arbenz, with the assent of the other participants, quickly agreed to single out Honduran President Juan Manuel Gálvez and President Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua, the latter a longtime foe of Arbenz’s, for measured denunciations. Toriello began to draft stern diplomatic notes demanding that Honduras and Nicaragua prevent any further border incursions by Castillo Armas’ followers. He also prepared a protest to the United Nations accusing both countries of aggression against Guatemala.10
But the divisions between Guatemala and the United States ran too deep and were too advanced for Toriello’s overnight repair. The Arbenz government had embarked on a land reform program that included expropriation of some of the vast acreage
belonging to the United Fruit Company. The land reform was not popular either in the company’s Boston boardrooms or in Washington, where the firm had enormous influence. United Fruit controlled directly or indirectly nearly 40,000 jobs in Guatemala. Its investments in the country were valued at $60 million. It functioned as a state within a state, owning Guatemala’s telephone and telegraph facilities, administering its only important Atlantic harbor and monopolizing its banana export. The company’s subsidiary, the International Railways of Central America (IRCA), owned 887 miles of railroad track in Guatemala, nearly every mile in the country.11
The Eisenhower administration had taken action in early March 1954—weeks before the much-publicized Czech arms shipment—to give Guatemala a final warning of its displeasure over the land seizures. At the Tenth Inter-American Conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Secretary of State Dulles had exerted heavy pressure on Latin states to endorse a resolution condemning “Communist” infiltration in Latin America. It was directly aimed at Guatemala, though no nation was named. Only Guatemala voted in opposition to it, with two others abstaining in meek protest.
A show of diplomatic correctness and conciliation, even pleading, now seemed Guatemala’s only hope in dealing with the United States. What made this tactic exceedingly difficult for the Guatemalans was the character of the formidable U.S. ambassador in their country. John Peurifoy, a prickly and heavy-handed diplomat, had been especially chosen to exert pressure on Arbenz and, if that failed, to overthrow him. Peurifoy was an old State Department hand. A West Point dropout, he had worked his way up through the ranks from clerk to service on the Economic Warfare and War Production Boards in World War II to the post of chief American organizer of the United Nations Conference in San Francisco in 1945. Later, in 1949, he was Deputy Undersecretary of State and from 1950 to 1953 U.S. ambassador to Greece.
Within days of his arrival in Guatemala in late 1953, Peurifoy had gone out of his way to lecture President Arbenz on his tolerance of Communists and to warn him that American-Guatemalan relations would remain strained so long as a single Communist remained on the public payroll. After that, Peurifoy and the President seldom spoke, though Peurifoy and Foreign Minister Toriello conferred regularly.
Arbenz now instructed Toriello to meet with Peurifoy about the invasion and appeal to him to defuse the crisis. At one o’clock in the afternoon that June 18, Toriello left the President’s office. He told a dozen foreign correspondents and thirty local reporters waiting for him on the first floor of the Palace: “The battle of Guatemala has begun. We stand as one man against this criminal invasion. We will not take one backward step.”12
So far the United States had given no formal reaction to reports of the rebel invasion. The State Department remained strangely silent in Washington. There was an undisclosed reason for the Department’s circumspection. What Arbenz and Toriello might have feared was true: the United States government was in fact the secret creator and sponsor of the “Liberation” movement
That morning John Peurifoy arrived at his embassy office in an ebullient mood. The night before, he had told his staff: “Well, boys, tomorrow at this time well have ourselves a party.” He knew that the invasion he had helped plan was underway, and he was eagerly anticipating its outcome. Peurifoy was a blunt, politically ambitious self-described “tough guy” from South Carolina sent to Guatemala with a single mission: to change the direction of the reformist government, no matter how. He had been unable to convince President Arbenz to cooperate, and now Arbenz was about to receive his just deserts. The dawn leafleting and the early radio reports of air attacks and troop movements reassured Peurifoy that the plan, called Operation Success, was working. He sat down and dictated a stream of dispatches to Washington reporting the play-by-play from Guatemala City.13
After the unmarked C-47 disappeared from sight, the capital settled into an uneasy calm. By midday, uncertainty was growing about whether the reported invasion was real or not. The “Voice of Liberation” radio was broadcasting repeated bulletins claiming that Castillo Armas was advancing swiftly; the government, on the other hand, asserted it had stopped the enemy. Reporters were confused, not knowing what or whom to believe. Rumors spread everywhere. In the afternoon, President Arbenz
received reassurances of support from the four political parties that formed his bloc in Congress, including the three center-left parties and the small Communist party. In a flurry of appeals, he also sought support from unions, peasant leaders and military officers.14
At midday, Toriello cabled his country’s appeal to the UN Security Council in New York. His two-page plea attacke...