America’s Secret War: Guatemala 1954

by Sam Ruth – First Year Seminar Communications Manager

Sam Ruth takes his position as FYE Communication manager to the next level with a regular editorial for the Horizon.


Last week the Hesston College community had the privilege to hear from Saulo Padilla, Director of the Office on Immigration Education for Mennonite Central Committee. Padilla, who was born in Guatemala in the middle of 40 years of war and genocide, now works with MCC to promote peace.  Through Padilla’s visit and my recent research, I’ve been inspired to share this little-known part of our history with the hope that greater awareness can help fulfill Hesston’s mission of nonviolence and peace in the world.

There are many Americans that would assume the events of Guatemala would be the results of poor government and one or two unstable individuals. In this case, those American would be right, only the poor government would be ours and the unstable individuals would be two brothers and a single American company.

American owned United Fruit Company, now know as Chiquita, owned a sizable amount of land in Guatemala in the early 1950s, most of it undeveloped. In March of 1951, Jacobo Arbenz took office as a democratically elected president and set about reforming Guatemala. These two would soon clash and change Guatemala forever. The results were 200,000 dead, mostly indigenous Mayans, and a country in shambles.

Part of the reforms Arbenz started was redistributing the undeveloped land in Guatemala to the poor in an attempt to stabilize Guatemala and create a middle class. Anyone who owned land that was more than two-thirds undeveloped lost that land but was reimbursed for it. This affected the United Fruit Company greatly, who stood to lose up to 40 percent of their undeveloped land. Arbenz himself lost a sizable amount of land owned by his family, but was happy to do it for the greater cause. In the meantime, enter the Dulles brothers: one the Secretary of State and the other, the director of the CIA. Both had done legal work for and were friends with several of the executives at the United Fruit Company, who by 1952 were very upset with the Arbenz government.

The Dulles brothers began an aggressive campaign against the Arbenz government in Congress and the Eisenhower White House. Given our country’s fear of communism during the Cold War, it was not very difficult to convince Congress and President Eisenhower that Guatemala presented a grave threat to democracy and our way of life. Arbenz made two fatal mistakes that sealed his fate in the eyes of America; he opened his government to all parties, including the communist party, which had a tiny following in Guatemala and he bought a shipment of arms from Poland in the Soviet Union. Soon, all but one member of Congress was convinced that Guatemala was a beachhead for communism in South America. Being only 700 miles from Texas, Arbenz’s location and alleged communist ties were the perfect storm to scare our leaders into action. All this set the stage for the downfall of Arbenz’s government and the rise of the puppet president Carlos Castillo Armas, who America and the United Fruit Company supported.

This is not a history lesson, but it is a story that needs to be told. The CIA sent in covert agents and planes that bombed Guatemala City into submission and exiled Jacobo Arbenz.  The United Fruit Company got all its land back and the puppet put in place by our government was killed and replaced by another and another and another for the next 40 plus years, each presidency grew more and more violent, with more and more death. The climax came during the presidency of Rios Montt in 1982, who led the most violent time in Guatemala. The CIA’s actions were covered up in the media for many years and then talked about openly and freely after word began to get out. Eisenhower went to his grave proud of our accomplishments in driving out the communist threat in South America, having never realized how wrong he was.

This is the sad story of how wealth and connections can influence our government in so many ways. The European-style socialist democracy implemented by Arbenz was no more of a threat to us than any of the similar governments in South America before and after his, the only difference was the wealth and connections of one American company.

To finish off, nothing is sadder than a generation full of disinterest in the past. The leaders of tomorrow need to be made aware of the mistakes of our mothers and fathers and work to create a better, more tolerant world for future generations. This is not the whole story, but a small chunk, and I challenge you to investigate this story and come to your own conclusions about the genocide of Guatemala.

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