Operation PBHistory was a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation in Guatemala, which occurred after the fall of the Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán government in June 1954. By 4 July, the CIA sent a two-man communist expert team to investigate the possibility of utilizing the documents left behind by the exiled government. The operation was a consequence of Operation PBSuccess whereby the CIA sought to collect and exploit Guatemalan communist documents.
Using a combination of psychological warfare and direct military action, the CIA forced Árbenz Guzmán out of office in a matter of days—culminating in his resignation on 27 June 1954. On 30 June, Frank Wisner ordered CIA "surgeons" to fall back and be replaced by diplomat "nurses."
Since the covert operation to overthrew the Árbenz government had progressed so rapidly, the CIA hoped that Árbenz and Guatemalan Party of Labour (PGT) leaders would not have time to destroy potential incriminating documents, which would link Árbenz to Moscow. Additionally, the CIA had hoped that the “PTG records left behind in haste would enable the agency’s international Communism Division to reconstruct the PTG’s collective leadership and organizational structure, and perhaps do the same for Moscow-oriented movements throughout the hemisphere.” With this information, Wisner and the CIA sought to recruit, manipulate, or otherwise target those individuals identified as Communist.
Another motivation for PBHISTORY arose when international outrage arose over US actions. Media outlets across the world accused the United States of sponsoring a coup in order to reverse Decree 900 and its effects on the United Fruit Company. Criticism came not only from Communist outlets but from US allies in the Western Bloc. Latin American opposition to United States reached a new peak. Thus, the CIA sought to find documents that would justify the coup.
Two agents from the CIA and two from the Office of Intelligence Research (OIR) arrived in Guatemala City on 4 July 1954—one day after Armas himself arrived to assume power. Immediately, the group began searching for documents that would link the Árbenz government to Moscow. They found none. But they did collect 150,000 documents, which seemed to represent promising intelligence on Latin American Communism. At Wisner's request, Tracy Barnes created a booklet from these documents to show to US President Dwight Eisenhower. The booklet consisted mostly of Communist literature owned by Arbenz, such as a Chinese study on agrarian reform, as well as diplomatic records implying Communist sympathies.
Armas was pressured to create an anti-Communist task force, which he did on 20 July—creating the National Committee of Defense Against Communism (Comité de Defensa Nacional contra el Comunismo). The purpose of this group was to create an anti-Communist bureaucracy and intelligence service but also to organize records and facilitate PBHISTORY. The Comité secretly received funds from the CIA, with the understanding that this fact could prove "very embarrassing" and that a new source would eventually need to be found.
On 4 August, a new CIA contingent (including David Atlee Phillips) was deployed to Guatemala. In order to remain covert, this group identified itself to Armas as the "Social Research Group", composed of businessmen and experts from universities. The group presented itself as unaffiliated with the US government in order to avoid nationalist backlash and to maintain plausible deniability.
The new PBHISTORY group worked directly with the new Guatemalan Comité training its 25 agents and using them to procure documents.
However, the Guatemalan group was not granted the power to arrest or search house of prominent government officials who had served under Árbenz. This was largely because Armas and other military leaders lacked trust in the Comité.  Nevertheless, the Comité was able to conduct personal searches of exiles as they left the country. This proved to be ineffective as very few documents proved to be revealing.
A CIA memorandum to CIA director Allen Dulles indicated that the documents seized “were of such topical nature and, in the main, of such low-level intelligence and propaganda interest, that they did not lend themselves to an impressive bound volume.”
Nevertheless, the group sifted through 500,000 documents and was able to salvage over 50,000 documents for the purpose of exploiting and illustrating communist activities within Guatemala. The documents were copied and microfilmed. The PBHistory analyzed the documents and then handed the originals over to the Comité in order to index and file them. Ronald M. Schneider, an extra-Agency researcher who later examined the PBHISTORY documents, found no traces of Soviet control and substantial evidence that Guatemalan Communists acted alone, without support or guidance from outside the country.
The operation succeeded in forming an anti-Communist Guatemalan intelligence service, which now had access to information about groups like labor unions and indigenous organizations.
The work done by the PBHistory team also served to perpetuate two existing CIA operations, Operation Kufire and Operation Kugown. Kufire was a wide-ranging operations to track Communists in Latin America, which met with mixed success.(PBHISTORY did begin CIA monitoring of Ernesto "Che" Guevara.) Kugown was a psychological warfare operation intended to convince Guatemalans—and the world—that Árbenz's regime had been Communist-dominated.
As part of Operation Kugown, information was sent to press agencies worldwide describing infiltration by the PGT and links among Communists elsewhere. These mailings received little attention. The frustrated PBHISTORY group planned to stage a false flag attack on their own headquarters, but abandoned this plan after it seemed they would not be able to find indigenous collaborators. Ultimately, these operations were unsuccessful in convincing Latin America that the 1954 coup was justified.
Information was funneled to US ambassadors and Congresspeople. Heavily anti-Communist members of the US Congress, particularly Charles J. Kersten and Patrick J. Hillings of the Kersten Committee, became involved with PBHISTORY so enthusiastically that the CIA worried they would undermine the operation.
An "Anti-Communist Exhibit" was prepared and displayed at the National Palace.
PBHISTORY documents were used for years afterward to discredit Árbenz (living in exile) and to counter Soviet propaganda about American imperialism in Guatemala.
References and notes
- Holland, p. 301. "Accordingly, on 30 June, Frank Wisner, the Deputy Director for Plans (DD/P), sent what became known as the 'shift of gears cable.' The 'time has come for the surgeons [CIA officers] to step back and [let] the nurses [U.S. diplomats] . . . . take over the patient."
- Holland, pp. 301–302.
- Holland, pp. 301–302. "World reaction was so unfavorable, and even sharply hostile to the United States, that Moscow's propaganda barrage had to be answered by the CIA's own 'mighty Wurlitzer', the term Frank Wisner used for the Agency's formidable array of informational assets, of which the media were a most important part.
- Holland, pp. 303–304.
- Holland, p. 304.
- Holland, p. 305.
- Cullather, Secret History (2006), p. 107. "The operation produced enough material to fill a booklet distributed to the National Security Council, members of the Senate, and other interested officials. It contained photographs of Arbenz's library of Marxist literature, Chinese Communist materials on agrarian reform, pages from Mrs. Arbenz's copy of Stalin's biography, evidence that Arbenz had tried to purchase arms from Italy, and various letters and cables revealing a 'strong pro-Communist bias.' Wisner wanted more incriminating material, but the brochure was sufficient to impress the NSC staff.
- Holland, p. 306.
- Holland, p. 307.
- Holland, p. 307.
- Kate Doyle, "The art of the coup", NACLA Report on the Americas 31(2), September/October 1997; accessed via ProQuest. "Although Project "PBHISTORY" turned up nothing of value on international Communism, it was extremely fruitful for the new Guatemalan regime. Rummaging through the papers left behind by the ousted Arbenz Administration, U.S. and Guatemalan officials found "an intelligence gold mine," according to one participant; information on thousands of Guatemalan citizens from pro-Arbenz political parties, labor unions, student organizations and farming cooperatives.17 The CIA helped assemble a register and filing system on the suspected "Communists," and left them for Guatemalan security forces to use."
- Holland, pp. 308–309.
- Holland, p. 300.
- Holland, pp. 309–310.
- Holland, p. 310.
- Holland, p. 311. "The lack of international media play, despite these efforts, so vexed the PBHISTORY team that at one point they conceived of a dramatic ploy to attract attention. Plans were drawn up for a phony 'raid' on Comité headquarters that would be blamed on Guatemala's remaining Communists. Comité officials would claim that Communists were trying to destroy the captured papers because they were so incriminating. While the CIA officers on PBHISTORY thought such a ploy would surely gather the international attention they craved, the idea was ultimately abandoned when they realized that 'too many indigenous persons would have to be in on the act,' making it too risky."
- Holland, p. 321–322.
- Holland, p. 317. "Much more seriously, the Hillings subcommittee's eagerness to bask in the afterglow of PBSUCCESS may have played a role in retaliation against Guatemalans who directly helped the CIA overthrow Arbenz."
- Holland, p. 318.
- Holland, p. 312.
- Cullather, Nick. Secret History, Second Edition: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Stanford University Press, 2006. ISBN 9780804754682
- Holland, Max. “Operation PBHistory: The Aftermath of SUCCESS” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. 17: 300-332, 2004.
- Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952- 1954, CIA History Staff document by Nicholas Cullather, 1994. Excerpt. Chapter 4.