Operation PBHistory was a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation in Guatemala. It followed Operation PBSuccess, which supported the coup which overthrew Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz in June 1954, and was an attempt to use documents left behind by his government and by organizations related to the Guatemalan Party of Labour to show that the Soviet Union had been influencing the Guatemalan government, and to exploit those documents for further intelligence purposes. It was an effort to justify the overthrow of an elected government, in response to the negative international reactions to PBSUCCESS. The first phase of the operation began soon after Arbenz' resignation, with several agents being dispatched to Guatemala beginning on 4 July 1954, and involved the collection of 150,000 documents. Following an initial presentation made to US President Dwight Eisenhower on 20 July, a decision was taken to accelerate the operation, and the number of people working in Guatemala was increased. Overall, the team studied over 500,000 documents. The operation did not succeed in finding evidence that the Guatemalan communists were being controlled by the Soviet government, and was unable to counter the international narrative that the United States had toppled the government of Jacobo Arbenz to serve the interests of the United Fruit Company. The documents uncovered by the operation proved useful to the Guatemalan intelligence agencies, enabling the creation of a register of suspected communists. In summarizing the impacts of the operation, Historian Max Holland stated that "PBHISTORY ultimately could not repair the damage caused" by the fact that the US could not hide its involvement in the overthrow of Arbenz, while Bevan Sewell wrote that it was an "ill-fated" operation, and that "the level of discord that US actions had caused in the region overshadowed any attempt to publicize its success."
Background and origins
On 27 June 1954, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz resigned his office as a result of the coup against him sponsored by the CIA. However, the actions of the United States had resulted in international outrage. 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. This criticism was influenced by the coverage put out by media outlets in Communist-controlled countries, but it was also repeated in the media in countries that were US allies in the Western Bloc, with Britain's Labour party and the Swedish Social Democratic Party joining in. Latin American opposition to the United States reached a new peak: one observer stated that "No one could recall so intense and universal a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment in the entire history of Latin America."  CIA officials felt that in order for Operation PBSUCCESS to be termed a success, further action was needed. Thus, the CIA was interested in finding documents that would allow it to portray the administration of Arbenz as being controlled by Soviet communists, and thereby to justify the coup.
In addition, due to the quick overthrow of the Árbenz government, the CIA believed that the government and the Guatemalan Party of Labour (PGT) leaders would not have been able to destroy any incriminating documents, and that these could be analyzed to demonstrate Árbenz's supposed ties to the Soviet Union. The CIA also believed that it could better understand the workings of Latin American communist parties, on which subject the CIA had very little real information. Although there had been an active communist movement in Latin America since 1919, it had largely been a clandestine movement, and the CIA had little information on the methods that parties like the PGT used. The CIA hoped that PGT records left behind in haste would enable its international Communism Division to reconstruct the party's leadership and organizational structure, and possibly do the same for other communist parties in the region.
The CIA also hoped to exploit the aftermath of the coup to bolster its own intelligence resources. CIA officer Frank Wisner, who was serving as Deputy Director for Plans at the time of the coup, hoped to recruit agents both from among communists who wanted to defect, and from other Guatemalans who might become a part of the new government. In Wisner's words, he wished to identify "people who can be controlled and exploited to further US policy." Furthermore, the agency hoped to use the findings of the operation to demonstrate the extent of Soviet influence for propaganda purposes, and also to use the information gathered to completely eliminate any communist influence in Guatemala.
On 30 June 1954, three days after the resignation of Arbenz, Frank Wisner sent a telegram that later became known as the "shift of gears cable." Two agents from the CIA, and two from the Office of Intelligence Research (OIR), arrived in Guatemala City on 4 July 1954. Carlos Castillo Armas had arrived in the capital on the previous day to assume the presidency. On of the CIA officers was Lothar Metzl, who was on the counterintelligence staff of the CIA. Metzl was an Austrian, who had studied communist movements since the 1930s, including in Europe.
The initial targets of the operation were the personal possessions and documents of Jacobo Arbenz and those of Carlos Enrique Díaz (who had been chief of the armed forces under Arbenz, and briefly his successor as president), as well as the headquarters of the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT), and the offices of trade unions, known front organizations, and police agencies. The results of the initial searches were disappointing for the CIA; many of the offices had already been plundered both by the army and by other looters. The CIA were particularly interested in finding documents that mentioned the Arbenz' government's purchase of weapons from Czechoslovakia, but they were unsuccessful. They were also unsuccessful in finding any evidence that the Soviet Union had controlled the communist movement in Guatemala.
Despite these difficulties, the agents collected 150,000 documents, in addition to a number of government files, which the agency judged to be useful. The haul was described as the "greatest catch of documents ever left behind by a Communist Party and its auxiliaries." Most of these had nothing but "local significance." Although no documents were discovered demonstrating Soviet influence, the CIA hoped to use the large number of papers to show that the communists in Guatemala had had a large influence over the government, through institutions like labor unions, peasant organizations, student unions, and youth groups.
On 20 July, the CIA agents presented the results of their first two weeks of work in Washington. At Wisner's request, Tracy Barnes created a booklet from these documents to show to US President Dwight Eisenhower. The 23 documents in the booklet included Communist literature owned by Arbenz, such as a Chinese study on agrarian reform, as well as diplomatic records implying Communist sympathies, and Arbenz' wife Maria Cristina Villanova's copy of a biography of Joseph Stalin. After the presentation, Frank Wisner decided that the examination of the seized documents needed to proceed faster, and so expanded the group of agents working in Guatemala.
One of the aims of the new team was to help Castillo Armas establish an intelligence agency that would be able to fight communism in Guatemala. 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. Although the Comité was theoretically an intelligence agency, it also had some police powers. It could order the arrest of anybody suspected of being a communist, and had oversight over all army and police authorities. The CIA team was supposed to help it set up by creating a nucleus of information about people associated with the PGT.
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.
On 4 August, a new and larger US contingent 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. It consisted of eight CIA officers, three men from the State Department, and one from the US Information Agency. It was led by an officer working under the pseudonym "Francis T. Mylkes," and also included David Atlee Phillips, who was fluent in Spanish and had been part of the PBSUCCESS team. 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; the training involved "screening, classifying, indexing, and carding of the confiscated documents [and] the rudiments of mail control, logging, abstracting, and cryptic reference."
Eventually, the 25 personnel of the Comité joined the CIA officers in sorting and processing the seized documents. The CIA officers had a separate side entrance to the building in which the operations took place, in order to maintain the image that the operation was a Guatemalan internal affair. The task of sorting through the papers proved to be daunting: by September, the main index of the material contained 15,800 cards. All hand-written material was preserved, and multiple copies of printed material were kept. Every document had to be reproduced, because the original copies of every document was to remain in Guatemala. Approximately half of the paper that had been gathered was incinerated. The CIA gave the highest priority to the documents seized from the PGT.
By September 1954, the PBHISTORY agents had only managed to find a small number of top secret documents. Some of the documents gathered showed that government officials and communist party leaders had been able to dispose of most of the sensitive material before they left. In the period of uncertain leadership that followed Arbenz' overthrow and preceded Castillo Armas' taking power, a member of one of the ruling juntas had prevented the Comité from searching the homes of private citizens, and from arresting them, which potentially reduced the number of sensitive documents the CIA had access to. Additionally, Castillo Armas stated after taking power that the intelligence information of the army had been completely destroyed.
The CIA finished processing documents on 28 September 1954. By this point, the agents had parsed through more than 500,000 unique documents. 750 photographs of this material were published for the use of the media, 50,000 documents were microfilmed, and photostatic copies were taken of 2095 important documents. Copies of a handful of important documents were distributed to the varies agencies that had been a part of PBHISTORY, as well as the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The various agencies that participated in Operation PBHISTORY had different aims in mind for the products of the operation. The CIA was most interested in using the information gathered against communist movements in Latin America and elsewhere. The State Department wanted to use them to reconstruct the history of the communist party within Guatemala, while the highest priority of the USIA was to use the documents to release information that could be used to change international opinion. The agents in charge of the operation were expected to balance these various interests: however, as the organization behind the operation, the CIA had veto power over any public use.
Operations Kufire and Kugown
The work done by the PBHistory team also served to perpetuate two existing CIA operations, Operation Kufire and Operation Kugown, both of which had been a part of Operation PBSUCCESS. Kufire was a wide-ranging operations to track communists from various countries across Latin America who had come to Guatemala during the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz. The CIA expected that these individuals would return to their home countries, or to other countries that had liberal policies about political asylum, and by tracking them, the CIA hoped to disrupt their activities. During the course of this operation, a CIA analyst asked Atlee Philips whether to open a file on a 25-year old physician, who did not at the time appear to be particularly threatening. Atlee Philips said yes, thereby opening a file on Ernesto "Che" Guevara, which would quickly become one of the thickest files the CIA had on a single individual. However, few other documents resulted in files that were of enduring value to the CIA.
Operation Kugown was the name given to the psychological warfare operation that had played an important part in the overthrow of Arbenz. During the coup, its primary targets had been the Arbenz government. After the conclusion of the coup, Kugown continued, targeting the rest of Guatemala, and the wider international audience. The aim of the operation was to disseminate derogatory information about Arbenz, and to convince Guatemalans—and the world—that Árbenz's regime had been communist-dominated. The use of documents from PBHISTORY for Operation Kugown began in August 1954. The standard method employed by the CIA was to select a document that could be portrayed as incriminating and write an explanation covering it. This would then be released to the press by the Comite, so that the local agency could receive some credit. The Comite also released a short documentary film, titled Despues Descubrimos La Verdad ("Later We Discover the Truth"). Through these avenues news media in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America were saturated with stories of how the Arbenz government had been controlled by communists.
While the press releases had a substantial impact within Guatemala, the CIA was unable to staunch the continued criticism of the US role in the coup, which came from virtually all countries except for West Germany and the US itself. Very few news agencies chose to run the press releases from the Comite, even though a number of them were put out. Information was sent to press agencies worldwide describing infiltration by the PGT and links among Communists elsewhere; nonetheless, their impact remained minimal. The lack of attention frustrated the PBHISTORY agents to the point where they planned to stage a false flag attack on their own headquarters, which would later be described as the work of Guatemala's remaining communists. However, the CIA decided that such an attack would need the cooperation of too many "indigenous" people, and the plan was scrapped as being too risky. Operation Kugown also released a large quantity of communist propaganda material that had been brought into Guatemala from the outside; these convinced American journalists such as Donald Grant that there must have been a connection between Arbenz and the Soviet government. Ultimately, these operations were unsuccessful in convincing Latin America that the 1954 coup was justified.
PBHISTORY documents were made use of by the officials of various governments. US ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge made use of 21 documents in a speech he made at the United Nations. Information was also funneled to US ambassadors and Congresspeople. The US Congress in 1954 was among the few Republican controlled Congresses in many years: thus members of that party sought to make use of an anti-communist push to erode the voting base of the Democratic party. Heavily anti-Communist members of the US Congress, particularly Charles J. Kersten and Patrick J. Hillings of the Kersten Committee, became involved with PBHISTORY with great enthusiasm. By August 1954, Kersten was receiving PBHISTORY documents from Dulles so that he could use them in speeches to Congress about the Soviet Union's influence in Guatemala. In September and October 1954, the Kersten Committee held a number of hearings, purportedly investigating the penetration of communist influence. PBHISTORY documents were used in this process, and Carlos Castillo Armas became the first head of state to testify before a US Congress committee (although he did so with a previously recorded tape). Although the hearings did little to unearth information about communist presence in Guatemala, they did provide Operation PBHISTORY with huge publicity within the US.
At the same time, the involvement of the Kersten committee and of Kersten and Hillings caused concern for the CIA in many ways. Dulles was constantly worried that their investigation would damage the operations of the CIA, particularly when Hillings visited Guatemala shortly before PBSUCCESS was to begin. Additionally, Congresspeople had not officially been informed of the CIA's role in the coup, and Dulles wished to keep them uninformed. By supplying them with PBHISTORY documents, Dulles hoped to forestall them from inadvertently exposing the CIA's other projects. Following the hearings, a subcommittee headed by Hillings produced a final report. In addition to stating without evidence that the Guatemalan government had been acting under orders from the Soviet Union, this report also claimed that Soviet weapons had been brought covertly to Guatemala by submarine. This unintentionally drew attention to Operation WASHTUB, a CIA effort to foist incriminating arms on the Guatemalan government.
The government of Honduras, which had allowed its territory to be used as a "staging area" for the coup against Arbenz, also made use of the PBHISTORY papers to justify its position. It argued that it had been facing interference in its internal matters from communists in Guatemala.
Once the CIA had stopped using the documents for propaganda purposes, the agents in charge of PBHISTORY decided that the best use of the documents they had uncovered would be to record the growth of the communist movement in Guatemala. This somewhat scholarly research was undertaken by the US State Department's Office of Intelligence Research (OIR). The OIR produced a 50-page report after five months of work; the State Department considered it the "definitive answer" to the question of how communism had arisen in Guatemala.
Aftermath and analysis
PBHISTORY documents were used for years afterward to discredit Árbenz (living in exile) and to counter Soviet propaganda about American imperialism in Guatemala. When Arbenz moved to Montevideo in 1957, the CIA used the PBHISTORY documents to produce a biography of Arbenz that described him as a Soviet agent, in an attempt to prevent Arbenz from moving to Mexico, where opposition to Castillo Armas' regime was coalescing. Nonetheless, Arbenz remained a symbol of principled resistance to the United States, helped in part by Soviet propaganda to that effect.
Despite the report produced by the OIR, by 1957 the CIA realized that its version of the history of the Arbenz government and the coup were not gaining traction. Books written by defenders of the Arbenz government, which were strongly critical of the US intervention, had generally been better received, and nationalist Latin Americans were inclined to view the Castillo Armas government as something created by the US. As a result, the US government decided to allow Ronald Schneider, a historian who was in the process of completing his Ph.D, to access the PBHISTORY archive. Scheider's well-received book Communism in Guatemala: 1944 to 1954 was published in 1959: later observers have stated that the publication may have been subsidized in some way by the CIA. Both the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where Schneider worked, and Frederick A. Praeger, who published Schneider's book, received money from the CIA. Schneider stated in his book that the Comite was responsible for collecting the documents he accessed, but did not mention the CIA's role in funding the Comite, nor did he explain how the documents came to the US. Schneider's book did not rely on PBHISTORY material alone, but also on information that Schneider gathered during a trip to Mexico and Guatemala in 1957.
Max Holland, analyzing PBHISTORY in 2004, wrote that although very few highly sensitive communist documents were found, the operation provided the CIA its first detailed look at the development of a powerful communist movement. It also allowed them to set up a Guatemalan service that would work against the communists, and for these reasons, the CIA judged the operation to be a success. Historian Kate Doyle stated that the documents uncovered by PBHISTORY allowed the CIA to create a register of suspected communists. The documents were described by participants as an "intelligence goldmine", and the register that the CIA left with the Guatemalan security forces contained information on thousands of citizens.
However, the operation failed in its main purpose, which was to persuade Latin Americans of the US point of view on communism. Most people viewed the reforms during the Guatemalan Revolution in a positive light, and even Schneider's balanced account was unable to persuade the public that the Soviet Union was involved in the rise of Guatemalan communism. Nothing useful was discovered with respect to international communism either. The Soviet Union's portrayal of the events, in contrast, was of a Guatemalan government that was unthreatening to the interests of the US, but which was nonetheless overthrown in order to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company. Over time, this description of the events became the favored one in the region. Historian Mark Hove has written that "Operation PBHistory proved ineffective because of “a new, smoldering resentment” that had emerged in Latin America over US intervention in Guatemala." The Soviet narrative was further strengthened in 1957, when Carlos Castillo Armas was overthrown and replaced with a highly reactionary government which overturned the reforms of the 1944 revolution; the administration of Dwight Eisenhower did not react to the coup in any significant way. When Richard Nixon, then US vice-president, visited Latin America in 1958, he encountered severe abuse wherever he went, even from people who were not communists or their sympathizers. PBHISTORY was also unable to change the strong resentment against the CIA that the Guatemalan coup had created.
- Holland 2004, p. 300.
- Holland 2004, p. 323.
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