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It was 1951, and the inimitable Edward Bernays was holding court at United Fruit’s New York headquarters. The energetic nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays sported three-piece suits, well-manicured wavy hair, and a precise mustache over an infectious smile. He was charming as usual as he addressed United Fruit President Sam “The Bananaman” Zemurray.
Bernays was doing what he did best: helping people come to a conclusion as if it were their own idea.
Widely regarded as the father of the public relations industry, Bernays had successfully made the case that all American corporations needed to hire a “counsel on public relations” — and that doing so was good for democracy.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays had argued in his 1928 book, Propaganda. “It might be better to have … committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat,” Bernays noted. But since that wasn’t how democracy worked, society needed “to be organized by leadership and propaganda.”
And because democracy operates on the principle of freedom of choice, such manipulation should be done subtly, Bernays added. If you want a man to buy a piano, for example, don’t tell him to buy a piano. Rather, Bernays wrote, you should “implant the idea in the mind of the general public” that having a music room is now fashionable. Then the idea of buying a piano “will come to him as if it is his own idea.”
This was not just how Bernays had successfully convinced women to smoke, diet-conscious people to eat bacon for breakfast, and overweight people to stay at the Waldorf hotel — all of which he did. It was also the psychology that had helped Bernays convince the world’s largest fruit company to hire him as its PR agent.
Since the 1940s, Bernays had frequently consulted with Zemurray, and also worked closely with the company’s publicity director Ed Whitman, who happened to be the husband of Eisenhower’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman.
For years, Bernays had warned Zemurray that the gulf between rich and poor in Guatemala could lead to social instability and PR problems for the fruit company. Now Bernays was concerned that anti–United Fruit sentiment might come to a head. Ever since its democratic revolution, Guatemala’s presidents had allowed labor movements and Communist sympathizers to operate legally within its country, and that potentially meant that the government might force United Fruit to make costly changes, like raising wages. Or worse: sell back its unused land.
However, Bernays said, “Guatemala might respond to pitiless publicity in this country.” By alerting Americans to Communist dangers in Central America (or in his words, “Middle America”), Bernays said, the U.S. government might be persuaded to “take steps to improve the situation.” Ideally, Guatemala would back down and start praising United Fruit for being a job creator instead of a foreign plunderer.
Zemurray, an immigrant from present-day Moldova who’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps (with the occasional help of some hired gunmen), was known for his racism against the indigenous people who worked his plantations. He wasn’t convinced that “Indians” were smart enough to ever gain negotiating power over him. But after two years of arguments from Bernays asserting that extolling the virtues of bananas wasn’t the only thing that PR could do to help United Fruit’s bottom line — and especially when President Árbenz got serious about agrarian reform — Zemurray finally relented.
Yes, he agreed, something should be done.
Zemurray’s instinct was to call up his friends in the U.S. government and ask for some favors. In 1953, United Fruit donated $64,000, in coordination with the CIA, to some disgruntled right-wing Guatemalans who wanted to start a rebellion, but their uprising was quickly crushed. The movement gained no favor with the Guatemalan public, and the CIA barely kept its role hidden.
It’s unclear what Bernays knew about the cash being given to the rebels, but when he pressed on Zemurray that the smoothest way to win favorable treatment for United Fruit in Guatemala would be to sow seeds of doubt about Árbenz’s loyalty to democracy — and let people come to their own conclusions — Zemurray listened.
“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?” Bernays had mused in Propaganda. “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.”
For example, Bernays suggested to Zemurray, Ed Whitman could take U.S. reporters on a tour of Guatemala and persuade them that what they were seeing was Communism-in-embryo. Bernays could then call up his friends at Time magazine and The New York Times and persuade them to write a series on the growing influence of Communism in Latin America, based on those reports. He knew how deeply John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower opposed Communism, so he could make sure that those articles got into the hands of influential politicians. Those politicians would denounce Guatemala, and Bernays could get the press to write about that too. All of which would make it easier for Eisenhower to intervene.
Zemurray said to make it happen. And so, the Father of PR started making calls.
Bernays organized a free trip to Guatemala for dozens of U.S. reporters, persuaded papers and magazines to extrapolate from his hints that Guatemala had Communist leanings, and got those reports in the hands of politicians, whose speeches were then quoted in more news reports. (What Bernays may not have known is how the CIA would end up facilitating the push of these misleading talking points within the U.S. political world.)
Sam Zemurray was no softie. Tall and well-built, with an Eastern European accent, he had “iron nerves and a powerful personality,” as Bernays wrote in a memoir. Zemurray had built a global conglomerate through ruthless action. For instance, when a deal to import equipment tax-free into Honduras in the 1920s fell apart, he paid Honduran exiles to overthrow the president — and got his business deal.
As such, Zemurray thought that a little more would be needed than Bernays’s soft approach. So behind the PR man’s back, Zemurray also hired a former special forces soldier named John Clements to run an under-the-radar information operation targeting conservatives and hawks.
According to a contract soldier named Robert Emmett Johnson who decades later bragged in Soldier of Fortune magazine about Clements’s role in both dispatching information (and mercenaries) for Operation PBSuccess, UFCO paid the equivalent of around $340,000 in today’s money for the report.
Zemurray also hired well-connected lobbyists to further push the narratives about Communism afoot in Guatemala.
In all, United Fruit would spend half a million dollars a year on the campaign. And by the time the CIA got to Stage 2 of Operation Success, the agency couldn’t have been more happy about it.
Before a population can truly fall for fake news about its government, one must, as the CIA put it in its description of Stage 2, “discredit target at home and abroad.”
It would do little good for Eisenhower to up and talk shit about his tiny neighbor’s popular democratic government. But if Time magazine were making innuendos — or the Christian Science Monitor or The New York Times were sounding a drumbeat of troubling assertions — the message that Árbenz’s Guatemala was not to be trusted would start to sound more and more plausible to the public. Even better if U.S. politicians could then reference those innuendos in official speeches, which could then be referenced in other news articles, further spreading the desired talking points while muddying their source.
It is at this stage that fake news expert Craig Silverman says one would want to “hire black PR firms” and “create lots of content.”
Today, billions of dollars flow into the industry of “black PR.” In the Philippines, black PR is so in demand that regular PR firms feel pressured to offer it as a service, according to BuzzFeed News. In the mid-2000s the Pentagon paid the British PR firm Bell Pottinger $500 million to spread propaganda in Iraq, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Silverman used the word “firms,” plural, for a reason. For a discrediting campaign to sink in, it should come from many angles. Bernays was a well-known liberal, ironically a bit of a bleeding heart. (Before the UFCO-Communism campaign, he’d pitched Zemurray on improving conditions for poor workers and getting rid of the company’s racist policies, like the rule that indigenous people must remove their hats when white people walked by — though he did point out that it was also a good PR move.) Hence, Zemurray was astute to hire multiple propagandists.
It’s important to note that at this stage — true to Bernays’s stated principles of PR — the point was not to get people to entirely believe made-up information. Instead, the goal was to create an environment where people would be willing to doubt their previous notions and consider new ones.
Similarly, much of the Russian disinformation campaign of 2016 — especially in the beginning — was not about convincing people of falsehoods. It was about sowing seeds of discredit and doubt about Hillary Clinton, and about the U.S. electoral system generally. It didn’t matter what was actually on Clinton’s email server, so long as talking about it cast doubt on her integrity.
With PBSuccess, the campaign was particularly focused on amplifying doubt about Árbenz’s true political stance, exaggerating kernels of truth like Árbenz’s left-leaning politics, and giving more credence to existing fringe theories, like that the Soviet Union was grooming Guatemala to be its Communist outpost (of which there was no evidence).
The insinuations in American newspapers were deceptive enough that Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello complained to the U.S. State Department about them repeatedly. Getting nowhere, he eventually arranged to personally meet with John Foster Dulles to help set the record straight. He told Dulles that the articles depicting Árbenz and Guatemala as Communist were false.
Dulles replied that “whether they were factual or not was beyond my knowledge.” But, he lied, he was “quite sure that they were not inspired for propaganda or malicious purposes.”
Bernays may not have known that his work would be wrapped into a secret CIA operation when he began the PR campaign to sow doubt about Jacobo Árbenz. But thanks to Bernays, by the time Eisenhower authorized Operation PBSuccess, those seeds of doubt were planted and ready for CIA watering.
Yet, however grateful they were for United Fruit’s PR efforts, at Stage 2 the CIA needed to take control of the information narrative — and to step on the gas. So, as they ramped up for the launch of Radio Liberación, they began planting the Communism story into more official channels.
“At a certain point, you want to get your information in more and more credible outlets,” Silverman explained. “If you can launder your stuff through established outlets, you can pull in politicians, NGOs, etc.”
This was exactly the plan. Though the CIA knew that Árbenz was neither a Communist himself nor owed the small group of Communists in his country anything, they treated the anti-Árbenz rumors circulating in the press as fact when briefing their operational teams, politicians and members of other government branches — including Eisenhower himself.
The most egregious example of such “laundering” had to do with the Report on Guatemala 1952 that United Fruit’s secretive PR firm John Clements & Associates wrote. The CIA took the company’s name off the booklet and distributed it to members of Congress as their own report, according to one member of Clements’s team — perhaps the greatest feat of any pre–Red Bull corporate “content marketing” campaign ever. (Soon after, another John Clements booklet, the 96-page Report on Central America would become the basis for a grossly inaccurate National Security Council report.)
With Árbenz discredited in the States, Operation PBSuccess turned to its network of moles to disseminate undermining stories about Árbenz within Guatemala — likewise starting with existing rumors, “to aim with increasing intensity and urgency at provoking first distrust and finally, open disaffection,” according to one State Department document.
If the U.S. government had given out fun awards to its conspirators after Operation PBSuccess wrapped up, the award for “Most Eager to Participate” probably would have gone to U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy.
Big, loud and flashy, Peurifoy filled his bright-colored suits close to bursting, and wore snazzy ties. The trove of 2003 declassified documents are full of helpful suggestions from Peurifoy for everything from boycott ideas to whom might be most usefully assassinated.
Secretary of State Dulles had thought that this ladder-climbing Democrat from South Carolina would serve as a good fall guy if the Republican State Department’s involvement were ever revealed. Ambassador Peurifoy was extra grateful for the appointment, and proved it.
Soon after Peurifoy arrived in Guatemala, he and his wife had a rather tense dinner date with the Árbenzes. After dinner, Peurifoy cabled John Foster Dulles with a confident psychoanalysis of the Guatemalan president and the conclusion that the clock was ticking for the U.S. to get rid of him. A few days later, Peurifoy telegrammed Dulles with his own propaganda plan to step up pressure on Árbenz. Approved, Peurifoy began schmoozing with local reporters and working with the U.S. Information Agency to place Guatemala-Communism rumors in Latin American newspapers.
Runner-up to Peurifoy’s “Most Eager” award may have been CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, the operative tasked with liaising between all of the members of the network inside Guatemala: the station chief; Colonel Castillo Armas; the rumor groups in Guatemala; the radio crew; and the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and his son Tachito, who were secretly supporting the rebels. Hunt relished in the spycraft and in meeting with new people — everyone was a potential character for his numerous sexy spy novels, with titles like Be My Victim.
Hunt successfully established a flow of rumors from the CIA station to his moles around the country, as well as to Castillo Armas and other enemies of Árbenz.
And with all this in place, the operation was ready to enter Stage 3.
Everything was going as planned — until one of the members of the network suddenly double-crossed Hunt.
It was a Panamanian attaché named Jorge Isaac Delgado who was helping liaise with the Nicaraguan dictator but was secretly in favor of President Árbenz.
In late January of 1954, Delgado showed up in Guatemala City with a stack of stolen documents. The documents revealed the code names of some of the members of the CIA’s clandestine network, plus definitive proof that Nicaragua’s president was backing Castillo Armas in a coup attempt. And the documents included hints that the United States could be involved.
Previous historians had never been able to identify who Delgado stole these from. But declassified documents now reveal that a CIA agent with the code name “Jacob R. Seekford” had gone to the hospital for ulcers and left the documents in his hotel room, where Delgado took them. Seekford tried to do damage control for a month, then was sent to D.C. in late February, where he was told to lay low — perhaps take a vacation in Chicago.
By analyzing the evidence in State Department and CIA documents, we were able to determine that Seekford likely was E. Howard Hunt himself. Seekford’s job description was to be a liaison between the Somozas in Nicaragua, Castillo Armas and the rumor agents in Guatemala. Seekford was compensated on the government pay scale of GS-12, which meant he was a full-time U.S. employee at Hunt’s seniority level.
In Hunt’s memoirs, he claimed that he had happened to be in Washington for the month of March 1954 by chance, so he’d been able to be there for his son Saint John’s birth. Hunt then said that Allen Dulles immediately sent him to Japan for another CIA assignment. “We need you badly in Tokyo,” Dulles had told him, Hunt claimed, 45 years later. “Please get on the next plane.”
But in an email interview, Saint John Hunt, author of two books about his parents’ careers as spies (one of which has a foreword by Roger Stone), said that the family did not move to Japan until six months after his birth in March — which checks out as a realistic time period for Seekford to have laid low. Further, the Hunts had family in Chicago, and E. Howard Hunt suffered from ulcers at the time. “As long as I [can] remember my father had ulcers,” Saint John Hunt told us.
Hunt would later have his extramarital affairs monitored by the FBI, be repeatedly criticized in and out of the CIA for his sloppiness — not the least of which included Watergate — and riddle his memoirs with embellishments. It is not improbable that the propaganda man would lie about being reassigned out of such an important mission as if it were a promotion instead of a screw-up.
Whether the document leak indeed came from Hunt, who died in 2007, or from a mystery agent with his same job description and stomach ulcers — what happened next proved that Stage 2 had been a complete success.
And the disclosure did … nothing.
The world — and especially the U.S. — had already made its minds up about Árbenz and Guatemala.
CIA documents show that the news articles calling Árbenz’s real news fake had a little help from Operation PBSuccess. The agency scrambled to get alternate facts into the hands of reporters — and also to get distracting fake stories into the news cycle within Guatemala in order to take people’s focus away from Árbenz’s disclosure of the plot. Distraction stories proposed by the CIA included flying saucer sightings and the birth of sextuplets.
But because of Stage 2’s discrediting campaign, it wasn’t hard for reporters to believe the CIA’s lie that Árbenz’s revelation simply wasn’t true. And, of course, once Radio Liberación launched, it would repeat the lie over and over. “We reject Árbenz’s charges of a planned foreign invasion,” the DJs would announce on Day 2 of their broadcasts, before adding, “But there is indeed a conspiracy — a conspiracy of Christianity and civilization against Communism and barbarism.”
By early March of 1954, State Department conspirators sat down for a meeting with CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner to discuss the launch of Stage 3 — which would kick off the fake radio campaign, code-named “SHERWOOD” — and whether there would be a need to abandon the psychological warfare plan and just assassinate “15–20 Guatemalan leaders” and hope “for the Army to take over.” In the meeting, they decided that the preconditioning had worked such that no matter what, the U.S. could keep its reputation clean as they moved forward.
“What is the chance of U.S. exposure?”
“There is no official estimate yet … ”
“After 1 April we will be too far committed to call off the operation.”
“Your job is to carry out instructions. You are to get the job done.”
“Everything we do may be plausibly denied if uncovered.”