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The (Literally) Unbelievable Story of the Original Fake News Network

Once upon a time in Guatemala, the CIA hired a cocky American actor and two radio DJs to launch a revolution and oust a president. Their playbook is being used against the U.S. right now.

The (Literally) Unbelievable Story of the Original Fake News Network

Guatemala City looked like a ghost town.

The capital’s 450,000 residents hid in panicked self-quarantine, waiting for the first wave to arrive. World War I–style military planes periodically flew overhead, firing warning shots and dropping leaflets telling people to either flee or stay indoors.

A civil war was moving toward them.

All week, Guatemalan radio had been blasting the news of gruesome battles around the country. The newspapers were going crazy. Two Americans in a tourist plane had been shot down by Guatemala’s Communist army. Refugees were fleeing to Mexico while 400 injured Communist troops were retreating to the capital for medical treatment.

Now, on Saturday morning — June 26, 1954 — radio news broadcasts reported that two columns of anti-Communist patriots calling themselves the “Liberation Army” were 60 kilometers from the capital. And marching fast.

All vehicles were now military targets, the radio warned, so citizens should stay out of their cars. Trains had been stopped due to the intense air battle raging in the northeast. And a sabotage unit of the Liberation Army had just received orders to blow up a bridge in “Sector H-21.”

Soldiers from the Communist government’s own military were now defecting in droves, newscasters reported. Five hundred and thirty-eight civilians had joined the Liberation Army just yesterday.

In response, the government had suspended the constitution. The president had ordered all anti-Communists found on the streets to be rounded up.

Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, Guatemala’s second democratically elected President. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

The whole world was watching this catastrophe unfold, the radiomen reported.

At 11 p.m., the broadcasters read aloud a message issued by the Guatemalan chief of police:

To all Department Governors in the Republic. Capture immediately all mayors and other anti-Communist city officials currently affiliated with parties of the revolution. … Keep them in prison, and at the first shot fired when you are attacked, shoot them immediately.

All weekend long, the radio newscasters implored government soldiers to stand down. Remaining at one’s post would only result in needless bloodshed, the newscasters warned. The only way to end the carnage was to abandon the president, who “preferred suicide to surrender.”

Guatemala’s 41-year-old president, Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, was not known for his sense of humor. But if there was anything that had the chance of making him smile that day, it might have been this last claim. Anyone who knew Jacobo Árbenz knew he would never say something like that.

But he was not laughing, because what he knew was more infuriating than humorous.

There was, in fact, no real “Liberation Army.” Just a few dozen pissed-off exiles hiding out 6 miles in from the border of Honduras, staging strategic photos for the press, like a bunch of 1950s-era Instagram influencers holding donated rifles. The “invasion” was more smoke than bombs.

No refugees or injured soldiers had fled anywhere. The chief of police had not issued orders to round up anti-Communists. The two Americans in that “tourist” plane were actually the ones dropping leaflets, contract pilots. They hadn’t been shot down; they’d run out of gas and been captured by authorities in Mexico.

There was no civil war about to engulf the capital, and most ironic of all: Guatemala was not a Communist state. President Árbenz was a political independent, having run as a moderate — and certainly was not a Communist. And though the country did have a small Communist Party and four representatives in Guatemala’s 56-member congress, not one Communist held a cabinet position in Árbenz’s administration. The president considered himself friends with two Communist Party leaders, but he was also friends with right-wing leaders. His own chief of armed forces and handpicked presidential successor was a conservative. Árbenz was a cool-headed military man like his counterpart President Eisenhower. True, in his ideal world, Árbenz would have Guatemala look like the USA under FDR. But he was a pragmatist. In the United States today, his policies would have been closer to those of Bill Clinton than Bernie Sanders.

And that radio station everyone was reacting to? It wasn’t even in Guatemala. The disc jockeys aired their “reports” from a shack in Nicaragua. Many of their broadcasts had actually been prerecorded earlier in the year.

In Florida.

In an office belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The radio station that had all of Guatemala in such a frenzy was part of a secret CIA “terror program based on Orson Welles,” declassified documents now show. It was overseen by an American actor and spy novelist whose salary was paid by U.S. tax dollars. The whole operation was, to use today’s parlance, “fake news.”

By the following evening, President Árbenz’s colonels were refusing to leave their barracks. The president’s ambassador brought him word that the U.S. would end the charade if Árbenz stepped down. The radio, meanwhile, told civilians that all they needed for the war to be over was to stop supporting Árbenz.

So they did. The Guatemalan people and military who had once overwhelmingly backed their elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, gave up their power. And now he had to.

President Árbenz walked across the street into the Mexican Embassy, and the U.S. walked their man into his office.

Árbenz was eventually strip-searched by U.S. agents and put on a plane, never to set foot in his home country again.

Under Árbenz and his predecessor, President Juan Arevalo, the newly democratic Guatemala had been rapidly becoming a bright spot of stability and middle-class prosperity in Latin America. But the fall of Árbenz and subsequent collapse of democracy ushered in a string of brutal dictators who slaughtered countless innocents. It reversed Guatemala’s promising economic rise and led to the takeover of organized crime and mass immigration to Mexico and the United States.

What if the U.S. had not intervened in Guatemala’s democratic process? When we posed this question to Martín Pellecer, founder of the investigative journalism outfit Nómada, in an interview in Guatemala City, he replied without hesitating: “We would have been Costa Rica.” In a series of reforms beginning a few years after Guatemala’s democratic revolution, Costa Rica abolished its army and redirected funds into a robust civil police force, infrastructure, health care and education — creating decades of peace, an enormous tourist draw and a booming economy for the region.

Instead, the overthrowing of Árbenz — which CIA Director Allen Dulles and his deputies in a secret telegram immediately called “a great victory” and “an inspiration and a challenge to all of us” — closed the book on Guatemala’s 10 years of democracy and kicked off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people died.

Sylvia Brindis — one of the authors of this story — was born in Guatemala City during that war. Her family were campesinos (country folk) and coffee plantation workers from the eastern city of Zacapa. To this day her relatives regularly lament the fall of Árbenz. She grew up with a constant stream of “what ifs”: What if the people had known the Liberation Army was fake? What if Árbenz had come back and staged a revolution instead of staying in exile? What if the democratic reforms hadn’t been undermined and reversed?

The other author of this story, Shane Snow, has spent much of his journalistic career focused on human behavior and how media affects it. In 2014, he wrote a book chapter about Che Guevara’s use of pirate radio to help win the Cuban Revolution. When Sylvia learned about this, her immediate reaction was, “Oh yeah, like the CIA did in Guatemala.”

Shane was surprised to hear this. Most in Guatemala know that media manipulation brought down their most popular president and changed the course of their nation’s history. But until 2016, most Americans had barely ever even heard of “fake news.”

Our conversation about Che’s radio station led us to take a deep look at the Guatemalan radio story. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. government declassified a trove of secret documents about the overthrow. Unfortunately the CIA told us that they did not have any of the tapes that broadcast Radio Liberación. And the former CIA historian who wrote the agency’s “official” history on Árbenz told us that he’d never looked into the radio campaign because he thought it hadn’t been very important. This made us want to dig even more.

So we spent a year poring through unorganized troves of declassified CIA and State Department documents, exploring Guatemalan police archives, and photographing boxes of correspondence. We interviewed historians who’d written books about various aspects of the saga, and tracked how key parts of their official histories were based on government misinformation. And we hunted down crumbly old Central American newspapers, half-written manuscripts left behind by deceased government agents, and documents the government claimed to have lost.

And in that digging, we discovered something shocking.

Not only did Che Guevara get the idea for his Cuban guerilla radio station from the CIA’s operation in Guatemala — the 26-year-old Argentine was on the ground in Guatemala City witnessing the overthrow — but our investigation also revealed a story about fake news that even the best Árbenz historians had never had primary access to, much less explored:

In 1954, the CIA didn’t just use media manipulation to turn a country upside down and install the president that the U.S. wanted. The agency wrote a six-stage, step-by-step playbook for exactly how to do it.

And the most unsettling part is this: It’s the same playbook that the Kremlin used in 2016 and is using against the United States again right now.

Oh, and we also found The Tapes.

 

 

Actual audio of the maiden broadcast of Radio Liberación, May 1, 1954, created by the CIA. (Audio courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration)

 

The “revolution” had started two months earlier, on May 1, 1954, as Guatemalans amassed for their annual May Day parade, and a new radio station aired its maiden broadcast.

The broadcast began with trumpet blasts and an orchestra rendition of the Guatemalan national anthem. Then, the voice of an experienced DJ announced (in Spanish):

“This is Radio Liberación, operating from a secret location inside the Republic! … The soul of our people speaks through our mouth.”

Guatemalan First Lady María Cristina Vilanova Castro de Árbenz was known as the driving force behind her husband’s public career and political stances, often maneuvering behind the scenes on his behalf. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

The station declared that it was the news media arm of a coalition of exiles, university students, honorable military officers, and working Guatemalans who opposed their president. “We will announce the hour of your redemption,” the DJ declared, “[from] the presidency of the Communist traitor Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán!”

He and a co-host explained that the radio broadcast would be airing twice a day with news of the rebellion against Árbenz. Each installment would begin with popular music and jokes, and then proceed to serious segments exposing the Árbenz government and the evils of Communism, which they said he had succumbed to. Several times, the DJs encouraged fellow “patriots” to join them and their leader, an exiled colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas, in their resistance movement.

The broadcast ended with one of the many catchphrases that the station would soon repeat countless times: “The symbols of our fight: God, Fatherland and Liberty. And our aspirations: Truth, Justice and Work.”

President Árbenz and his advisers — the closest of which were his politically savvy wife, María Vilanova, and his loyal foreign affairs minister, Guillermo Toriello — were surely frustrated to hear this. Castillo Armas had already tried to foment one of several failed coups in Guatemala’s short democratic history. He’d been caught and jailed in 1949 after trying to violently overthrow Árbenz’s predecessor, but he had since escaped into exile. Árbenz’s intelligence apparatus had documents proving that the rebel group had only a handful of men and a shoestring budget. They knew Castillo Armas was hiding in Honduras — not inside Guatemala — and was operating with support from a U.S. corporation known as the United Fruit Company.

Foreign Affairs Minister Guillermo Toriello. (Image courtesy the authors)

What could this radio station be up to, the Guatemalan president and his advisers wondered. Halfway through his six-year term, Árbenz remained overwhelmingly popular with the Guatemalan people. As a colonel himself, he had the support of his military. He knew that Castillo Armas posed no real threat, had few supporters and supplies.

But what he didn’t know is that by the time Radio Liberación launched, replacing Árbenz with Castillo Armas had become the CIA’s number one priority. Nor did Árbenz know that President Eisenhower had authorized his overthrow so long ago that the agency was already on Stage 3 of its plan by the time the mysterious radio station had aired the Guatemalan national anthem for the first time.

 

 

The United States was not at war with Guatemala in 1954. But the Boston-based conglomerate known as the United Fruit Company was at war with President Árbenz.

United Fruit (also known as UFCO) had been cheating on its taxes for years, lying to the Guatemalan government about the value of its banana plantations and the hundreds of thousands of acres of unused land the company was sitting on. Now that Árbenz had passed an agrarian reform bill (similar to those that had in decades past allowed countries like Ireland, Colombia and Canada to break agricultural monopolies and create more competition), Guatemala was buying back untilled land for the value that companies like UFCO had reported on its tax bill. UFCO was being forced to sleep in the bed they’d made, and they were pissed.

If only someone could get rid of Árbenz.

The most powerful pair of brothers in the United States, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles, were not legally allowed to do that sort of thing. But they wanted to. Both were UFCO shareholders and advocates, having worked for the firm for many years. But in a time of peace, well, doing anything more aggressive than writing angry letters would be illegal.

(L to R) Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and his older brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Together they were highly influential figures in U.S. foreign interventionist policy. (AP Photo/Jacob Harris)

The U.S. was, however, at symbolic “war” with Communism. Eisenhower had won the U.S. presidency on a campaign promise to stop its spread. And the Dulles brothers were particularly eager to help him do that. They held a deep religious belief that Jesus Christ had called on them to use their influence to spread American business interests across the world, while simultaneously beating back the Soviets. For decades, the United States had thrown its weight around Latin America when it suited the U.S. financially — such as seizing Puerto Rico from Spain and secretly helping Panama secede from Colombia. And in 1953, the U.S. successfully overthrew the Shah of Iran after he tried to nationalize oil. The success of that operation confirmed for the Dulleses that Communist prevention and American business interests were indeed a winning combination.

So, even though the U.S. State Department knew that Jacobo Árbenz was not a Communist, the Dulles brothers decided it was God’s plan to get rid of him.

This is not, strictly speaking, a legal justification for overthrowing a democratically elected leader of a nation. So the Dulleses decided to do so without anyone knowing about it.

According to declassified documents, Allen Dulles had as far back as July 1952 proposed putting together a private “syndicate” to fund Árbenz’s ouster. But after over a year of plotting, he and his brother got the official green light from Eisenhower to use U.S. tax funds to make Árbenz go away. As the U.S. diplomat over Central American affairs later put it, “There is 100 percent determination here, from the top down, to get rid of this stinker.”

Excited, they put an org chart together, where, as Harvard history professor John Coatsworth wrote in 2005 in the new introduction to the book Bitter Fruit, a journalistic investigation of the overthrow that was published in 1982 and revealed a number of details before the U.S. declassified them, “every policymaking official involved in the decision to overthrow the Guatemalan government, except for President Eisenhower himself, had a family or business connection to UFCO.”

Frank Wisner, Deputy Director of Plans and founding member of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Photo courtesy the Central Intelligence Agency)

The covert operation would be officially run by the CIA, but the State Department would provide its Central American ambassadors as spies and operatives, and the U.S. Information Agency would also lend support. The United Fruit Company would not “officially” be involved, but it would provide transport, communications equipment and PR services.

And in an example of positive affirmation that would make Oprah proud — if she were a mobster — the scheme was dubbed, Operation Success. Allen Dulles told his lieutenants that the operation, also called PBSuccess (PB was CIA code for Guatemala), was the agency’s “number one priority.”

Allen Dulles’s number two man, Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner, spelled out the objectives in a memorandum on September 11, 1953:

The operational overview officially included a $2.7 million budget breakdown, and falsely described the Guatemalan government as “Moscow influenced” and “thoroughly controlled by a Communist dominated bureaucracy.” It called the Central American nation “primitive,” with a “touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex.”

Thus the official record that U.S. agents would rely on in conducting the anti-Árbenz campaign was prepopulated with biased and false information.

This was fitting, because, in addition to ceasing aid to Guatemala and pressuring its allies to abandon it, the central component of the plan revolved around fake news. As Allen Dulles would spell out to Eisenhower: “The entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength.”

The Dulleses tapped the United States’ top “psychological warfare” experts to help CIA planners develop a six-stage playbook for making an information-centric overthrow happen. A secret document dated November 12, 1953, spelled this playbook out, step-by-step.

What did this plan consist of?

Snippet of the detailed memo outlining the program for Operation PBSuccess. The CIA outlines their objectives, their statement of the problem, and the six-stage playbook of the operation.

“It is difficult to explain without the wall map and charts,” Deputy Director Wisner explained in a coordination meeting between CIA and State Department planners in the spring of 1954.

But, he said, it most certainly included, “ghost voicing, deception, mines, bazookas, and fire power.” Everything they needed for a fake war.

Before launching an information assault, build out a network of agents and scapegoats that will allow your own government to maintain “plausible deniability.

Stage 1 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

The first order of business for any covert information operation is to staff up in a way that keeps the mastermind at maximum arm’s length from any dirty work. So once the Dulles brothers decided they were going to use psychological warfare to overthrow President Árbenz, they needed to figure out who exactly would do what — and how to keep the words “United States of America” out of it.

This was relatively novel at the time — and also exciting. A brand-new agency called the Psychological Strategy Board was now part of the National Security Council, and the CIA under Dulles and Eisenhower was starting to flex muscles it hadn’t yet tried to use.

At the CIA’s inception in 1947, President Truman had envisioned its job as collecting information, so that presidents could make better decisions. But, as Truman lamented years later in a Washington Post op-ed, the agency became an operational arm of government. “I had never thought that when I set up the CIA it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations,” Truman wrote.

And yet, the year Truman left office, his successor, President Eisenhower, allowed the Dulles brothers to begin using the CIA to conduct paramilitary operations abroad while maintaining the nation’s PR-friendly image of law and order.

During a time of peace, any aggressive action against another nation had to look like it came from someone other than the United States government. The cardinal principle of the CIA, therefore, became “plausible deniability.” This was of primary importance when staffing up PBSuccess:

U.S. State Department officials discuss plausible deniability regarding Operation PBSuccess at a weekly meeting, according to an official memorandum.

The CIA planners agreed that the easiest way to overthrow Árbenz would be to convince the Guatemalan people to rise up against him. To do that, Operation PBSuccess would use what the CIA and the U.S. Psychological Strategy Board called “black propaganda” — which it described helpfully in an internal document titled “Principles to Ensure Coordination of Gray Activities” as content that is “partially or completely fabricated, but that which is fabricated is made to appear credible to the target audience.” (Propaganda during peacetime had been authorized by the U.S. Security Council as a function of the State Department, in order to keep it at arm’s length from President Eisenhower.)

And in the event that the campaign didn’t convince Guatemalans to rise up themselves, black propaganda would provide a pretext for CIA operatives to pretend to be those Guatemalan rebels. But — since the U.S. was not at war with Guatemala, and helping depose a democratically elected leader would be both illegal and look supremely shitty — this would mean staffing up with outsiders to abstract the CIA away from the dirty work.

In a modern media manipulation campaign, fake news expert Craig Silverman, a respected media editor for BuzzFeed News and author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content, calls this step “building out the network.” The social media equivalent of deploying businessmen and retired soldiers to mingle with and recruit Guatemalan locals as unwitting CIA minions is creating fake profiles on social networks.

“What you want to think about is, how do you blend in and create the appearance that you’re an authentic actor?” Silverman explained in a phone interview when we asked him to break down the hypothetical stages of a successful modern fake news campaign — say, to overthrow the president of a small country.

“You create your inauthentic network of accounts,” Silverman said, so that the propaganda messages appear to come from within the “target public’s” communities. This keeps them from getting suspicious. Even more authentic-looking, Silverman added, is to “buy some aged social media accounts” from real people who’ve been operating them for years.

In Guatemala, this took the form of buying a preexisting enemy of the Árbenz regime to serve as the head of the supposed “rebel” movement.

Thirty-six-year-old CIA field agent E. Howard Hunt — who would decades later go to prison for his role in masterminding the Watergate break-in — scouted several candidates, including former military leaders and a man who’d lost the election against Árbenz.

Eventually, the agency settled on the perfect candidate, a legendary colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas.

CIA field operative and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt, who would later be convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. (Photo from his autobiography “American Spy”)

 

 

In 1949, Carlos Castillo Armas sat in his jail cell in Guatemala City, his well-toned chest and arm muscles visibly rippling from constant push-ups and chin-ups. Or so the prison guards thought.  

Actually, for the entire month since his capture after attempting to take over a military barracks and overthrow Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo, the mustachioed colonel had been hand-digging a secret tunnel underneath the prison.

It would be back-breaking work for a regular man, but not for a killing machine like Castillo Armas.

Finally, one night, after the prison guards had made their rounds, the colonel threw aside his mattress and wriggled his massive, muscular body through the tunnel and popped up outside the prison gates. By the time the sirens began shrieking, he’d sprinted so many kilometers that he barely heard them.

Actually, that’s not what happened at all. But it’s what CIA planners told their agents.

Castillo Armas was neither a beefy escape artist nor particularly intelligent. Rather, he was a scrawny, egotistical shit-talker. It appeared that he’d actually been bribed out of jail by friends and driven in a car to Honduras, where he’d been hiding ever since.

Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, with gun tucked into his belt, talking to his men during the Guatemalan Revolution. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The CIA settled on him among Hunt’s proposed options because they thought Castillo Armas would be easy to manipulate. They paid him a $30,000 retainer, gave him the CIA code name “RUFUS” and a pseudonym, “John H. Calligeris,” and promised him the Guatemalan presidency if he played the part.

Thus the CIA bought the first authentic-looking part of its network.

Hunt and his co-agents also hired local Guatemalans as informants, graffiti artists and rumor-spreaders — though without disclosing that it was the U.S. government footing the bill. Eventually, the CIA even turned Guatemala’s small Communist Party’s number three activist, Carlos Manuel Pellecer, into a paid agent as well. Operating under the code name “LINLUCK,” Pellecer pretended to be Árbenz’s ally while filing secret reports on him.

In the research for his 2019 book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, British journalist Peter Pomerantsev discovered a Russian manual called Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide, which is described as a user’s guide for “state security services and civil servants.” The manual suggests that the deployment of information weapons “acts like an invisible radiation. … The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its defense mechanisms.”

The invisible radiation analogy is apt — and exactly what Stage 1 of the Guatemala playbook was about. It’s why, Pomerantsev explains in his book, Russia deploys social media surrogates to create and promote narratives that the Kremlin wants people to believe. If enough people are saying it, it doesn’t feel like the dictator is behind it. Running information warfare through a “network” that’s abstracted away from the mastermind is how Russia manipulated the American press and public in the 2016 election into talking about what Putin wanted — without them even knowing it. Research by scholars like University of Wisconsin professor Young Mie Kim reveals that during the 2016 election, the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency created thousands of disguised social media accounts and over a hundred fake organizations and groups across Facebook, YouTube, Meetup, Twitter and independent websites, and ran thousands of ad and messaging campaigns from them — all of which was meant to look like it came from legitimate American nonprofits and groups of U.S. citizens.

“First, you would want to disguise your identity and your intent,” Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, a nonpartisan media data expert from UPenn, who rigorously calculated the impact of news manipulation during 2016, explained when we asked her what the first step in a modern disinformation campaign would likely be. “You would want to make it more difficult to pin the blame on you.”

This is precisely what Special Counsel Robert Mueller found in his official investigation of 2016 — that the Kremlin used surrogates to build out its “network” for its interference campaign long before election season, both on social media and with in-person contacts.

Rather than doing any dirty work directly, ideally, people within the Trump campaign could be influenced to take actions that Russia wanted. But Putin didn’t phone up candidate Trump. He had a friend of a friend of a friend schedule a meeting with Trump’s son — about “adoptions.” And the hackers who compromised the Clinton campaign’s emails weren’t Russian government either. The Special Counsel investigation found that they were a cyber-espionage group called Fancy Bear — in the pay of the Russian government. And the publisher of the embarrassing documents? Not Russia; not even the hackers. It was a party even further abstracted from Putin: Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Plausible deniability.

And because of the way Wikileaks simply (and selectively) released the information, it wasn’t even Assange who told the American public the talking points Putin wanted Americans to hear. The final piece of the “network” was America’s own news media.

“For practical purposes,” Dr. Jamieson told us, “the credibility of our major news outlets and some of our most respected reporters was used in service of Russian ends, inadvertently.”

 

 

In early 1954, a Texan actor and playwright named David Atlee Phillips was working as an editor at a small newspaper in Chile, when the CIA called him up and offered him a new gig.

A tall, charismatic man who fancied himself something of a spy-from-the-movies type (the first James Bond film had come out in 1953), Phillips had worked for the CIA in Chile for a few years, where his newspaper job gave him a plausible reason to talk to people the CIA wanted him to talk to. Based on his early CIA missions — and a stint in a Chilean movie in which Phillips described himself as a “devil-may-care gringo who makes violent love to three passionate sisters one after another, uno, dos, tres” — he’d started trying to write sexy spy novels.

David Atlee Phillips as a young soldier. (Courtesy the Library of Congress.)

Now the agency wanted him to fly to Florida and make use of his writing skills for them.

Operation PBSuccess had set up headquarters in Opa-Locka, Florida, about 14 miles northwest of Miami Beach. There, Phillips was briefed on the overthrow mission by CIA Assistant Deputy Director of Plans Tracy Barnes (whose name gets misspelled in the CIA’s official history as “Tracey”) and E. Howard Hunt, who’d helped recruit Castillo Armas and would be coordinating among the propaganda network.

In his memoir, The Night Watch, Phillips claimed that Barnes told him, “Jacobo Árbenz is responding more and more to overtures from Moscow,” and “it’s unacceptable to have a Commie running Guatemala.” Already, Phillips was being compartmentalized from the truth.

Tracy Barnes, Central Intelligence Agency Assistant Deputy Director of Plans and Operation and PBSUCCESS conspirator. (Photo courtesy the Central Intelligence Agency)

“I’m still not sure that gives us the right to intervene,” Phillips claimed he said.

“Our marching orders on this operation come from President Eisenhower,” Barnes replied, according to Phillips. Barnes then told him the story about how Castillo Armas “tunneled out of prison,” which impressed Phillips. (The CIA knew that the tunneling story was fiction, yet briefed their agents with it anyway. Currently, the Wikipedia entry for Castillo Armas still mentions the tunnel story.)

Barnes continued explaining that Castillo Armas was amassing an army — and the CIA’s job was simply “to assist the Guatemalans who are opposed to Árbenz.” It wasn’t a U.S. overthrow. It was assistance for a freedom fighter.

Satisfied, Phillips agreed to oversee the writing for the propaganda radio station that would support the rebels. Barnes then left for Washington, and Phillips and Hunt drank rum cocktails and bonded over their shared love of writing spy novels.

Phillips’s memoir is hardly a trustworthy source of information. Like his boss, Hunt, Phillips was a notorious self-promoter. (PBSuccess historians Stephen Schlesinger and Piero Gleijeses each interviewed Phillips before his death, and both told us that they remembered him as a self-aggrandizer who loved playing spy games — an impression that’s reinforced by Phillips’s personal papers left behind after his death.)

Documents do confirm, though, that Phillips was indeed tasked with running Radio Liberación, after the CIA had decided that it would be a bad idea to let Castillo Armas be in charge of it. Phillips’s code name would be “LANGEVIN” — and he’d be managing a team of Guatemalan exiles who the CIA had hired as the radio crew. The two head DJs were named Mario López Villatoro and Jose “Pepe” Toron Barrios. Another unnamed Guatemalan man would help them operate the station.

Mario López Villatoro and José “Pepe” Torón Barrios, the two head DJs for Radio Liberación. (Photo courtesy of The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

After a few drunken evenings at Miami nightclubs with his new team (according to Phillips), the actor arrived at headquarters in Opa-Locka to start his new job. At HQ, he saw just how sprawling the operation was: a diagram of all the players took up an entire wall of the office.

We don’t have photos of the wall — Cullather told us that the CIA burned all of the documents housed at the Opa-Locka facility — but from the 2003 declassified documents, we’ve pieced together a map of the network that was on it.

A chart showing all the connections and conflicts of interests between U.S. government officials and the United Fruit Company that were uncovered by the authors while researching this story.

With all this in place, the next stage, however, was not to jump straight to broadcasting fake news. First, some important seeds would need to be planted.

In advance of full-blown psychological warfare, seeds of doubt and conspiracy must be planted and watered.

Stage 2 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

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.

Portrait of Edward Bernays. (Photo from his book, “Propaganda”)

“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.

United Fruit paid Clements and his associates to write a 235-page document called Report on Guatemala 1952, that began with this sentence:

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.

Sharp dresser John E. Peurifoy, U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

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.

Left, Nicaraguan dictator and Operation PBSuccess co-conspirator Anastasio Somoza. Right, son of Nicaraguan dictator and future Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle. (Photos courtesy Wikimedia)

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.

Some of the incriminating items included in documents known as The White Papers.

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.

CIA memo detailing Seekford’s activities with Castillo Armas, codename CALLIGERIS.

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.

The Árbenz administration gave the leaked documents to the press, which reported on the plot and the possible U.S. involvement. It was the biggest news story in Guatemala in some time.

And the disclosure did … nothing.

The world — and especially the U.S. — had already made its minds up about Árbenz and Guatemala.

The few foreign outlets that did report the news declared that Árbenz’s evidence of the so-called plot was probably fake.

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.” 

“Don’t worry”. 

“Your job is to carry out instructions. You are to get the job done.”

“Everything we do may be plausibly denied if uncovered.”

To get the people on your side, you need to change the media narrative. A few hired hacks and a “passive sabotage program” will do the trick.

Stage 3 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

David Phillips and his radio crew spent March and April in Florida writing and prerecording the initial broadcasts for Radio Liberación. 

In his memoir, Phillips recalled the objective as being “to intimidate listeners” who were Árbenz sympathizers and to “influence the mass of neutral types” — what they described as a “soap-opera audience.”

Initially, these broadcasts would need to establish credibility. Anything that the Árbenz government could point to in order to prove that the station was not inside Guatemala, for example, could foil the plot. The content would start with exaggerations of the truth, opinions that would be hard to falsify, and accusations that would be difficult to disprove: Castillo Armas was building an army; Árbenz was bad for Guatemala; Communists were taking over the government; etc. The goal was to start getting Guatemalans talking about Castillo Armas and the fight against Communism.

Only after this would they move on to what Phillips called “the big lie.”

According to E. Howard Hunt’s memoir Undercover, after several weeks of work, the Guatemalan radio operators threatened to strike due to their “forced celibacy.” So Hunt flew out their “girlfriends” (at least one of whom was actually a wife). Hunt’s descriptions of the Guatemalan crew were exaggerated and racist (Hunt’s son Saint John describes his father as a racist in his own memoir), but the ladies can be heard in many recordings of the broadcasts, including participating in a regular “Women Against Communism” segment hosted by “Silvia and Sandra.” Documents reveal that they were sisters: Sonia and Sara Orellana.

Finally, in late April, the crew flew to Nicaragua, with permission from the dictator Anastasio Somoza, to set up a radio transmitter in a shack in the jungle. The location would be a heavily guarded secret — and Nicaragua was deliberately chosen because Árbenz’s military knew that Castillo Armas was hiding across the border in Honduras and might therefore search for the radio station there.

With an established network and seeds of doubt firmly planted, the plotters were ready to start spreading their own content — what Silverman describes as the next step in a successful info-war campaign: “Get your operation up and running to get your message out.”

 

 

The Guatemalan press reported excitedly on the new station that began broadcasting on 3420 kHz on May 1, 1954. Radio Liberación was launched strategically on this day, which was a national holiday that many Guatemalans had off from work.

From then on, each day Phillips and his crew broadcast from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. — before and after work hours. Each broadcast had music, catch phrases and talking points delivered poetically. In between the sermon-like speeches, the DJs, Mario and Pepe, sprinkled in chatter, jokes and personal talk. Often, these voices from “a secret location within the republic” took on the tone of a friend filling you in on something.

Between the rumor mill about Árbenz’s tilt toward Communism — and the fact that the Árbenz administration had reported in January that Castillo Armas was plotting against him — the Guatemalan press didn’t seem to question whether the broadcasts really were coming from a group of anti-Communist exiles. 

Not that everyone believed all the hype from Radio Liberación’s speeches. The Guatemalan military was skeptical, having been filled in on how small Castillo Armas’s rebel group actually was.

Among the Guatemalan public, Radio Liberación was in the minority when it decried Árbenz, or even Communists. The president was popular, and it was well-known that the Communist Party was small. And besides, the Communists supported agrarian reform, which was incredibly popular with the poor majority of Guatemalans.

But in the 1950s, many Guatemalans still remembered the shady dealings of their pre-democracy dictators — and the smear campaign against Árbenz had created room for doubt about Árbenz too. So whereas many citizens approached the blatant propaganda on Radio Liberación with skepticism, they afforded similar skepticism to the rebuttals that the Árbenz government broadcast over official airwaves.

And with its heavy repetition, the radio’s assertions about Árbenz started sounding more and more plausible. “Familiarity and repetition,” says author Craig Silverman, “the more you hear something, over time the more you believe it’s true.”

Whether people initially believe your information is beside the point, though, media data expert Kathleen Jamieson explains. “What you want to do is change the media agenda,” she told us. “You want to change the balance of messages.” 

The more mentions of what you, the media manipulator, want discussed, the more that independent media feels pressured to report on it. And the more important those topics appear to the public.

In 2016, when Hillary Clinton fell ill at a 9/11 memorial ceremony, the Russian state news outlets RT and Sputnik released a drumbeat of stories questioning Clinton’s health. Russia’s network of disguised social media accounts promoted the narrative — along with conspiratorial stories about Clinton’s use of email while she was secretary of state. And when bad news came out about Trump, Russian state and social media broadcast deflection, which were picked up by Trump proponents, then discussed by the legitimate press.

The front page of the newspaper Prensa Libre claimed that a radio station had been found on the border near Honduras, May 4, 1954. (Image courtesy the authors)

In an authoritarian system where you see media structures controlled by those in power, it’s almost impossible to subvert the media agenda of those in power, Jamieson told us. But, she said, “in an open system you can get the inadvertent complicity of the existing media.”

The more Radio Liberación broadcast, the more the Guatemalan newspapers and rumor mills discussed what it had to say. Was Árbenz secretly in cahoots with the USSR? Were Guatemalan women really organizing against Communism? What was going to happen when the Liberation Army mobilized? 

Guatemala’s own civil liberties — the freedom of the press and freedom of speech that Árbenz had helped usher in with the democratic revolution — worked against it when the CIA began broadcasting lies. Broadcasting itself was legal. Communist newspapers were free to campaign for their causes, and anti-Árbenz detractors were free to talk shit about him on the radio. 

What was not legal, however, was for a foreign government to foment a revolution. Hiding behind the “free speech” of Radio Liberación was an international crime. 

Frustrated, Árbenz dispatched the military to search the jungle and find the station.

Phillips and Hunt claim that the whole of Guatemala eventually began tuning in to Radio Liberación with bated breath each night.

As propaganda men, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t being a little hyperbolic. But CIA documents and Guatemalan news reports make it clear that the military, news media and a large portion of the public indeed paid close attention to the broadcasts, and that people who didn’t catch them live kept up on the brewing “revolution” through front page newspaper headlines. 

A CIA diagram of the radio transmission operation. (Documents courtesy NARA)

Some of Radio Liberación’s “news” was relatively small, which gave it the air of a broader devotion to serving Guatemalans, as opposed to simply smearing the government. The DJs held “man on the street” interviews at the May Day parade, getting opinions from (supposedly) regular Guatemalans on the news of the day. At one point, they reported that a woman had been insulted at the airport for carrying copies of El Rebelde, an anti-Communist publication. The DJs dedicated quite a bit of air time to teaching listeners patriotic song lyrics (which would turn out to be the “marching songs” of the Liberation Army). And they played plenty of music, from cumbia hits to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. On Day 2, after delivering a 10-point treatise on why people should say no to Communism, Radio Liberación played “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin.

Guatemalan Labor Day parade, May 1, 1954. (Photo courtesy NARA)

As the station established itself, it began broadcasting bolder falsehoods: that Russia was happy because now it could send planes on bombing missions to Los Angeles and have them safely land in Guatemala if it wanted to; that the government was no longer paying public school teachers; that Árbenz was spending money on expensive furs and Cadillacs while donating to a Soviet atomic bomb fund; and even that Árbenz was doing exactly what the CIA was up to. “The government’s principal propaganda mechanisms,” Radio Liberación explained two weeks into broadcasting, “have been flooding the country with their disgusting product … in which salaried agitators try to win people over.”

 

Post-mortems credit the radio broadcasts as key to the success of the U.S.’s psychological warfare campaign against Árbenz. Though the CIA destroyed its
records from the Florida station where broadcasts were planned, and claimed to not have recordings of the broadcast reels, a Freedom of Information
request sent by Time magazine reporter Stephen Schlesinger in the 1970s may have inadvertently led to the broadcast reels being preserved and shelved
away for decades. We found tape recordings of those reels in 2020. See here for more details.

 

But the most chilling event was the broadcast that aired three and a half weeks in, on May 24. 

About eight minutes into a typical Radio Liberación show, listeners heard a commotion in the background. The DJ pressed on even as the banging sounds got louder and voices in the background shushed each other.

Then, suddenly, the DJ started panicking. He announced that the station was being attacked. 

The broadcast cut off midway through a woman’s scream. 

 

On May 24, 1954, Radio Liberación’s crew pretended to be attacked by government forces.

You can rile up the public by confusing and polarizing them. The key is to exploit their own existing vulnerabilities.

Stage 4 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

Civil Guard Chief Rogelio Cruz Wer and his commandos lay flat on the jungle floor, trying not to make noise as they breathed.

For weeks, the rebel radio had pummeled the police chief personally — as a power-abuser, a murderer, a Communist. Cruz Wer was one of Radio Liberación’s favorite targets. So he had been especially eager when Árbenz finally gave the order to find and destroy the station.

 And now, mere days later, they’d located the rebels’ little shack. In the dark, Cruz Wer and the 12 special forces soldiers with him could see moonlight glinting off the antenna sticking up from the claptrap building’s roof. A light was on inside, and the hum of a generator harmonized with the nighttime jungle sounds. 

Cruz Wer signaled with his hand.

The DJ, Mario López Villatoro, was midway through reading his regular evening monologue, “Nuestra Campana Radial,” when his partner, Pepe, and the others started frantically motioning toward the window. He kept reading the script. By the time he realized what was happening, Cruz Wer’s men had kicked in the door.

Or that’s the story they hoped people would believe.

Truthfully, Cruz Wer and his men never found the station. In fact, it’s unclear if Árbenz had even dispatched his police force to find the station at all; the main source of that rumor was the radio itself.

The front page of the newspaper Prensa Libre announced that the clandestine radio station had been destroyed, May 27, 1954. (Image courtesy the authors)

What actually happened went more like this:

Back in April in Opa-Locka, Florida, Mario, Pepe, Sonia, Sara and company recorded several broadcasts in which they claimed Árbenz’s forces were looking for them, leading up to a special tape to be aired three weeks into the campaign. On the special tape, the crew recorded themselves pretending to be raided by mysterious attackers — using pots and pans for sound effects. David Phillips, the actor/playwright/radio manager, was pleased.

After the public heard Radio Liberación get cut off mid-broadcast the night before, newspapers reported that the station had been found and captured by Guatemalan authorities. Details were scant, of course. Some of the radio crew may have been arrested by Guatemalan authorities, the papers said. Clearly, at least some of the equipment had been destroyed, the press declared.

President Árbenz and his military leaders were surely confused by the reports. Whoever it was that had “attacked” the station on May 24, it hadn’t been Árbenz’s men.

The airwaves — and intelligence channels — sat silent for two days.

And then, suddenly, Radio Liberación was back.

There it was on the same channel as usual. The same familiar anthem, the same familiar voice of the DJ saying the same slogan, “God, Fatherland and Justice” — transmitting as usual from a secret location within the republic.

“Before beginning our transmission, we want to let you know that our last broadcast was interrupted by circumstances outside of our control,” they said, in Spanish. Government thugs, they said, “who are forever searching for and trying to destroy our transmitters, almost succeeded.”

But, the DJ added, “since we are prepared to shed our blood in defense of the fatherland, their plans were frustrated.” The revolution would continue!

David Phillips, still an actor at heart, was particularly proud of the fake attack ruse. “Credibility enhanced, the Voice of Liberation [sic] was accepted as authentic by foreign newsmen in Guatemala City who were scratching for facts,” Phillips wrote, bragging that, “The New York Times ran a story based on rebel information.”

Even skeptics now had reason to believe that the station was indeed operating inside of Guatemala and that the Árbenz administration was afraid of it. And now that the media had validated the news of the “attack” — and therefore the station itself — the public could now more easily believe the things Radio Liberación broadcast.

Around that time, the station upped the fear factor. Radio Liberación started leveling more serious accusations, even bolder fake news — and it actually started a new daily news segment, “La Notica Atravez de Radio Liberación.” They claimed the government was financing Communist radio stations and “other mind-control programs.” They falsely quoted government officials and announced death threats against “Communist traitors” like Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello. One segment detailed a fake story about Toriello luring Guatemalan boys to casinos to sully themselves with illicit foreign women — and using the revenue to fund Árbenz’s expensive lifestyle and orgies. And of course, there was news that the Liberation Army was growing and planning.

The radio campaign was supplemented by fake “evidence.” Planes made parachute drops in the distance within sight of towns around the country, which the radio indicated were supplies for the rebel army.

And brazenly, a few days before the fake attack on the radio, the CIA planted a small, unmarked submarine with a cache of weapons on the Nicaraguan shore near the border of Guatemala. The weapons had Soviet stamps on them and were also accompanied, conspicuously, by a pack of Guatemalan cigarettes. CIA agents leaked the news to the local press (and Radio Liberación, naturally). But reporters saw through the “evidence” and declined to report on it. Disappointed, CIA Station Chief John Doherty gave orders on May 19 to the propaganda team to “make a cautious effort to obtain added publicity for this story in the Guatemalan press and public opinion.” Ideally, he added, they could get a member of Congress to write an official letter about it.

Though reporters who visited the weapons cache could not be fooled, the CIA doctored photographs of the submarine and weapons and managed to trick at least one American newspaper reporter who asked to see photo evidence.

These activities were all part of Stage 4’s “intensive rumor campaign,” which included influencing foreign correspondents in Guatemala to use inflammatory language when they wrote for U.S. and European audiences. Ambassador Peurifoy held meetings in the U.S. Embassy with newspaper reporters, and reported up the chain as their articles changed their tone to favor the U.S. version of the story. And reporters who wrote skeptically — or who seemed to be telling Árbenz’s side of the story — were dealt with. Allen Dulles himself called New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and persuaded him to deport a correspondent out of Guatemala after the correspondent’s reports threatened to undermine the story the CIA wanted told. (And later on, when the British ambassador shared an inconvenient version of events with the press in Britain, Peurifoy asked the ambassador to Honduras to get him to shut up, and to remind him “of our generous and costly support of British on their recent trouble in British Guiana.”)

The other main propaganda activity in Stage 4 was to “accentuate divisionist activity within target.” So, as the plot entered this critical period before the eventual showdown, the CIA started to accentuate the fault lines in Guatemalan society.

 

 

If you want to overthrow a country’s leader using only information, you want to “figure out what intense fault lines are in that country,” explains fake news expert Craig Silverman. You want to know: “What are the psychological buttons you can push with people?”

In Guatemala (as in the United States in 2016 and 2020), those fault lines fell first along race, religion and class. The indigenous and poor masses mistrusted the largely Ladino (considered “white”) upper class — and vice versa. In the rapidly secularizing 1950s, rifts deepened between Guatemala’s Catholics, nonreligious and indigenous religions. And there was mistrust between the military and organized labor; as a political independent, Árbenz had been able to tenuously sew these groups together, but the alliance could easily rip open.

And the big psychological button of the day was fear of American imperialism. Ever since Guatemala had overthrown its dictator in 1944 in favor of democracy, a chasm had emerged between those Guatemalans who wanted more American corporate and political influence and those who desired a more independent Guatemala.

Guatemala’s relatively new policy of freedom of speech made each of these divides ripe for exploitation.

The more these different groups in Guatemala leaned away from each other, the harder it would be for Árbenz to maintain a coalition and defend against a hostile takeover. “The sweet spot is when contemporary events get people riled up about historical grievances,” Silverman says.

This was, of course, key to the disinformation strategy employed by Russia in 2016.

“Polarization is our number one vulnerability,” explains Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit that has spent the last several years tracking Russian efforts to “accentuate divisionist activity.” Brandt says that there are three reasons for this: “One, because it creates an environment where disinformation is ripe to spread. The second is because so often misinformation is about listing out the most extreme narratives already out there and making them more salient. And the third reason is because it keeps us from seeing the bigger picture and organizing ourselves in a way that we can respond.”

The “group polarization” strategy explains reports about Russia trying to intervene to help both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2020 election. And from this perspective, recent reports that Russian social media trolls have been attempting to further stoke racial tension in America lines up as well.

“To the extent that we are doubled over on ourselves, left going at right, left going at other parts of the left,” Brandt says, “all of that leaves us confused [and] divided and [makes it] more difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policy objectives that may not be in line with Russian foreign policy [goals].”

That’s precisely what Stage 4 of the PBSuccess playbook hoped to do — confuse and divide Guatemalans against one another, so that there wouldn’t be a unified front against the pitiful “Liberation Army.” (One CIA cable literally used the words “playing both groups simultaneously” when discussing fault lines among the Guatemalan right wing.)

So, the propaganda team pushed news and rumors meant to rile Guatemalans up in their echo chambers.

The rumor network began targeting housewives with specific fear-based gossip. This was supported by a new, regular Radio Liberación segment called “La Mujer y La Patria,” (literal translation: “The Woman and the Fatherland”), which contained ominous music and frightening speeches by the Orellana sisters. These segments warned women that the Communists wanted to take their children to indoctrination camps, that Árbenz was acting schizophrenically, and that housewives were the ones who needed to pass the anti-Communism message along — but to be sure to leave no paper trail when doing so.

The radio also repeatedly played up fearsome stories about foreigners invading Guatemala and threatening its way of life. Segments repeatedly reported that Mexicans were exporting Communist rabble-rousers into Guatemala. One report announced that Árbenz had invited 2,000 poor Salvadoran families into the country and given them each a tract of Guatemalan land. And they reported that many Europeans were moving to Guatemala to support this new haven for Communism.

And the radio’s messaging increasingly targeted the military. If the CIA could persuade Árbenz’s army to stand down, the game would be over. So Radio Liberación played on the army’s fears: They warned that Árbenz was planning on disbanding the army, that he was planning to give weapons to peasants, so that they could mount a Bolshevik-style assault on the wealthy. And they announced that the government was giving free alcohol to the “Indians” — specifically to get the white upper classes riled up.

The announcer says that Árbenz has admitted to being an instrument of a communist conspiracy through his silence, and that the Alfhem arms shipment

was surely being distributed among peasants.

When a retired Guatemalan pilot named Mendoza defected to Castillo Armas, Phillips and his crew had Mendoza read anti-Communism scripts on air. Having the voice of one of the Guatemalan military’s own exhort the army to defect was brilliant from a divisiveness standpoint. And, the radio crew soon realized, they didn’t need real defectors to make those points in the future; they could have actors play the parts.

Árbenz’s military men became increasingly agitated. Radio Liberación repeatedly levied allegations about various military leaders and cabinet ministers defecting to the Soviets, embezzling government money, and secretly creating plans to escape with Árbenz, all in order to drive wedges between officers in Árbenz’s coalition.

But these were not even the most dramatic parts of the divisionary effort.

 

 

As the anti-Árbenz operation escalated, the nation’s Archbishop Mariano Arellano was increasingly disturbed by what he’d been seeing. Operating from the majestic Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago, the archbishop was the shepherd of Guatemala’s millions of Catholics — by far the largest religion in the country — and he was worried. Not just for the church members, but for the soul of the country itself.

 After weeks of prayer, and a consultation with Pope Pius XII himself, Archbishop Arellano sat down alone at his desk to write.

No stranger to the suffering that often accompanies writing, the archbishop poured his heart into his work for the better part of a month — finally producing a 13-page letter to the church expressing what God wished for his people in this time of war and disruption.

It would be the manifesto that called Guatemala’s spiritual warriors to finally stand up and participate in the defense of their country. Against Communism. And against the nation’s fallen president.

Only … once again, that’s not how it happened.

Somebody indeed spent a long time writing that manifesto; it just wasn’t the archbishop.

For months, CIA agents had been working on a plan to distribute propaganda via Guatemalan churches for purpose of riling up the public along religious lines. To do so, agents worked their way into the graces of New York–based Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, who helped agents reach Archbishop Arellano and persuade him to help them.

By April, the timing was right to drop some metaphorical bombs from on high. To that end, the CIA arranged for a letter to be written in Arellano’s name, titled, in the English translation, “Pastoral Letter Concerning the Rise of Communism in Guatemala,” which they then handed to the Archbishop, who read it from the pulpit. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, co-author of the book Bitter Fruit, told us that he believes David Phillips himself wrote it. Of the CIA plotters, “Phillips was,” he said, “the only one who knew Spanish and Latin America.”

In it, Arellano explained, in biblical language, that Communism was a “false redeemer” that would easily trick Guatemalans into becoming enslaved. The 13-page denouncement ended with the words, “All Catholics must fight against Communism because they are Catholic.”

After Arellano read the letter to his congregation, the CIA had copies of it distributed to churches throughout the country. (E. Howard Hunt said in an interview 45 years later that with Spellman’s help, the CIA was able to write additional scripts and leaflets for Catholic clergy across Guatemala, “and this information was going out in the pastorals across the country, and in radio broadcasts.”)

The CIA claimed to have lost the archbishop’s letter, but our research assistant Luis Pablo Rizzo found a copy.

Brandt, of the Alliance For Securing Democracy, explains that one of the most successful types of information warfare in our social media era is “finding existing points of division, finding existing antiestablishment sentiment and exacerbating it, whipping it up into a fervor … throwing a little bit of accelerant on an already burning fire.”

The pastoral letter had indeed created a fire — and now Radio Liberación began aggressively throwing accelerant on it. The station pressed the “Christianity or Communism” case in its broadcasts. They also announced that the pope had backed the archbishop up. Among the fears murmured within the walls of the Catholic church and stoked by the radio were: (a) Chapels would be turned into Communist meeting halls, (b) Communism would replace religious instruction in schools, and (c) photos of saints would have their faces replaced by Lenin.

Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and Vatican representative Genaro Verolino, 1954. (Photo courtesy The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

In an official State Department report, Ambassador Peurifoy reported that the archbishop’s letter “has reached the man in the street and is well received.” The ambassador suggested that the propaganda campaign “continue to exploit the letter and tie it into other opportunities.”

In the same report, Peurifoy falsely claimed that two elected members of Congress representing the Labor Party of Guatemala (the country’s small Communist Party, known in Spanish as the “PGT”), Carlos Pellecer and Victor Manuel Gutierrez, were “in fact running the country.” (Radio Liberación would soon say it too.) This fake news was added to the official U.S. record that would continually inform decision-making by government leaders and agents.

To ensure the success of the operation, Peurifoy also recommended that his counterpart, Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello — a favorite punching bag of the rebel radio’s — “be eliminated.”

The Árbenz administration fought back against the fake news with press interviews and its own government radio station, TGW. They pointed fingers at United Fruit, and did so credibly enough that the CIA created a specific propaganda plan to counter it.

So, Radio Liberación began regularly smearing TGW — picking it apart as fake, unreliable news.

Despite this, Árbenz’s refutations of Radio Liberación’s more brazen claims helped keep his coalition together.

But a stroke of luck gave the rebels a wedge with which to finally start splitting it apart.

The Eisenhower administration had ensured that Guatemala could not buy weapons from any of its neighbors. The U.S. had banned arms sales to the country in 1948 after President Arevalo passed reform legislation that was unfriendly to U.S. corporations. After Árbenz was elected, the Dulleses used threats of withholding aid to extort Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and Switzerland into refusing to sell arms to Guatemala as well. Further, the U.S. made public hay of selling arms to Guatemala’s neighbors.

With a battle brewing — and uncertainty about whether the U.S. might find an excuse to send its own troops in at some point — Árbenz needed weapons. So he bought some from the Czechs. Historian Cole Blasier described it as a “kind of last resort.” Rifles, ammunition and artillery pieces were loaded onto a Swedish cargo ship named Alfhem in late April, to arrive on May 15.

Though perfectly legal, buying weapons from a Soviet satellite was a risky PR move at a time when he was being smeared as a Communist. Árbenz was not a good PR guy. But he did keep the purchase top secret.

The CIA found out about the purchase and tracked the Alfhem on its voyage. Initially, the agency planned to intercept the ship, but the U.S. Navy failed to do so. After the ship landed, CIA mercenaries attempted to sabotage the cargo with dynamite, but a rainstorm ruined the fuses. Ultimately, the CIA decided that the propaganda value of letting Árbenz have his weapons would be worth it — especially since their fake Soviet arms cache hadn’t fooled reporters.

The CIA sent out “editorial guidance” to its agents to get news publications to cover the story.

Journalists confirmed that a shipment of weapons from Prague, via Poland, had indeed landed. Eisenhower declared in a White House press conference that the discovery of Czech weapons in Guatemala could lead to a “Communist dictatorship … on this continent.”

Árbenz had stepped on a PR landmine. The government’s rebuttal, which amounted to “it’s not what it looks like” was much less effective than Radio Liberación’s “see, we told you so.” They’d been saying that news like this was coming. Of course, Radio Liberación embellished too, stating that the Alfhem was the first of three ships. The disclosure further shifted the media agenda inside Guatemala. Local media pontificated about what Árbenz would do with the weapons, and whether there was a potential Árbenz-USSR connection.

CIA cables show that U.S. agents were gleeful about their luck with the Alfhem incident. Until this point, they had serious doubts that PBSuccess would live up to its name. After this, they were overjoyed. Radio Liberación began bringing up conspiracy theories about the Czech weapons as often as it could — including a series of fake reports “outing” specific people who were stashing Alfhem weapons to distribute to Communist peasant armies.

A remarkably close 2016 parallel to the Alfhem incident is the Wikileaks release of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s stolen emails.

Like the Czech arms purchase, the content of the Podesta emails was not illegal. But the news was embarrassing — and both the Kremlin’s fake news network and unwitting American propaganda spreaders made continual, conspiratorial hay of it.

The Podesta documents were released strategically in order to keep Americans and their news reporters talking about what Russia wanted, and away from news it didn’t want discussed. For example, when the Access Hollywood footage of candidate Trump bragging about committing sexual assault came out on October 7, 2016, Wikileaks released emails in which candidate Clinton talked about having “both a public and a private position” on Wall Street reform. Only the first of those news stories was an admission of a heinous crime, but the way the second was selectively released and widely spread by social media had the effect of curbing the negative story about Trump by diluting it with lots of negative headlines about Clinton. (Shane, one of the authors of this piece, has a close family member who had never even heard about the Access Hollywood scandal until Shane told her about it two years after Trump had won the election.)

Alliance for Securing Democracy’s data shows that Russian social media accounts were also promoting pro–Roy Moore stories during the senator’s predatory underage sex scandal, and anti–Al Franken stories in the wake of the senator’s butt-grabbing scandal. This selective amplification made certain news items seem more serious, and other news items more doubt-worthy — all in line with the Kremlin’s wishes.

Mixed together with the blatantly false news that Russia promoted during the critical stage of its 2016 disinformation campaign, the Podesta disclosures served to change the media agenda around the election to focus on analyzing Clinton’s so-called sins instead of Trump’s.

And as with the Alfhem disclosure, an enemy government’s fingerprints weren’t on the Clinton leak story. Wikileaks released its documents selectively, and independent news organizations reported on them as if they’d come directly from Wikileaks — without knowledge that the true purveyor of the information was an enemy of the state.

“Audiences evaluate messages in part by evaluating the source of the message,” Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, the media data expert from UPenn, told us. “So it’s a very different message if it’s coming from a trustworthy source as opposed to an unreliable source, or [if] it’s a source that you would actively distrust.”

In other words, if the Guatemalan people had known that it was really a United States intelligence agency that was behind the pastoral letter warning of Communism, they would have treated the information differently. If they would have known that it was the CIA that leaked the Alfhem news, they would have thought twice about the narrative of who the “bad guys” were. Similarly, many Americans in 2016 would have treated the Wikileaks disclosures differently if they’d known that the information had come from the Russian government.

But instead — in both cases — the sources of the damaging information were not scrutinized, and the trusted press took the story and framed it exactly the way an enemy of the state wanted.

Peurifoy’s reports to the State Department indicate that he saw the benefit of countering pro-Árbenz news — especially anything that threatened to rally Guatemalans together — with anti-Árbenz disclosures that would hijack the media narrative. For instance, when the Árbenz administration pushed information about United Fruit’s involvement in trying to damage the Guatemalan government, Peurifoy sent a telegram to the State Department suggesting that the U.S. accordingly “play down the fruit company” and “concentrate on the commie issue.”

Árbenz’s ambassador Toriello pleaded with Peurifoy to arrange a meeting between Árbenz and Eisenhower himself to sort out a solution between the two nations. Peurifoy told Toriello that he’d see what he could do, then did nothing. A few days later, he sent a note to Allen Dulles saying, “We have gone as far as we can with talk” and “Many people have been to see me saying one bomb on [the] palace would do the job.”

Indeed, telegrams reveal that Ambassador Peurifoy made more suggestions that the CIA bomb things than he did suggestions about diplomacy.

As June approached, the U.S. Information Agency, in coordination with Peurifoy, used CIA source material to write more than 200 guest articles about Guatemala in Latin American newspapers; it also distributed tens of thousands of copies of anti-Communist cartoons and “Communism in Guatemala” pamphlets.

On June 8, Opa-Locka telegrammed Doherty, the CIA station chief, that it was time to start intensifying the radio, leaflet and sabotage campaigns.

And so the plan moved to Stage 5.

After legitimizing your fake news channel, transition into all-out information warfare. (And bring in a few real guns, too.)

Stage 5 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

Soon after Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, “The Liberator of Guatemala,” crossed the border from Honduras into his home country on June 18, he stopped in the town of Esquipulas for a photo shoot.

Over the past month — with all of the broadcasts depicting the chaos at home and exhorting patriots to join the revolution — the ranks of the Liberation Army had swollen remarkably. Dozens of former National Army officers wore gleaming uniforms, now with the Liberation insignia.

There weren’t enough uniforms for the thousands of soldiers and volunteers, but there were plenty of machine guns.

It was an impressive sight to see them all gathered in one place. The news photographer who happened to be in Esquipulas and convinced Castillo Armas to let him take pictures struggled to capture the full magnitude of the surprising growth of the movement in a single shot.

Or so the CIA hoped the newspapers would say.

Group of insurgent soldiers lined up and crouched into position. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The actual group with Castillo Armas in Esquipulas was tiny. The total membership of the Liberation Army would never end up being very large at all — and it would consist of mostly mercenaries under CIA pay. Even if civilians had wanted to join up, “The Liberator” had been hiding out in Honduras in secret; how would thousands of defectors have even known where to show up, especially without Árbenz finding out where the hiding spot was?

So the photographer, arranged by John Clements, the right-wing PR man working for the United Fruit Company, had to get creative.

Because Castillo Armas didn’t have enough men for a good photo, much less anyone who looked like a “volunteer,” they put rifles in the hands of some local townsfolk to build out the “army.” They gunned down some mules for good measure, to make it look like the place had seen a battle.

Photos were flown back to the States, where United Fruit distributed them to newspapers.

The invasion had begun!

Now that the CIA had legitimized its propaganda channels in the eyes of the Guatemalan public, and riled the public up, it was time for what the agency called “The Final Big Lie.”

That day, June 18, Radio Liberación announced triumphantly that the rebel army was on the march. The CIA wrote bullets for Castillo Armas to deliver in a “press conference” on Radio Liberación, which he did.

A week earlier, the Opa-Locka headquarters had sent orders to begin the final phase of the propaganda campaign. “Rumors, combining fact and fiction, which ought to be circulated,” included:

  • Soviet officers, led by the Moscow Politburo, have landed in Puerto Barrios.
  • The government has devalued the currency, so “Use your money immediately to buy food and durable goods.”
  • Communist Party leader Manuel Fortuny is about to take over as president of Guatemala.
  • Árbenz is issuing a decree that teen boys and girls be sent to labor camps for political indoctrination.
  • Árbenz has left the country, and a Soviet double is currently pretending to be him.
  • Freedom of religion is being suspended, and mandatory instruction in atheism will now take place in schools.

These instructions ended, helpfully, with, “Add rumors of your own, following the day-by-day changes in the situation.”

Now that the “invasion” had begun, Radio Liberación began broadcasting every hour, on the hour, for 15-minute news announcements.

In addition to the typical station broadcasts, Mario and Pepe started mixing in “coded” messages intended for Liberation Army units — codes like “Measurement. Rafael. Factory. Forty days. Artist should arrive. Olga” and “My house has six doors. All are green except for one, which is red.” The radio also relayed orders to various units of the rebel army: “Attention 12th brigade: Congratulations. Today at 1,800 we will get together with you at the appointed place.” “Attention Group 17 of the Liberation Army in Sector 045: Advance to the northeast 12 kilometers; the area is clear. Await Patrol 8 from the Arcadia Group. Good luck.”

An effigy of President Árbenz is propped against a vehicle as several members of the “Liberation Army” point guns at it. The sign on the effigy reads, “Russia is calling me, I’m joining Aravelo.” (Photo by Bettmann, via Getty Images)

As time went on, the brigades got bigger numbers and more ammo. “Hello, Brigade 62. Final details for Operation Magda are ready. Carry out the assault per instructions already received by your radio operator. You will have strong air support.” “We advise Carmelo that the 50,000 rounds requested are on the way and may be arriving right now for a full attack on Sector R1-6. Proceed per plan, and good luck!”

The radio “tracked” the deployment of thousands of rebel soldiers, and reported on the number of “volunteers” who were joining Castillo Armas each day. It kept the public up to date on gruesome battles and bridges being blown up. (According to declassified documents, several targets around the country were being detonated to back up the assertions in these broadcasts; this was being done by a CIA field agent named William “Rip” Robertson, not Liberation Army sabotage teams.) The radio also called out and harassed individual supporters of Árbenz by name, calling them traitors and hinting that citizens might take them out if they encountered them. (These names may have been chosen from CIA-prepared dossiers for the purpose of “character assassination” of known Árbenz supporters and Communists.)

The radio also used reverse psychology to foment rumors. “Rumors have reached us that a yellow fever epidemic has broken out,” Radio Liberación reported on June 20. “Other rumors have it that the capital’s water supply has been poisoned. We categorically deny these rumors, there is no yellow fever, and no poison in the water. These rumors are from a desperate government.”

As the “invasion” ramped up, the radio reported bombings and victories in various “sectors,” which the DJs said they couldn’t reveal details about for secret planning reasons. But the news reports made clear that the battle was closing in on Guatemala City. Meantime, the barrage of fake news was endless.

Árbenz has ordered the Catholic Archbishop Arellano assassinated!

The Kremlin has ordered Árbenz to devalue the national currency, the quetzal — so take your money out of the banks!

A brigade of Communist peasants has been captured, and they’ve been using some of the Alfhem arms, which, by the way, when you shoot them often backfire and permanently blind you!

There was even a fake story that Árbenz had “declined to repudiate the statement” that Guatemala “needs no concentration camps since we will chop off heads of all anti-Commies,” and had therefore adopted the quote as his own. CIA instructions for that one “suggested that attribution above can be based on wire service stories or ‘overheard on shortwave.’” Long before social media, the CIA learned that by saying, “many people are saying X,” an influential broadcaster can make sure that many people will say X.

To top things off, Radio Liberación began reporting “news” from foreign newspapers, claiming that Árbenz had been censoring international papers. For days, the station reported what The New York Times and other publications were allegedly saying — hoping that people would spread the “news” and attribute it to established outlets, not the rebel radio.

With our modern ability to record and study audio, we can hear, in retrospect, that Radio Liberación gave away plenty of clues that they were making things up. Why, for example, would the public radio station broadcast orders for army units, especially when, as at least one broadcast gives away, the rebel brigades had the ability to receive radio orders directly? “Carry out the assault per instructions already received by your radio operator.”

In another broadcast, the DJs pretend that the government is trying to interfere with their radio signal; static and choppiness interrupt the music throughout the broadcast — even as the DJs’ voices come through perfectly clearly. At one point, the DJs gave a report of the sectors that had been “captured” and accidentally said “Sector Y” when they were supposed to read “y” as in the Spanish word for “and.” And in one broadcast the announcer relayed a message for the Liberation Army brigade to attack at 10,000 hours — instead of 1,000 hours, military time for 10 p.m. But the DJs talked quickly and cleverly, making it nearly impossible for a mere listener to fact-check them — similar to how the 2016 barrage of Kremlin-produced fake news stories about electoral fraud and Clinton conspiracies traveled across social media faster than it could be debunked.

To corroborate the radio’s news of these “war” proceedings, the CIA hired several American mercenary pilots to terrorize Guatemalan towns with crude bombs and machine gun strafing runs. Though there were only two or three planes in the air at any given time, they gave the impression of a larger army and produced the desired effect: terror.

On June 19, President Árbenz addressed the nation over the radio, declaring in no uncertain terms that “it is completely untrue that Communists are taking over the government,” and that Castillo Armas’s attacks were an “expeditionary force” backed by the United Fruit Company. “Ever since we received arms for our defense [from Czechoslovakia], officials in Washington and the U.S. press have redoubled their attacks on Guatemala in a strident campaign meant to bewilder the American people.”

Artwork from a government magazine in which President Árbenz defended himself against the “communist” attacks. The artwork reads “the revolution rejects interventionism.” (Image courtesy the authors)

“Our crime is having enacted an agrarian reform which affected the interests of the United Fruit Company,” Árbenz continued. “Our crime is wanting to have our own route to the Atlantic, our own electric power and our own docks and ports. Our crime is our patriotic wish to advance, to progress, to win economic independence to match our political independence.”

Though Árbenz had spelled out exactly what was happening, no international press outlet reported his side of the story. After his speech, Radio Liberación took to the air to call each of Árbenz’s talking points lies.

Ambassador Toriello repeatedly petitioned the U.S. via Peurifoy to help stop the terror attacks. Peurifoy said that there were “no reliable reports” of such attacks. When Toriello brought up that the planes that had been attacking were U.S. aircraft, Peurifoy countered that he hadn’t seen any planes attacking.

Toriello also sought help from the United Nations, but it was the U.S.’s turn to run the schedule for the U.N. Security Council meetings, so Toriello got no audience and no hearing. (The U.N. Secretary General Hammarskjold later allegedly considered resigning over the U.S.’s manipulation here.)

Some of the strafing runs and sabotage activities had caused fires to break out — or at least, that’s what the Guatemalan government’s TGW radio reported, and Ambassador Toriello repeated in his plea to the U.N. On June 23, the CIA propaganda team was instructed to spread word that Toriello’s reports of these attacks in Guatemala were false, and that the Guatemalan government itself “had been caught setting fires to houses.” Radio Liberación obliged.

While foreign press and diplomats idled, Guatemalan newspapers reported the same stories that Radio Liberación reported — to the point that not only did the public believe a real war was happening but many in Árbenz’s own military also began to become convinced that the rebel army was more than the charade the government had told them it was. After Radio Liberación reported that the rebel army had placed mines along the highway from Zacapa to the capital in order to slow government forces, a National Army garrison commander named Bernardo Ordoñez, who was based in Zacapa, sent a message warning government trucks to be careful on that road because the enemy had planted mines.

Meanwhile, reports that the U.S. Navy was intercepting Guatemalan ships off the coast (true, and illegal), along with Árbenz’s speeches implicating the U.S., were starting to make his own colonels think that fighting Castillo Armas was asking for the worst.

Also, around this time, the CIA had amped up its infiltration of the military. The agency had earlier tried and failed to bribe Árbenz’s chief of the armed forces, Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz, with $200,000 to turn on the president. Cables show that the CIA now dangled offers for jobs in the new regime, among other pressure tactics, to get key Guatemalan military leaders to spread the word that fighting Castillo Armas would be suicide.

As Allen Dulles wrote to President Eisenhower on June 20, “The entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength … the use of a small number of airplanes and the massive use of radio broadcasting are designed to build up and give main support to the impression of Castillo Armas’ strength.”

In preparation for the CIA’s final move, Castillo Armas sent several dozen men to “seize” the towns of Puerto Barrios, Chiquimula and Zacapa. A couple of real takeovers could seal the deception and pave the way for Árbenz’s fall.

By June 26 — eight weeks after the launch of the pirate radio station — residents of Guatemala City were hiding in their homes, waiting for war to arrive on their doorsteps. As far as the public knew, two heavily armed columns of rebel soldiers would arrive in the capital any minute.

 

 

While the Guatemalan public panicked over the “invasion,” Árbenz ordered his troops to stop Castillo Armas in the two places where real fighting was actually happening: Zacapa and Puerto Barrios.

In Guatemala City, a 26-year-old Argentine named Ernesto “Che” Guevara who’d arrived in the country in January, shortly after receiving his medical degree, had volunteered to join the front lines, floored by the injustice of what he saw happening. But Árbenz had given strict orders that only full-time military personnel would be allowed to fight. He did not want to arm civilians, for fear that it would be construed as a sign of Communism — a Bolshevik-style arming of the proletariat.

Even though the actual rebel attacks were “half hearted” and a “farce” according to the CIA’s own report, by this point Árbenz’s military had given up (much like the would-be Clinton voters of 2016 who decided not to cast ballots after being barraged with divisive and fake news). Scared, confused and demoralized, commanders were refusing to deploy — or even answer Árbenz’s calls.

With the army refusing to fight, Guevara tried to organize a coalition of amateur fighters to guard the capital. The most he was able to do was transport some weapons to a resistance brigade and wait — and watch. The watching turned out to be useful to him when, five years later, he would help lead a revolution in Cuba using the same guerrilla radio tactics he’d witnessed in Guatemala.

Without military reinforcements to help them, the residents of Puerto Barrios defeated Castillo Armas’s men using broomsticks and shovels. A garrison of 30 soldiers stationed in Zacapa killed or captured around 90 of Castillo Armas’s main group of attackers. But reinforcements never arrived. Árbenz’s commanders in Guatemala City were refusing to mobilize. Defenders in Zacapa and Puerto Barrios wondered if the next rebel attack would overwhelm them. They had no idea that they’d just mopped up a huge portion of Castillo Armas’s fighting force.

With the military refusing to act, Guatemala had effectively given up its power to stop the foreign government that was bent on installing its preferred man as president. In the middle of the night, members of Árbenz’s administration began kissing up to Peurifoy and jockeying each other for positions in the new government — rather than trying to stop it. The final days of the “invasion” were filled with exhausting power battles — not actual ones. (The New York Times would later report that Peurifoy played a key role in negotiating a “truce” — which is certainly one way to look at it.)

Árbenz himself could have continued to fight. His wife, Maria Vilanova, supported him in gathering the political party leaders who still supported him and maintaining their resistance. But by the time the chief of the armed forces, Colonel Diaz, had delivered the news that the U.S. would put a stop to the aggression only if Árbenz resigned, Árbenz no longer had it in him to keep exercising his power either.

On Sunday, June 27, 1954, Jacobo Árbenz stepped down as Guatemala’s second and final democratically elected president.

And when he broadcast his resignation speech to the stunned nation, some Guatemalans only heard static. The CIA was jamming the signal.

Once you have obtained the future you were fighting for, it’s time to rewrite history.

Stage 6 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

After Jacobo Árbenz went into exile, CIA agents took reporters on a tour of his abandoned home. Journalists from The New York Times and several other newspapers showed up, having been promised juicy evidence that a Communist foothold in the Americas had been averted.

This was part of the final task that David Phillips and others from the CIA propaganda team had been assigned: Prove to the world that ousting Árbenz had been a good idea.

In his memoir, Phillips described the assignment as a “pleasant” month involving games of bridge and golf with Ambassador Peurifoy, along with gleaning “information to be disseminated abroad … which would demonstrate the extent of Soviet involvement with the regime of Árbenz.”

Ambassador Peurifoy accompanied by members of the Guatemalan military, 1954. (Photo courtesy The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

The ultimate stage of the CIA’s info-war playbook against Guatemala, “Consolidation,” was designed to make sure that the U.S.’s preferred version of the events came true — or rather, that it became the official story that journalists and historians would reference moving forward. This effort became its own official CIA operation, dubbed PBHistory.

The very day that Árbenz resigned, CIA headquarters telegrammed orders to broadcast something on Radio Liberación to make sure that Guatemalans didn’t think that Castillo Armas was a “UFCO man.” (UFCO had been supplying him and the CIA with transportation, telegraph and radio relays, and publicity assistance from the beginning.) CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner released a press release–style memo stating, “The United Fruit Company simply does not figure into this at all.” Two days earlier, the CIA had telegrammed the State Department requesting that the U.S. government itself release an official statement in support of agrarian reform somewhere else in the world, so that they could refute the story about the U.S. intervening because of Árbenz’s reforms.

The CIA needed to bring forth “evidence” of Árbenz’s guilt, so that the U.S. could officially recognize Castillo Armas’s new regime as Guatemala’s legitimate government. And that meant that Guatemala needed to release official documents and bold declarations into the domestic and international media in order to control the narrative.

First, CIA agents raided Árbenz’s residence to try to find legitimate evidence that Árbenz was under Soviet control. Inside the agency itself, few people were aware that the Árbenz-Moscow connection had actually been concocted by United Fruit and the Dulleses.

As such, the CIA agents who rifled through Árbenz’s possessions were unable to find evidence that he was a Communist or in communication with Moscow. The only thing that came close was a biography of Lenin that they found on Árbenz’s bookshelf, alongside books about Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and other world leaders.

CIA documents indicate that the agents seemed genuinely surprised that they couldn’t find hard evidence of Árbenz being a Soviet ally, which speaks to the effectiveness the disinformation campaign had in creating plausible deniability, even among the U.S. players.

It seems quite likely that the Dulles brothers hoped that Árbenz actually would prove himself to be a Communist, so that they wouldn’t need to use Communism as simply a pretext to intervene in Guatemala. Intervening would be good for United Fruit, and therefore America; wouldn’t it be doubly good if it also became a win against Communism for Eisenhower’s administration?

But by framing this hope as fact in the official materials used to launch PBSuccess, the Dulleses ensured that future agents would use confirmation bias to see Communism even in flimsy evidence — such as when they learned that Guatemala’s freedom of speech laws protected Communists, or when they parsed bombastic statements by the Communists themselves, who had their own PR interest in inflating their status.

Coming up rather empty — but still certain of their conclusion — the CIA decided to plant some “evidence” in Árbenz’s home before the press arrived. One PBHistory report reassured CIA higher-ups that photos would be prepared, “slanted” articles would be written, and “[n]aturally there will be other on-the-spot innovations and preparation of black material whenever possible.” In an attempt to make Árbenz out to be some sort of Soviet-fetishizing collector, the agents brought in stacks of Soviet schoolbooks and some bags of dirt labeled with the names of different Soviet republics. A CIA telegram from its headquarters about false materials that had been “discovered” (they actually put “discovered” in quotes) asked, “what can we cite as the source of these documents?” and instructed that “[t]his ‘sourcing’ should of course be in form acceptable to regime.”

But when the journalists showed up, they recognized that owning Communist history books was not proof of Communist allegiance — if the books were even his — and that the bags of dirt were either fake evidence or flimsy proof at best. It certainly wasn’t enough to counteract four years of evidence that Árbenz had governed as a left-leaning reformist from an independent party.

This didn’t, however, stop the CIA from planting stories of this “proof” of Árbenz’s Communist allegiance in the press, which in turn were referred to in future history books.

Though some of the Guatemalan public had believed the accusations of Communism by Radio Liberación and the rumor campaigns, much of the public remained unconvinced that it would have been a bad thing. Guatemala’s public Communists had supported agrarian reform and showed no desire for an authoritarian system like Moscow’s.

Since the CIA was unable to make a persuasive enough case on the Communism front to Guatemalans, the anti-Árbenz coalition began feeding the press conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of Árbenz’s rise to power in the first place. U.S. Justice Department records reveal that by 1955, Castillo Armas’s government had paid United Fruit’s right-wing public relations firm John Clements Associates $18,370 (more than $176,000 in today’s dollars) to run PR on its behalf.

For the Guatemalan public, the thinking went, it wouldn’t matter whether Árbenz was a Communist or not if the press could convince the people that he had been a villain regardless.

So, immediately after Árbenz stepped down, the front pages of Guatemalan newspapers began relentlessly discussing two things: First, for the left, that Árbenz was a quitter who didn’t care about his country. And for the right: a conspiracy theory that had previously been put to bed, in 1949, about the death of Árbenz’s partner in the revolution, Colonel Francisco Arana, who had been killed while resisting arrest for trying to overthrow the government of Árbenz’s predecessor, President Arevalo.

The newspapers pointed out that Árbenz had benefited from Arana’s death, because Arana would have been a chief rival in the election had he run for president. The papers rehashed the mysterious circumstances of Arana’s death again and again — even though if anyone was implicated, it was Arevalo. But the Castillo Armas–controlled punditry continued stoking the conspiracy until the press could come to the CIA’s desired talking point: Árbenz was a quitter and a murderer.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the United Fruit Company supplied photos to international reporters of mutilated bodies about to be buried in a mass grave and cited them as evidence that Árbenz’s government had been killing dissidents. For decades afterward, historians noted that Árbenz had blood on his hands for these extrajudicial killings; the CIA kept the photos and eventually gave them to the U.S. National Archives as official history on Árbenz. But United Fruit publicist and eventual vice president Thomas McCann, who had helped distribute the photographs, later confessed that he had no idea where they had come from. For all UFCO’s PR team knew, the photos could have been of people that Castillo Armas had killed — or earthquake victims. But, McCann wrote in his memoir, “they were widely accepted for what they were purported to be.”

Newspaper clip reporting on “proof” of the communist killings. (Image courtesy the authors)

 

“Mass grave” image distributed by the United Fruit Company to international reporters.

 

 

There is a chilling corollary in what happened post-Árbenz to what Russia did after interfering in the U.S.’s 2016 election. Once Russia had succeeded in changing the American media narrative and suppressing Clinton voters, the Kremlin embarked on its own effort to rewrite history.

Fake news articles and conspiracy theories poured out alleging that Hillary Clinton was a murderer, a criminal and a thief. The infamous “Pizzagate” story that falsely claimed that Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., continued to percolate after the election — to the point that a 28-year-old man brought an assault rifle to the pizza parlor in December to “rescue” the children. The Pizzagate lie bears a striking resemblance to an official field memo that the CIA circulated on March 2, 1954 (during the early stages of Operation PBSuccess), entitled “Idea to Discredit Árbenz.” The memo outlined a plan to seed a (false) story in the Guatemalan press about Árbenz having a habit of hosting secret “morphine parties” and “girl orgies” where he and his friends would dope up girls and take turns having sex with them — “according to Commie tradition” — until the men were exhausted. The story, according to the memo, “Would be strictly character killing including fake photos.”

To further rewrite 2016’s history, Russia’s own state-controlled media company RT reported that “studies” proved that Russia had not meddled in the U.S. election. Donald Trump had won all on his own, according to Putin. Just like Castillo Armas had overthrown Árbenz all on his own, according to Dulles.

Like Castillo Armas and his supporters, President-elect Trump and his team were glad to promote stories defending the legitimacy of their win. Whether they knew about the extent of Russia’s influence or not, the Special Counsel’s investigation found that they were eager to accept any help they could get, and eager to play up even fake news that bolstered Trump’s image. And why not? Once again, human confirmation bias made people see what they wanted to believe.

When vote tallies showed that Clinton had won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Kremlin-backed news and social media networks promoted fake news about how millions of people had voted illegally. The Trump team eagerly quoted this fake news.

The aggressiveness of the anti-Árbenz newspaper campaign in the weeks following his exile is suspicious at best — and as CIA documents indicate, malicious on the part of Castillo Armas and his American co-conspirators. The goal was to carve the story into stone that Castillo Armas was not the usurper: Árbenz was.

This blame reversal is perhaps one of the most ingenious parts of the playbook: Pin your own crimes on your enemy. Even better, let a third party with a vested interest do the pinning.

Even after being caught red-handed by U.S. intelligence investigations in the years following the 2016 meddling, Putin was delighted to support efforts to blame Ukraine for the Russian interference in the U.S. election. And because it was in President Trump’s interest for the story of Russian interference to turn out not to be true, Putin didn’t even need to push hard; Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani could play up the Ukraine-blame story, and Russia could simply support it.

A political cartoon clip in the Mundo Libre newspaper encouraged Colonel Castillo Armas to sweep out all the “communist trash.” (Image courtesy the authors)

Even more head-spinning than the Blame Reversal is the Blame-Blame Reversal. This is when the guilty party, upon being blamed, deflects by blaming whoever pointed out their guilt.

When the international press began asking questions about the U.S.’s involvement in the 1954 regime change in Guatemala, the U.S. threw the blame onto the Russians by claiming that Moscow had helped the Guatemalans “stage a frameup” against the U.S. Embassy and U.S. companies. They accused Russia of providing arms to Guatemala, and pointed to a Soviet veto of a U.N. vote to condemn Communism in Latin America as further “proof” that the Kremlin was trying to undermine the U.S.

In an ironic twist, when the American press called out Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, Russia claimed that by blaming Russia, U.S. Democrats were showing that they were actually the guilty ones.

The result of this is enough confusion to get people to give up — in this case to give up on knowing the truth. And in that vacuum, the story promoted by those in power has an outsize opportunity to become official history.

To that end, the CIA drafted “pronouncements” for Castillo Armas to make upon taking power, like declaring that Árbenz had been a Soviet puppet, and calling the public to arms to “kill” the widespread Communism that had taken root in the country.

Within the U.S. government itself, the “official” CIA version of events was passed down until it retroactively became true as well.

Perhaps the biggest evidence of PBHistory’s success is the fact that so much of the propaganda from the operation has been repeated by independent historians as fact — and that those historians have become the authorities that are now referenced by other historians — which means that untangling the truth often leads modern investigators to throw up their hands and say “whatever.” For example, we noticed that Wikipedia today says that Árbenz became a Communist in 1957 after his overthrow — despite the fact that Árbenz’s widow, Maria Vilanova, denied any Communist affiliations in her memoir. Wikipedia’s source is historian Piero Gleijeses’ 1991 book Shattered Hope. When we asked Gleijeses what his source was, he told us that there was no primary documentation. Though there were no Communist Party records, and no statements from Árbenz himself, Gleijeses told us that he had become convinced by the circumstantial evidence — that people were saying it at the time — and because the Communist leader José Manuel Fortuny, whom Gleijeses was personally friends with, had told him that he believed that Árbenz had always been a Communist at heart.

We found CIA documents that show that this is exactly what the U.S. wanted the world to believe. In 1957, extensive instructions were sent for a discrediting campaign as Árbenz moved to Uruguay, based on reports sent by a spy known as “INLUCK,” a.k.a. the former Communist Carlos Pellecer. The information was to be given to politicians and news reporters in-country, and it included extensive information about Árbenz’s correspondence with Communist Party leaders in Guatemala, the mass murder photographs, and an order for a fake psychiatrist evaluation.

Uruguayan historian Roberto Garcia Ferreira, perhaps the leading expert on post-exile Árbenz history, expressed skepticism when we asked him to help clear up the detail about Árbenz joining the Communist Party. Though some sources indicate that Árbenz did become a Communist, Dr. Garcia Ferreira told us, in Spanish, “Fortuny is not a good or trustworthy information source about this.” Really all we know for sure is that Árbenz was eventually invited to take asylum in Communist-friendly countries, where he was “alone, cornered, with mental health problems,” as Garcia Ferreira put it. Even if Árbenz did align with Communists as the CIA chased him around the globe — or even if he’d secretly believed in Communism all along while governing more moderately — Garcia Ferreira noted, “the overthrow was motivated by other issues.”

In other words: Who knows? And yet, the CIA spent years making sure people believed something Árbenz never publicly said or took action on.

Compartmentalization within the CIA made it easier to rewrite — or muddy — the history. When David Phillips wrote about Radio Liberación in his memoir, he said that Árbenz had distributed arms to a peasant army, had illegally suspended civil liberties and murdered dissidents, and that documents left behind by Árbenz showed evidence that he was working to establish a Soviet beachhead in the Americas. These claims were all false. Phillips’s account (along with his boss E. Howard Hunt’s) became the primary material in the propaganda campaign for Nick Cullather’s official CIA history, Gleijeses’ Shattered Hope, and journalists Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s 1982 investigative book Bitter Fruit — all of whom were sincerely working to get to the truth. And yet, falsehoods and errors that Phillips made in his memoir, such as misremembering the radio station name as Voice of Liberation instead of Radio Liberación, made their way into all of these official history books. (The actual recordings reveal that the station was not called Voice of Liberation, or in Spanish, La Voz de Liberación.)

But the fact that CIA propagandists’ false accounts have become the primary source material for so much of the history that the world has believed for 70 years ironically lends believability to the most dramatic claim Phillips made in his recollection of PBSuccess. He summarized it in a quote he attributed to the British ambassador:

“The war was won by that radio station.”

 

 

The next step in creating an alternate history was to round up any Árbenz supporters who would be likely to expose the U.S.’s involvement.

After Castillo Armas took power, the CIA handed him a list of Guatemalans whom he might want to make disappear. Though the CIA to this day claims that they did not assassinate anyone in Guatemala, the agency’s own documents indicate that the CIA made a list of people for Castillo Armas to kill. And during the operation itself, CIA agents routinely recommended assassination as a solution. To that end, the agency produced a handy manual on how to conduct such assassinations. Even U.S. diplomats discussed assassination in at least one State Department meeting, suggesting, “The best way to bring about the fall of the Árbenz government would be to eliminate 15-20 of its leaders with Trujillo’s trained pistoleros.”

During Castillo Armas’s time in power, hundreds of dissidents and former Árbenz supporters did disappear. The members of the Communist Party who didn’t escape the country were rounded up and executed. This cleansing became a pattern for the dictators who took power from each other after Castillo Armas as well. Over the next 30 years, as many as 200,000 civilians were rounded up and disappeared by the Guatemalan government.

Soon after PBSuccess and PBHistory wrapped up, some of the U.S. conspirators with the biggest mouths — and intimate knowledge of the most public CIA lies — met untimely deaths too. Ambassador Peurifoy, whom Hunt had called “expendable,” was transferred to Thailand and soon thereafter was killed when a mysterious truck ran him off the road in the jungle. Historians have noted the suspicious timing and circumstances of Peurifoy’s death — and the fact that he had loose lips — but we couldn’t find evidence to support conspiracy theories that claim he was killed as part of a cover-up. Mario and Pepe were gunned down in random acts of violence relatively soon after they returned to their homes in Guatemala, though long enough after the coup that it’s less likely they were part of a cleanup operation. CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner soon suffered a mental breakdown and left the agency. He killed himself a few years later.

The only surviving conspirators with full knowledge of the facts — the Dulleses, Tracy Barnes and a few others — went on to plot similar overthrows in Cuba, Chile and elsewhere. The fake history of Operation PBSuccess — which became solidified as the official U.S. history of the operation — led to false confidence in future CIA missions, such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

Perhaps the saddest part of the CIA’s information cleanup operation was what it meant for Jacobo Árbenz. To maintain the official story, the CIA needed Árbenz to forever be a Communist and not become a martyr.

So agents chased Árbenz around the globe. Every time he and his family tried to put down roots — first in Mexico, then in Switzerland, then France — the U.S. managed to twist foreign leaders’ arms to expel him. As Uruguayan historian Roberto Garcia Ferreira has noted in his exhaustive studies of Árbenz’s post-exile history, the CIA did so in order to “demonstrate the supposed communist connections of the deposed regime.” By locking Árbenz out of democratic countries, they could force him to relocate to somewhere within the Soviet Union, and therefore “associate Árbenz’s supporters with Moscow.”

The Árbenzes eventually did go to Russia, but were sent away, finally landing in Uruguay, where Árbenz supposedly returned to alcoholism (he had been sober since getting into politics) — a detail that CIA rumor agents made hay of — and reunited with the exiled Guatemalan President Arevalo. He would move to Cuba, where the budding Castro regime did not make him feel at home, then eventually back to Mexico.

Meanwhile, the CIA pulled out of Guatemala. Castillo Armas cracked down on liberals and peasants, and gave United Fruit its land back — for free. And the democratic vacuum left by Árbenz’s departure was quickly filled.

With chaos.

 

 

Carlos Castillo Armas was the luckiest man in Guatemala.

He had been neither the CIA’s first nor second choice for Árbenz’s replacement. Various CIA memos and cables during PBSuccess were devoted to talking shit about the colonel. As one declassified memorandum put it, “He is a firmly stubborn man who in the face of indisputable evidence is prone to maintain his own point of view.”

Yet he was an easy man for a powerful foreign government to manipulate — and he was willing to follow any anti-Árbenz lead that was handed to him. And so he became, against all odds and with relatively little effort, the president.

However, the same things that made Castillo Armas an excellent CIA tool — his ignorance, his ego, and his desire for absolute power — made him a disastrous head of state.

Political infighting took a front seat over policy. Crime escalated nationwide. The economy tanked. And whereas the U.S. had invested just $3 million in overthrowing Árbenz, within a year it had to plow at least $53 million in aid into Guatemala — and eventually much more — in order to keep it from collapsing (which would have cast doubt on the wisdom of removing Árbenz).

Castillo Armas wasn’t lucky for very long. In the third year of his presidency, he was assassinated. His successor, a right-wing general named Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, whom the CIA had originally rejected as a candidate for “Liberator” and later described as a “moody, almost schizophrenic, individual” won what was believed to be a fraudulent election and put an iron fist down. Thousands of people disappeared before Ydígoras Fuentes was defeated by a rival and fled into exile. Over the next 30 years, between 40,000 and 50,000 more people disappeared as Guatemala descended into a civil war that cost over 200,000 civilian lives, kept millions in poverty, and allowed drug cartels to exert control over the government.

Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s mural “Gloriosa Victoria” shows John Foster Dulles shaking hands with Carlos Castillo Armas, surrounded by other key figures. In the decades since the 1954 coup, it’s become well-known in Latin America that the U.S. was behind Árbenz’s ouster; however, the outsized role that media manipulation played in the overthrow plan has been largely ignored or classified until recently. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

These conditions have led millions to leave Guatemala since the fall of Árbenz. Many have immigrated (or attempted to immigrate) to the U.S. — meaning that much of the immigration crisis at our southern border stems from the very chaos that PBSuccess set in motion.

But the destabilization of Central America wasn’t the only legacy left by the CIA’s operation to overthrow Árbenz.

Five years after witnessing Radio Liberación’s role in the fall of democratic Guatemala, Che Guevara launched his own guerrilla radio station in the jungle of eastern Cuba to fight an information war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He took the CIA’s tactic of using the radio to deliver a counter-narrative directly to the public and thereby subvert the government. (Though Guevara had a strict rule about only telling the truth on the radio.) In other words, the CIA indirectly helped put a soon-to-be enemy of the state in power in Havana. (After Fidel Castro took power, slid left into socialism, killed his allies, and eventually sent Guevara to his death in Bolivia, this radio station became a propaganda channel for Castro’s regime in the same way that the Kremlin uses RT and Sputnik to fill its country with pro-government falsehoods.)

And of course, the outcome of PBSuccess led the CIA to attempt similar operations in Chile, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere. And all of this in turn has informed Russia and its web of black PR operators as they’ve continually worked to undermine American interests.

Operation PBSuccess didn’t invent the idea of information warfare — or even guerrilla radio. But it honed both to a science. And 15 presidential elections later, in 2016, when that same science was used against America, the U.S. government still hadn’t developed a mechanism to counter its own 60-year-old playbook.

It was as if the U.S. had hit itself in the head with its own boomerang.

Not long after President Trump assumed office, U.S. intelligence began sounding alarms about the coming avalanche of 2020 election manipulation. In testimony to Congress after his two-year investigation into the 2016 election interference, Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned that Russia was continuing its electoral meddling: “They’re doing it as we sit here.” In October 2019, Facebook revealed that it had taken down 75,000 posts from foreign-run Facebook and Instagram accounts that were attempting to interfere in the 2020 race. By August 2020, U.S. intelligence officials had publicly announced that not only were several countries interested in influencing the 2020 election but also that Russia was actively interfering in a repeat of what it did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Even if it’s in a modern leader’s electoral interest to let a foreign government interfere on his behalf, some experts believe that the American press and public will now be more vigilant when a state actor tries to pull wool over our eyes. As former President George W. Bush said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” Though the U.S. has been using disinformation to influence elections in other countries for decades now, 2016 was the first time that it so clearly happened to us. So, hopefully, knowing that these campaigns work — and how they work — can help us be more discerning in the future.

But bad actors evolve too, as fake news expert Craig Silverman points out. “They have to up their game to a certain extent,” he says. “At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of innovation and conflict in American society right now, and that is the raw material to use.”

And, unfortunately, the American public may have to do its discerning without much help from the social media platforms on which the fake content goes viral. Though Facebook, for example, has claimed that it’s taken action to prevent election news manipulation in the future, a damning recent report shows how the site was unable to prevent the spread of fake news about the coronavirus — revealing how underprepared the company is to handle new, evolving types of misinformation. “Facebook is absolutely terrified of having the same kind of situation happen in 2020 that happened in 2016 and having the blame and frustration focused toward it,” Silverman told us. “But I don’t think the stuff that we’ve been seeing from them lately has been inspiring a lot of confidence.”

A 2016 general election ballot, listing the presidential and vice presidential candidates. (Photo by Corey Taratuta, via Wikimedia)

In particular, Silverman says he worries about Facebook Groups, which are often more local, more private, and more trusted by the people who belong to them. “The big concern is that rumors or consciously created misinformation can really catch fire in these groups. And then by the time a journalist or an investigator at Facebook or someone else realizes what’s going on there, it’s already really taken hold,” Silverman told us. “They’re arguably even more of an issue in 2020 because Facebook has made Groups content even more pronounced in the feed.”

Emboldened by the visible success — and getaway — of the Kremlin’s 2016 interference campaign, Russia, China and other American foes have become “more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave and decide,” according to the U.S. intelligence’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. Perhaps even more concerning, American political operatives “are beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare,” as McKay Coppins recently put it in The Atlantic — which further complicates things for would-be voters.

Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen have introduced a bipartisan bill to Congress called the DETER Act, which would create automatic sanctions on any country that meddles in U.S. elections — sanctions that the winner of the election would not be able to lift. The bill has stalled, but it points to what Dr. Kathleen Jamieson of UPenn says is a big part of the solution: “Make the costs so high that you’ll disincentivize these practices.” Such aggressive action against meddling could lead to a global cyber treaty that Jamieson believes even Russia would sign.

While it’s conceivable that we could rally the world together to outwardly agree to “no meddling allowed,” the fact of human psychology is, as Silverman points out, “We are biased to believe things that align with our worldview.” So as long as there are Castillo Armases to benefit from misinformation campaigns — and ways to create plausible deniability — there will be fake news.

Given the uncanny parallels between 1954 and 2016, there are plenty of lessons we can take from this story: The power of public appearance, the vulnerabilities that democracy creates if people don’t remain united in favor of it, the power of information weapons — and how they’re most effectively wielded.

But if there is a most important lesson to remember, it might just be this:

Winning at psychological warfare isn’t about convincing people to do things they’d never do. It’s about getting them to give up.

“The misunderstanding people have about the electoral impact of the trolls and hackers is that they think that they were trying to change votes — that they were trying to make Democrats into Republicans,” Dr. Jamieson told us, regarding 2016. “But they weren’t. They were trying to mobilize and demobilize.”

In a 2018 analysis of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency’s media manipulation efforts, University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Young Mie Kim found that that’s exactly what happened: “The IRA operated voter suppression campaigns,” Kim reported, and “deliberately targeted nonwhite voters, especially African Americans” in an attempt to get them to vote for a third-party candidate or to not vote at all.

The Kremlin’s campaign — starting with seeds of doubt and culminating in strategically timed disclosures, amplified divisionary content, and damaging fake news stories — had an aggregate effect of demoralizing voters who intended to vote for the candidate that Russia didn’t want.

“Polling data suggest they were effective at stopping people from voting for Hillary Clinton,” Dr. Jamieson explained. “If the disinformation in any combination dropped Hillary Clinton by one percent nationally, then we don’t even need to ask about the battleground states. They’ve already decisively affected the election.”

No matter the decade or the technology, in other words, the media manipulation playbook for undermining democracy is not about persuading people to switch sides in a battle. It’s about persuading people to not exercise their power.

Jacobo Árbenz was by no means a perfect president. He made decisions that made his overthrow easier — like the Alfhem arms purchase. His politics may have been further left than the kinds of allies he needed could get on board with. And his outspoken Guatemalan nationalism and tolerance toward democratic communists in his country provoked the United States.

But none of that is illegal. He was elected democratically. Árbenz governed with integrity. He’s widely considered Guatemala’s best president, its least corrupt in history. He was a principled defender of freedom of speech, religious and political tolerance, and dignity for working people.

And the U.S. government destroyed his life and his country for it.

After being harassed by American spies and diplomats for more than a decade, Árbenz finally settled down back in Mexico City, where he sunk into depression and alcoholism. Following his daughter’s suicide in the mid-1960s, his relationship with his wife, Maria, became depressed too. They still loved each other — and stayed together, despite spending long periods of time apart — but he’d lost the quiet intensity that had once made him so compelling.

Jacobo Árbenz and his wife María Vilanova, 1955. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“Some people have their moment in history,” Piero Gleijeses told us in an interview, remembering his talks with Árbenz’s widow before her death. “Jacobo and Maria Árbenz’s was 1950 to 1954.”

This man who was on track to become a legend in Latin American politics — a statesman who had liberated his country from a dictatorship and ushered in democracy and reform — hadn’t just lost his power. He’d let go of it too.

Truthfully, the American government and all its radio hoaxes and cockamamie spy games didn’t overpower Jacobo Árbenz. They tricked him and his supporters into giving up.

And on January 27, 1971, at the age of 57, Jacobo Árbenz climbed into his bathtub, slipped beneath the surface, and drowned.

MORE: See all the original research and behind-the-scenes stories of how this project came together.

Special thanks to our researchers Mayari Rizzo and Luis Pablo Rizzo in Guatemala City for their help making this story possible. While we were finishing this project, Maya began chemotherapy for ovarian cancer; we’ve set up a GoFundMe to help with her treatment here.

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I Woke Up From a Coma and Couldn’t Escape the Guy Pretending to Be My Boyfriend

I fell 20 feet out of a redwood tree and when I came to, my memory was shattered and a man I’d broken things off with was telling everyone we were together. Then I found out why.

I Woke Up From a Coma and Couldn’t Escape the Guy Pretending to Be My Boyfriend

The first thing I can recall clearly was sitting in a hospital room in the dark.

I knew something was wrong — that there was something wrong with me — and yet, I couldn’t tell exactly what. I realized the left side of my face was numb. Hanging on the wall in front of me was a television, but there was something wrong with it too. A ghostly copy was superimposed over the standard set; it was rotated at roughly a 15-degree angle and faded away into the burnt cream walls. Is the TV the problem, or is it me?

My mother and a nurse wearing scrubs entered from the left, a disorienting place outside of my field of vision.

“That’s our girl,” my mom said, approaching my bed. “How are you doing today?”

Why was she so nonchalant? Why wasn’t she worried? Considering the haphazard inventory I had just taken, I probably should have demanded answers or cursed a bit. Raised some hell. Instead, I replied with an uncertain “… good,” slightly alarmed that she, too, possessed a ghostly, tilted imprint. When I was young, my mother always went on, at length, about the difficulties of raising my prone-to-tantrums, bang-his-head-on-the-concrete-when-angry older brother. Then, turning to me, she’d say, “But you, you’re so easy. And calm. And you never complain.” I guess that hadn’t changed. I wanted to ask her what was happening — and where I was. Instead, I swept my arm in front of me and, trying to find out what would happen next, said, “And now?”

Before she answered, another character entered from the hallway, but this one I couldn’t place. Fairly young — my age, by the look of him — his youth was accentuated by a clean-shaven chin under full, feminine lips and a baseball cap perched precariously on his head, above his boyish face. He had the look of a perpetually surprised toddler, lips slightly parted in wonder and curiosity.

“Now you have physical therapy,” he commented.

The physical therapist, a blonde woman with chin-length hair, stepped in from stage right, clipboard in hand and a laminated badge dangling from a lanyard around her neck. When she entered, the nurse left, not wanting to crowd the room.

The physical therapist pushed a rolling walker to the edge of my bed and beckoned me to rise. My initial movements were the stop-motion stutter of a crude animation. I reached for one of the walker’s handles. And missed. The double image layered on top of what I thought was the actual walker jutted out awkwardly in a direction that led me to believe it couldn’t be the real one — was I wrong? I tried again. Yeah, I was wrong.

“Are you OK? Ready to stand?” the physical therapist asked.

Planting my feet shoulder-width apart, clinging to my walker, I clambered to a standing position — I’m generous when I use that phrase. Between my shaking limbs, bent knees and outstretched arms, I must’ve looked more like a member of a seniors’ Pilates class than the 25-year-old woman I presumed myself to still be. Everything, including myself, felt familiar yet foreign, an already-read book revisited accidentally. An eerie sense of déjà vu — my own personal uncanny valley, so familiar but not the same.

“OK, Brooke.” The physical therapist then addressed my mother and her companion. “We’ll be back in 45 minutes.”

The therapist led me down a long hallway lined with other rooms and other patients. Every few feet, the therapist paused and waited for me to inch toward her, patiently watching with a fixed smile for the stop-motion hermit crab to scuttle closer.

“Now just a little farther to the elevator,” the therapist said, pulling me back to the task at hand. I had just discovered I was having issues multitasking: Whenever I started thinking too much, I couldn’t walk.

My god, I thought, I am exhausted and we’re not even where we’re going yet.

When we finally reached the elevator, I stepped inside, at the therapist’s behest.

“I feel like I know you,” my voice hissed out of my mouth like a barely audible stream of gas. A death rattle that made syllables and managed to form words.

At first, I wasn’t sure she had heard whatever had escaped my throat. Her back, still facing me, seemed crystallized in position. Finally, she turned and looked at me for a long moment. When the elevator doors dinged close, she took a deep breath and sighed.

“I’m Linda.”

“My grandpa’s girlfriend has your name.”

Linda’s mouth tightened, but her eyes softened.

“I know. I’ve introduced myself to you nearly every day for the past two weeks.”

Luckily, my memories started to stick after that disconcerting moment with the TV. Unluckily, weeks had already elapsed since I had been admitted to the hospital, some of which time I’d been comatose. I started receiving various stories about what had happened. Some true, some, I would eventually come to realize, fiction.

One day, shortly after I’d started to remember Linda the therapist, the boy with the childlike face and childlike hat — I’ll call him Stanley here — slipped into the hospital bed with me. Alarmed, but oddly complacent, I said nothing, even as he leaned close to me and whispered into my ear, “I’ve been telling everyone that I’m your boyfriend.”

“Yeah, OK.”

Hadn’t this happened before? Him divulging he was my boyfriend … it felt familiar. How many times had this happened?

“OK,” he parroted and turned to Naked and Afraid on the TV.

“My face is numb.”

“Yeah, you’ve been saying that.”

“That screen is double.”

“Yeah, you’ve been saying that too.”

“What happened?”

Stanley cocked his head to the side like a confused dog and considered my question — or at least, I figured he was considering it. Maybe he was worried about me. Maybe my well-being concerned him.

“What do you remember?” he asked me.

“You moved your stuff into my room.” I knew this had happened, even though I hadn’t realized it a moment before. But I remembered that detail and I knew I knew him. In what capacity? His claim to be my boyfriend didn’t feel right — it couldn’t have been romantic. Wasn’t I just doing him a favor?

His already round, wide eyes widened further. He pursed his lips and diverted his gaze.

“You allowed me to move into your apartment temporarily.” Stanley paused. “That’s the last thing you remember? And you don’t remember what you had been doing that day?”

“What day?”

Stanley let out a huff of air in exasperation. He shook his head in exaggerated impatience, rolling his eyes.

“The day you and Cassie climbed a redwood near the trailer park and you fell 25 feet out of it.”

According to my mother, in the early days of my hospitalization, every time Stanley entered my hospital room and announced himself to the doctors and nurses as my boyfriend, I threw out an arm in a warped imitation of Vanna White and exclaimed, “I guess I have a boyfriend now.” Cue Pat Sajak chortling good-naturedly.

It came back to me early on, distinctly, that he had never wanted to be my boyfriend before this.

But whenever I broached the subject, Stanley told me he hadn’t known what he wanted before, but uncertain of whether I would live or die, he became aware of how he felt. My skepticism remained even as my memory wavered.

Yet, he showed up each day, and I began to believe him when he said his feelings had changed. Trapped in my bed and visited by therapists I only partially knew and family members I only vaguely recognized, it was nice to have someone else come see me and do word puzzles in bed with me, even if I didn’t always remember who he was right away.

Other friends of mine who came to see me in the hospital were wary of Stanley, but his insistence on his right to be there and his role in my life stifled any objections that even my best friend, Sam, thought to make. My mother and I had always communicated infrequently about my romantic endeavors. Coping as best she could, she remained intoxicated most of the time I was in the hospital and didn’t question Stanley’s version of events. Later, she said I seemed like I wanted him there.

When I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t walk without an arm crutch, and my memory was still far from intact. Santa Clara Medical Center insisted I leave in a wheelchair, and I was wheeled out to Stanley’s car. He said we’d decided together that he’d move to San Diego with me. With no memory of the original conversation, I believed him, but I felt overwhelmed.

Following the seven-hour drive to North County San Diego, I told my mom I didn’t want to live with him. And although Stanley repeatedly hinted he should stay at my parents’ home, my mom put her foot down and said Stanley couldn’t live with us.

So he got a recruiting job and a room nearby. On weekdays after getting off work, he’d walk through the side gate without announcing he was coming. On one particular day in late fall, two months after my hospital stay, he came into the backyard while I skimmed messages on Facebook that I’d received as an inpatient.

I had been talking to our mutual friend, Cassie (I’ve changed her name here, as well as Stanley’s), from college. We’d been exchanging messages on Facebook, and while looking at our conversation, I saw an older message she’d sent me, while I was in the hospital, which I had no memory of.

“Cassie messaged me while I was in Santa Clara,” I mentioned to Stanley, my eye still fixed on the screen. “I said you joked around, saying you hoped my memory stayed impaired, and she replied, ‘Is there something he doesn’t want you to remember?’”

I laughed. Stanley didn’t.

“Why do you think that’s funny?” he demanded, pulling the laptop toward him. He didn’t sit down. “Why would you tell her that?” He shoved the laptop away and placed his hands on either side of his head. “Why would you say that to her?”

“Hey, relax,” I grunted while using both the table and chair to pull myself to a standing position. Once facing him, I added, “I don’t see what the problem is.”

“You don’t — you don’t — ” Livid, Stanley couldn’t seem to express himself through his rage.

Instead of walking away or going inside, I just stood and watched him stutter as his face flushed until he finally formulated words. And boy, what words they were.

“What is wrong with you?” he started. “Here I am, doing everything I can to help you — sticking around when we thought you were going to die, staying when you were r*tarded, not leaving when we weren’t sure if you’d get better. And I’m here now even though — look at you.” He paused to wave a hand from my short hair to my bare feet.

Incapable of speaking, I retreated through the sliding glass door into the kitchen. All of the words I wanted to say slithered through my mind, broken, disconnected. But nothing came from me.

“And you might be like this forever! And instead of telling Cassie how supportive I’ve been, you say that to her? Why couldn’t you have told her how good I’ve been to you — trying to make you look like less of a mess, getting your hair cut, taking you to get your face waxed because it was disgusting.”

As he spoke, he encroached on my space, stepping forward until his face was less than a few inches from mine. His hands still flapped in the air to either side; I think he may have wanted to grab me by the shoulders but refrained. It wasn’t until he vibrated each hand on the left and right side of my face that I realized I was shaking too.

Stanley pulled his hands back, made a noise that sounded like a mixture of an exasperated moan and a frustrated yelp. Finally, he stomped out of my parents’ kitchen like a schoolboy suffering a tantrum. All I heard next was the gate slamming behind him.

Later, he pretended we’d never had that interaction — I only brought it up once in the following days, and he insisted he didn’t know what I was referring to.

More than two years before I woke up disoriented in the hospital, it was the beginning of my “junior” school year at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). All of the out-of-town transfer students over the age of 22 were corralled on the first floor of the transfer dorm. That dorm became a haven for all of us who had spent our post-high school years not attending college. But we had finally pulled together those community college units to gain admittance to a four-year school. And by God, we were celebrating.

Cue the night after we all moved in: Everyone left their dorm doors propped open and flitted from room to room, taking a shot here, nabbing a plastic cup of our hallmate Cassie’s homemade wine there. Everyone except me. Stationed at the school-supplied prefab wooden desk underneath my bunk bed sans bottom bunk, I was drinking whiskey and playing music from a USB-connected speaker.

“Anyone dislike Tom Waits?” I shouted in the general direction of the bodies amassed in my room. “All right, well, that’s what we’re gonna listen to now.”

Among the gyrating bodies, a short guy in a blue baseball cap, brim pushed up jauntily, slid forward with an elbow pointing at me. He looked too young to be drinking.

“I like Tom Waits,” he offered. “I’m Stanley.”

“Let me guess,” I snapped, “you like Rain Dogs. That’s fine ’n all, but we’re going to listen to some real sad shit right now.”

Later, Stanley would divulge his first impression of me: feet up on my desk, pugging whiskey straight from the bottle and ranting to him about Tom Waits. He thought I was a bitch. And I would tell him that I thought he was a disrespectful asshole. That didn’t stop him, after our initial meeting, from tapping on my dorm door every day, asking if I wanted to go walk in the woods or mountain biking. And it didn’t stop me from taking a swig of my ever-present whiskey and replying, “Sure.”

We weren’t together, but we weren’t not together. Before we slept together, Stanley spent all of his time with me and stopped seeing all of the other women he had been involved with. By the end of that first semester, we had slept together multiple times, met each other’s family at Thanksgiving, and still not talked about what, exactly, we were doing. At the time, I didn’t think a conversation was necessary; I figured we had a gentleman’s agreement and were on the same page: exclusive but unserious.

Although we lived on the same hallway, Cassie and I weren’t particularly close outside of the companionship provided by a common pastime: drinking. At the end of that year in the transfer dorm together, we all dispersed. Cassie moved into UC Santa Cruz’s on-campus trailer park — the one I’d fall out of a tree next to, a year later — and I found a room in an old Victorian on Mission, not far from Laurel Street and downtown.

Part of me figured Stanley wouldn’t skulk around my door anymore, since we no longer lived a few feet away from each other. But sure enough, he ended up in a sublet off of Laurel Street and would rap on my window from the front porch, softening his big brown eyes when I pulled back the blinds to see who it could be.

One day, Stanley, now sitting by that window at the computer chair and desk my sublet provided, broached a conversation we had never touched upon before, one I always avoided with everyone: acquaintances, bar patrons, friends — whatever Stanley was.

“How did you lose your virginity? I remember when I lost mine … ”

For the life of me, if you asked me how Stanley lost his virginity, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about it. I stopped listening after his initial question.

“Are you OK?”

Stanley’s genial curiosity caught me off guard.

“Yeah, I was just … thinking.”

“You don’t look OK.” He came over and sat next to me on the sublet’s twin bed. A wood frame painted white housed a run-of-the-mill mattress, neither soft nor hard. Stanley peered into my eyes incredulously, daring me to confirm what I could see him working out in his mind. So I did.

“It, uh, wasn’t my choice.”

“Do you remember his name?”

And I said it for the first time in nearly 10 years. I don’t know how I wanted Stanley to react. I don’t know what I wanted him to do — maybe nod? Maybe ask if I wanted a drink? Oh, God, I wanted a drink. The previous night, I had polished off my bedside whiskey and hadn’t had the chance to walk to the liquor store before Stanley popped over. But I know I didn’t want him to do what he did.

Immediately, he bounded to the computer and opened Facebook.

“And this was in San Diego? OK, let me see.”

And then he began clicking on profiles and muttering to himself, “No, too young. Couldn’t be this one. Hmm, new to the area — no. You don’t know his last name?” Stanley glanced over at me and then stopped touching the computer.

At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary, but now I can describe how I felt — confused, disoriented, overwhelmed. I heard the words, I understood them, but none of them stuck with me. It’s almost like tunnel vision, but the opposite seems to happen — everything expands and your field of vision contains too much and none of it makes sense. Your eyes water because everything feels overexposed and lacks detail.

I didn’t notice him rejoin me on the bed or when he took my limp hand from my lap and held it. But I did hear him when he said, “I think people place too much weight on a person’s sexual history.”

And then he kissed me gently and we had sex, on a mattress that could have been hard or soft or just fine. But it hadn’t been love — he felt sorry for me. He insisted, afterward, that he cared about me, but he didn’t want to be together, couldn’t be in a relationship. And I understood because, I felt, who would want to be with me?

No one knew about this interaction, but I’m sure the leeway I gave Stanley despite the boundaries he crossed — because of his reaction to a truth I hated so much — looked like love.

In the months after I left the hospital, my memory slowly but surely came back to me. I remembered all of this, about how I met Stanley and what our relationship was like before the accident. But I still had some questions. Some missing pieces — like how I could have let any of this happen.

“Icouldn’t tell you before,” said Cassie. “Because I thought you were in love with him. How could I tell you what Stanley had done?”

This conversation with Cassie took place before I fell out of the tree, and it came back to me as I gradually regained my memory. Nearly seven months after leaving the dorms, we were sitting at an outdoor table on the patio of UCSC’s Kresge Café, where we often met to talk about the likes of Amiri Baraka or Jean Toomer for our poetry class. It was well into our second year at UCSC, our “senior year,” that Cassie and I began hanging out consistently and (relatively) sober; Cassie had an elective slot open, and I suggested she take a poetry class with me.

Cassie rubbed her left arm with her right hand but kept her eyes on mine.

It happened on Memorial Day Weekend when we all still lived in the transfer dorms, she said. Only a little over half of a year before our meeting at the Kresge Café. Memorial Day had been a transfer dorm hallmate’s birthday and everyone had gone to Cowell’s Beach to celebrate — everyone except me. They left before I returned from — where had I been? I don’t know. Drunk somewhere. Like always.

Cassie described a beach bonfire. But then she and Stanley had run into the woods to find firewood. She described Stanley slinging his arm around her neck, the same way he did to me. Cassie hadn’t found this strange, and I didn’t think she would — when he did this to me, I felt more like a “bro” than a romantic partner. It was when she fell down that things changed.

She described them losing balance and toppling over a log. And then she told me Stanley started ripping down her pants and putting his mouth on her … I can’t go there again.

“I told him to stop and he did.” Her voice trailed off as if, maybe, she should excuse him for the initial violation since he was so good at following instructions afterward.

“I am … so fucking angry — ”

“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Cassie whispered. “I didn’t want you to hate me.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” The word tumbled out of my mouth and wouldn’t stop. “No, no, no.” Maybe if I said it enough, she’d know. “Not with you — you did nothing wrong — with him. With him. He’s a fucking monster.”

And I hated myself. Because I had been awake, drunk but awake, when they returned. Everyone else clambered upstairs to continue the party, but Stanley pulled me into his room and into his bed. After what he had done.

When Cassie told me all of this, Stanley had been studying abroad for months. Neither of us had heard from him in that time. I heard from other mutual friends he had a girlfriend of sorts.

A month after Cassie’s revelation, Stanley commented on the UCSC trailer park’s public page, a community Cassie was a part of, and received a harrowing response from a friend of Cassie’s: We’d rather not have any sexual assaulters in our community, thanks.

Which, of course, caused Stanley to call me — the first time in nine months we’d had any contact.

“What is she saying about me?” he shrieked.

“Not really sure who or what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play fucking dumb: Cassie. It was an accident. I stopped. What is she telling people?”

I sighed and tried to keep an even tone. “Whatever happened, it obviously caused her more harm than you thought.”

“You were raped,” Stanley responded. It sounded more like an accusation than a comment; it felt more like an accusation.

I didn’t answer, and he continued. “You know what real assault is like. You need to tell her. Call her right now and make sure you tell her. You have to tell her what it’s really like — that, what was his name? That the construction worker came into your room and held you down and told you not to scream and forced his fucking — ”

“Hey, hey, hey now.” I didn’t need the play-by-play. “I get it, I get it. Jesus.”

And because it’s easier to shove your hurt onto someone else than addressing the bleeding parts inside yourself, I called Cassie and did the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life: I told her it could have been worse.

“Cassie,” my voice cracked as I told her everything and then said, “What Stanley did was inappropriate, but he stopped.”

I n the months following my coma, these memories returned to me in sporadic waves. I remembered, and then I convinced myself I must be misremembering, I must be wrong. Stanley would storm out whenever I brought up the past, only to return the following day like nothing had happened, which made things even more confusing.

But I finally called Cassie toward the end of January 2016, five months after I had moved back to San Diego. I wish I could say I had mustered the courage a month earlier, as soon as I realized there was something Stanley didn’t want me to remember, but how could I possibly tell her I remembered, that it had come back to me, and Stanley was still here?

“Cassie?” I asked quietly when a voice answered the phone. I stood in the backyard of my parents’ house, the only place I could be alone.

“Brooke! It’s so good to talk to you. How have you been? What happened?”

I told her everything: Santa Clara, Stanley, not knowing exactly what had happened.

“I called Stanley as soon as the ambulance took you away,” Cassie said slowly, “I figured he would have contacted your family. The hospital had to find your parents’ information? Why didn’t Stanley call your parents?”

A foreboding sensation crept into my gut and my skin became cold and clammy. It was overcast, typical January weather in San Diego, but far from cold.

“That night,” she said, “we had made it to the top, at least 85 feet up, and you were really confident — we were joking around — and then all of a sudden you looked at me and told me, ‘I have to get down. Now.’ Then you sped down, and I think climbing to a lower branch before you fell is what saved your life.”

“And,” I started and then stopped to moisten my mouth — it had gone dry — and eased myself down to sit on the concrete patio. “That’s all that happened?”

“Well,” Cassie added, “I did think it was weird when I heard Stanley was still with you in San Diego. Before we climbed the tree that night, you were telling me how much you hated him. You had him buy a plane ticket back home in front of you to be sure he was really leaving. He had just moved all of his shit into your room after his lease ended, and you wanted him gone.”

“Cassie,” I replied weakly.

“Well, it’s good the two of you have worked things out. It was just, y’know, weird.”

It was true; my misgivings hadn’t been unwarranted.

Stanley and I had been involved, but it was long over, and — as usual — Stanley used me right when I thought I was rid of him. When he came back from studying abroad, he stayed with me for about a week and insisted I mediate a conversation between him and Cassie. (I did, and she said she wasn’t going to press charges.) He found his own place, but then when the spring quarter ended and his sublease was up, he moved all his shit into my room; I protested but he insisted. I kept telling him that he needed to just go home, but he continued to insist, over and over again, that he needed to stay to make sure “Cassie wasn’t going to do anything.”

I still have no memory of the night I fell out of the tree, but Cassie told me I had made him buy a plane ticket in front of me to be sure that he would leave.

After concluding our phone call, I remained seated on the ground outside. I felt stupid; I was stupid. Stanley had been convincing me he was doing me a favor, that I needed him. When really, he needed me. Still paranoid about what had happened with Cassie and his reputation, he had been using me to convince everyone he was a good person.

Aweek after my call with Cassie, I was baking cookies. Remembering the recipe, the measurements, the order I needed to mix the ingredients, exercising my fine-motor skills to mix them — it was all good practice. It was all rehabilitating, my occupational therapist told me.

Next to the kitchen sink, my mom swirled a glass of champagne and said, almost as if she were channeling it from another plane, “Three days into your coma, Stanley told me we should pull the plug on you.”

Above the bowl of sugar and butter, my hands held a jar of peanut butter and an overlarge spoon, motionless. I stopped to look at her, closing one eye to combat the double vision the damage to my occipital lobe had caused.

My mom averted her eyes as she added, “And he would sit forever and try to guess the code to your phone — he was desperate to get into it.” Then she shrugged. “But you seemed like you wanted him around …”

“When I was in a coma?” I asked.

My mom ignored this and said, “Stanley told me he knew you and knew what you’d want.”

Even knowing this, knowing my life had been disposable to him, I was too weak of a person to make him leave. Stanley kept coming by my parents’ house every day, telling me I should stop focusing on rehabilitating my mind and should instead make my physical appearance more appealing. Often, he’d drop me off at walk-in waxing salons, instructing them to make my face smooth, “less disgusting.”

“I just want to be able to think again,” I’d whisper after.

“This is probably the best you’re going to get,” he’d reply. “You need to take better care of yourself. You have a lot of competition.”

This obsession with outward aesthetics culminated in him taking me to Calaveras Mountain, a small mountain in east Carlsbad, and bidding me to run to the top.

“My physical therapist said I shouldn’t do any strenuous exercise without her … my body still can’t regulate temperature.”

Stanley shot me a look of disdain and hissed, “My stepdad is a physiatrist — I know what I’m talking about. I guess you don’t actually want to get better.”

Halfway up Calaveras, my double vision split even further — something I didn’t think was possible — and I felt bile rising in my esophagus. Taking a knee, I put both hands onto the dirt-covered path and threw up.

“My dad was never easy on me,” Stanley solemnly whispered, a bizarre explanation for his actions.

We walked the rest of the way down.

“I think I need to go,” Stanley finally said one day.

“Do whatever you need to do,” I responded.

We were sitting at a Thai restaurant in a strip mall. Across the way, I had briefly worked as a hostess in a restaurant when I was newly 18; they tore it down and built a Red Lobster in its place.

“You’re not upset?” He searched my face. “Would you want to stay together? You’d miss me.”

I wondered who he was trying to convince.

“Yeah, we can stay together … even though you tried to kill me.”

Stanley reeled back as if he had just been slapped. His feminine lips parted and his bottom jaw hung open, aghast.

Stanley, enraged, knocked over his tea. It had been almost empty. The outrage felt performative; the spill theatrical. I was beginning to get a headache; I just wished someone would be honest with me — my mom, Stanley, anyone who had been there. Everyone wanted to protect themselves at my expense. I felt like a child every time the thought “But what about me?” sprang into my head.

“I just meant if it got to that point — if you were going to be brain dead.” His hands flailed and his lips flapped as they always did when he tried to make a point. I’d finally settled on Beaker — he looked like Beaker from the Muppets. “If you were brain dead, your mom would just keep you forever in a back room drooling all over yourself! Look at you now — you don’t even have your own bed and they’ve been taking your disability money for months.”

That was sort of true; once I had been established as disabled by Social Security, they started dispensing $775 a month to me, an amount based on my previous W-2s and work history. But I chose to give it to my parents — the insurance had covered the majority of the medical costs, but my mother had racked up hotel bills staying in San Jose. I handed the provided debit card for my disability benefits to my father and said, “For everything I’ve done.”

As I explained this, Stanley’s mouth quivered in a dumbstruck “O.” But his horror and confusion only infuriated me; I had told him all of this before. He knew this — or should have. Did he ever listen to me?

“And did you say that?” I shot back, restraining myself, but barely.

“Say what?”

“‘If it got to that point?’”

“I didn’t need to. That’s obviously what I meant.”

Stanley left the same week.

He telephoned me in February 2017, more than a year later.

By this time, I had finished my bachelor’s degree by taking my remaining classes at UC San Diego, and I’d started working seasonal shifts as a production assistant at an academic publishing company. I took the train to work by myself. An eye surgery had corrected my double vision, and I no longer needed to close one eye or wear a patch to see. On paper, I appeared to be a legitimate, functioning adult, and no one asked about my abnormal gait or inability to write by hand.

Uncertain if I should answer Stanley’s phone call, I watched his name manifest on my cell phone screen and blink away when I didn’t touch it. A month later — I don’t know if curiosity gripped me or if I hoped for an explanation, or at least an apology — I called him back.

“I was surprised to see you calling,” Stanley said by way of greeting. “I took mushrooms and went to a really dark place and called you because I knew you’d make me feel better. Do you think I’m OK?”

“What do you mean?”

“Cassie.”

“For someone who didn’t do anything wrong, you certainly are acting like you did something wrong.”

“Fuck, Brooke, I didn’t do anything!”

“You ripped her pants down — ”

“I DIDN’T RIP HER PANTS DOWN. I PULLED THEM DOWN.”

“Did you unbutton them?”

“What?”

“Did you unbutton her pants?”

“I don’t know. What the fuck does that matter?”

“It does matter. It all matters. You’ve tortured me for over two years — do you realize that? Cassie told you two months before my accident that what you did was fucked up, but she wasn’t going to do anything punitive. And then — and then — you lied to my family and friends, saying you were my boyfriend to paint some sort of sympathetic narrative for some made-up situation you thought you were in — something that wasn’t real. But what happened to me was real. Everything — my whole life — my whole life. And my whole life meant nothing to you … you — ”

“Wow,” Stanley interrupted in amazement. “Your speaking — your speech is really good. You could barely string together a sentence before. You — ”

You!” I roared back. “You stressed me out all of the time. You interrupted me. You yelled at me until I shook. I — ” My voice cracked. I felt — all at once — I felt pain. Regret. Shame. Remorse. “In the time you’ve been out of my life, I’ve made such improvements,” I continued in a near whisper, “… amazing improvements … if you had never been around … if you hadn’t forced your way into my recovery … ” I trailed off.

“You can’t put that on me — I was going through something — ”

“No.” It was resolute enough to make Stanley fall silent. “You went through nothing. You did something very wrong to Cassie. And me — you probably stunted the progress I could have made. I’ll never know. Goodbye, Stanley.”

Cassie doesn’t hate me, but she should. At least that’s how I feel about it.

We were able to see each other in person in 2017, then we talked on the phone in the summer of 2019. She’s doing well, despite everything, and understands the emotional manipulation Stanley employed to keep me under his thumb. She’s given me grace I’m not yet ready to give myself.

I don’t know where Stanley is or what he’s chosen to do with his life. I hope he’s done some self-reflection, but I doubt he has. The hold rape culture has on us all makes it nearly impossible for genuine self-reflection to occur in these types of men.

My physical deficits are still an everyday part of my life, but I’ve come to accept my disability. Ironically, the trauma of my accident, recovery, and new identity as a disabled person pales in comparison to the effects of Stanley’s destructive presence. I’m suspicious of all romantic partners and don’t trust the motives anyone purports to have. I’m distrustful and resentful. I go to therapy to discern which parts of my skepticism are warranted and which are pure paranoia. Even when I know, am painstakingly shown the truth, it doesn’t feel real or genuine.

Despite this, I’ve developed a tenuous romantic relationship — maybe the word “situation” is more accurate — with an old friend who lives on the other side of the country. I think this is all I’m capable of, and right now, it’s all I want. Maybe that’ll change, but for now, I’m grateful for my cognitive capabilities, the drive to stay sober, and the lack of responsibility for someone else’s emotional stability — maintaining my own is quite enough.

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The Bank Robbers Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight (Or Do Anything Right, Really)

When the Duffy Brothers were deported from the U.S, they hatched a plan to bring Bonnie-and-Clyde-style armed robbery across the pond. Their plan had more holes than a bullet-riddled safe.

The Bank Robbers Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight (Or Do Anything Right, Really)

The American gangsters entered the British bank at three minutes to closing time on a Friday afternoon. Three men — two brothers and an accomplice — arrived outside, wearing black masks and gloves, horn-rimmed glasses, and narrow-brimmed trilby hats pulled low over their foreheads. They were armed with two revolvers and an automatic pistol. It was 2:57 p.m. on June 2, 1933, and the bank was the Cattle Market branch of Lloyds Bank in the soot-black industrial city of Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England. Outside, at the Friday meat market, butchers and wholesalers closed up their stalls and rinsed blood from their cleavers. Inside, at the end of a busy week, bank clerks tallied up receipts and attended to the last straggle of customers, including apron-wearing market workers and a 15-year-old girl. The masked men pushed through the bank’s double doors and raised their guns: “Everybody stand still and put up your hands.”

The brothers were Joe and Tommy Duffy, a pair of self-proclaimed American gangsters. They described themselves as hardened villains who had run with America’s most notorious criminals and served time in the country’s toughest prisons. They claimed reputations as violent enforcers and armed robbers — and had the broken noses and gunshot wounds to prove it. Now they were bringing the bullet-spraying American bank robbery to sleepy England, where armed robberies were virtually unknown. But their gangster credentials were about to be severely tested. They had chosen the wrong bank, in the wrong city, at the wrong time, and there would be terrible consequences.

Chapter One: Mail-Order Gangsters     

The Duffy brothers were American gangsters who had been born to Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, two of a family of nine sons. Joe immigrated in 1923, ending up in Detroit, and Tommy followed across the Atlantic a few months later. Joe was then 20 years old and Tommy — the more rambunctious of the pair — was 18. Joe was looking for work as an auto mechanic but couldn’t seem to find any. Tommy described himself as a “regular little roughneck.” He was a fearsome brawler and hoped to become a professional boxer in the United States. When that didn’t work out, the brothers tried a series of jobs: restaurant dishwashing, skyscraper construction, railroad work. They may also have tried to become farmers. But, according to an anonymous associate who spoke to London’s The People newspaper in 1933, “They soon quit that for the rackets.”

This was the era of the gangster, the bootlegger, the racketeer. Prohibition and a thirst for illicit alcohol were allowing organized crime groups to flourish. Al Capone was waging war on the streets of Chicago. Arnold Rothstein was building a criminal empire in New York. Prominent gangsters, pictured on the covers of newspapers in chalk-striped suits and fedoras, became nationally infamous. The hit movie Underworld, starring George Bancroft as gang boss Bull Weed, was the first of a series of gangster pictures that helped turn their protagonists into glamorous antiheroes.

By their own account, it was the ease of obtaining guns that led the Duffys to become gangsters. They saw an ad in a magazine, sent off $18.73 and received two revolvers in the mail. The brothers became holdup artists, targeting stores and payroll trucks. They also ran shipments of booze over the border from Canada for bootlegging gangs and became linked to some of the biggest names in American crime.

The Duffys ran with Capone’s mob in Chicago and with Rothstein’s accomplice Jack “Legs” Diamond in New York. Tommy claimed Capone offered him a job after spotting him during a boxing match. According to their “ex-gangster” associate, the Duffy brothers always carried guns and were “absolutely callous and cold-blooded.” They also looked the part. “Both the Duffys dressed immaculately,” said the associate. “They wore silk monogrammed shirts and paid as much as £2 for ties and £10 for shoes.” (Equivalent to about $177 and $885 in 2021.)

By the summer of 1926, the brothers were living in New York in a furnished room on the second floor of a red-brick rowhouse on West 11th Street. In early 1927, they held up Nathan Wolf’s drugstore on Eighth Avenue and walked out with $60 in cash. A week later, they robbed the Beck-Hazzard shoe store, also on Eighth Avenue, and took $25. These were relatively small takes, but the brothers would later claim to have committed several more high-profile armed robberies, including at least one bank robbery.

Certainly, their activities brought them to the attention of law enforcement. New York Police Commissioner Joseph A. Warren listed the Duffy Brothers on a lengthy wanted list of holdup gangs, alongside the likes of the Laughing Gang, the Harlem Terrors (also known as the Sucker Gang), and the Headache and Aspirin Gang. Commissioner Warren promised to rid the city of this scourge.

One evening in March 1927, the brothers were oiling their revolvers to prepare for a holdup when one of the guns went off and shot Joe in the left shoulder. Tommy rushed his brother to Saint Vincent’s Hospital, just a few blocks away. There, doctors treated the wounds — and called the New York Police Department. Detectives arrested the Duffys and searched their room, where they found the revolvers. A report in the New York Daily News referred to the Duffys as “immigrant brothers led astray by revolver ads.” Interviewed by the newspaper, Tommy and Joe claimed to have turned to crime due to poverty and admitted only to the Nathan Wolf’s and Beck-Hazzard stickups. The detectives believed they were guilty of several others. Both brothers were convicted of robbery in the first degree and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in jail. Joe was 24 and Tommy was 22. They would not be eligible for parole until March 1947, 20 years later.

The Duffys were initially sent up the Hudson River to Sing Sing but were soon separated. Joe went to Auburn State Prison, where the tough “Auburn system” of solitary confinement and enforced silence had been developed. Tommy went to Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, known as Little Siberia for its ice-cold winters. During their stays, both brothers experienced deadly riots in which several guards and prisoners were killed. Tommy was in the thick of the trouble and spent six months in solitary confinement. But Tommy said that while inside they were well looked after by their gangster friends, who ultimately used their “political pull” to get them out of jail.

In April 1930, after serving a little over three years, the Duffys’ sentences were commuted to deportation by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. “It seems to be the sensible thing to do, to deport them,” said Roosevelt, who was two years away from being elected U.S. president. Tommy asserted that “the Diamond mob in New York got going with the palm oil for me,” meaning they’d greased someone’s palm with a bribe. Given Tommy’s penchant for embellishing his gangster bona fides, his version of events is probably exaggerated. More likely, Roosevelt just wanted the Duffy brothers out of the country. But whatever the truth, the brothers were placed into steerage on the SS Duchess of Richmond, and arrived back in Scotland on U.S. Independence Day, July 4, 1930, determined to introduce American gangster methods to Britain.

Chapter Two: Searching for a Second Act    

The headline in the Scottish Weekly News read: “My Life as an American Gangster.” The author, named alongside a gun-toting photograph, was Tommy Duffy. Published 18 months after the brothers’ return to Scotland, the article was a lurid tale of violent holdups and bank robberies straight out of a Hollywood gangster picture. It was a hugely exaggerated and often ludicrous account of bullet-blazing shootouts and high-speed pursuits featuring an A-to-Z cast of infamous gangsters.

One character it did not feature was Joe Duffy. Tommy didn’t mention his brother, and many of the events he did write about in an apparent attempt to cash in on his criminal reputation were entirely fictionalized.

It was a more shocking and incriminatory story than the one the brothers had given to the Daily News following their arrest in 1927. In that modest account, there was no suggestion of any association with Al Capone or Legs Diamond, or of any criminal activity other than two stickups. Perhaps the brothers were playing down their criminal connections in hopes of leniency. But their circumstances at that time — operating from a rented room with mail-order guns for low-value takes — did not seem particularly glamorous. The discrepancy between that Daily News story and the Weekly News account suggested that the Duffys wanted to inflate their reputations from small-time crooks to big-time gangsters. With their sensationalist account, the brothers had an agenda. At least initially, they intended to become movie stars. Gangster movies were big business. Hollywood released more than 30 crime pictures between 1930 and 1933. British studios also churned out crime movies, including the early pictures of Alfred Hitchcock.

But the nearest Joe and Tommy got to silver screen stardom was a period working as movie extras at Elstree Studios near London. After that, they went back to Edinburgh and worked as tracklayers for the city’s tram system. But honest work didn’t suit them, and Joe was fired after stealing copper wire from the tram lines.

Then, according to their anonymous associate, they began to scheme up ways to raise enough money to bribe their way past immigration and back into the American crime game. “They told me they were desperate to get back to the United States,” said the associate. “They knew quite well they could never make crime pay over here.” The brothers reckoned they would need a few hundred pounds, and they could think of only one way to get it. They tracked down some guns — probably decommissioned World War I weapons that had been reactivated on the black market — and planned an armed robbery.

Tommy and Joe asked their associate to join them in “the holdup business.” He refused, claiming he would never carry a gun. Instead, the Duffys recruited an Edinburgh tracklaying colleague named William Abbott to be the third member of their robbery gang. Abbott was a married man with a 6-year-old child and was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. He was known to local police but did not have a criminal record. He certainly had no experience of American gangster methods, nor apparently a full understanding of the implications of using them in Britain.

Strict firearms regulations and tough punishments meant armed robberies were extremely rare in Britain. Laws brought in to curb the circulation of military weapons following the war heavily restricted the purchase and possession of guns. Criminals convicted of gun crimes could expect lengthy prison sentences and brutal floggings with a cat-’o-nine-tails — a flailing whip. If a criminal killed someone while committing a gun crime, they could expect to be hanged. But, according to their anonymous associate, the Duffys were willing to do anything to get back to the United States, no matter the consequences. “Nothing else would have induced them to take such a risk,” he said, “for both of them had a deadly fear of the ‘cat.’”

While these kinds of crime were virtually nonexistent in Britain, the public was familiar with them. British newspapers awed readers with tales of American armed robberies that seemed as distantly romantic as tales of the old Wild West. One editorial boasted that Britain, with its fearsome justice system, would “never suffer the gunman.” But in 1932, a British criminal named James Spenser, who had recently served time in California’s San Quentin prison, warned of an imminent “invasion” of American gangsters. “Their mouths are watering at the thought of London with its unarmed police,” Spenser wrote in a much-syndicated newspaper column. “What a city to loot! Scotland Yard should be on its guard.”

For the Duffys, Newcastle upon Tyne, in the northeast of England, must have represented an even more appetizing target. It was more compact and less hectic than London, with fewer police officers — none of them armed with anything more than a truncheon. Importantly, the town was situated on the main road and rail routes between the brothers’ primary haunts of London and Edinburgh. The Cattle Market branch of Lloyds Bank seemed particularly vulnerable. It was small but busy. Late on a Friday afternoon, it was likely to be piled high with weekly deposits — including takings from Friday’s wholesale meat market. The Duffys planned to march through the front door, terrify the occupants into submission with their guns, and walk out the back door with the cash.

But Newcastle, a medieval walled city, had a long history of fending off aggressors, from marauding Viking raiders to invading Scottish armies. Proud of its relentless production of coal, ships and Newcastle Brown Ale, neglected by the government and disregarded by the rest of the country, this was a tough-as-nails city that was used to looking after itself. Its residents — known as Geordies — spoke in a dialect that was mostly impenetrable to outsiders. They were fiercely protective of their community. By 1933, the global depression was biting the city hard. Times were tough, and every penny was wrought from sweat and blood. The people of Newcastle would not give up their hard-earned money without a fight.

Chapter Three: The Wrong Bank

“Everybody stand still and put up your hands.” One of the masked bank robbers, thought to be Joe, leaped onto the counter and leveled his gun at chief teller Leonard Harrison. Startled and acting on instinct, Harrison picked up a £5 bag of silver coins and hurled it at the robber, striking him in the face. Joe recoiled and yelled to his accomplices: “Shoot him! Shoot him if he moves!”

Another of the masked robbers, probably Tommy, stepped forward with his revolver and ordered the teller and other employees to hand over their guns. This was an unnecessary request in England. “We do not have guns,” the teller explained. Joe climbed over the counter and began to empty the cash drawer and fill his pockets with notes.

The masked men ordered the bank’s customers to kneel on the floor. The third robber, Abbott, began to tie their hands behind their backs with green cord. One customer, a 15-year-old girl, either refused or misunderstood and was pushed against a wall with a revolver pressed to her head.

Hearing the commotion, the bank’s acting manager John Ainsley came out of his office, then rushed back inside to telephone the police. Before he could reach the receiver, one of the robbers stepped into the doorway, pointed a gun at his face, and told him, “Put up your hands or I will shoot.”

Meanwhile, bank clerk Joseph Robson rushed to a barred window at the rear of the building and yelled for help. Workers in the adjacent buildings heard the yells but assumed there was a fire and called the fire brigade rather than the police. One of the robbers followed Robson and told him, “Put them up or you will get something through you.” Then, realizing the alarm had been raised, the robber asked, “Which is the way out?”

Robson indicated the barred window: “That is the only way out.” The gangsters had wrongly assumed that the bank had a rear exit. It was a calamitous error.

Outside, although the meat market was closed, it was still busy with butchers and other workers, burly men with big, bloodied hands who were clearing out for the week. A crowd of them hurried to the bank, again assuming a fire. One of the butchers, Robert Angus, jumped up onto the window ledge to look inside. He saw the three masked men armed with guns, and the bank staff with their hands in the air.

“At first, I thought they were skylarking [playing a practical joke], never thinking it was anything serious,” Angus recalled. Then another butcher, known as Big Jim, ordered his colleagues to fetch their “choppers” and the poles they used to raise the market’s sun blinds. Some of the men began to barricade the entrance to keep the robbers inside. But Angus told them: “Open the doors and let me in.”

Angus pushed through the double doors and strode into the bank, with a posse of other market workers behind him. He grabbed Abbott and, “by a trick of the knee,” sent him to the ground. The bank staff, realizing that help had arrived, began to fight back. Harrison, the teller, picked up a cash shovel and struck Joe behind the ear. Joe staggered forward, then was knocked to the ground by the bank’s junior clerk, George Chambers. By now, the fire brigade had arrived, and several firemen joined the fight. “It was a regular melee,” recalled Angus. “It was a real battle royal.”

Abbott ran toward the door and pointed his revolver at the growing crowd outside. One of the market porters raised a sun-blind pole and, “with unerring instinct,” hurled it at Abbott, knocking the gun from his hand. Ainsley, the bank manager, leaped onto Abbott and the two men began to wrestle on the floor. The meat men then pulled fast the outer doors, trapping the robbers inside, where they were outnumbered and fighting for their lives.

Tommy fled down to the basement and into the vault. Another bank clerk, Charles Robson, followed him down and locked him in. Upstairs, the bank staff and the butchers were “hammering away” at Joe and Abbott with fists, sticks and poles to prevent them from escaping. One of the customers, Kenneth Richardson, who was tied on the ground, recalled that one of the robbers — probably Joe — fell over him with blood streaming from his face.

At some point, one of the robbers — again probably Joe — fired his gun. It clicked harmlessly once, twice, three times, four times, and didn’t discharge. John Ainsley disarmed Joe and stood over him with the revolver. Four men leaped onto Abbott and beat him into submission.

By now, the police had been called. A large number of officers raced to the scene from the nearby Pilgrim Street station on motorcycles and in patrol wagons amid a wail of sirens, causing great excitement on the city’s streets. Workers peered out of windows and came out onto the pavements to watch the action. The police arrived at the bank at three minutes past 3 o’clock — six minutes after the robbery had begun.

“The raiders were caught like rats in a trap,” recalled Angus, the butcher. “They put up a good fight until the police came on the scene. They lost their nerve then, because they realized the game was up.”

When Police Inspector Andrew Donohoe entered the bank, he found Joe and Abbott unmasked and bleeding on the floor, surrounded by butchers and bank workers. In the basement, Tommy had surrendered his pistol to a fireman. Donohoe emptied Joe’s pockets and took possession of almost £292 in stolen cash and an empty coin bag bearing the words “Lloyds Bank, Cattle Market, Newcastle.” Both Joe and Abbott required attention from the police surgeon. Ainsley, the bank manager, had cuts to his face, and one of the clerks was slightly injured. “I cannot speak too highly of my colleagues,” said Ainsley. “All of them were very plucky.”

Witnesses reported seeing a fourth man who might have been keeping watch hurrying away from the bank as the crowd gathered. They also noted a “smart-looking” automobile, which might have been a getaway car. But a fourth man was never identified, and the three bank robbers did not get away. They were dragged from the bank, thrown into a patrol wagon, and taken into police custody.

Chapter Four: An Iron Hand

Joe Duffy, Tommy Duffy and William Abbott first appeared at Newcastle Police Court on the following morning. Joe’s head was swathed in bandages. All three gave false names. But Constable David Nielsen of the Edinburgh Police said he knew all three accused men, and he properly identified them by their real names. The men were charged with unlawfully and feloniously using offensive weapons to assault and rob the employees of Lloyds Bank. All three pleaded not guilty.

Prosecuting attorney David Ensor said the men had committed a crime that was punishable with “penal servitude for life and flogging.” A firearms expert testified that only one of the revolvers, a .455 Webley, had been loaded, and the robbers had attempted to fire it four times. It failed to discharge due to its poor condition. If it had discharged, it would have caused serious injury and perhaps death. “Someone was extremely lucky,” said Ensor. “I submit it does not matter a jot who was using the loaded revolver. They are all equally guilty.”

“This was the worst bank the accused could have chosen for the raid because it had no back exit, there being only a small heavily-barred window,” said Ensor’s prosecution colleague Harvey Robson. “Butchers from the market came to the assistance of the bank clerks, and civilians guarded the door against their escape.”

When asked if any of the prisoners would like to make a statement, Tommy stood and said, “I wish to say nothing. I am not guilty and my name is John Wilson.” But Inspector Donohoe presented to the court a copy of Tommy’s Scottish newspaper article featuring his real name and photo alongside details of his gangster activities in America. “He quoted an instance where he robbed a bank there,” said Donohoe, “and the methods were identical to those used in Newcastle.” The Duffy brothers’ self-portrayal as American gangsters — exaggerated or otherwise — ended up condemning them.

Joe, Tommy and Abbott were all found guilty. “You have carried out a raid which, thank goodness, is practically unknown in this country,” said the judge. “When it is carried out, it must and shall be suppressed with an iron hand.” He sentenced Joe and Tommy to 10 years’ imprisonment plus 15 strokes from the dreaded cat. The judge said the Duffys were “dangerous men,” but he believed Abbott had been their “cat’s-paw” — an exploited dupe. Abbott’s wife, Elizabeth, wept in court as her husband was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

The Duffys appealed their sentences. “Really, no act of violence was committed by the men,” claimed their defense attorney, Howard Grattan-Doyle. “The whole affair was a dismal failure.” But the judge pointed out that a 15-year-old girl had been held against a wall at gunpoint. She had been so traumatized that she could not be called to court as a witness.

The defense also objected to the fact that the Duffys had been characterized as American gangsters, while the evidence suggested they were “not the experienced gangsters they were thought to be.” “These men who were described as American gangsters did not really shape as violent men at all,” said Grattan-Doyle. But that picture had been painted by themselves, and their convictions for armed robbery in the U.S. had been verified by the British police. The appeal failed.

The case prompted reflection on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the differences between Britain’s and America’s gun laws and justice systems. “It’s getting as bad as in America!” exclaimed London’s Sunday Pictorial. No mercy should be shown to armed bandits, the newspaper declared, because Britain would never tolerate them. Another British newspaper said the American bandits must have got a “painful surprise” when they did not get away with their robbery. “We cannot have American gangster methods introduced into this country,” said the Shields News. “This sort of thing must be stamped out ruthlessly.”

In the U.S., newspapers said the case of the Duffy brothers plainly revealed “the weakness of American justice,” and lamented that criminals were more likely to get away in the States. “Criminals in Great Britain are much more likely than here to be caught, when caught to be convicted, and when convicted to serve their sentences,” wrote the Springfield Republican. Gun laws were also questioned, but newspaper campaigns to ban the sale of handguns received negative responses. (“Your slogan ‘Stop Selling These’ is a lot of hokum,” wrote a reader in a letter to the New York Daily News.)

Meanwhile, Howard Hawks’ Scarface movie — based on the life of Al Capone—cemented the image of the American gangster as a glamorous antihero among theatergoers. The real-life exploits of armed robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow titillated newspaper readers. And on June 21, 1933, less than three weeks after the Duffy brothers attempted to rob Lloyds Bank in Newcastle, the Dillinger Gang robbed the New Carlisle National Bank in Ohio. It was the gang’s first armed bank heist, and its leader, John Dillinger, would become one of history’s most notorious bank robbers.

Back in Britain, the Duffy brothers were each strapped to a frame and flogged across their backs 15 times with the dreaded cat. The whip’s knotted tails could lacerate flesh and cause blackout-inducing pain. “It is safe to say that the two Duffys will never forget those 15 strokes of the cat,” said the Lafayette Journal and Courier. “Those lashes were no doubt laid on with gusto and sincerity. It was quite a comedown to be scourged to cells in England after selling a vainglorious story of gangster activities in the United States.”

Joe served his prison sentence at top-security Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and Tommy at the granite-walled Dartmoor in the wilds of Devon. The Duffys would both die in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s. There’s no record of what they did for a living later in life. Neither brother ever returned to America, nor to the gangsterism they had fetishized and romanticized. Tommy had already written his ending back in 1932 in his Weekly News article. “My gangster days are at an end,” he wrote. “I would like to go back and see the old scenes and pals in the States. But I can’t. I must say farewell forever to the racket.” This time it turned out to be true.

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These Forgotten Essays Reveal the Secrets and Dreams of Jewish Teens As Hitler Drew Near

A 1930s writing contest celebrates the inspiring endurance of the teenage spirit — in the form of heart-bursting crushes, angsty soul-searching and secret sexcapades.

These Forgotten Essays Reveal the Secrets and Dreams of Jewish Teens As Hitler Drew Near

I honestly couldn’t believe it. Are they all waiting to get in? You’d think it was one of Amsterdam’s most popular clubs, with some moody, hipper-than-thou DJ spinning from his throne. But nope, it was the Anne Frank House, and apparently, it’s like this every day the museum is open, the line of visitors stretching from the door, along the canal, and through the cobblestone square, hoping to experience just a glimmer of Frank’s life, and death. Frank, of course, is no head-bopping DJ — but she is a celebrity, arguably the most famous victim of the Holocaust, if there can be something so bizarre, so tragic. She’s actually probably the only Holocaust victim most people can name. And when I think about that, with all due respect to Frank and her family and legacy, it’s kind of bullshit.

I didn’t wait in the line. Not because of any problem I have with Anne Frank or the museum (on my next visit, I was smart enough to get tickets in advance), but the truth is that Nazis murdered another 6 million people besides Frank, including millions of teenagers. And yes, Frank’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, is a perennial international best-seller that introduces younger audiences to the Holocaust, and her story is one of boundless courage and perseverance. In fact, back when I read it in middle school, she was my introduction to the lived experience of someone who had died at the hands of Nazis, and I found her resilience inspiring. But because Frank’s diary is so widely known, and because she wrote about circumstances that most of us will never have to endure, I found it hard to connect to her on a deeper level. And, more importantly, I knew there were so many other stories. Too many. What’s more, the people who wrote those stories didn’t just become people when they died. They had full lives before World War II, and those who were teenagers and young adults would have had their whole lives ahead of them. I wasn’t curious about how they died. (I, like you, had learned all about the atrocities of the ghettos and concentration camps, and I had the nightmares to match.) I was much more interested in how they lived.

That is why I became totally fascinated by a collection of hundreds of autobiographies written by Jewish youth in the 1930s. Most of them lived in Poland and wrote about their lives before the war with intimacy and candor as part of a contest sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. And yet, unlike Anne Frank’s diary, most people have never heard of these writings, let alone read them. While Frank self-censored and edited out her love for the teenage boy hiding with her, the authors in the contest were asked to be super honest and wrote using initials or under fake names that made me think of my own AOL Instant Messenger screen name from the late 1990s (daydreem12, in case anyone’s wondering!) or the handles of teens on TikTok and Instagram today: The Stormer, Forget-Me-Not, Fayvl the Wanderer, The Future, A Galician and Orchid.

One of the handwritten essays submitted for the contest sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (Image courtesy of the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research New York)

Even though you’d think that everything they wrote about would be clouded by the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism and the chaos of the late 1930s, they mostly wrote about being teenagers — the same stuff my friends and I would stay up late whispering over the phone or messaging each other about feverishly. They planned when they would finally do it, and giggled over how they’d dreamt about the most romantic makeout sesh EVER. They were absolutely, completely, irreversibly in love, until wait, no, that person sucks, never mind, NEXT! They wanted to join political movements, chant at the top of their lungs at protests, and make the world a much better, more just place. They had BFFs they loved and frenemies they hated, and everything in between (we’ve all had those friends who were actually kind of bitchy and those who tried so damn hard to be cool that they became unrecognizable assholes in the process). And their parents always managed to exhaust and totally and utterly embaaaaaaaarrass the heck out of them.

Unlike a diary, these teens weren’t writing their life story just because they wanted to. YIVO’s research director Max Weinreich came up with the idea for the contest after seeing a similar survey among Black youth in the southern United States. Weinreich was interested in what it meant to be Jewish, and especially what a changing generation of young Jews thought about themselves and the world they lived in. So, in 1932, YIVO put out its first call for autobiographies, asking young adults between 16 and 22 to write about “family, war years, teachers, schools … Boyfriends, girlfriends. Youth organizations … ” and more. They ran announcements around the world and received responses from Jewish teens across Europe, and from as far away as Argentina and Palestine. And they ran another contest in 1934, and a final one in 1939.

As amazing as the autobiographies are, they are also inherently tragic. None of the young people who submitted their entries to the last contest ever found out if they’d won. On the very day four months later when YIVO planned to announce the winner, Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Six years later, around 90 percent of Jewish people living in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis.

What the young people created with their writings are more than just a remarkable historical record. They are an unvarnished window into the vibrant, colorful lives of everyday teens that we assume should have had experiences very different from our own. But what they write feels like it could have been written today — from the catty girls who make fun of you for wearing the wrong thing to that friend who just gets you to, sadly, the hate and anti-Semitism they saw and experienced.

So here’s another thing I can’t believe: Many of the narratives — which range from 25 pages to a whopping 800 (!!), many handwritten — have probably only been read a couple of times since they were submitted to the contest in the 1930s. And as close as some of the experiences feel to my own teenagerhood, I know I can’t separate them from the time when they were written. The stories these teenagers and young adults tell — some of which we’ve translated into English for the first time for this article, others that we’ve quoted and paraphrased below — feel like an important form of resistance. The rise of nationalism, anti-Semitism and hate couldn’t take away their eagerness about life, or stop them from dreaming endlessly about what might come next.

The room was dark and the Stormer had started drifting off. Sometimes, right in that moment before sleep, he felt his mom’s warm lips on his forehead. When you’re alone, that type of affection might be OK from a parent. He knew that his mom loved him so much, maybe even a little too much, and that she wanted him to succeed, do something for himself and make her proud. That was one of the reasons he was studying to become a rabbi at yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish school.

But on this night, the Stormer knew his mother wasn’t coming to kiss him goodnight. Two guys from yeshiva were sleeping over. They were sharing a bed, actually, which wasn’t a big deal — the house was small, they were all friends. The Stormer’s mom was happy to have them over; she probably thought they would be sweet religious boys, nothing but the best influences on her son. And I mean, why wouldn’t they be?

As the Stormer was falling asleep, he had a strange feeling his friends were still awake. They either thought the Stormer was asleep and wouldn’t notice, or maybe they actually wanted him to hear. I guess realizing they were awake gave him some FOMO, and when the Stormer opened his eyes, he caught his friends unfurling each other’s Torahs, if you will — or having “sexual relations,” as he delicately, even prudishly, put it in his dainty Yiddish handwriting. He was shocked, and his slumber buddies “were very embarrassed then.” But they seemed like they were only uncomfortable because the Stormer caught them and he seemed freaked out. Their way of trying to calm him down was to invite him to join in.

This sex scene, and how the Stormer felt about it, is kind of surprising and also sort of expected. The Stormer was in his early teens, and this was 1930s Poland, a devoutly Catholic country. His knowledge of sex was … almost nonexistent. It’s not like his teachers taught him proper condom-application techniques, like mine did in early-2000s Bethesda, Maryland, or like his ultra-religious Jewish mom was sitting him down for an awkward chat about what happens when a man loves a woman (or, heaven forbid, if a man wants to have sex with a man!). The Stormer did know that two men having sex was called homosexuality, and he knew it was a big no-no. Maybe because he didn’t want to ruin his mom’s nakhes, or the pride she derived from his being a good Jewish son, or possibly just because he felt it was inappropriate, the Stormer declined their invitation.

I never woke up to friends of mine making out, or more, during a sleepover, but if your pals are having fun doing something that feels illicit, and you’re really not confident in that department, then don’t you just become infinitely more curious? The Stormer was, for sure. “Who knows what I would have done had it not been just before Passover and they hadn’t gone home” for the holiday, he admitted in his nearly 100-page autobiography.

The guys who wrote into the contest weren’t afraid of admitting they thought about sex, a lot, even if they didn’t know that much about it yet. They were teenage boys, after all. Another writer, a guy everyone called the Poet — who does, in fact, write about his life in beautiful, poetic language — recounted the first time he had to admit he didn’t really know anything about sex.

Poet didn’t join the Communist Youth League, or KZM, because of a burning hatred for capitalism; he was just looking for friends and something new. Beyond supporting the Communist Party, the KZM also had meetings where members learned about life, which included sex ed. I can still hear the nervous giggles and obviously bullshit boasting during my sex ed classes — learning about sex is the topic that’s almost guaranteed to make teenagers squirm, especially if they don’t think they know as much as their friends. The Poet was one of those kids who wasn’t giggling and wasn’t boasting, but just sitting there kind of confused. He probably knew less than the Stormer, because no one had ever talked to him about the birds and the bees.

Five young members of a Ze’irei Zion youth group hang outdoors in Grodno, Poland, in 1925. Zionist, socialist, and other youth groups were one of the main ways for young people of the era to hang out and meet others. (Photo courtesy the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research New York. Photo illustrations by Yunuen Bonaparte.)

The instructor, who would have only been a little bit older than the Poet and the other kids, noticed how quiet the Poet was. Oh, poor kid, he does not get it, I can imagine the instructor thinking. After class, he took the time to break things down for the Poet, which was good — and bad. “I felt like a child and was ashamed that everyone except me was informed and could take part in the discussion,” the Poet admitted. Being in the KZM also meant being around girls, which was totally new to the Poet, and a little exposure therapy made him less nervous.

But after he left the KZM and wasn’t hanging out with the girls anymore, his sexual urges came back even stronger, which freaked him out. “I’m afraid that I’m an erotomaniac, because sex occupies a considerable part of my brain and can’t be driven out,” he wrote. I wish I could reach back in time, give him a massive hug and reassure him, “You’re perfectly normal, dude! We all thought about sex ALL. THE. TIME — welcome to the club.”

M.L.X, a teenager in Warsaw, also couldn’t get sex out of his head. He wanted a girlfriend, but he knew that even if he found one, they would have been expected to abstain until marriage. Unfortunately, he also thought masturbating was shameful rather than a completely normal way to deal with sexual urges.

Once, he wrote, “in order to suffocate these desires — and maybe out of curiosity — I went at night through the far away streets of Warsaw (without a penny in my pockets), known for their brothels.” He’d heard the stories of girls coming from the country to the city to make a living, and when they couldn’t get a job, they’d end up doing sex work. The idea of having sex with a prostitute “evoked a strong feeling of disgust” in M.L.X., but like the Stormer, he didn’t have enough knowledge or experience to know what he might have actually enjoyed. He had a perception of what the women would be like, based on what others had told him, but when he actually began talking to them, he realized they were “mothers of children, [and] wives of husbands.” In his writing, he insisted that he didn’t have sex with any of them and was just curious about their lives, which I guess we have to believe. And this was probably a much more interesting form of get sex ed than he’d have gotten in any classroom, and less shocking than waking up to your friends having sex with each other on the other side of the bed.

I can hear it now: He’s so into you! Followed by giggles. A girl who gave her initials as G.S. admitted that her friends had pointed out the obvious about her future boyfriend. The dude was not being subtle. He’d follow G. around their Betar Zionist youth group meetings, where he held the title of Commander, like a puppy dog. I have totally been that person who thought they were being subtle, only to be called out later and told that everyone knew exactly what was happening. So I can feel the Commander on this one. Maybe he was just finally trying to build up the courage to say hi, or perhaps just being around her was enough. When you’re crushing on someone, it’s really hard (IDK, impossible?!) to be subtle. But apparently the Commander wasn’t obvious enough, because it wasn’t until G.’s friends pointed out his infatuation that she actually noticed him.

If G. was being honest (and she was often just that, brutally so, in her autobiography!), the Commander was short and not very cute. But, she added, “there was something about him that I found attractive.” He was smart and always had interesting things to say. And also: “He loved me; I knew it,” G. wrote. Someone being obsessed with you is a good thing, right? This is undying, forever, end-game-type love, yes?

Unless it is the bad obsession, which is actually possession, and annoying and scary as hell. Over the summer, G.’s boyfriend started making “a fuss over every word I said to another man,” even when she was just platonically chatting with other members of the Betar group.

G. didn’t take crap from anyone, and she didn’t want to admit that talking to other guys was wrong. So when she was offered a slot to become an instructor in the Betar organization, she took it, even though it meant she’d have to move. It was a classic teenage, not-really-mature way of getting out. And it didn’t solve any of their problems. “We were angry with each other over this for a long time,” she wrote. Even though she knew she wasn’t in the wrong and wanted to be an instructor, she still cried, and he was upset.

I’m reminded of late-night calls with boyfriends in high school; the stakes in teenage love always feeling ridiculously high: Do you really love me? Followed by desperate tears regardless of the answer. You daydream about the wedding and your future kids’ names, even though you don’t have the next month of your life figured out.

After a little time apart, G.’s boyfriend got back in touch. She’d just found a job, and he was leaving for Palestine illegally. Even though she couldn’t go, he still wanted them to be together. “We came to realize that we truly loved each other and that our quarrels were silly,” she wrote. Again, the roller coaster of teenage love: When you’re together, you fight and bicker and privately debate whether the other person really loves you. And when distance threatens to tear you apart, you promise undying love forever and ever. “We promised to love and be loyal to each other,” G. wrote, and her boyfriend promised he would get her to Palestine as soon as he could. It’s nearly impossible to know if she ever made it out of Europe in time.

After chatting with the prostitutes on the streets of Warsaw and gaining a little confidence in the not-looking-like-a-fool-while-talking-to-women department, M.L.X. finally noticed a girl who hung out in his circle of friends. Miriam was pretty, M.L.X. couldn’t deny that, but “external attraction wasn’t enough for me,” he wrote. He wanted something deeper, a real connection and someone he could talk to. As he got closer to Miriam, he realized she could be his girlfriend. “We studied together, worked through various books, talked a lot,” which, he said, “tied us even closer together — and I truly fell in love with her.” This was not a crush, not an infatuation, but a serious and deep love, or so he thought. Miriam loved M.L.X. too, and they started talking about their future.

Josef Kaplan, a leader of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement, walks arm in arm in with a companion in the streets of Warsaw, 1938. (Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leah Hammerstein Silverstein)

In his mind, this included living together (and probably sex, lots of sex) although he knew shacking up before marriage was not something Miriam’s family would accept. He had believed that Miriam “stood above the small-town morality and conventions,” but she actually didn’t. In a classic we’re-just-having-fun vs. I-thought-we’d-be-together-forever relationship conflict, M.L.X. didn’t want too much commitment, while Miriam wanted him to get her parents’ blessing and have a real wedding. M.L.X. was kind of brutal, TBH: “I told her as a joke: ‘You see, Miriam, I can be a man, a lover — but a groom I can’t be.” It wasn’t really a joke; he had no interest in getting married, and they drifted apart.

Getting assigned to work with the cute girl in biology; passing notes to the hot guy in history; or sitting with that dream crush during lunch: These are butterfly-inducing moments that teens in 1930s Poland didn’t have. Guys and girls often weren’t in class together, so youth organizations became the main place for them to meet and hang out. In the Tsukunft youth group in Warsaw, Poland, 17-year-old S. Freylich was trying to play the field. He wanted to ask out a girl named Esterke, who was “charming and smart” although not that pretty. Then there was Henia, who wasn’t beautiful either, but Freylich couldn’t say no when she wanted to go on walks together, which was what he considered a date. As if he didn’t have enough love interests, Freylich then got the brilliant idea that he should make himself aloof and mysterious, “believing that this way [the girls] would run after me.” In a really shocking turn of events (eye roll), this plan backfired. I mean, did I totally crush on the guy who painted his nails black? Yes, yes I did. But if he’s not going to respond to your IMs or texts, then what the heck is the point? When Freylich didn’t talk to the girls, they simply ignored him. Later, he “learned the art of flirting” and started picking up girls again.

Members of a Hashomer Hatzair socialist Zionist youth group in Warsaw, 1938. (Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leah Hammerstein Silverstein)

He also wrote that he was for “free love,” although he didn’t define the term or explain how it would work in his life. Maybe he thought it meant he could be a player: have a girlfriend and flirt with other girls. But he also wrote about how he’d kissed a male classmate when he was younger, so maybe free love just meant he could make out with whomever the hell he wanted, no judgment.

I was shocked that so many of the writers were so open when they wrote about sex and relationships. I guess it just proves that even if the world seems like it’s ending, who you are going to screw or who is going to hold you close is still super important, perhaps even more so than during simpler times.

The teens seemed surprisingly open when talking about sex and relationships. Miglė Anušauskaitė, who has translated and read YIVO autobiographies in her work at Lithuania’s National Library, pointed out to me that the boys talk about sex and the girls wrote more bashfully about relationships and romance. Perhaps the girls couldn’t admit to anything more than kisses and hand-holding, even when writing anonymously. Or, of course, it could have been the other way around too, with the boys exaggerating … just a tad. 😜 With only the authors’ own words to rely on, Anušauskaitė adds, “It makes you wonder if they were really telling the truth,” or just saying something that would make them seem cool. Yup, I knew those guys in high school, too. Everyone’s favorite, right?

Esther didn’t even bother asking her dad if she could go to the movies. He would have said no, just like he said no to everything she wanted to do. The movies, he’d probably say, were indecent, blah, blah, blah. The posters outside the theaters in the 1930s probably made him avert his faux-virgin eyes: the actress Nora Ney thrusting her hip forward, wearing a see-through skirt, while actor Eugeniusz Bodo leaned in to kiss his Tahitian lover. Esther loved reading, the stage, and putting on her own theater performances, even if her conservative and religious father wanted her to have nothing to do with things like that. When Esther saw those posters, I can just imagine her wanting to be Nora Ney, who was born Zoscia Neyman, and leaving her Jewish identity for a spot in Polish cinema. That theater and those movies could transport Esther to the “faraway place, a dream world” that she wrote about finding in plays and the “enchanted worlds” of her books.

A young Polish woman wearing a bathing suit and holding a parasol, circa 1925 – 1935. (Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Joan Finkelstein)

Let’s be real, teens cannot be stopped by the wishes of their parents. And Esther saved up enough for a ticket and just went. She felt her heart throbbing as she made her way there, her body filling with “joy and excitement.”

“What I actually saw was marvelous!” she wrote. “I cried and I laughed with the heroes and heroines on screen.”

Esther came home with the guilt of knowing she’d disobeyed her father. “I was terrified that my Father might find out,” Esther wrote. Girl, I know that feeling. You get home and you desperately avoid your parents because if they ask you where you were and you lie, they’ll just know. Hell, my mom could tell something was up simply by some otherwise invisible aura around me. Esther snuck off to bed, and after a few days, when her father hadn’t confronted her, she realized she’d gotten away with it. “I was overjoyed,” she recounted in the journal she kept hidden from her family.

That relief of not getting caught also comes with the excitement of knowing you can do it again. “[T]he way that I am misunderstood is unnerving,” she complained. “My soul aspires to distant horizons, yet I remain in this little world of narrow desires.” So she pushed back against everything her father said she couldn’t do: get a library card, go to school, become a teacher.

Students from the Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary act out a scene from David and Goliath at the YIVO Institute in Vilna, 1928. (Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Anne Miransky)

So many of the teens in the contest wrote about how their parents didn’t get it, how they were old-fashioned and out of touch. The Poet’s dad — who sewed baby shoes in their apartment for a living — expected the Poet and his brother to sit at their workbenches and sew late into the night, too. The Poet didn’t want to work, he just wanted to get lost in prose. But his father, he wrote, “can’t stand my reading or studying.” As a result, he felt his dad was “wretched” and “simple,” a man who “lacks a goal.” “He doesn’t understand me; he knows nothing about me,” the Poet declared.

In a fragment of an autobiography kept at the National Library of Lithuania, an anonymous writer in the contest wrote that he and a friend, Yankel, had become especially close because their “hearts got connected by a thread of longing and hopeful dreams of breaking free from the influence of our fathers and ignorant pious men.” Fast-forward 80 years and they are basically saying OK, Boomer and rolling their eyes (which I never have to do because my dad is honestly woke AF and very cool).

Even the way their parents’ generation dressed was old. On the streets in Warsaw you’d see men with beards wearing dark cloaks and hats, clothes that looked like they could be centuries old, while young hipsters dressed in the leather jackets of the Betar youth movement and trendy teenage girls wore finger wave bobs, fur-lined coats and high heels.

My generation (millennials) and Gen Z came of age with the internet, and this generation similarly had access to information their parents never could have dreamed of, through public schools, radio and movies, and revolutionary political ideas from Zionist, Communist and Socialist groups. They were so much more connected to Polish culture and identity than their parents ever were. Mame and Tatte absolutely didn’t get it, but their friends most certainly did.

By the time she was 16, there was no way Esther’s family was going to catch her sneaking out. Now, instead of escaping to the movies, she was hanging out with a new friend. The friend had appeared at exactly the right time, after Esther’s father had died and Esther’s depression had set in. Her other friends tried to help her feel better, but teenage girls aren’t always very comforting. In this case, instead of trying to help her get through her depression, they just criticized her for not wearing the latest styles (which is definitely not the advice you need when your dad has dropped dead and you feel utterly and hopelessly lost).

Two young women walk down a street in Warsaw, circa 1937-1938. (Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ita Rozencwajg Dimant)

“This young woman whom I had just met was different” from all those other girls, Esther wrote. She was “a breath of fresh air from another, freer world.” This new friend, whom Esther never names in her writing, didn’t care if Esther was religious, what she wore, or that she loved books. This is like meeting the coolest girl in school — not the popular girl, but the girl that gives zero shits about what anyone else thinks. And there you are, kinda nerdy, kinda uncool, desperately wanting her to like you. And to your amazement, she does.

“We began by reading a book together, and before long she knew my innermost thoughts,” Esther wrote. On long summer nights, Esther read poems and sections of her diary to her friend. Was this the type of deep friendship where Esther thought, She is the only one who understands me? Or did it go even deeper than that, into a romantic love that wasn’t considered appropriate at the time and couldn’t be named? The Stormer could talk about the sex between his yeshiva friends perhaps because he said he didn’t want to participate. But Esther might not have known that being in love with her friend in that way was possible. Or maybe she just wanted to sneak out to talk on moonlit walks with someone who really understood her.

Whatever Esther’s real feelings were, when her family found out about the friendship, her older brother “demanded categorically that I break up with my friend.” Esther’s friend was Jewish, but she hadn’t gone to religious school and wasn’t in the young orthodox women’s organization, so Esther’s family (no surprise) didn’t like her. To admit that she needed her friend “would have meant confessing my desire for freedom, for something different, which was ‘forbidden,’” Esther wrote. So she had to at least pretend to give in. She promised her brother she wouldn’t see her friend, but they still met secretly. The thought makes me smile and applaud Esther for this minor but oh-so-important defiance.

As in any teenager’s life, friendships — particularly illicit ones — took on outsized significance. The anonymous writer who described connecting with his friend Yankel because they both wanted to break free from their fathers, wrote about how important it was that he had someone he could really trust. “I would tell him all of my problems, caused by my fanatically religious parents, about how my father used to tear up my books and would often beat me,” he wrote. The writer and Yankel went on walks together and saw their “future in the starlit sky.”

While these descriptions of friendships often sound romantic (and who knows, maybe they were), Anušauskaitė told me that because there wasn’t often an overlap in male and female spaces, these close friendships could take the place of the romantic partnership we would imagine today. In a kind of modern way, there didn’t have to be a binary between romance and friendship; guys could be super close, even touchy-feely, with their male friends, and the same was true among girls.

G.W. could easily see that his family didn’t have the money and luxuries that others had, and that sucked. His family lived in a basement apartment, a damp cellar that made it hard for him to breathe and with mold that got everyone sick. Why did they have to live there when “other people lived in beautiful houses”? He wanted to study and go to high school. But even public high school wasn’t free, and he didn’t have enough money for the tuition; he couldn’t even afford to buy a notebook for class. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t study and realize my aspirations,” he wrote in his autobiography. It was the brutal honesty of poverty and discrimination that remains an epidemic today: No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t drastically change his life.

Still a teenager, G.W. had to start working as a tailor. He knew it was a good job, but it was still shitty— his boss didn’t always pay him his wages, the boss’s wife picked on him and made him cry, and the other workers didn’t stand up for him.

When the Tsukunft youth group recruited G.W. and he started learning about socialism, he did not need any academic lessons about economic oppression. Oppression was his life. But now, he was finally able to describe “the evil that I’d had to endure in the workshop, about denouncing everything that is dark and bleak, bloodthirsty and exploitative.” Capitalism isn’t going to solve the problems of young people, he wrote, and I imagine him as a total Bernie Bro posting memes about eating the rich.

The youth groups like Tsukunft and Betar weren’t just about social life, they were about changing the world. Yes, these young people totally joined to make friends and maybe meet a romantic interest (see the Poet). But they also wrote about injustice and what they believed it meant. They sound like young Black Lives Matter and environmental activists today, whose passion reminds me of my own anger about the Iraq War and the invasion of Afghanistan during my high school years. They, and I, couldn’t ignore the “crooked old way” of the world, as G.W. called it. Esther wanted to know, “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” while the Poet, who had lost interest in the KZM and started becoming more drawn to Zionism, wrote his autobiography in Polish (not Yiddish) and declared, “You anti-Semites, I blame you for my inferiority complex and for the fact that I don’t know what I am: a Jew or a Pole.”

One of the reasons they didn’t connect with their parents was because they were so over discrimination and anti-Semitism. Couldn’t they be Jewish and Polish? They’d had enough of inequality and unemployment. Couldn’t they go to high school and university? Couldn’t they get a good job and have a nice apartment? These organizations promised to make their worlds better, if they were willing to do the work.

Zionism promised a Jewish identity, a homeland, a renaissance, and the training needed to achieve those goals. G.S., who grew up in a secular family and wrote in neat, cursive Polish, met her boyfriend, the Commander, in the Betar Zionist group, which she said had awoken a “strong feeling of Jewishness” in her.

A guy named Yudl wrote that he hated the Betar group that some guys tried to get him to join. All they talked about at the meetings were their outfits, brown uniforms with gold buttons, he wrote. He thought the leaders were immoral and they talked down to him: “They were nothing more than corrupters, criminals, in fact — blackmailers, Jewish Hitlerites, Jewish fascists!”

Instead, Yudl joined the Bundists, like G.W. had. The socialist Bund, or Jewish Worker’s Union, didn’t believe in Zionism but wanted improvements for the Jewish working class. There, Yudl was finally regarded as an equal, and he learned that ignoring injustice, anti-Semitic regulations and attacks clearly wasn’t working; he and his peers needed to do something new, bold and radical.

Now, when he felt like his boss’s widow wasn’t paying him enough, Yudl organized a weeklong strike, which was “victorious,” he proudly recalled.

“When I walked down the street, people patted me on the back: “You’re a good guy,” they told him, “‘a fine member of the proletariat.’”

“Life’s not worth living,” the Poet’s friend Moniek told him. “What’s the use? I’m not going to spend my life operating a sewing machine.”

Moniek wanted to go to Paris to become an actor, and had tried to sneak out of Poland twice but had been caught both times and spent a few months in jail. “I’m weak and ruined by masturbation,” Moniek continued. “I now see that nothing will come of me. Getting to France and then going from there to Hollywood is a childish fantasy.” Another friend told the Poet that sometime later, Moniek was showing off for a girl and jumped “from the public beach into the open river” and drowned. The despair in Moniek’s voice in that last conversation led the Poet to “assume that his death was a suicide.” The Poet didn’t write specifically about how he reacted to Moniek’s death, but he must have been shaken if he really thought that Moniek felt he had no other option.

The Poet wasn’t particularly thrilled with his life at that point either. He could earn money helping his father sew baby shoes, but like so many other Jewish youths who wrote into the YIVO contest, he struggled with the same question: What am I going to do with my life?

For my classmates and other American teens over the last few decades who were privileged enough to have the option, this kind of angst often revolves around picking a college and/or career path. But the young people writing these autobiographies had unique challenges as Jews living in Poland, where state-sanctioned anti-Semitism was growing. The religious school where Esther found a job was shut down because it didn’t meet government requirements, which was often just a cover for shutting down Jewish schools. When G.S. was looking for a job, someone straight-up told her, “I could help you if you weren’t Jewish.” They were living in a global depression and Jews were being denied jobs just because they were Jews. School also wasn’t an option for many of them. Not only did the Polish government limit admission to Jews in public high schools, in 1937 they capped the number of Jewish students allowed at universities. The proportion of Jews enrolled at university dropped from about 20 percent of all students in 1928 to only about 4 percent in 1938.

For many, including G.S. and the Stormer, Palestine felt like the answer. One journalist in the 1930s found a group of girls dancing the hora, the celebratory Jewish wedding dance, on a Krakow street. When he asked them why they were doing it, they told him that it was “a dance from Palestine and that they will certainly be going there someday.” Some of their friends thought the dance was crazy, but these girls felt it was one thing that would get them closer to Palestine, to a new identity.

Despite these hardships, it’s so easy to see that the young people who wrote these autobiographies weren’t living in constant fear. I know they wouldn’t have been so passionate about love and friendships and finding a job or going to school if they weren’t filled with that incredible hope that comes with being a young adult. They were at that age so many of us look back on with fondness and nostalgia, when we were old enough to say, Fuck yeah, that’s what I want, or Fuck you, I’ll do what I want. And also young enough to have a long future, without the need to commit to one thing or one person. You imagine having a lifetime to become yourself and achieve your dreams.

G.S. never got to meet up with her Commander boyfriend again; he was eventually killed in Palestine. Yet she didn’t grow hopeless. She wrote: “I hope God will give me strength and endurance so that I can stay here long enough to save money for the trip. Then I’ll leave for Palestine and start a new life.”

The Stormer also tried to emigrate illegally to Palestine but got caught and sent back home. Even though his immediate future felt bleak, he had “great hopes that the situation of all humanity will take another direction and that my own situation will change for the better along with it.”

M.L.X. didn’t buy that his life’s purpose was just to get a job and “earn a little money to survive,” while G.W. thought he was going to tear down the capitalist system. Esther was still teaching students, hoping to get a teaching degree, and confiding in her friend that she was writing her autobiography for the YIVO contest.

I love how hopeful they are, and yet I can’t read these sentences without being utterly devastated. We know what happens next.

While YIVO researcher Max Weinriech wanted the autobiographies for a contemporary understanding of Jewish youth culture, they ended up creating a treasure trove of sepia-toned teenage vitality. YIVO had more than 600 youth autobiographies when the Nazis arrived in Poland, and Yiddish speakers were forced to read and select which materials the Nazis would take. Some 300 of the contest entries were later found in Germany and transferred to YIVO’s new headquarters in New York. Fifteen autobiographies, including the writings of the Stormer, the Poet, G.S., G.W., Esther and Yudl, were translated into English and included in the book Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Others had been hidden from the Nazis and were found in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991 and in 2017, including the 1933 memoir of Beba Epstein, which YIVO used to create its first digital exhibit in the fall of 2020. But hundreds more, telling hundreds more stories of heartbreak and hope, live in archives, untranslated and mostly unknown.

Girls in a Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth group pose for a portrait, Warsaw, circa 1938. (Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eliyahu Mallenbaum)

In these writings, we feel the universal longing of young people who yearn to find their place. We cringe with them when their parents are shitty. We grab a hand, shout and sing along with them in the street. We lean in closer when they tell us about their secret friends and that special love interest. We chuckle when they share how they hooked up with allllllll of those girls. We’re inspired by their hopes for the future, their dreams and ambitions, and we understand their need to make the world better. And in today’s world, when we are still fighting tirelessly for justice, acceptance and opportunity for all, maybe now more than ever we should sit back and listen to these struggles and dreams, see real people rather than statistics, and embrace untold stories from those who’ve been oppressed simply because of how they look or what they believe.

I do have to admit that as much as I love the messy realness of these autobiographies, they still break my heart. Yes, partially because I know that so many of their dreams didn’t come true. But even more, because they never even had the time to figure out whether what they dreamed about at 18 was what they still wanted or needed at 28, 48 or 78. More than 80 years after these autobiographies were written, I feel like I’ve become Esther’s secret friend, the one to whom she’s divulged all her inner thoughts. But I’ll never know what happens to Esther, who was working so hard just to get by, who harbored such huge hopes, and desperately wanted her friends and family to accept her. She likely never had a chance to figure her life out … And yet! Esther, who emptied her beautiful heart and soul across 60 pages of neat Yiddish script, is so fucking hopeful it makes me want to march up alongside her and offer my own rallying cry.

“And when a sigh escapes from the depths of my heart,” she wrote, “when sparks of rebellion and protest ignite in my tired but youthful eyes, they vanish in the turbulence of life, which casts off the weak and battles the rebellious. Still from my lips comes an eternal ‘Why?’ Then my shoulders straighten and brace themselves, ready to endure anything, never to surrender, but with faith — onward!”

Editors’ Note: The memoirs of M.L.X. and S. Freylich were translated from Yiddish for this story by Nina Warnke, and Miglė Anušauskaitė shared some of her translations of the YIVO records recovered in Lithuania.

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The Shot-in-the-Eye Squad

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters started to fly. This epidemic of “blinding by police” inspired our unlikely network of survivors.

The Shot-in-the-Eye Squad

My mind raced in the seconds after I was shot.

I heard the gun go off and turned my head toward the sound, just in time to watch the spinning aluminum canister slam into my brow. Everything went black. I stumbled. When I regained my balance and opened my eyes, the sight in my right eye was gone. Something in my head told me the tear gas canister was the last thing I’d ever see clearly.

It was May 30, 2020. George Floyd’s death was still headlining most news reports. The country was finally (rightly) paying attention to police killings. Meanwhile, during the protests that followed, another less deadly but still alarming trend was developing: “blinding by police.”

According to Shot in the Head, a report released in September 2020 by Physicians for Human Rights, during the protests between May 26 and July 27 of last year, U.S. law enforcement officials shot 115 people in the head with “less lethal weapons.” Of these victims, at least 30 suffered permanent ocular damage.

“These were some of the worst injuries we’ve seen in a long time,” George Williams, M.D., former president and current spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), explained to me. “If our mission is to protect sight and we are seeing these injuries, we have to step up and say something.” The spike in ocular traumas associated with the protests caused the AAO to issue its first-ever public condemnation of law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets.

As a professional photojournalist, I’d been covering the protests outside the White House when I was shot. It’s perhaps needless to say that any eye-related injury is basically a photographer’s worst nightmare, tantamount to a musician going deaf.

While I dealt with the aftereffects of my own injury and tried to make sense of what had happened, I came up with a new mission for myself: I set out to meet as many of the other people blinded by the police as I could.

“It felt like they were playing Call of Duty.”

Earlier on the same day that I was injured in the nation’s capital, 400 miles away in Cleveland, John Sanders was shot in the face with a beanbag round. Lead pellets from the canvas bag ripped through his left eyelid and ruptured the globe of his eyeball.

I met John, a 24-year-old former journalism student, last July at his friend’s house in a middle-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. A self-assured, tall and slender Black man, John’s presence was calming. We sat at a picnic table in his suburban backyard and compared notes about our traumas. A plastic deer used for target practice listed to the side a couple of feet behind us.

John tells me how, in shock and worrying he’d be shot again, he lay down in the street. “You know, ’cause my eye was literally hanging out of my head,” he says in his nonchalant deep voice. “‘Don’t make yourself a target, get down and hopefully someone comes over and gets you.’” As he flattened himself against the asphalt, blood puddled under his head. Eventually a group of panicked protesters gathered around him and carried him off the street. He was stabilized and taken to the hospital.

“It almost seems like they were doing target practice or something,” John recalls. “I literally felt like they were playing Call of Duty out there.”

Unfortunately, John’s injuries were not virtual. In the first three months after being shot, he endured three surgeries: one to stitch up his eye; one enucleation (removal of the eye) and eyelid reconstruction; and one to fill in his orbit with fat from other parts of his body. He was also hospitalized for diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening problem common among diabetics. John is sure it was due to his heightened stress and depression, a direct result of being partially blinded.

John Sanders was shot in the eye with a “less lethal” bean bag round fired by Cleveland police during protests in response to George Floyd’s death.

As police forces across the U.S. and the globe have grown more militarized, there has been a rise in injuries like John’s and mine — a result of the proliferation of “less lethal weapons” that are not designed to kill, yet leave many civilians with life-changing injuries.

In the peace that followed World War I, law enforcement and military officials around the world began developing new weapons for crowd control. The goal was to create tools that would afford authorities the ability to manage large groups of people without relying solely on violent baton charges and lethal force.

Chief among those new weapons was CS gas, more commonly known as tear gas. First discovered in 1928 by chemists at Middlebury College, tear gas was understood to be a less toxic substance than the CN gas used in the trenches of Europe. It soon became a common tool for crowd dispersal for police departments across the United States, including during labor strikes and civil rights marches.

In the 1960s, the British military developed rubber bullets as a “nonlethal” way to suppress protesters in Northern Ireland, and Argentine intelligence officers adapted electric cattle prods to torture detainees during interrogations. A few decades later, “less lethal weapons” emerged as an important growth sector for the international arms industry, leading to the development of new technologies.

Today, law enforcement and military forces alike have a wide array of less lethal weapons to draw upon. There are kinetic impact projectiles such as foam-nosed bullets, beanbags, pepper balls and wooden baton rounds, to name a few. There are chemical irritants such as tear gases, pepper spray and mace, as well as conducted energy devices such as Tasers and stun guns. Flash bangs and smoke grenades are used to disorient targets. Finally, many police departments across the U.S. are now using acoustic weapons such as the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which emits an extremely high decibel sound designed to cause physical discomfort and dizziness.

On the same day that John and I were shot, Soren Stevenson was among a group of protesters in Minneapolis who tried to march onto the westbound lane of Interstate 35. Police were quick to arrive on the scene. Most of the protesters hadn’t even reached the on-ramp.

When calls went out for “white bodies to the front,” Soren volunteered. He’d just linked arms with others on the front line when a 40mm plastic round cracked against his head.

“I felt my face, and it was wet and soft where there should have been bone,” Soren recalls. Beyond losing his eye, he was also robbed of his sense of smell and some feeling on the left side of his face.

Soren Stevenson lost his left eye while protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Soren and I met up in a park near his house in Minneapolis. It was dusk on a cool August night. JusticePirate, his handle on social media now that he wears a leather eye patch, was 25 years old and had recently earned a master’s in public policy from the University of Minnesota. However, his injury and the COVID-19 pandemic had stunted his plans for the future. Soren had just started a job search when he was shot. Between surgeries and recovery, he wasn’t able to find employment until almost a year later, in April 2021.

Soren emphasizes that his injury is small compared to the everyday violence black and brown communities face without respite, and he still hopes that the protests will lead to systemic change.

“This is a moment Americans can’t miss,” Soren says. “We can’t miss this moment to demand both elected and unelected officials do something about racial inequity and police violence.”

“They shot me because I’m Black.”

Nikita Tarver, 33, was getting ready for another surgery when I picked her up in my too-cramped-for-the-COVID-era economy rental car. Since being shot on May 30, she’d moved into her mother’s humble apartment in a gentrified Seattle neighborhood.

“The saddest part of it all was what my friend said afterward,” Nikita recalls. “She said that just before I was shot, she looked back and saw me, the only Black face in a sea of white protesters. They shot me cause I’m Black. That’s messed up.”

Nikita Tarver lost her left eye after being shot during a protest in Seattle.

Nikita had responded to a message I’d sent to her through GoFundMe, where a friend had created a campaign to help pay for Nikita’s growing pile of medical bills. She told me she wanted someone to talk to. Someone who could understand what she was going through. So did I. For months, we sent each other quick text messages, updates on our trauma animated by eye-patched Memoji.

“… it’s going to be awesome to have somebody going through the same experience to actually speak to. I mean I have people in my corner but they don’t truly understand my situation,” Nikita writes in one message.

I reach out late on another night to vent my frustrations: “I’m done moping around the house. but I get tired super quick!!! And then have to take a long nap. Sucks cause I’m not spending enough time with my kids … hopefully though things will slowly get better …  I’ve picked the camera back up and that’s a good thing.”

We talk about our families and plan to start journaling our recoveries, but we don’t actually talk about being shot until I fly out to Seattle to meet Nikita in person.

As we talk, a tear rolls out of Nikita’s good eye. She sighs a deep breath.

“Every day is a roller coaster. I think I’m at about 100 days and I’ve cried every day.” Nikita is transparent in her fragility. “I’m fighting for my fucking eye, never in a million years did I think I was going to be facing this.”

The shot caused a severe scarring of her cornea and left her retina partially detached. Doctors couldn’t give her a timetable or a definite prognosis for the future.

Since our interview, Nikita has recovered some vision, but it is still so distorted that she’s resigned herself to wearing an eye patch.

“Blinding by police” is not a trend that is unique to the United States. Wherever less lethal weapons are used with frequency, some targets inevitably lose their eyes. During the protests that rocked Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan, in 2016, it is estimated that thousands of eyes were lost to bird shot fired by Indian security forces. In Beirut, at least two eyes were lost in one night during protests following the Lebanese government’s criminal mismanagement of the August 2020 port explosion. In France, the 24 people partially blinded during the Yellow Vest uprising in 2018 became popularly known as the mutilé, or mutilated.

And in Chile, more than 400 people have been blinded or partially blinded since protests against neoliberal economic policies and for a new constitution began in 2019. More than anywhere else, they have become famed embodiments of the broader political struggle — living martyrs of the estallido, or uprising.

“How could someone rob something so beautiful, so marvelous to humans as sight?” a weeping Albano Toro asked the camera in one of dozens of video testimonials collected from members of the Coordinadora de Victimas por Trauma Oculares, a political organizing platform created by Chileans who’ve lost their eyes to less lethal weapons. Built on a praxis of mutual aid and solidarity, the Coordinadora help members receive medical attention, raise funds for those left destitute due to their injuries, coordinate political demonstrations against police brutality, and advocate for transformative change in Chilean society. It’s the kind of advocacy group that, unfortunately, many communities around the world are likely going to need more of in the years to come.

In the ambulance ride to the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, an EMT wrapped my head with a bandage. He asked me some basic questions, presumably to rule out a severe concussion. The bright lights and reflective metal surfaces made me squint. I was in shock; fight or flight had kicked in. There was still relatively little pain, but my senses were alert and I was acutely aware of my surroundings. Accompanying me on the ride were two Metropolitan police officers, also injured in the protests. I glared in their direction. In my mind I ridiculed them for the minor bruises they appeared to have suffered. I didn’t want to show any weakness, even if it was objectively clear that I was in a far more precarious state than they were.

I was shot at this location on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., on May 30, 2020.

On Sunday, May 31, I was released from the emergency room with an appointment to see a specialist later that afternoon. Twenty-four hours later, I was in an operating gown getting ready to go under the knife. Retina specialists cleaned out the hemorrhaging in the back of my eye, reattached my retina and inflated a gas bubble against the back of it. Finally, a scleral buckle was inserted around my eye. This silicone band held the retina in place by applying pressure on the globe from the outside. It was a permanent addition to my anatomy.

The shot impacted my brow and forehead, sending a shockwave through my eye. My sight will never be the same.

Until the gas bubble was absorbed by my body and the swelling receded, my doctors were reluctant to give me a definite prognosis about how much sight I’d recover. I was sent home and instructed to lie on my left side for the next seven days. Brisk movements could reinjure the eye, and gravity would help maintain pressure on the back of the retina, improving my chances of some recovery of sight.

Matthew Leo Cima was also bedridden, albeit under stricter guidelines. While I lay on my couch in that first week after my operation, I found out about Matthew’s injury on Facebook and immediately sent him a direct message.

For the first week, Matthew had to lie facedown for two hours at a time, only interrupted by 10-minute breaks when he could sit or stand. He tells me that his brow is bruising from the hole on the massage table where he puts his face. He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well for fear of rolling over in the night.

“I don’t know if you have had a similar reaction but I haven’t even cried yet because I’m so scared for what the pressure in my eye may do from it,” Matthew writes in one of his first messages.

Matthew was also shot in D.C., while protesting in Lafayette Square on May 31.

“I just remember feeling it from this direction, and then hearing the crack of my skull from the ball hitting it,” he remembers. “And then feeling ice cold, smelling blood, and then a bright light that kinda looked like the negative of a Rorschach puzzle.”

A trained cicerone (similar to a wine sommelier, a cicerone is an expert on beer), Matthew brought the same attention to detail used in his day job to his understanding of the medical care he was receiving.

“Submacular hemorrhages and a retinal tear in the macula,” he writes, “Also hyphema but that is clearing on its own. I had surgery on Friday (days after my injuries), it was a pars plana vitrectomy with a gas bubble. My doctor wants to wait for the gas to disappear before talking results and expectations.”

Matthew Leo Cima was shot in the left eye with a “less lethal” round while protesting at Lafayette Park outside the White House.

He knows far more about his injury than I do about mine. The more we chat, the more our conversations reveal difficult truths about the differences between our injuries. Whereas my detachment is on the periphery, Matthew’s is in the center of his retina. While I am getting better, he is facing more surgeries.

“I’m not excited to start over with surgery, recovery,” he tells me, “and the finality it represents is also very daunting. But I just keep reminding myself it will all pass soon enough.”

Matthew’s fortitude gave me hope in those first months. As soon as the doctors gave me the green light, I was on my feet again. Recovery was tiring though. There were many afternoons spent napping. The gas bubble inverted the light entering my optic nerve. For a short period of time I was seeing things upside down, an exhausting exercise for my brain, which was tasked with collating and interpreting information from both my good and bad eye.

I reach out to my partner through the fog of my new sight.

Matthew tries to encourage me: “My peripheral vision one day was still nonexistent and by the end of that day I could count my fingers. It was a wild day. It will come back dude.”

Once the gas bubble receded, I was left with what I can only describe as drunk eyes. Like a multi-exposure photo, there were two sights superimposed upon each other: one lucid and clear, the other out of focus and hazy.

Rian Dundon, a close friend and one of my favorite photographers, calls me shortly after hearing I’ve been shot. “You’re living a photographer’s worst nightmare,” he says. I smile. I understand what he means. But I find solace in being alive.

“I definitely think of myself as being pretty lucky — even in these circumstances,” I write to Matthew. “So I hold on to the ‘it could be worse’ and focus on the future and recovery … ”

“I don’t want to scare you, but … ”

I’m sitting on the front porch of a brick house in Kansas City, Missouri, when I’m asked a question that stops me dead in my tracks.

“I don’t want to scare you, but have you ever heard of sympathetic ophtha-something?” enquires Sean Stearns, a professional dog walker and sketch comedian.

Sean is referring to sympathetic ophthalmia, a rare syndrome in which the body’s immune system attacks the good eye of a person who’s been partially blinded due to ocular trauma. My palms clam up. Sean can read my body’s reaction.

“It is super, super rare and usually happens in the first couple of weeks after injury,” he adds. I gulp down my beer and take another bite of the pizza Sean and his girlfriend have bought for us.

Sean, 33, was debating with his doctors and girlfriend whether they should sacrifice his damaged eye to save his good one. On the same day as my injury, Sean had been shot in the face with a less lethal round during a protest. His left eye was now completely blind, and his ophthalmologists seemed to think that removing it could reduce the chances of sympathetic ophthalmia. But it would mean he’d have to wear a prosthetic for the rest of his life, not to mention the additional surgery to perform the enucleation.

Sean Stearns was shot in the eye during a protest in Kansas City, Missouri, May 2020.

Losing sight in my good eye was the real nightmare that kept me up at night. An itchy piece of dust and a mundane cornea scratch could easily send me into a full-blown panic attack. So when Linda Tirado calls me to say she’s caught a virus in her good eye and is already losing sight, I almost drop the phone.

Linda, 38, a writer, independent journalist, mother of two and partner of a Marine vet, already had a lot on her plate when she set off for Minneapolis in May 2020. With little sleep and no guaranteed paycheck, Linda ran toward the tear gas. She was lining up a shot when a foam-nosed round burst through her protective goggles and tore her left cornea nearly in two.

“The ironic thing is it was the first story I was doing exclusively as a photojournalist,” she chuckles sarcastically, leaning back in her chair at a desk cluttered with notes and cigarette boxes. “Sorry for the chaos, virtual learning starts tomorrow.” Linda’s two daughters are in the other room reading and playing video games.

Linda Tirado’s left cornea was ruptured by a “less lethal” round shot by police in Minneapolis.

“We don’t talk about how often police escalate situations during protests,” says Linda, who has done many interviews about her experience and been outspoken in her condemnation of police brutality. Her critique of the police has made her a target of Blue Lives Matter activists.

Linda asked me to keep her location a secret because her public stature had attracted the worst kind of trolling. She told me death and rape threats quickly became a common occurrence in the comments of her social media feeds. But random angry white men showing up at her doorstep was literally hitting too close to home.

Linda wasn’t the only one fending off trolls. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Balin Brake was accused by conspiracy theorists of being a trauma actor, faking his injury.

It was easy to spot Balin in Freimann Park, where we’d agreed to meet. He immediately caught the eye with his iris-and-pupil-less prosthetic. Balin, a recently unemployed video producer who had lost an eye when he was hit by a tear gas canister during a protest, wasn’t ashamed of his injury. He has a painted prosthetic that matches his other eye, but he says, “I know my eyes and it’s not my eye. I’d rather just … ”

I finish his sentence: “ … let people see you as you are.”

He nods his head: “Yeah.”

Balin Brake was shot in the right eye while protesting in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Fort Wayne is a small city, and news of Balin’s injury spread fast. On more than one occasion, his blank white prosthetic gave him away. For some he was a hero; to others he was a disgrace to his Caucasian heritage. White supremacists trolled his social media accounts.

“We have an obligation to tell the world what happens when these devices are used.”

By the end of August, some city governments, like those in Philadelphia, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, had responded to public outcry and enacted limited restrictions on the use of less lethal weapons for crowd control. However, most law enforcement agencies continued to deploy these devices, and some were even expanding their arsenals.

Dr. Williams is adamant that the AAO is committed to condemning the irresponsible use of less lethal weapons. “As the officials who deal with the ramifications of the use of these devices, we feel we have an obligation to tell the world what happens when these devices are used,” he says. “So, we will continue to do that. I can’t see that we would stop.”

It’s a step in the right direction, but those of us who have been shot want more.

Vincent Doyle, an amateur photographer, wants our suffering to mean something: “I was thinking, if there’s so many people, I asked my lawyer, ‘Do you think there’s gonna be a class action lawsuit?’ … ’cause this is nationwide! … Or I mean just as a group come together and — I dunno — do something … even if it’s creative or legislative.”

Vincent’s transformation from witness to victim to self-advocate was immediate. It forced him to personally engage with the violence of the institutional racism he’d faced his whole life.

After he was shot in Dallas, Vincent moved home to Atlanta for his recovery. I was taken aback when he greeted me in a parking lot. The beanbag had collapsed his left cheek. The symmetry of his face didn’t resemble his handsomely boyish self-portraits I’d seen on Instagram. My internal recoil caused a small part of me to die of shame.

Vincent went to the protests with the intention of taking some pictures. But when he saw the red dot of the laser sight dance across his body, he realized that the police didn’t always make distinctions between participants and witnesses.

Vincent Doyle, an amateur photographer, was shot in the eye while documenting a protest in Dallas.

“Either I run or I hide under the car or I just stay here and hope they don’t do anything,” he recalls thinking. “I remembered whenever my dad had an encounter with the police, he’d take out his phone. So that’s what I did. I didn’t even know I was recording.” The 22-year-old recorded the shot that would forever change his life.

While in the hospital, Vincent was visited on three separate occasions by police officers over the course of four days. Vincent says that some of these interrogations took place while he was on painkillers administered via an intravenous drip. No lawyer was ever present. To add insult to injury, Vincent tells me that the hospital rescinded its initial offer of pro bono care when the video he’d recorded went viral online. In the video, Vincent can be heard cursing at the police as they shoot at him; he assumes the hospital didn’t want to be associated with his foul mouth.