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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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?
“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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
It was 1951, and the inimitable Edward Bernays was holding court at United Fruit’s New York headquarters. The energetic nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays sported three-piece suits, well-manicured wavy hair, and a precise mustache over an infectious smile. He was charming as usual as he addressed United Fruit President Sam “The Bananaman” Zemurray.
Bernays was doing what he did best: helping people come to a conclusion as if it were their own idea.
Widely regarded as the father of the public relations industry, Bernays had successfully made the case that all American corporations needed to hire a “counsel on public relations” — and that doing so was good for democracy.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays had argued in his 1928 book, Propaganda. “It might be better to have … committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat,” Bernays noted. But since that wasn’t how democracy worked, society needed “to be organized by leadership and propaganda.”
And because democracy operates on the principle of freedom of choice, such manipulation should be done subtly, Bernays added. If you want a man to buy a piano, for example, don’t tell him to buy a piano. Rather, Bernays wrote, you should “implant the idea in the mind of the general public” that having a music room is now fashionable. Then the idea of buying a piano “will come to him as if it is his own idea.”
This was not just how Bernays had successfully convinced women to smoke, diet-conscious people to eat bacon for breakfast, and overweight people to stay at the Waldorf hotel — all of which he did. It was also the psychology that had helped Bernays convince the world’s largest fruit company to hire him as its PR agent.
Since the 1940s, Bernays had frequently consulted with Zemurray, and also worked closely with the company’s publicity director Ed Whitman, who happened to be the husband of Eisenhower’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman.
For years, Bernays had warned Zemurray that the gulf between rich and poor in Guatemala could lead to social instability and PR problems for the fruit company. Now Bernays was concerned that anti–United Fruit sentiment might come to a head. Ever since its democratic revolution, Guatemala’s presidents had allowed labor movements and Communist sympathizers to operate legally within its country, and that potentially meant that the government might force United Fruit to make costly changes, like raising wages. Or worse: sell back its unused land.
However, Bernays said, “Guatemala might respond to pitiless publicity in this country.” By alerting Americans to Communist dangers in Central America (or in his words, “Middle America”), Bernays said, the U.S. government might be persuaded to “take steps to improve the situation.” Ideally, Guatemala would back down and start praising United Fruit for being a job creator instead of a foreign plunderer.
Zemurray, an immigrant from present-day Moldova who’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps (with the occasional help of some hired gunmen), was known for his racism against the indigenous people who worked his plantations. He wasn’t convinced that “Indians” were smart enough to ever gain negotiating power over him. But after two years of arguments from Bernays asserting that extolling the virtues of bananas wasn’t the only thing that PR could do to help United Fruit’s bottom line — and especially when President Árbenz got serious about agrarian reform — Zemurray finally relented.
Yes, he agreed, something should be done.
Zemurray’s instinct was to call up his friends in the U.S. government and ask for some favors. In 1953, United Fruit donated $64,000, in coordination with the CIA, to some disgruntled right-wing Guatemalans who wanted to start a rebellion, but their uprising was quickly crushed. The movement gained no favor with the Guatemalan public, and the CIA barely kept its role hidden.
It’s unclear what Bernays knew about the cash being given to the rebels, but when he pressed on Zemurray that the smoothest way to win favorable treatment for United Fruit in Guatemala would be to sow seeds of doubt about Árbenz’s loyalty to democracy — and let people come to their own conclusions — Zemurray listened.
“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?” Bernays had mused in Propaganda. “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.”
For example, Bernays suggested to Zemurray, Ed Whitman could take U.S. reporters on a tour of Guatemala and persuade them that what they were seeing was Communism-in-embryo. Bernays could then call up his friends at Time magazine and The New York Times and persuade them to write a series on the growing influence of Communism in Latin America, based on those reports. He knew how deeply John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower opposed Communism, so he could make sure that those articles got into the hands of influential politicians. Those politicians would denounce Guatemala, and Bernays could get the press to write about that too. All of which would make it easier for Eisenhower to intervene.
Zemurray said to make it happen. And so, the Father of PR started making calls.
Bernays organized a free trip to Guatemala for dozens of U.S. reporters, persuaded papers and magazines to extrapolate from his hints that Guatemala had Communist leanings, and got those reports in the hands of politicians, whose speeches were then quoted in more news reports. (What Bernays may not have known is how the CIA would end up facilitating the push of these misleading talking points within the U.S. political world.)
Sam Zemurray was no softie. Tall and well-built, with an Eastern European accent, he had “iron nerves and a powerful personality,” as Bernays wrote in a memoir. Zemurray had built a global conglomerate through ruthless action. For instance, when a deal to import equipment tax-free into Honduras in the 1920s fell apart, he paid Honduran exiles to overthrow the president — and got his business deal.
As such, Zemurray thought that a little more would be needed than Bernays’s soft approach. So behind the PR man’s back, Zemurray also hired a former special forces soldier named John Clements to run an under-the-radar information operation targeting conservatives and hawks.
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.
Secretary of State Dulles had thought that this ladder-climbing Democrat from South Carolina would serve as a good fall guy if the Republican State Department’s involvement were ever revealed. Ambassador Peurifoy was extra grateful for the appointment, and proved it.
Soon after Peurifoy arrived in Guatemala, he and his wife had a rather tense dinner date with the Árbenzes. After dinner, Peurifoy cabled John Foster Dulles with a confident psychoanalysis of the Guatemalan president and the conclusion that the clock was ticking for the U.S. to get rid of him. A few days later, Peurifoy telegrammed Dulles with his own propaganda plan to step up pressure on Árbenz. Approved, Peurifoy began schmoozing with local reporters and working with the U.S. Information Agency to place Guatemala-Communism rumors in Latin American newspapers.
Runner-up to Peurifoy’s “Most Eager” award may have been CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, the operative tasked with liaising between all of the members of the network inside Guatemala: the station chief; Colonel Castillo Armas; the rumor groups in Guatemala; the radio crew; and the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and his son Tachito, who were secretly supporting the rebels. Hunt relished in the spycraft and in meeting with new people — everyone was a potential character for his numerous sexy spy novels, with titles like Be My Victim.
Hunt successfully established a flow of rumors from the CIA station to his moles around the country, as well as to Castillo Armas and other enemies of Árbenz.
And with all this in place, the operation was ready to enter Stage 3.
Everything was going as planned — until one of the members of the network suddenly double-crossed Hunt.
It was a Panamanian attaché named Jorge Isaac Delgado who was helping liaise with the Nicaraguan dictator but was secretly in favor of President Árbenz.
In late January of 1954, Delgado showed up in Guatemala City with a stack of stolen documents. The documents revealed the code names of some of the members of the CIA’s clandestine network, plus definitive proof that Nicaragua’s president was backing Castillo Armas in a coup attempt. And the documents included hints that the United States could be involved.
Previous historians had never been able to identify who Delgado stole these from. But declassified documents now reveal that a CIA agent with the code name “Jacob R. Seekford” had gone to the hospital for ulcers and left the documents in his hotel room, where Delgado took them. Seekford tried to do damage control for a month, then was sent to D.C. in late February, where he was told to lay low — perhaps take a vacation in Chicago.
By analyzing the evidence in State Department and CIA documents, we were able to determine that Seekford likely was E. Howard Hunt himself. Seekford’s job description was to be a liaison between the Somozas in Nicaragua, Castillo Armas and the rumor agents in Guatemala. Seekford was compensated on the government pay scale of GS-12, which meant he was a full-time U.S. employee at Hunt’s seniority level.
In Hunt’s memoirs, he claimed that he had happened to be in Washington for the month of March 1954 by chance, so he’d been able to be there for his son Saint John’s birth. Hunt then said that Allen Dulles immediately sent him to Japan for another CIA assignment. “We need you badly in Tokyo,” Dulles had told him, Hunt claimed, 45 years later. “Please get on the next plane.”
But in an email interview, Saint John Hunt, author of two books about his parents’ careers as spies (one of which has a foreword by Roger Stone), said that the family did not move to Japan until six months after his birth in March — which checks out as a realistic time period for Seekford to have laid low. Further, the Hunts had family in Chicago, and E. Howard Hunt suffered from ulcers at the time. “As long as I [can] remember my father had ulcers,” Saint John Hunt told us.
Hunt would later have his extramarital affairs monitored by the FBI, be repeatedly criticized in and out of the CIA for his sloppiness — not the least of which included Watergate — and riddle his memoirs with embellishments. It is not improbable that the propaganda man would lie about being reassigned out of such an important mission as if it were a promotion instead of a screw-up.
Whether the document leak indeed came from Hunt, who died in 2007, or from a mystery agent with his same job description and stomach ulcers — what happened next proved that Stage 2 had been a complete success.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
You can rile up the public by confusing and polarizing them. The key is to exploit their own existing vulnerabilities.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.