One year after Mother and I returned to Miami Beach, Florida from Simon Kreindler’s bar mitzvah in Guatemala, President Dwight David Eisenhower (“Ike”) directed the CIA to overthrow the legally elected government of Guatemala. Mother immediately took credit for this success.
What follows are the facts as described in Pulitzer Prize winning David Halberstam’s book The Fifties. Readers may be entitled to skepticism about my mother’s claim since her name and the use of her profession–she was a Hebrew school teacher–is not mentioned in Halberstam’s account of what the CIA had code-named Operation Success:
“The coup began on June 18  and was acted out by a ragtag army that seemed ill prepared to conquer. In fact, the liberator, Castillo Armas, moved a few miles across the border from Honduras and then did not budge. One of the CIA’s main responsibilities was to keep American journalists out of the area lest they find out how pathetic Castillio Armas’ army really was. Two of the three airplanes from the liberation air force were soon out of action, one of them down after its American pilot failed to pay attention to his gas gauge and had to crash-land. The CIA air force was puny and extremely primitive, in one case a CIA pilot leaned out of the cabin of the aged plane to lob hand grenades on military installations below. Against the forces of any developed country, the invading forces would have quickly collapsed. But Guatemala’s institutions were so weak that [Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, the legally elected President of Guatemala ] was largely paralyzed and could not even get his (equally puny) air force into the air. Nevertheless, three days after the coup it appeared likely to collapse. The CIA people on location had to demand more planes–without which they would certainly fail.
“A meeting was called in the White House to deal with the request. Henry Holland, a State Department official who opposed the coup, showed up lugging three tomes on international law. But in the end, Ike decided to go with [CIA Director] Allen Dulles’ request for additional fighter bombers. ‘Mr. President,’ Dulles said with a grin on the way out. ‘When I saw Henry walk into your office with those three big law looks under this arm, I knew he’d lost his case already.’
“Two new airplanes were assigned on June 23, and that reinforcement, marginal though it was, helped turn the tide. Day after day, as the old-fashioned planes made their runs over Guatemala City, the powerless residents watched in fear. Arbenz’s army neither joined the rebels nor fought them, and almost no one was killed….
“The key to the victory was the CIA’s radio station, based out side the country. The Agency had jammed the government station and deftly created fictional war over the airwaves, one in which the government troops faltered and refused to fight and in which the liberation troops were relentlessly moving toward Guatemala City. If anyone was a hero of the coup, it was David Atlee Phillips, a former actor, recruited by the Agency for his good looks and his ability to speak Spanish. The broadcast became all the more important because the real war barely took place. The night of June 27th, the radio claimed that two huge columns of Castillo Armas’ soldiers were almost on on top of Guatemala City and the final battle was about to take place. Arbenz promptly resigned.
“[U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Jack] Peurifoy loved it all. He spent the coup running around Guatemala City, brandishing his pistol and demonstrating his courage and fearlessness to the handful of foreign journalists in the city. (Peurifoy had little reason to be afraid since he knew what was happening at all times and where the bombing would take place.) ‘People are complaining that I was 45 minutes off schedule.’ he boasted after it was all over….
“For a brief time it appeared that Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz, the army chief of staff and transition leader, might succeed Arbenz. He promised Peurifoy that he would outlaw the Communist party and exile all its leaders, but after Diaz gave his first speech, the Americans decided that he was insufficiently anti-Communist…John Doherty, one of the CIA men, was deputized to tell Diaz he was stepping down.”
For more complete details on the CIA’s Guatemala coup and fascinating accounts of the CIA Iranian coup, read The Fifties by David Halberstam, a book worth reading in its entirety [the section on Elvis Presley’s career is especially good].