Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 11

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 11:

Eddie’s War

(This is the 11th entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 Eddie Bernays, the originator of the term “Public Relations” and the field’s most prolific and successful early practitioner, a man dubbed “The Father of Spin,” had been the primary PR man for the international conglomerate/octopus United Fruit Company in the 1940s, and its president, Sam the Banana Man.



Up until 1944 UFC was able to control Guatemala, one of its “Banana Republics,” with the clout of its dominance of the society and economics of the country. It owned the lion’s share of the productive land (some of it used to produce bananas for export, much of it just “kept in reserve” by UFC for possible future use.) It owned the only railroad in the country, successfully resisted the building of roads that might compete with its railroad, ran the telegraph service, owned the main port…out of which it shipped its bananas.


UFC was very happy with the succession of dictators who had ruled the country for many years. They had an “understanding” with them on many issues of significance to the Banana company. But in 1944 there was a popular uprising that expelled the military strongman in power, and the citizens of Guatemala succeeded in electing Juan José Arévalo, an independent leader for the country who began making gradual changes to the status quo—including allowing unions and strikes.

This was mildly threatening to UFC, but they remained calm until 1951.

In March 1951 Arévalo was succeeded by his defense minister, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Arbenz picked up the pace of change, enacting a modest income tax, upgrading roads and ports, and, most significantly, implementing a plan to redistribute uncultivated lands of large plantations, paying the old owners with government bonds. Between 1952 and 1954 the Arbenz government confiscated and turned over to 100,000 poor families 1.5 million acres— including, in March of 1953, some 210,000 acres of United Fruit Company holdings.  [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations.  Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

Things went downhill for The Octopus at that point, and Eddie Bernays sprang into action. For the details of some of his efforts, see the previous entry in this series.

The bottom line of those efforts was to establish in the minds of the American public and its leaders that Arbenz and his regime were closet Communists, bent on giving the Reds a toe-hold in South America.

In other words, according to The Spin, the reforms going on had nothing to do with an honest effort to improve the lot of the impoverished citizens of Guatemala, they were just political moves to establish Guatemala as a puppet of Soviet Russia. This Spin was done through a concerted PR effort targeting the reporters and editors of the main media outlets in the USA. Of course Bernays never allowed the efforts to put the spotlight on just HOW much “getting rid of” Arbenz was in the vital interests of the United Fruit Company. As noted in the previous entry in this series:

He had picked out ten widely circulated magazines, including Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s, and said each could be persuaded to run a slightly different story on the brewing Guatemalan crisis much the way they were covering the ongoing battle between the railroads and truckers. “In certain cases, stories would be written by staff men,” Bernays wrote. “In certain other cases, the magazine might ask us to supply the story, and we, in turn, would engage a most suitable writer to handle the matter.”

But Eddie’s efforts were never half-hearted. He went on to turn this minor flurry into a major blitz.

He was also aware of the clout the New York Times carried with the public and the press, and he prodded the paper to publish more stories favorable to his client. He accomplished this by skillfully exploiting his ties to the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a relative of Bernays’s wife, Doris.

He tried to influence the assignment of reporters, ensuring they were sympathetic to his cause and complaining when they weren’t. He even weighed in on letters to the editor, writing Sulzberger in the summer of 1951 to complain about a letter the Times had run on “Guatemala Labor Democracy” written by the artist Rockwell Kent, who Bernays said “has been a fellow traveler [Communist sympathizer] over a period of years, which would appear to label the letter as covert propaganda of the Party.”

“Propaganda” was a word Bernays seldom used in a pejorative sense. And propaganda was precisely what he was promoting with the press here and abroad, pushing sympathetic publications to print sympathetic stories, then urging them to mail the stories to colleagues in the hope of getting even more such stories.

People complain in the 21st century how pliable the “mainstream media” are to outside influences, from Big Government to Big Business. NAH, they can’t hold a candle to their brother reporters of a 60 years ago.

A surprising number of respected reporters seemed not to know or care about that orchestration or about the fact that Bernays worked for a firm with huge economic interests at stake. What mattered was that his releases were filled with facts they could quickly transform into stories. Some journalists even forged personal bonds with him and began sharing information they’d collected. New York Times reporter Will Lissner offered Bernays this friendly advice: “I notice a somewhat unusual pre-occupation with the affairs of the United Fruit Co. in the Communist press. Note the two clippings enclosed. There were several other references in the period. I shall watch to see how the Moscow press handles these dispatches.”

Columnist Walter Winchell was someone else the PR man felt he could count on.

Walter Winchell? THIS Walter Winchell? The infamous Hollywood gossip columnist?


Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972) was an American newspaper and radio gossip commentator.

…Using connections in the entertainment, social, and governmental realms, he would expose exciting or embarrassing information about celebrities in those industries. This caused him to become very feared, as a journalist, because he would routinely impact the lives of famous or powerful people, exposing alleged information and rumors about them, using this as ammunition to attack his enemies, and to blackmail influential people. He used this power, trading positive mention in his column (and later, his radio show) for more rumors and secrets.

… His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday-night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s.

… The most controversial part of Winchell’s career were his attempts, especially after World War II, to destroy the careers of personal or political enemies. A favorite tactic was to accuse them of being communists or of sexual impropriety…

…For most of his career his contract with his newspaper and radio employers required them to reimburse him for any damages he had to pay, should he be sued for slander or libel.Whenever friends reproached him for betraying confidences, he responded, “I know — I’m just a son of a bitch.”

By the mid-1950s he was widely believed to be arrogant, cruel, and ruthless.

Yeah. That Walter Winchell. Eddie knew who the power brokers were in America. The issue wasn’t needing someone to help spread actual, factual “news.” It was spreading gossip, innuendo, doubt. Even about a democratically-elected president of a poor country 3000 miles from Hollywood. Walter fit the bill perfectly.

He cabled Winchell at Hollywood’s Beverly Wilshire Hotel, telling him about a Manhattan rally that Paul Robeson, Florentine Luis, and other prominent leftists were planning “in defense of Guatemala.” “You may care to deflate in your Sunday broadcast suggesting rally might discuss false accusations against United States made by Communists,” the cable said.

Just how secure United Fruit was about Winchell’s support became clear nine days later when Whitman [head of UFC’s PR department] wrote Bernays expressing doubts about columnist Drew Pearson and suggesting that “if we decided to try to straighten him out, perhaps Walter Winchell could do this job. What do you think?”

This shameless courting of the “makers of public opinion” in the US at the time went to even greater lengths.

Reporters and columnists weren’t the only ones willing to see the Tropics through Bernays’s lens. In January 1952 he took a group of journalists on a two-week tour of the region. With him were the publishers of Newsweek, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Nashville Banner, and the New Orleans Item; a contributing editor from Time; the foreign editor of Scripps-Howard; and high-ranking officials from the United Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Bernays insisted in his memoirs that the journalists were free “to go where they wanted, talk to whomever they wanted, and report their findings freely,” and he reacted angrily to suggestions in later years that the trip was manipulative.

But Thomas McCann, who in the 1950s was a young public relations official with United Fruit, wrote in his memoirs that that trip and others like it were “under the Company’s careful guidance and, of course, at company expense.… The trips were ostensibly to gather information, but what the press would hear and see was carefully staged and regulated by the host. The plan represented a serious attempt to compromise objectivity. Moreover, it was a compromise implicit in the invitation— only underscored by Bernays’ and the Company’s repeated claims to the contrary.”

But surely the top reporters and journalists in the nation at the time weren’t THAT easily led around by the nose…were they?

Both are right, at least in part. The editors involved were too sophisticated to be taken in by overt propaganda and too seasoned not to insist on seeing things for themselves, as Bernays suggested. Yet his own memos make clear that he used all of his PR wiles to make sure those editors came away concurring with United Fruit’s stand on the conflict. Compromising objectivity, after all, was what he did for a living.

By whatever route he got there, the results of his trips to the Tropics were beyond dispute: more and more stories sounding an alarm about Guatemala. As Bernays recalled of the editors and publishers who traveled with him, “after their return, as I had anticipated, public interest in the Caribbean skyrocketed in this country. Ludwell Denny’s stories in the Scripps-Howard newspapers told of efforts in Guatemala to ‘engender hatred of Yankee monopoly capital and imperialism.’”

How do we know all this “stuff” about Eddie’s manipulations in his UFC v Guatemala propaganda campaign? Can historians really dig out that much from a few old news clippings in the vaults of the New York Times or Newsweek magazine? No, probably not that much—but they didn’t need to. The author of the Father of Spin book had a much more effective resource:

Historians have written extensively about that propaganda campaign, but they have always relied on the sketchy account Bernays provided in his autobiography and on the limited materials available from the American and Guatemalan governments, the fruit company, and others. Upon Bernays’s death in 1995, however, the Library of Congress made public fifty-three boxes of his papers concerning United Fruit. Those documents paint in vivid detail his behind-the-scenes maneuvering and show how, in 1954, he helped topple Guatemala’s left-leaning regime. The papers also offer insights into the foreign policies of U.S. corporations and the U.S. diplomatic corps during the turbulent 1950s. And they make clear how the United States viewed its Latin neighbors as ripe for economic exploitation and political manipulation— and how the propaganda war Bernays waged in Guatemala set the pattern for future U.S.-led campaigns in Cuba and, much later, Vietnam.

Yes, Eddie’s efforts didn’t just stop with giving a bad rep in the US to Arbenz. They actually made possible the violent overthrow of his government, with the direct assistance of the US CIA.

Bernays was gaining ground with the press, but like a relentless general, with each step forward he became more determined to press ahead. In March 1952, for instance, Guatemala offered United Fruit the labor contract it had long sought. While company officials saw that as a major triumph, Bernays insisted it was a “tactical retreat” by the Communists and “does not mean in any sense that their power has been eliminated.” The appropriate response, he added in a letter to company president Kenneth H. Redmond, would be “to carry forward the strong aggressive tactics of the United Fruit Company in pointing the finger at Communism in Guatemala.… One other element it seems to me is important, too— that is, that the people of the United States be not permitted to get the impression that all the hue and cry about Guatemala was raised in terms of self-interest. It becomes necessary, therefore, to continue to make visible to the American people what the Communist penetration of Guatemala really is.”

So he intensified his efforts.

Even as he pushed ahead on other fronts, Bernays always kept a close eye on his press and other propaganda contacts, which he and United Fruit saw as his most effective weapons. In April 1954 he wrote to the Saturday Evening Post complimenting it on an article about communism in Latin America and offering to provide—” at no expense, of course”— lists of those who might want reprints, including members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, the “one hundred special writers,” and key officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Defense Department. “We also believe,” Bernays wrote, “we can be helpful in possibly arranging for some member of Congress to reprint the article, in whole or in part, in the Congressional Record, with a possibility of mailings from the Congressional Record to a larger list of opinion molders and group leaders.”

Bernays was tireless.

At the same time, plans were under way to mail to American Legion posts and auxiliaries 300,000 copies of a brochure entitled “Communism in Guatemala— 22 Facts.” Bernays’s schedule for May 1954 reflects the frenetic pace of his activities concerning Guatemala and of the close ties he’d forged with the New York Times. On May 1 he talked to Freedman, the Times foreign editor. Two days later he spoke to Yarmon, on the Times foreign desk, and two days after that he talked again with Freedman. On May 6 he called Freedman and “supplied him with additional information” and spoke with Lissner. The next day he spoke with Lissner twice “regarding Honduras. Passed information on to Mr. Whitman.” Bernays was in contact with the Times at least once a day nearly every day, also finding time to talk to journalists at the Associated Press, Meet the Press, the New York Herald Tribune, and other influential media outlets.

And finally Eddie got his “war.”

Events in Guatemala, meanwhile, were firing up. The Eisenhower administration, which assumed office in 1953, stepped up the pressure on Arbenz. The Guatemalan president responded by hardening his stance, and month by month the situation edged toward confrontation. The final showdown began on June 18, 1954, when Carlos Castillo Armas, an army officer living in exile, crossed the border from Honduras with two hundred men recruited and trained by the CIA— a band Bernays referred to as an “army of liberation.”

You can see UFC’s Chiquita honoring the memory of those mercenaries…er, uh, “dedicated members of the army of liberation” below.


This “invasion,” supported by a CIA air attack, quickly achieved its goal, and on June 27 a military junta took control of Guatemala. Armas was named president a week later. How much of a role did Bernays play in undermining the Arbenz government and in the final assault? His Library of Congress files show he remained a key source of information for the press, especially the liberal press, right through the takeover. In fact, as the invasion was commencing on June 18, his papers indicate he was giving the “first news anyone received on the situation” to the Associated Press, United Press, the International News Service, and the New York Times, with contacts intensifying over the next several days.

After his ouster and exile, Arbenz made a public statement about the events.

arbenzIn a radio broadcast in July 1954, Arbenz said:

They have used the pretext of anti-communism. The truth is very different. The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company [United Fruit] and the other U.S. monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America and fear that the example of Guatemala would be followed by other Latin countries… I was elected by a majority of the people of Guatemala [he got 85% of the popular vote in 1951], but I have had to fight under difficult conditions. The truth is that the sovereignty of a people cannot be maintained without the material elements to defend it…. I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity.

Eddie’s boxes of personal records are not the only “long lost” details of the Guatamalan situation. A WHOLE lot more was made available many years later through The National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The National Security Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-governmental, non-profit research and archival institution located on the seventh floor of the Gelman Library building at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.. Founded in 1985 by Scott Armstrong, it archives and publishes declassified U.S. government files concerning selected topics of US foreign policy. The Archive collects and analyzes the documents of many various government institutions obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive then selects documents to be published in the form of manuscripts and microfiche as well as made available through their website, which receives a half-million downloads daily. According to a Washington Post feature story, the Archive files roughly 2,000 FOIA requests annually, collecting about 75,000 documents. [Wiki]

In other words, these people sort of do legally what the recent whistle blowers like Manning and Snowden have done illegally, by just focusing on “declassified” materials… but declassified materials that have been quickly swept under the carpet after declassification. In 1997 the Archive made available the following, which is extremely relevant to this blog series. I have bolded some phrases in the text below that are particularly relevant.

From the National Security Archive at George Washington University

CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents

Edited by Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4

Washington, D.C. – These documents, including an instructional guide on assassination found among the training files of the CIA’s covert “Operation PBSUCCESS,” were among several hundred records released by the Agency on May 23, 1997 on its involvement in the infamous 1954 coup in Guatemala. After years of answering Freedom of Information Act requests with its standard “we can neither confirm nor deny that such records exist,” the CIA has finally declassified some 1400 pages of over 100,000 estimated to be in its secret archives on the Guatemalan destabilization program. (The Agency’s press release stated that more records would be released before the end of the year.) An excerpt from the assassination manual appears on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times on Saturday, May 31, 1997.

…Arbenz was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 to continue a process of socio- economic reforms that the CIA disdainfully refers to in its memoranda as “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic.’” The first CIA effort to overthrow the Guatemalan president—a CIA collaboration with Nicaraguan dictator Anastacio Somoza to support a disgruntled general named Carlos Castillo Armas and codenamed Operation PBFORTUNE–was authorized by President Truman in 1952. As early as February of that year, CIA Headquarters began generating memos with subject titles such as “Guatemalan Communist Personel to be disposed of during Military Operations,” outlining categories of persons to be neutralized “through Executive Action”–murder–or through imprisonment and exile. The “A” list of those to be assassinated contained 58 names–all of which the CIA has excised from the declassified documents.

PBSUCCESS, authorized by President Eisenhower in August 1953, carried a $2.7 million budget for “psychological warfare and political action” and “subversion,” among the other components of a small paramilitary war. But, according to the CIA’s own internal study of the agency’s so-called “K program,” up until the day Arbenz resigned on June 27, 1954, “the option of assassination was still being considered.” While the power of the CIA’s psychological-war, codenamed “Operation Sherwood,” against Arbenz rendered that option unnecessary, the last stage of PBSUCCESS called for “roll-up of Communists and collaborators.” Although Arbenz and his top aides were able to flee the country, after the CIA installed Castillo Armas in power, hundreds of Guatemalans were rounded up and killed. Between 1954 and 1990, human rights groups estimate, the repressive operatives of sucessive military regimes murdered more than 100,000 civilians.

Just in case you are not picking up on the full import of all of this…the citizens of Guatemala freely elected by an 85% majority, in 1950, a president. In 1953, the US president authorized a project by the CIA that had the goal of ousting…and evidently “offing” if necessary…this democratically-elected foreign president of a poverty-stricken nation 3,000 miles from Washington DC. And “offing” as many of his associates as necessary to make this happen…the “hit list” found in the declassified archival materials contained 58 names (although all were whited out in the released document, so no one is sure exactly who they were.)

What is wrong with this picture?

Document 2: “A Study of Assassination”, Unsigned, Undated.


Among the documents found in the training files of Operation PBSUCCESS and declassified by the Agency is a “Study of Assassination.” A how-to guide book in the art of political killing, the 19-page manual offers detailed descriptions of the procedures, instruments, and implementation of assassination. “The simplest local tools are often much the most efficient means of assassination,” counsels the study. “A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” For an assassin using “edge weapons,” the manual notes in cold clinical terms, “puncture wounds of the body cavity may not be reliable unless the heart is reached….Absolute reliability is obtained by severing the spinal cord in the cervical region.” The manual also notes that to provide plausible denial, “no assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded.” Murder, the drafters state, “is not morally justifiable,” and “persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.”

Click on the “Document 2”  link above to see the ASTONISHING text of this little “manual.” It includes such snappy suggestions as:

For secret assassination, either simple or chase, the contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated.

The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve. Bridge falls into water are not reliable.

The Archive also contains this document that made clear numerous details of the US role in the Guatemalan coup.

Document 5: “Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952- 1954”, CIA History Staff document by Nicholas Cullather, 1994. Excerpt.

A narrative history of the CIA’s role in planning, organizing and executing the coup that toppled Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27, 1954. Cullather, now a diplomatic historian at the University of Indiana, worked on contract for one year with the CIA, where he was given access to thousands of agency records and secret operational files in order to produce this overview. The result is a surprisingly critical study of the agency’s first covert operation in Latin America.

Beginning with a review of the political, economic and social forces that led to Arbenz’s presidency in 1951, the document is an intimate account of how cold war concerns convinced President Eisenhower to order the removal of the democratically-elected leader by force. It also provides countless new details of a covert mission plagued by disastrous military planning and failed security measures: according to Cullather, “Operation Success” barely succeeded.

The CIA scrambled to convince the White House that it was an unqualified and all but bloodless victory, however. After Arbenz resigned, Eisenhower called the Director of Central Intelligence, Allan W. Dulles, and his senior covert planners into a formal briefing of the operation. Cullather’s account now reveals that the agency lied to the president, telling him that only one of the rebels it had backed was killed. “Incredible,” said the president. And it was. At least four dozen were dead, according to the CIA’s own records. Thus did the Guatemala coup enter agency lore as an “unblemished triumph,” Cullather explains, and become the model for future CIA activities in Latin America.

And the story doesn’t by any means end with the ouster of Arbenz. It drug on for decades.

In Guatemala, of course, “Operation Success” had a deadly aftermath. After a small insurgency developed in the wake of the coup, Guatemala’s military leaders developed and refined, with U.S. assistance, a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands massacred, maimed or missing.

Learn more about this decades-long, violent, and ignominious legacy of Eddie’s War in the final entry in this series, coming soon.

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