Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 3  /  

Operation PBSUCCESS: U.S. Covert Action in Guatemala

Operation PBSUCCESS: U.S. Covert Action in Guatemala Operation PBSUCCESS: U.S. Covert Action in Guatemala
To cite this article: Kane, Robert J., “Operation PBSUCCESS: U.S. Covert Action in Guatemala”, Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Number 3, Winter 2019, pages 27-30.

President Truman spent a good portion of his presidency in a war against communism. The National Security Act of 1947 under Truman gave the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) authority to conduct covert action in addition to its stated intelligence and counterintelligence roles.[i] This enabled the U.S. government to undertake a covert role against worldwide communism.

Starting almost immediately in 1948, Truman began to use CIA in this capacity to influence foreign policy, without overt diplomacy or military strength, but through covert action campaigns. He sent CIA operatives behind the Iron Curtain where their mission was unsuccessful and the operatives were captured and executed.[ii] But he also sent operatives to Italy to engage in political covert action, influencing the Italian elections, which was by and large successful.[iii] The short history of covert action to this point was rather scanty but the newly instituted practice had promising future implications that only needed to be tested with a President who would exercise the newly created tools added to the foreign policy arsenal.

With a worldwide increase in communist activities toward the end of his presidency, offensive operations against and to deter communism were in action. Communism was one of the highest threats to U.S. interests and the Truman Administration was determined to derail its actions abroad. The uncompromising Administration was fully dedicated to the fight against communism and they devoted significant energy to its execution. The planning had just begun and then Truman’s presidency was over. America had a new President with the same newly enabled abilities to combat the communist threat as his predecessor. To his advantage, he would enter the office with a strong and formidable military background that made his ability to confront worldwide communist threats even more overwhelming.

It was in January 1953 that President Eisenhower was elected, with the promise to supply help to any country in order to deter and resist communism, while also protecting American interests from its aggressions. This campaign promise became a fundamental part of the newly elected President’s stance on communism and one that would be tested from the very beginning of his tenure in office. Developments not too far south of the continental United States in Guatemala made communist actions too prevalent to ignore and an issue that President Eisenhower would tackle head on.

As a result of a popular revolution in Guatemala that started in 1944, Jacobo Árbenz was democratically elected as the president of the country in 1951 with a policy that Washington saw as in support of communism and in contrast to U.S. interests.[iv] Eisenhower knew firsthand of the aggressions of communism from his prior military career and tasked CIA with handling this development. Due to the concerning developments of the Árbenz government with regard to American interests, CIA was anticipating having to play a heavy and was lobbying on behalf of U.S. interests made that happen.

The new policies of the Guatemalan government under Árbenz proved extremely adverse for U.S. company United Fruit Company (UFC) which engaged in a highly effective lobbying campaign for the U.S. government to overthrow the Árbenz government. It was argued that the interests of UFC were no different from American interests overall and the U.S. government could not allow for such perceived communist developments to adversely impact American well-being abroad. Guatemala was forecasted by CIA and many ranking officials of the U.S. government to be on the verge of going “black” into the isolated abyss inflicted by communism. CIA officers in the Directorate of Plans believed that this marked a new threat where communists, for the first time, targeted a country in “America’s backyard” for subversion with anti-access/area denial strategic implications. [v] Eisenhower saw no distinction between his own beliefs and the U.S. government assessment that was previously supported by President Truman during his term and thus authorized covert action to overthrow Árbenz in August 1953. The active measure approved by Eisenhower was codenamed Operation PBSUCCESS (replaced by the lesser effective Operation PBFORTUNE). It carried a $2.7 million budget for “psychological warfare and political action” along with “subversion,” among the other components of a small paramilitary war.”[vi] PBSUCCESS was both ambitious and thoroughly successful as it marked the Agency’s pinnacle point in the business of covert action.

On account of U.S. government desires and Eisenhower’s own anti-communist convictions, it was planned that Árbenz would be deposed and hopefully replaced with an “acceptable” leader approved by Washington. [vii] Eisenhower believed that democracy in Guatemala was premature and Árbenz must be replaced with a moderate, authoritarian regime that was not susceptible to communist penetration.[viii] Pushed by Congress, Eisenhower was called to act on Árbenz on account of the administration’s perceived complacency towards the leader and the need to obstruct communism infiltrating the Latin American countries.[ix] An American interest, United Fruit Company, served more or less as a representation of U.S. interests in Guatemala. For Eisenhower, any assaults on United Fruit Company, would be tantamount to an attack on the U.S. For Operation PBSUCCESS, Eisenhower viewed clandestine operations as an inexpensive alternative to military intervention.[x] PBSUCCESS was designated as a clandestine operation of psychological warfare and political action. Eisenhower saw a communist penetration of Guatemala and Latin American countries as a serious threat to U.S. interests, such that action was necessary, and a communist government in Latin America would not be tolerated nor would his leadership allow one to exist. [xi][xii]

Following approval from Eisenhower, the National Security Council authorized PBSUCCESS as a covert action operation against Árbenz, giving CIA primary responsibility with coordination from the Department of State.[xiii] This covert operation’s objective was to “remove covertly, and without bloodshed if possible, the menace of the Communist-controlled government of Guatemala.” DCI Dulles established a temporary station (LINCOLN) to plan and execute PBSUCCESS.[xiv]

While psychological warfare and political action were the originally described means of execution for PBSUCCESS, assassination dseveloped as an option on the table via a special request on 5 January 1954 for the liquidation of regime personnel.[xv] This assassination protocol was further described in a training manual that provided education in the art of political killing.[xvi] Assassination as a form of targeting was killed but then subsequently revived by Agency leadership because assassination might make it possible for (1) the army to take over the government or (2) high-level government official elimination may cause the country to collapse.[xvii] The Department of State, more times than one, promoted Agency-supported assassination.[xviii] Policy directives from Washington were ambiguous although the removal of Árbenz from power was a foremost priority to the extent that consensus read that “Árbenz must go; how does not matter.”[xix]None of the proposals recommended or even planned for assassination were ever implemented.[xx]

While assassination through CIA-trained operatives was never achieved, a Castillo Armas force supported by CIA was dispatched on 16 June 1954 to Guatemala City and successfully assumed the presidency on 27 June 1954 after over a week of the force’s presence.[xxi] But the success did not come easily. Initial setbacks due to the rebels’ failure to make any striking moves debilitated the insurgency effort.[xxii] CIA provided aircraft to provide aerial assault on the country at numerous locations in order to disorient the public, achieving psychological victory for the rebel forces.[xxiii][xxiv] Causing little material damage, the aerial attacks led many citizens to believe that the insurgency was more powerful than it actually was, an example of the high potential of deception campaigns in psychological operations. To further confront the Guatemalan army, additional planes were requested by Castillo Armas. These requests were promptly authorized by Eisenhower.[xxv]

On the aforementioned date, Árbenz resigned his office and sought asylum in the Mexican embassy in Guatemala City upon which the newly emplaced Castillo Armas government allowed Árbenz to leave the country for Mexico where he was granted political asylum.[xxvi] While the Castillo Armas government successfully deposed Árbenz, Guatemalan military governments were favored until Castillo Armas was unanimously elected president. [xxvii] The new presidency was immediately recognized as the new government by the U.S. despite being internationally reviled.[xviii] Both domestically and internationally, the U.S.-supported coup was described as a “modern form of economic colonialism.”[xix] Reports of humanitarian issues propagated from the Castillo Armas government ensued for the decades following the coup. Nevertheless, the covert action objectives were satisfied even beyond their original calculations.

President Eisenhower did not allow communism to exist in America’s backyard while fulfilling his campaign promise to aid any country to resist and deter the communist threat and to protect American interests from the threat of it. CIA was up to the challenge and distinguished itself as incomparably competent and professional in covert action planning as well as execution. Operation PBSUCCESS marked incredible success for the U.S. government’s capability for political action and deception. CIA planners designed a plan in accordance with higher objectives and intents that were expertly executed by operators on the ground through their available agent networks. Support for the operation was maintained by President Eisenhower through to the very end of the covert action protocol and in concert with the contingencies that were not planned for but accomplished by the mission anyway—probably indicative of Eisenhower’s military background.

Washington was steadfast that Árbenz had to be removed from power through any means necessary—even through assassination. Considered acceptable at the time, both from the perspective of Washington policymakers as well as those at CIA, assassination was classed as a political weapon to use in the struggle against communism and other political threats. Two decades later, DCI William Colby prohibited any CIA involvement in assassination and subsequent Executive Order 11905 banned any U.S. Government involvement in assassination attempts.[xxx][xxxi]

The U.S. Government’s act of foreign policy and CIA-mediated covert action represent one of the classic examples of the debate of Title 10 versus Title 50 of the United States Code. While Title 10 authorizes overt military involvement overseas, Title 50 specifically authorizes CIA to conduct covert intelligence activities and actions. PBSUCCESS was a cloudy area, although the majority of the planning was achieved via CIA, although military support was supplied. Even today, the distinction between Title 10 and 50 is grey at best. Through the National Security Council, Executive Branch, and smaller organizations in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community, debate remains a forefront of concern in overseas policy and PBSUCCESS finds itself to be an example comparison time and again.

As a historical example that was supplanted as a marked success of American foreign policy and the high point of covert action, PBSCUCCESS had larger implications for the U.S. Government’s role in foreign action abroad. More specifically, it demonstrated to the world and American citizens what the U.S. Government would do and what it was capable of. Covert action programs persisted in the years following the Operation with rather great frequency and implications although PBSUCCESS was without a doubt the most successful of those undertaken. And while covert action remains a part of CIA’s charter today and such programs do in fact occur, they do not have the gravity or implications of the golden age of covert action of the past century. Nevertheless, the worldwide seriousness of CIA was heightened immensely after the covert action in Guatemala. No longer was CIA known only as America’s premier intelligence agency, it was one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. Even for countries that did not necessarily receive direct intervention on behalf of the American government, CIA’s strength was showcased in Guatemala and that invariably made an imprint in the minds of many around the world.

At the same time as covert action’s high success and almost invincibility was demonstrated, strategic thinking in terms of war was in the process of changing. While only a little while before this, CIA’s mission was shared by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in what was the Army’s Office of Special Services (OSS). The predecessor of both CIA and JSOC, OSS was responsible for intelligence gathering and covert action programs of which the latter was not formally stipulated until the National Security Act of 1947. Nevertheless, these responsibilities were shared by the military and, as such, the American way of war. There was no distinction between Title 10 and 50 as previously discussed. CIA involvement, as a civilian agency that reported only directly to the White House, was not an agency of war and neither were its activities. This would be fine if it was sure that CIA had no involvement in covert action, although the pretense of plausible deniability only goes so far, and its understanding is eventually known in some way or form. Even if not unclassified or affirmed by the U.S. Government, the possibility exists and this changed the way of war for the United States.

What happened next however was more of a backtrack, although predominantly a result of PBSUCCESS’s success and the failure of the covert action programs that followed. Covert action began to substitute for diplomacy, acting in some cases as the only form of foreign policy that was supplied by the U.S. Government. While successful in some regards, substituting covert action for diplomacy or overt military action is not a recipe for success and surely not a good formula for adequate foreign policy. It is probably contended, nevertheless, intelligence professionals believed as they still do that this backtrack was a good thing. The reason being, is that covert action has benefits but only when used in conjunction with diplomatic efforts and possibly overt military action. Intelligence and diplomacy are sometimes referred to as the stepchildren who aim to accomplish the same goal although through different means and sometimes at each other’s cost. As the U.S. Government soon realized this, we grew less to rely on covert action through its successes but using it in conjunction with diplomacy and military action. After this, the Departments of State and Defense became a little more comfortable with CIA. But that does not mean that they are always all on the same page or have the same ambitions.

Amidst this all, Operation PBSCUCCESS was a success for the U.S. Government both in terms of achieving success at foreign policy with plausible deniability and CIA-mediated action. The way of war in the American national security and foreign policy apparatus was forever changed. The role of covert action changed several times over the next few decades but the impending changes occurred as a cascading result of PBSUCCESS.

In sum, Operation PBSUCCESS was a success for CIA in that it demonstrated the Agency’s quick and decisive ability to perform covert action like never before. Planners at the Agency operated without much higher guidance or many rules of engagement but knew how to accomplish the mission. Furthermore, President Eisenhower’s strong will and temperament in the situation signified his strong convictions, leadership and promise to protect the U.S. at all costs. Covert action should never replace policy but the two should be coordinated well in order to create the best possible solution. In this case, policy was directly coordinated with covert action at the strategic level, albeit with rather minimal instruction at the operational level. The same is not true for many clandestine operations in administrations since. Operation PBSUCCESS demonstrated the U.S.’s place in the world as well as its capabilities—a strong mark of success for CIA.


[i] "Letter from James Forrestal to Chan Gurney”. Committee on Armed Services, Records of the U.S. Senate. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. 4 March 1947.
[ii] The CIA Under Harry Truman, 1994, Unsigned, Undated.
[iii] Pike, Otis. CIA: The Pike Report. Nottingham: Spokesman Books for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1977. pp. 204-205.
[iv] "Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952- 1954", CIA History Staff document by Nicholas Cullather, 1994. pp. 1.
[v] Ibid., pp. 2.
[vi] "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954", CIA History Staff Analysis by Gerald K. Haines, June 1995. pp. 3.
[vii] Cullather, Nick. Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. pp. 97.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 56.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 62.
[x] Ibid., pp. 36.
[xi] Ibid., pp. 97.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 104.
[xiii] "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954", CIA History Staff Analysis by Gerald K. Haines, June 1995. pp. 4.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] "A Study of Assassination", Unsigned, Undated.
[xvii] "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954.” pp. 6.
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] Ibid., pp. 8.
[xx] Ibid., pp. 8-9.
[xxi] Ibid., pp. 8.
[xxii] Immerman, Richard H. The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1982. pp. 162.
[xxiii] Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. pp. 87-89.
[xxiv] Ibid., pp. 90-93.
[xxv] The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention. pp. 168-169.
[xxvi] Ibid. pp. 162.
[xxvii] Gleijeses, Piero. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. pp. 354-357.
[xxviii] Schlesinger, Stephen and Kinzer, Stephen. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. pp. 216.
[xxix] "Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952- 1954.” pp. 4.
[xxx] "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954.” pp. 9.
[xxxi] "President Gerald R. Ford's Executive Order 11905". Ford Library Museum. 18 February 1976.