Historians agree that the U.S. played a major role in orchestrating the 1954 coup, but not all emphasize the same motivations for this involvement. Though many scholars include the economic interests of UFCO in their analysis of why the U.S. launched Operation PBSuccess, some do not agree that this was an important factor. Instead, they focus on motives like Cold War power politics and genuine perceptions of communist threats. These reasons certainly contributed, but the power of UFCO in Guatemala and its importance in the U.S. point to more economic motives. This project will look at three different secondary sources in order to further analyze this historiographical debate: Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, “U.S. Foreign Policy toward Radical Change: Covert Operations in Guatemala, 1950-1954” by Gorden L. Bowen, and “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives” by Stephen M. Streeter. Not all agree on the centrality of economic motivations, but they all consider it an important point, suggesting that there is value in considering this perspective. Though all three sources write about U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1954, the differing perspectives from the fields of history and political science, along with their disagreement about the importance of UFCO’s role in motivating the operation provides a more nuanced account of the event.
In their book Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Schlesinger and Kinzer were some of the first to argue that UFCO interests were crucial to motivating the U.S. to orchestrate the 1954 coup. Schlesinger specializes in international affairs and foreign policy and Kinzer is a journalist. Together they analyze primary sources from before and during 1954 to provide an investigative account that argues that the U.S. acted on behalf of their own business interests. One chapter focuses specifically on UFCO and includes information on how various U.S. politicians had a stake in the company and how UFCO marketing warped public perception of the situation in Guatemala. 1 The conflicts of interest and propaganda that they reveal create a convincing argument in favor of the UFCO’s role in advocating for PBSuccess. Though they could have considered other perspectives more, the views they provide are well-supported and important in building the historiography surrounding the U.S. and the 1954 coup in Guatemala.
Bowen builds off of Bitter Fruit’s argument in his article “U.S. Foreign Policy toward Radical Change: Covert Operations in Guatemala, 1950-1954.” A U.S. foreign policy scholar, Bowen uses the research of other political science scholars and declassified government documents to examine the extent of U.S. involvement and the motivations behind it. He considers many perspectives, including Cold War geopolitics, but places particular emphasis on Árbenz’s agrarian land reform and UFCO’s opposition. Like Schlesinger and Kinzer, he finds that a major result of the coup was the securing of UFCO interests, though he disagrees that this was the main motivator of most policymakers. Instead, the mentality of U.S. politicians, though certainly influenced by UFCO and CIA propaganda, was centered around political interests, not economic ones. 2 However, he writes that “the effect of U.S. actions was to secure the return of UFCO lands, regardless of the geopolitical intentions or motives of policymakers.” 3 This complicates the story told by Schlesinger and Kinzer, suggesting that UFCO’s interests may have been less obvious for many decision makers at the time, making their role more covert.
Streeter introduces even more arguments related to the potential motives of the U.S. in his article “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives.” Streeter, a historian writing for history teachers who teach about UFCO, analyzes three different perspectives in the historiography surrounding U.S. intervention in Guatemala. The realist argument focuses on Cold War power politics, the postrevisionists on wanting to expand foreign markets in Latin America, and the revisionist argument on the U.S. acting primarily to rescue UFCO from land reform policies. Streeter questions Bitter Fruit’s use of evidence, saying it is circumstantial, but affirms their argument that the threat to U.S. economic interests posed by Árbenz was much greater than any communist threat. 4 His criticism is valid, but he still presents convincing information in favor of this revisionist perspective, including the power of UFCO in U.S. politics and in Guatemalan economics: “UFCO integrated the principal Eastern groups- the Rockefellers, Standard Oil interests, the Morgans, and the Boston bluebloods- which dominated the foreign policy apparatus.” 5 By reviewing these three historiographical approaches, Streeter adds to, but also problematizes, the arguments of Schlesinger, Kinzer, and Bowen.
These three secondary sources demonstrate the debates in the historiography around the U.S. and UFCO in Guatemala, and how they can help us to understand the complexity of the issue. Though each source provides at least some information in support of this project’s argument that UFCO business interests motivated the U.S. to orchestrate the 1954 coup, they also contain information that shows that the story is more complex, with many factors contributing to the regime change. Despite the disagreement on the importance of economic motivations relative to geopolitical ones, the consensus that UFCO held enormous influence in both Guatemala and the U.S. suggests the importance of further evaluation of that reason. These authors’ perspectives add nuance to the event and leave room for further research into the topic.
- Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Harvard Univ. Press, 2005., 83, 87. ↩
- Gordon L. Bowen “U.S. Foreign Policy toward Radical Change: Covert Operations in Guatemala, 1950-1954.” Latin American Perspectives 10, no. 1 (1983), 99. ↩
- ibid, 99. ↩
- Stephen M. Streeter “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives.” The History Teacher 34, no. 1 (2000), 65. ↩
- ibid. ↩