09 March 2012

Guatemala Overthrow Campaign

Father of Spin by Larry Tye, 1998, Excerpts

Bernays presented to United Fruit boss Samuel Zemurray his plan for “psychological activities aimed at developing a better climate of public opinions.” He counseled United Fruit to scream so loud that the United States would step in to check this threat so near its border. Bernays warned that Guatemala was ripe for revolution and that the Communists were gaining increasing influence over Guatemala’s leaders.

Articles began appearing in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, the New Leader, and other publications, all discussing the growing influence of Guatemala’s Communists. Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, was a relative of Bernay’s wife, Doris. A surprising number of respected reporters seemed not to know or care 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.

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, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald, and the Christian Science Monitor. The results of his trips to the Tropics were beyond dispute: more and more stories were sounding an alarm about Guatemala.

Events in Guatemala were firing up. The Eisenhower administration, which assumed office in 1953, stepped up the pressure on Arbenz. The fruit company had powerful friends in the Eisenhower administration, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, whose law firm had represented United Fruit.

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.” 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.

United Fruit was the most important force in toppling Arbenz and Bernays was the fruit company’s most effective propagandist. Propaganda was the key ingredient in undermining the Guatemalans. “A hostile and ill-informed American press helped to create an emotional public opinion. This, in turn, worked on Congress and, ultimately, on the State Department.”

In 1961, history seemed to be repeating itself. Bernays was advising a New York advertising agency that was working for the government of South Vietnam just as America was ratcheting up its involvement there. And his advice included precisely the sort of campaign he had engineered on behalf of Guatemala.

John Foster Dulles

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