The US and the Fear of Communism in their own ‘Backyard’ : the Start of US Interventions in the Western Hemisphere during the Cold War

The list of United States’ interventions in Latin America during the Cold War runs long. Here are some examples. In 1961 the Kennedy administration attempted an invasion in Cuba to topple the Castro regime. In 1963, the same administration carried out a covert operation to undermine the government of British Guiana. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson deployed US troops in Brazil to support a military coup. In 1965, Johnson ordered an invasion of the Dominican Republic. In 1970, the Nixon government tried to covertly intervene in Chile. In 1981, the Reagan administration launched a campaign of covert warfare against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. In 1983, the US invaded Grenada. The last intervention happened in 1989, as the Bush administration invaded Panama.

The first country to find itself at the receiving end of the US’s crusade to contain the spread of communism in its strategic ‘backyard’ was Guatemala. Between 17 and 27 June in 1954, the US was involved in a coup détat, codenamed ‘PBSUCCES’, to President Jacobo Árbenz. This would eventually lead to a civil war in Guatemala that lasted from 1960 to 1996. Many different interpretation circulate about the exact origins of the US intervention in Guatemala. Some historians argue that the US tried to protect its overseas companies, such as the United Fruit Company (UFCO), which the Central Americans often called ‘el pulpo’ or the octopus. Another argument is that the US acted out of fear of a communist takeover. More recently, historians have argued that not the US started to ignite the coup d’état in Guatemala, but that dictators in the region already tried to overthrow Árbenz.

By the end of World War II, the UFCO held 566,000 acres of land and employed 15,000 people in Guatemala, making it biggest landowner and the largest employer in the country. Its subsidiary, International Railways of Central America (IRCA), employed 5,000 people which made it the second-largest employer of Guatemala. Most of the land was acquired by the UFCO during the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico (1931-1944). During the summer of 1944, Ubico was forced out by the Guatemalan military. Following a period of strikes and civil demonstrations, known to Guatemalans as  the ‘October Revolution’, a group of opposition leaders and dissident military officers formed a new government under the leadership of Juan José Arévalo. This period was marked by the establishment of labor unions, the creation of a national labor confederation and a new Labor Code. At the same time, Arévalo held back from an overt challenge to American economic interests. He had limited regulatory attacks on US investments, but he had a few actions which represented expressions of Guatemalan sovereignty. By the end of his term in 1951, many of his reforms remained unexecuted. Under his successor, Árbenz, the Guatemalan government shifted more leftward. However, this did not mean that he wanted to introduce communism in Guatemala: he promised in his inauguration speech that the wanted to ‘transform Guatemala from a backward country with a semi-feudal economy into a modern capitalist country’.

It is striking to think that the US was involved in this act of regime chance in 1954, especially when  Árbenz wanted to transform Guatemala into a capitalist country. The intervention is also peculiar as Guatemala was not deemed of any major strategic significance for the US in 1950. In a Research Report on Guatemala of 1950, the CIA concluded that since the 1944 revolution, Guatemala had become a ‘symbol of democracy in Central America’. In this same assessment they concluded that  Árbenz was more acceptable to the US than Arévalo, as he was ‘favorably disposed toward US interests in Guatemala’. With these two conclusions in mind, why did the US switch its stance so quickly towards Guatemala and intervene?

The Guatemalan agrarian reforms of 1952 marked a turning point. According to the Guatemalan government, this reform, paired with the redistribution of land, would lead to an increase of purchasing power and pave the way for the industrialization of Guatemala. In 1953, the Guatemalan government expropriated around 40 per cent of land from the UFCO. This policy directly touched upon the personal interests of several members of the Eisenhower administration, such as  the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother CIA Director Allen Foster Dulles, both of whom had worked for UFCO as legal consultants. However, the main problem in Guatemala, in the view of the administration, was communism. Around 1947, the US Department of State had asked for a report on the political leanings of the Guatemalan government and in the 1950s the fear of communism also circulated in the US Congress as McCarthyism was at its height.

Since the presidency of Árbenz the fear of the infiltration of Communism in the Western Hemisphere played a major factor in the foreign policy of the US. The Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs feared that an ‘unknown number of crypto-Communists and fellow followers’ had infiltrated the Guatemalan government. The agrarian reform was conceived by the Department of State as an initiative from ‘Communist-dominated labor’, directly aimed at US enterprises including the UFCO.

External actors also tried to convince the US government of communist subversion in Guatemala. On December 28, 1953, the vice president of the UFCO, John McClintock, tried to inform the US government that the Guatemalan Communists Party (PTG) were celebrating a day of solidarity with the Viet Minh. American individuals such as Robert H. Sayre, an American mining engineer living in Guatemala, and Hans Christian Sonne, a businessman, also sought to exploit the government’s fear of Communism. Sayre, for example had contact with Sherman Adams, the Assistant to the President, in which he warned him that Guatemala would become the ‘first Russian satellite in the Americas’, and that the ‘three beautiful U.S. built airfields in Guatemala […] are ripe for Russian use’. Sonne also wanted to convince Gabriel Hauge, the Administrative Assistant to the President for Economic Affairs, of a covert tactic from Russia to gain control in Guatemala and that it needed ‘prompt and strong action’ as the ‘Communists gain a firm foothold right in our own backyard’.

After the coup ended with the resignation of Árbenz on June 27, 1954, the United States backed Castillo Armas, an exiled Guatemalan officer who led the coup. This led to many Latin Americans believing that he was a marionette of the US. A wave of anti-Yankeeism revived in the Latin-American countries as intellectuals and students denounced the US for returning to its ‘big stick’ diplomacy. Demonstrations broke out in some countries and the demonstrators paraded before American embassies. Some of the demonstrators publicly burned the American flag and others hanged President Eisenhower in effigy.  Not only in Latin America, but also nationalists in North Africa and the Middle East were convinced that the US had acted as an imperialist power.

The US had used all its credit in Latin America and Yankeephobia was at its height. This can be seen in the reaction to the goodwill tour of Vice-President Richard M. Nixon in April 1958 to eight different South American countries. From his first stop in Montevideo (Uruguay) until his last stop in Caracas (Venezuela), angry students spat at him, swore at him, and pelted him with eggs and rocks. In Caracas his limousine got attacked, which forced him to return to Washington. The hostility of the students was being blamed by Eisenhower and Nixon as international communism trying to embarrass the United States. Eisenhower concluded after Nixon returned home that it was clear that ‘the threat of Communism in Latin America is greater than ever before’.

The abovementioned arguments indicate that the fear of communism played a role in the establishing of the image of the Árbenz government as communist, which the US needed to stop through intervention. The expropriation of the UFCO’s land was being sold to the US government as a tactic of the Soviet Union to gain control in the Western Hemisphere. The call for solidarity with the Viet Minh of the PTG to the Guatemalan people  was also seen as a way of spreading communism, while Guatemalans saw communism as a way of breaking off with their colonial rulers. In a sense, the fear of communism influenced the US government on different levels. A fear of communist infiltration in the Guatemalan government dominated within the US administration. This fear was also being affirmed by American individuals and of course, the UFCO.


This piece was written using the following microfilm reel available at the RIAS:

The CIA research reports on Latin America, reel 5.

Who’s Who in America vol 27, reel 24.

With the following primary source at the RIAS:

Documentary history of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidency, volume 8.

With the following online sources at the RIAS:

Daily Worker Online, June 21, 1954.

New York Times, May 14, 1958.

And the following books available at the RIAS:

Dallek, Robert, The American Style of Foreign Policy (New York, 1986).

DeConde, Alexander, A History of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1963).

Grow, Michael, U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions : Pursuing Regime Change in the cold War (Kansas, 2008).

LaRosa, Michael and Frank O. Mora (eds.), Neighborly Adversaries : Readings in U.S.-Latin American Relations (Oxford, 2007).

Schoultz, Lars, Beneath the United States (London, 1998).