CIA Covert Action: Was Operation SUCCESS a Success?


    In the Cold War, the US attempted to curb any Communist government in its sphere of Influence. In doing so, the CIA gained an important role in developing techniques that would maintain the US’ image while simultaneously meeting its aims. The CIA used covert actions as their technique of choice. The covert part reflects plausible deniability. Although, as we come to find out, deniability is rarely plausible and often undeniable. Thus was born Operation Success, the CIA’s operations in Guatemala.

    The CIA saw the operation as a victory as it succeeded in its goals. But as the story unfolds, we see that various factors outside the CIA’s specific control led to it being a success. These factors include the lack of secrecy hat spread of fear among officers, psychological operations, and sheer luck. Operation SUCCESS would lead the US to believe that their covert action tactics were effective at removing nefarious governments. This was a grave mistake as the CIA would repeat the tactic 10 years later at the Bay of Pigs.   


    After pro-US dictatorial rule ended in Guatemala in 1944, a period of democracy survived in the country. Jacobo Arbenz was the second democratically elected leader of Guatemala. They saw him as a moderate leader who could potentially fix the huge inequality that plagued Guatemala.

    Jacobo Arbenz
    Jacobo Arbenz

    In order to do this, Arbenz had to give more power to the poor and take land from the rich. He did this in 1952 with Decree 900. The decree would take unused land from the rich and give it to the poor. In return, the poor would pay taxes on the land and their produce. The idea was purely capitalist and contemporary scholars deem it a clever tactic to shrink the inequality in Guatemala. However, the US greatly feared communism during the Cold War. The US government saw Decree 900 as a communist initiative put forward by a potentially communist government. So, the CIA created Operation SUCCESS to overthrow the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz.

    Capitalism vs Communism

    During Guatemala’s previous dictatorships under Jorge Ubico, Boston-based company, United Fruit (UFCO), had nurtured prosperous relations with the authoritarian regime. In return for reduced taxes on land and import duties, and violations of labour standards and human rights laws, UFCO reinvested some of its wealth in Guatemala, building railways and roads, as well as ports. UFCO controlled 42% of Guatemala’s land but only used 15% and so when Jacobo Arbenz enacted the decree UFCO would lose more than half its land. Arbenz also didn’t have to pay market value for the land because UFCO had been undervaluing their land to pay reduced taxes.  

    However, UFCO had powerful friends. The company’s previous lawyer, John Foster Dulles would become Secretary of State under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his brother, Allen Dulles, would become Director of the CIA. So, lobbying began for the US government to intervene. The only way UFCO would prosper is to overthrow Arbenz and replace him with a more cooperative leader.

    Ultimately, UFCO’s lobbying would not be enough for US intervention, however, communism would be. With growing McCarthyism in US government circles, Eisenhower promised the public that he would address communist insurrections on America’s doorstep. A communist government in Guatemala would be damaging to the US’ image and Eisenhower’s political powers.

    Was Guatemala’s government communist?

    Today, scholars see Jacobo Arbenz’s rule as a moderate government that worked to create a more prosperous environment for his people. But in the Cold War it was a dangerous time to be progressive, especially so close to the US. Although not communist himself, the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo, PGT, backed him. The PGT was the main communist party in Guatemala, but it had limited scope because it held few seats in parliament. However, some of Arbenz’s closest advisors were PGT members, foremost Manuel Fortuny who nurtured a close friendship with Arbenz. As well as PGT members being in charge of the state radio and newspapers giving them the perfect method to spread communism. 

    CIA analysts jumped to conclusions about the PGT in Guatemala, most notably that the Soviet Union had trained PGT members. This could not be further from the truth; the Soviet Union had limited scope in South America. Similarly, communism in South America was a vastly different idea to the communism that evolved in the east. Following the coup, the CIA launched PBHISTORY to uncover the truth about communism in Guatemala. The CIA found no evidence that the Guatemalan government had links to the Soviet Union.

    Guatemalan Communist Party Logo
    Guatemalan Communist Party logo

    Operation SUCCESS Psyops

    Operation SUCCESS relied on psychological warfare to create an environment in which Guatemala would feel at war. The idea was to create fund a small invasion force under a US-backed leader, in this case Castillo Armas. The psyops would then implant the idea that a much larger force was invading Guatemala. It was necessary to intimidate politicians and military officers so that the plan would work. The CIA created false obituaries in newspapers, mailed death threats and spread the word of an invasion through society.

    The operation would use radio broadcasts to undermine Arbenz to the public and the military. The CIA called it SHERWOOD, and according to the CIA operative who voiced the radio channel, it was a success. However, CIA files suggest that the radio’s transmitter was not strong enough to reach Guatemala City leading to questions about SHERWOOD’s true efficacy. Similarly, few people owned radios and so the plan relied heavily on word of mouth. The CIA also used conservative students who were eager to help the anti-communist movement. A small army of students were employed to paste public areas with anti-communist stickers, in total they used 106,000 stickers.

    As part of Operation SUCCESS, the CIA also employed an agent who would go to army officers’ houses to intimidate them into working against Arbenz. This was wholly unsuccessful, and he didn’t manage to recruit a single officer. However, it did succeed in spreading fear through the officer corps. The intimidation techniques revealed that the US was backing the invasion force and not Arbenz. This became an important truth to officers in the Guatemalan military; the US was not your friend. 

    Finally, a a US-funded airforce of mercenary pilots launched a bombing campaign against strategic targets. They dropped improvised explosives designed to cause maximum disruption but little damage. The aircraft dropped soda cans filled with dynamite to create loud bangs, and they only targeted highly visible locations. Civilians became to realise they were at war with a highly capable force.

    Operation SUCCESS Military Insurgency

    The man the CIA chose to lead the charge against Arbenz was a Guatemalan officer called Castillo Armas. At his disposal were 480 men camped just inside the Salvadoran border. They were trained by CIA operatives and funded by the US. This force was not big enough to beat the Guatemalan military and so it counted on the success of psyops to break Guatemala’s will to fight. 

    The 480 men were split into four groups of differing sizes from 60 to 198. The operation started badly, Salvadoran police intercepted and arrested the group of 60 men before they crossed the border into Guatemala. The other three groups pressed forward to their objectives. A garrison of 30 men at Zacapa beat back a group of 122 invadors, leaving only around 30 men escaping capture or death. In another incident, policemen and armed dockworkers defeated a force of men sent to attack Puerto Barrios. These incidents show just how inept the attacking force was.

    Castillo Armas launched planes to bomb sites to regain momentum to give the impression of a larger invasion force. In the end, Eisenhower had to send more planes because many of the original planes were shot down within a few days.  

    Sheer Luck

    The misleading part of this operation is that much of it was only successful because of luck. For example, the radio broadcasts of Operation SHERWOOD gained more traction than they initially would have done because, by sheer coincidence, the national transmission tower was out-of-action for a couple of weeks for maintenance. 

    The air campaign had been stifled within the first few days of the invasion, but because of the CIA’s unfettered access on the radio waves, Jacobo Arbenz ordered that the national power grid be switched off. This meant that CIA bombers could fly undetected at night dropping loud bombs that gave the impression of a much larger air campaign than was actually real. 

    However, the biggest stroke of luck came when Arbenz began to act in the exact way as he was portrayed by CIA propaganda. He began to fear for his life and in an attempt to cling on to power he began to round up dissenters and intimidated people with gangs of pro-government thugs. In a stroke of sheer luck, Jacobo Arbenz had become the exact thing Guatemalans had voted for him not to be, a dictator. 

    The End of Democracy

    In the end, Jacobo Arbenz succumbed to pressure. However, it was not Castillo Armas or the US who forced his hand, but the Guatemalan military. Fearing US reprisals should they be victorious against Castillo Armas’ invasion, which they surely would have been, Guatemalan Army officers demanded Arbenz’s resignation which he handed them on 27th June 1954. In an attempt to maintain some of his democratic reforms he stated he was leaving office to destroy the pretext for the invasion and preserve the ideals of the democratic revolution 10 years earlier. 

    Immediately after Arbenz’s resignation, a Guatemalan Colonel called Carlos Enrique Diaz de Leon took power. He told the country he would continue the fight against Castillo Armas prolonging a US victory. The CIA continued their air attacks against military targets in Guatemala to intimidate Diaz. Another Colonel, Elfego Hernán Monzón Aguirre, soon overthrew Diaz in a bloodless coup after realising the US would continue to back the invaders. Monzón was more pliable to US interests and heys et up a junta of Castillo Armas and Colonel Monzón. But immediately after the talks, the US pressured Monzón’s supporters to resign and without support Monzón too resigned. This left Castillo Armas as the sole leader of Guatemala.  

    The US immediately recognised Castillo Armas’ new government and to maintain an image of democracy he launched elections in early October that year. However, Castillo Armas banned all opponents and he won the election with 99% of the vote.


    The findings suggest that the operation achieved its aims but did not succeed because solely because of the operational infrastructure. Luck played a huge part in allowing the various sides of the operation to gain traction and exposure. The propaganda had succeeded in putting pressure on the military. In the end, however, the overawing fear of US power forced the officers to betray their government. Had the luck gone the other way, had Arbenz had more psychological fortitude to fight against the propaganda and not evolve into the image of its target, had the military crushed Castillo Armas and defended democracy, perhaps Guatemala would be a much more prosperous country today. 

    Instead, Operation SUCCESS struck down the Arbenz and replaced him with a dictator who maintained the status quo and clung onto power with all his might regardless of the human toll. Castillo Armas had to rely on the officers and mercenaries who had put him in power leading to widespread corruption. Guatemala became completely dependent on financial support from the Eisenhower administration and in the end Castillo Armas was struggling economically and could no longer borrow money, leading to widespread unemployment and the path to bankruptcy. 

    Things would not end well for Castillo Armas. In 1957 Castillo Armas was assassinated by a leftist sympathiser leading to more elections that finally ended in Manuel Ydígoras Fuentes as president. Ydígoras Fuentes then took complete control over parliament as an authoritarian dictator. In the following decades, Guatemala would be plagued by leftist insurgencies and near-constant guerrilla warfare. The US attempted to create a right-wing government that would reject any communist advances. In doing so they created one of the most unstable countries in the world over the next three decades. Between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 civilians would be killed, 93% were killed by US-backed forces, and more than one million people were displaced. 

    Nicholas Fullick
    Nicholas Fullick
    Nicholas is a graduate in Portuguese and Spanish from Cardiff University. He is currently studying a Master's in Intelligence and Security Studies from Brunel University with hopes of starting a career in intelligence. His research focus is on South and Central America.

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