Over ten days in June 1954, a decade after the D-Day landings, the CIA sent twelve planes to drop bombs and propaganda on towns in Guatemala in support of a coup against the elected government of Jácobo Arbenz. They did only minor damage at first: one plane bombed the wrong radio station, another ran out of fuel and was forced to crash land in Mexico. A plane was dispatched to make a ‘hostile’ attack on Honduras with the aim of provoking a military response, but the Hondurans could not even agree on which airfield it had hit.
In the last raid on 27 June, the SS Springfjord, a British merchant ship that had survived capture by the Nazis in 1940, was attacked in the port of San Jose. It was alleged to be unloading arms. After a warning pass – the ship’s captain gave the pilot a friendly wave – a 500lb bomb was dropped down its chimney. It turned out to be loading coffee and cotton.
Guatemala was one of the first countries in the region to emerge from military dictatorship. Arbenz was the second democratic president, elected in 1951 with 65 per cent of the vote. A strongly nationalist military officer, he was convinced that the central problem in a mainly agricultural country was land: 70 per cent of it in the hands of only 2 per cent of the population, of which only a quarter was being cultivated. In 1953 he decreed the takeover of more than 200,000 acres of unused land belonging to the United Fruit Company. The company responded with a propaganda campaign to convince Eisenhower not to be ‘soft on communism’.
It worked. Arbenz, realising that a coup was being plotted, bought a secret shipment of arms from Czechoslovakia. Uncovered by the CIA, this enabled Eisenhower to warn of a possible ‘communist dictatorship’ and support Arbenz’s rival, Carlos Castillo Armas. His insurgents invaded on 18 June, but failed to take control of the towns they targeted. The coup could easily have been a flop. But the CIA raids that culminated in the bombing of the Springfjord unnerved the Guatemalan army command, who withdrew their support from Arbenz. By the evening of 27 June he’d resigned.
Within a month, military dictatorship had resumed under Castillo Armas, with a new government recognised by Eisenhower. After a visit in 1955, Vice-President Nixon said that Guatemala was the ‘first instance in history where a communist government has been replaced by a free one’. US-backed military regimes ruled until 1996. By then some 200,000 people had died in civil war, most at the hands of government forces.
In 2011, Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, formally apologised to Arbenz’s son for ‘an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring’. Sixty years on, there’s still no apology from Eisenhower’s successors. Nor did the owners of the Springfjord get any compensation.