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How the CIA used radio in the 1954 Guatemala coup

I am reading Tim Weiner’s disturbing history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. The tome portrays the agency as a dysfunctional outfit which often failed to achieve its goals. When the CIA did get something done in its formative years, it was usually a dastardly deed, accomplished by a combination of brute force, bribery, and dumb luck. This was the story of the outfit’s 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected regime of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala.

“I am definitely convinced that if the President [Arbenz] is not a communist, he will definitely do until one comes along,” a State Department functionary told the White House in 1953. Thus was launched, “Operation Success”—a vicious assault on Guatemala that amounted to hiring proxies to attack, bomb, and foment chaos in that country until its government collapsed.

Alas, radio played a role as well. Weiner writes:

For four weeks, starting on May Day 1954, the CIA had been waging psychological warfare in Guatemala through a pirate radio station called the Voice of Liberation, run by a CIA contract officer, an amateur actor and skilled dramatist named David Atlee Phillips. In a tremendous stroke of luck, the Guatemalan state radio station went off the air in mid-May for a scheduled replacement of its antenna. Phillips snuggled up to its frequency, where listeners looking for the state broadcasts found Radio CIA. Unrest turned to hysteria among the populace as the rebel station sent out shortwave reports of imaginary uprisings and defections and plots to poison wells and conscript children.

Two months later, Arbenz was gone, replaced by a CIA picked stooge named Castillo Armas. “Guatemala was at the beginning of forty years of military rulers, death squads, and armed repression,” Weiner’s description of this dark episode in the history of broadcasting concludes.

Radio can do such good. But in the wrong hands, it can be used to foment such evil.

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