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Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, and: Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954 (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 80.3 (2000) 633-637

Book Review

Bitter Fruit:
The Story of an American Coup in Guatemala

Secret History:
The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954

International and Comparative
Bitter Fruit: The Story of an American Coup in Guatemala. By Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. Introduction by John Coatsworth. Foreword by Richard A. Nuccio. The David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999. Photographs. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xxxviii, 331 pp. Paper, $19.95.

Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. By Nick Cullather. Afterword by Piero Gleijeses. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Photographs. Maps. Appendixes. Notes. Index. xi, 142 pp. Cloth, $39.50. Paper, $14.95.

In 1982 two influential books dispelled any lingering doubts about the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) involvement in the coup that deposed Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. Richard Immerman's The CIA in Guatemala provided the scholarly analysis of the agency's operations. Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer's Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, gave professors a less analytical but more engaging narrative that appealed to students. Both books, based on the first declassified documents of the government's operations, criticized the United States for launching a covert operation against a popular and democratic government.

In the past 18 years, researchers have gathered and analyzed new evidence, refining the interpretations of the Guatemalan revolution. Piero Gleijeses uncovered Guatemalan documents and interviewed prominent actors, most notably MarĂ­a de Arbenz, the widow of the deposed president. His book, Shattered Hope: The United States and the Guatemalan Revolution, 1944-1954, focused on the internal dynamics of the revolution, providing the intellectual counterpart to Immerman's analysis of the Washington foreign policy apparatus. Gleijeses, an admirer of Arbenz, produced irrefutable evidence of Arbenz's gravitation toward the Communist Party and ideology, shattering previous portrayals of Arbenz as an economic nationalist or reformer. He also reassigned a portion of responsibility to the Guatemalan military, which ultimately betrayed Arbenz and allowed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas to march unopposed into Guatemala City. Jim Handy mined the archives of Guatemala's Agrarian Reform Institute to produce a sophisticated analysis of Arbenz's agrarian reform. Revolution in the Countryside demonstrates how Arbenz's agrarian reform triggered conflicts far beyond the United Fruit Company (UFCO) and the United States government. The agrarian reform generated conflict within and between indigenous communities, alienated Guatemala's landowners, and disturbed the Guatemalan military because it disrupted the order that had long prevailed in the countryside.

Bitter Fruit remains a beautifully written, fast-paced narrative with colorful personality profiles and dramatic scenes. For that reason, it will remain on many college syllabi. However, professors will now have to use it with caution because many of the original interpretations of people and events have changed substantially since its first publication in 1982. Bitter Fruit, though billed as an "expanded edition" of the original, is not revised or updated to take into account the new evidence and interpretations. The authors only changed the title from "The Untold Story" to "The Story of an American Coup in Guatemala." Stephen Kinzer wrote an afterword, but the body of the narrative remains the same. Given that Schlesinger and Kinzer focus on CIA operations in Guatemala, one would think that they would have consulted Nick Cullather's Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Cullather's history, published originally and exclusively within the CIA, was released along with over 1,200 documents to the National Archives in 1997. Schlesinger and Kinzer concluded, however, that the declassified documents revealed nothing that would compel them to alter their narrative. According to historian John H. Coatsworth, who wrote the introduction to this expanded edition, "this new information tends to confirm rather than alter Bitter Fruit's account of events" (p. xi).

While some of Bitter Fruit's general conclusions may remain intact, recent research calls into question Schlesinger and Kinzer's characterization of important events and people. They maintain their original position on Arbenz's ideology, arguing that Arbenz's primary ideology...