John Bedan

The Price of Progress: Guatemala and the United States in the 1960s

How the idealism of the Alliance for Progress gave way to the realities of Cold War confrontation in Guatemala

by John Bedan, PhD candidate, Department of History

Shortly after taking office in 1961, John F. Kennedy announced to the world that the United States would invest in an ambitious new partnership with the countries of Latin America: the Alliance for Progress. The program, greeted with considerable fanfare from Latin Americans, promised to develop the region’s economic and political institutions as a ward against communism. Seven years later, Deputy Chief of Mission to Guatemala, Viron Vaky, charged that the policies of the United States condoned and encouraged state terrorism. Over the course of the 1960s, the aid money that President Kennedy claimed would build schools and hospitals funded the people who burned them to the ground. 

My research reconstructs how the Guatemalan state transformed during the Alliance for Progress era (1961-1969). Economic exploitation and military intervention had created perpetual crises in Guatemala by the time Kennedy launched the Alliance, and his administration hoped to blunt the lure of communism with economic development programs and political reform. Despite these goals, President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, instead facilitated the militarization of Guatemalan society. When challenged by the revolutionary movements inspired by Castro’s Cuba, the idealism of the Alliance for Progress gave way to anticommunist dogma and the harsh realities of Cold War Guatemala.

Thanks to funding from CLLAS, I was able to conduct extensive research at the University of Texas at Austin. The campus hosts both the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and the Benson Latin America Collection. These two repositories hold a wealth of sources that permitted a glimpse into very different perspectives on the events that unfolded in Guatemala during the 1960s. The tens of thousands of interagency memos, daily briefs, intelligence reports, and personal notes held at the Johnson Library reveal the inner workings of a behemoth organization: the Executive Office of the President of the United States. The documents contained within the Benson Collection offer an altogether different vantage point for evaluating U.S.-Guatemalan relations. Under the heading “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Guatemala: 1944-1963,” the Benson Collection has gathered nearly 3,000 political publications widely circulated in Guatemala during this tumultuous period. The variety of manifestos, satirical cartoons, party pamphlets, and other forms of “street literature” provided the rare opportunity to examine how Guatemalan power-contenders framed issues and attempted to gain popular support. Accessing these two archives has greatly enriched the quality, depth, and scope of my dissertation.

Two moments in Guatemalan politics anchor my study of the clash between incompatible approaches to foreign relations: the overthrow of President Miguel Ydigoras in 1963 and the 1966 election and presidency of Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro. Communist Cuba defied U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and Kennedy sought to counter revolution with reform under the direction of the Alliance for Progress. The humiliating failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and the nearly apocalyptic Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) hardened the Kennedy administration attitude toward Latin American leftists. When Juan Jose Arevalo, a former president of Guatemala with a record of left-leaning reform, announced he would run for re-election, Kennedy and his team feared that he would take Guatemala down the same path as Cuba. The Kennedy administration decided on preventative action in March 1963, when it undermined Alliance for Progress principles by allowing the Guatemalan military to overthrow the constitutional government of President Miguel Ydigoras in order to cancel the upcoming elections. Arevalo, a supporter of the Alliance for Progress, was forced to flee Guatemala. Moreover, during Kennedy’s tenure in office, the United States empowered leaders within the Guatemalan Armed Forces who used economic and military aid to consolidate their stranglehold over the state.  

The summer research award from CLLAS allowed me to expand my project beyond the Kennedy years and explore the full trajectory of the Alliance for Progress era. When the military finally agreed to permit elections in 1966, President Johnson hailed the victory of the new civilian president, Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro, as an achievement of the Alliance for Progress. Although Mendez Montenegro won the election, the military maintained its control over the state and forced the hostage-president to grant it total autonomy. Under the guise of a legitimate civilian government, the power of high-ranking officers swelled during a renewed campaign against a growing guerilla resistance movement. By the end of the Alliance for Progress in 1969, the leaders of the Guatemalan Armed Forces, glutted on U.S. aid, emerged as a distinct socioeconomic class that exercised de facto sovereignty over the country. Guatemala had become a sinister inversion of everything the Alliance for Progress had originally promised.

The history of U.S.-Guatemalan relations during the Alliance for Progress offers a cautionary tale of missed opportunity and tragic consequence. Instead of embracing popular leaders who supported the Alliance, the United States colluded with authoritarian commanders within the Guatemalan military and facilitated their ascent to power. Ultimately, the policy decisions made during the 1960s failed to counter communist opposition and enabled the Guatemalan military-government to go on to commit genocide in the 1980s as part of its U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency program. 

—John Bedan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History. He earned his MA in history from UO in 2013 and his BA in philosophy from Hanover College in 2009. His dissertation on U.S.-Guatemalan relations, “The Price of Progress: Guatemala, the United States, and the Alliance for Progress,” reflects his interests in imperialism, foreign relations, and the history of the Cold War. His research has been supported by CLLAS, and the Kennedy and Johnson Presidential Libraries.