Nick Cullather

Nick Cullather

Nick Cullather obtained his PhD from the University of Virginia. In July, 1992, Cullather was awarded a one-year contract as a staff historian at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Cullather's work at the CIA was eventually declassified and published as Secret History: The Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-54 (1999).

Cullather is associate professor of history at Indiana University and associate editor of the Journal of American History. He is also co-author of Making a Nation: The United States and Its People (2001).

A number of documents relating to the CIA's activities in Guatemala have been declassified since 1999, and a truth and reconciliation process has unearthed other reports, speeches, and writings that shed more light on the role of the United States. Therefore in 2006 Cullather published an updated edition of Secret History: The Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-54. This includes an annotated twenty documents for a new documentary Appendix, culminating with President Clinton's apology to the people of Guatemala.

Primary Sources

(1) Nick Cullather, Secret History: The Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-54 (2006)

I asked if anyone was working on Guatemala. Operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the Guatemalan government in 1954, was one of the best known and most analyzed covert operations. Richard Immerman wrote in the 1980s that it set a pattern for later agency activities, from the Bay of Pigs to support for the Nicaraguan Contras. Piero Gleijeses had recently attacked the story from the Guatemalan side, revealing the secret of Jacobo Arbenz's ties to the Communists and the military's complicity in the coup that overthrew him. There were still plenty of contested issues - What was the CIA's connection to United Fruit? Was the CIA-sponsored invasion a real threat? - but since this was the most studied covert operation, it could show, better than any other, what CIA documents had to offer. I could see what the agency's files had that was completely new and unavailable in outside sources. McDonald said that the project was mine if I wanted it.

After a security check, polygraph test, and an interview by a psychiatrist, I arrived on July 26, 1992, at the PlayDoh-shaped Old Headquarters Building in Langley, passing under a concrete entrance canopy that ramped skyward in a gesture of early space-age optimism. For three days, I trained with other agency recruits who would be secretaries, scientists, and spies. The program consisted of several hours on personal financial management, instructions on whom to consult about psychological or substance abuse problems, a short course in agency lingo, a rundown on the various departments and subunits that made up the intelligence community, and procedures for classifying documents and disposing of them in special "burn bags."

The following week I began working through boxes of classified material. With Top Secret and compartmentalized clearances, I had access to all of the records I needed. Internal restraints on the flow of documents and ideas seemed to be loosening up. The information control officers who guarded the compartmental boundaries - the firewalls that keep secret information from moving from one part of the agency to another-were renamed "access management officers." The one I dealt with seemed eager to help me find documents on PBSUCCESS. Over 160 boxes of material related to the Guatemala operation had already been found in job 79-0102 5A.

The only constraints on my work were time, space, and sloppy record-keeping. There was almost too much material. Allowing a year to complete the project, I would have to read over 500 pages a day just to get through the records already discovered. Security procedures made it difficult to skim the files in a hurry. Archive boxes had to be ordered from a distant location, usually arriving the next day at the vaulted office where between eight and eleven historians worked in cramped cubicles. Only a few boxes at a time could fit into a cubicle or the office safe, and the remainder had to be sent back at the end of the day. Other document collections (called "jobs" in agency parlance) contained some useful information, but finding anything in the trackless storehouse of agency records was uphill work. Indexes listed materials by office of origin, not by topic, and offices frequently took vague titles (like the "Office of Survey Information") to deflect inquiries. Indexes had been destroyed in routine purges, and there was often no way to tell which files had been burned and which preserved. Occasionally a hunch paid off or a cache of valuable files turned up in an unexpected place, but such discoveries depended on having plenty of time and luck.

(2) Nick Cullather, Secret History: The Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-54 (2006)

Quelling unrest, however, proved more difficult than finding the right propaganda slant. After another year of escalating violence between the opposition and the authorities, Castillo Armas was assassinated by a member of the presidential guard. USIA dutifully portrayed the killing as another Communist plot. The Liberator's death opened the way for elections, which produced a plurality for Ortiz Passarelli, a centrist candidate. Followers of the defeated nominee of the right, Ydigoras Fuentes, rioted, and the Army seized power and invalidated the election. In January 1958, Guatemalans voted again, and this time they knew what was expected of them. Ydigoras won by a plurality, and shortly after taking office declared another "state of siege" and assumed full powers."

Amid the convulsions of the 1950s, Guatemala's political center, which had created the Revolution of 1944 and dominated politics until 1953, vanished from politics into a terrorized silence. Political activity simply became too dangerous as groups of the extreme right and left, both led by military officers, plotted against one another. In the early 1960s, guerilla groups began operating in the eastern part of the country, and in 1966 the United States responded by sending military advisers and weapons, escalating a cycle of violence and reprisals that by the end of the decade claimed the lives of a US Ambassador, two US military attaches, and as many as 10,000 peasants. In 1974, the Army stole another election, persuading another generation of young Guatemalans to seek change through intrigues and violence. Increasingly, Indians and the Catholic Church - which had formerly remained aloof from politics - sided with the left, isolating the Army on the far right."