United Fruit Historical Soceity Discussion Board

United Fruit Historical Soceity Discussion Board
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Re: History or propaganda?

Interested readers may want to see Jeff McMahan (Professor of Philosophy at RUTGERS) quite recent article: The Ethics of Killing in War, from the Journal Ethics (July 2004, 693-733)

Below is McMahan quoted from p725:

"In 1954, for example, executives of the United Fruit Company persuaded the Eisenhower administration to organize and direct a coup that overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala and installed a new regime that returned to the company some uncultivated lands that had been nationalized in an effort to aid the peasants. This is a paradigm of an unjust war, and it is reasonable to suppose that the executives [of UFC] bore at least as great a degree of responsibility for the killing and the violation of national self-determination as the soldiers who carried it out."

There is further analysis in his, Reagan and the World: Imperial Policy in the New Cold War (1985: p13-14)

Re: History or propaganda?

Thank you for this post and quote. This is a wonderful use of the forum!

I was unaware of Jeff McMahan's article and book. I am especially interested in his confident claim that the United Fruit Company "persuaded" the Eisenhower administration to go ahead with the CIA directed 1954 coup that overthrew a democracy and contributed to much bloodshed and human rights abuses in Guatemala in the decades after. I do not argue that United Fruit did not persuade the executive branch to back the coup, but rather we do not (yet) have any documentary sources that this happened. Without sources, no proof. When I go to the library next week, I will look at McMahan's book and see what sources he uses to back this claim. I am suspicious when an author cites himself in a claim that many still do not accept. In the meantime, I will continue to believe Piero Gleijeses (Shattered Hope, pg. 361-362) that it was fears of communism, not protection of a US company that prompted the coup. If the US government was interested in protecting the company only, it would not have initiated a huge anti-trust suit against the company in 1956 that ended up reducing UFCo to half its size and ended its banana empire. Guatemala, unfortunately, was a Cold War battleground much more than a stage for the US government to violently protect a Boston fruit company. But I'll take a look at McMahan's book to see what sources he uses. I suspect Bitter Fruit, a far less researched book than Shattered Hope.


Re: History or propaganda?

Dear Ian,

Your assertion is paradoxical:

“I do not argue that United Fruit did not persuade the executive branch to back the coup, but rather we do not (yet) have any documentary sources that this happened. Without sources, no proof.”

If we rely on proof –of which you say there is none s – why do you not argue against the claim that the UFC backed the coup considering there are ‘no sources’ and as such ‘no proof’. If so what are you basing your own opinions on?

Also, as any good reader of political history knows, facts – however they come to light – will be interpreted and warped to suit whatever political agendas dominate at the time of their incarceration and then afterwards. Today we (in the West) live in the age of Liberalism. It is fair to say people of my generation (largely post-cold war) and our leaders from generations before us, who grew up during the ideological vitriol of the Cold War, have been socialised and indoctrinated, respectively, with liberalism to varying degrees. However, liberalism (liberal in the 19th century theoretical sense – not the US Democrat-Republican sense) as practiced today can only ever be liberal to a point. At times it must be illiberal, such are the pressures of governance, so we are told. But the myth of liberalism, in something of a King Richard effect, exists nevertheless. We know, “liberal multiculturalism runs into a dead end. It assumes the existence of the state as a neutral arbiter, a monological consciousness that, upon request, dispenses rights and privileges in the form of a gift.” (Richard Day, 2005:86) As such we know that “liberal politics are driven by a fantasy of emancipation” (Richard Day, 2005:84). Anyone who sees their liberal state go to war as often as ours do (I’m thinking of the US/UK here) knows this. And this seems to be your point when you say:

“In the meantime, I will continue to believe Piero Gleijeses (Shattered Hope, pg. 361-362) that it was fears of communism, not protection of a US company that prompted the coup.”

You mean to say the US had to override the fundamental rights of those peasants in Guatemala? Rights held sacred elsewhere, in US founding documents – and often referred to using the blanket and ideologically loaded term ‘freedom’. Their freedom had to be denied so ours could be protected? This is what you mean when you speak of the fear of communism, is it not? The pursuit of a greater good.

If so, how does Gleijeses or yourself understand the context of the Cold War. I consider it best understood both as an ideological war and an economic war. We had Liberal-Capitalism and ‘they’ had Communism and their own separate economic sphere. Ours provided more freedom for its own citizens than theirs did. Both ideologies had ambitions to be globally dominant, hence the ideological conflict of the Cold War. My point is liberalism and capitalism are not the separate entities you seem to assume. As it is practised, in global politics, these concepts exist in tandem and are fundamentally, sometimes obviously, opposed to one another. For example, according to this theory one cannot protect liberty without protecting the economic platform it is based on – this is widely accepted and forms the canon of modern liberal theory. This leaves us with our own moral paradox: denying liberty to others so we may protect our own [And this is evident in domestic contexts as well]. What McMahan does (in the earlier article i cite) is question at what point should we not violate others’ liberties in pursuit of our own. At what point does killing others to protect ourselves and our systems become morally unjust? In this sense he asks when is the current dominant form of liberalism and its practise of intervention unjust.

There is no documentary evidence for working this particular conundrum out. No state-approved facts to be easily understood. One can not refer to an encyclopaedia for a simple answer to this complex question. It is a moral consideration. If you accept that UFC helped prompt and instigate the coup do you also believe them to be morally just in doing so?

We know the empirical facts of war are disputable. During the Cold war these were disseminated to US public in a highly propagandized form, as they were in the USSR. They still are today, although less so. And sometimes they are held from view altogether. However the decision makers, the leaders – the UFC included – had their own propaganda-free understanding of the facts on the ground. In this respect they can be charged with crimes against humanity if they can be shown as morally unjust in pursuing war. This would be a case of authoring a coup whereby denying liberty on the basis of short-term economic self-interests of the UFC were prioritised above the long-term lives of those affected.

Re: History or propaganda?

If one thinks of ‘fear of communism’ as two fold, as: a threat to economic interests and in turn a threat to the liberalism these interests protect. Then protecting US company would be an imperative in light of the ‘spread of communism’. Considered as such US capitalism, increasingly thought of as the guarantor of US liberalism, could not be eroded on any economic fronts. Hence one can begin to understand US foreign policy during the Cold War, and especially in Latin America.

Your talk of anti-trust suits only indicates an alteration in US economic interests. It doesn’t logically impact on the discussion.



Re: History or propaganda?


I appreciate this discussion, but I have to respectfully disagree with your argument that the CIA and United Fruit Company colluded in the invasion of Guatemala. Yes, the US government, including the CIA, was protecting capitalism. And yes, there was a motive for these two institutions to collude. But...and this is important...a historian must be a fair judge. At this point, there does not exists not one tangible piece of direct evidence that proves such collusion. Simple motive does not prove collusion, nor does (as you suggest) the ideological framework of the Cold War. Look, I'm not trying to defend or apologize for the company, I'm only trying to be an honest historian. UFCo, did many regrettable things in its history, as did the US government in its Cold War battles. But until someone produces the smoking gun, there remains no proof that the invasion of Guatemala--which overtured a democracy and lead to many years of bloody civil war for the Guatemalan people--was prompted to protect United Fruit. The US. government had bigger fish to fry and the fruit company, was standing in its way. Hence, the 1956 anti-trust suit.


Re: History or propaganda?

Hi Ian,

My point (which I made earlier) was of two parts. I'll emphasise the (much shorter) first part again: If there is no tangible evidence to 'prove' something one way or the other, then, your argument, as much as mine, is invalid (if it must rest on concrete proof). I would say, if immediate evidence of collusion isn't evident, then, we must look as what most closely approximates to a convincing explanation. How convincing that is depends on ones ability to understand politics. The second part of my point was my attempt qualify that. You however have no second part; you only restate the idea that there is no 'proof'. And by doing that you do not make a qualified judgement. Instead, you prefer to trust authority despite a lack of forthcoming 'proof'. In this way your reasoning is circular and embodies the prevention of conclusion - the case must be left open until there is 'proof'. And by your account there cannot be any.

Quite a predicament (and a headache). Instead I prefer to suggest those in the know are responsible.

Re: History or propaganda?

Hi HC,

With this kind of thinking, one could claim that there are still WMD in Iraq. No one has found evidence of WMD, and, like UFCo's possible direct involvement in the '54 overthrow, few published scholars believe it. But Hussein had shown an inclination to obtain them before and he had a motive to do so, thus, for you to be logically consistent, your idea of "intent" should lead you claim that they must be there, despite any solid evidence in support.

A historian is irresponsible to claim something as a fact without evidence, despite his or her personal feelings that it may have existed. The best that you and I can say is this: "UFCo may have directly colluded with the US government in overthrowing Arbenz (and leading to decades of death and instability in Guatemala), but no one has yet found direct evidence of this (yet)." To say "UFCO directly colluded with the US government in overthrowing the Arbenz government because they had a motive to do so" is misleading and false without evidence.

I'm no apologist for the company. It did a number of nasty and racist things, but it also set up the first clinics and schools in the areas where it operated and brought relatively high paying jobs in places where people barely got by on subsistence farming. The history of this company belies any easy categorization or moral judgments.

Respectfully, Ian