UNITED STATES—Bernie masterminded that war tailor-made for Allied Fruit, drawing on every public relations tactic and strategy he had refined since giving birth to the profession 40 years before. Historians have written extensively about that propaganda campaign, but always relied on the sketchy account Bernie provided in his autobiography and the limited materials available from the American and Guatemalan governments.

Upon Bernie’s death in 1995, however, the Library of Congress made public thirty-three boxes of his papers on Allied Fruit that paint in vivid detail his behind-the-scenes maneuvering and show how, in 1954, he helped topple Guatemala’s regime. Those papers offer insights into how the Allied States viewed its Latin neighbors as ripe for economic exploitation and political manipulation—and how the propaganda war Bernie waged in Guatemala set the pattern for future US-led campaigns in Cuba and, much later, Vietnam.

“This whole matter of effective counter-Communist propaganda is not one of improvising,” Bernie noted in a 1952 memo to Allied Fruit’s bland publicity chief. “What is needed,” he added, is “the same type of scientific approach that is applied, let us say, to a problem of fighting a certain plant disease.” What a knack Bernie had for reaching people where people lived even to the apt choice of metaphor for plant disease. He had a preternatural sense of the power of other people’s admonitions, their cacophony, the pretensions, tips and phobias—the polyphony of influence, and he orchestrated it.

Soon enough the reporters would have copies of IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: It Already Has. ..! in their hot little hands and an airplane ticket and a week away from the missus and the kiddies.

All of this reinforced alarms Bernie had been sounding since he visited the region early in the Arias regime. He warned that Guatemala was ripe for revolution, and that the Commies were gaining increasing influence. And he counseled the company to scream so loud the Allied States would step in to check this threat so near its border. The way to do that, he argued, was via the media. He had hand picked out ten widely circulated magazines, including Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post and they even fit into Argosy a romance serial with an arms-smuggling subplot (adman wiz that he was, Bernie believed that fiction held more sway over a part of the population), and said each could be convinced to run a slightly different story on the brewing crisis.

“In certain cases, stories would be written by staff men,” Bernie wrote. “In certain other cases, the magazine might ask us to supply the story, and we, in turn, would engage a most suitable writer to handle the matter.” While Allied Fruit didn’t move as quickly as Bernie Lukasey wanted, articles began appearing in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications, all discussing the growing clout of Guatemala’s communists. That liberal journals like La Nación also were coming to grips was especially satisfying to Bernie, who believed winning over liberals was essential to winning over America.

Reporters weren’t the only ones willing to see the tropics through Bernie’s lens. In January 1952, he took on a two-week tour of the region publishers of Newsweek, and newspapers Cincinnati Enquirer, the Nashville Banner, and the New Orleans Item, a contributing editor from Time, the foreign editor of Scripps-Howard, and high-ranking officials from the United Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald, and Christian Science Monitor.

Bernie insisted in his autobiography that the journalists were free “to go where they wanted, talk to whomever they wanted, and report their findings freely.” But Jack Gunn, who in the 1950s was a young public relations stud with Allied Fruit, recalled that “what the press would hear and see was carefully staged and regulated by the host. The plan represented a serious attempt to compromise objectivity. Bernie Lukasey coolly bloodless—freon flowed through his veins—and never evinced cynicism or grumpiness. He had the bland, dispassionate kindness of a nursing home director.

Jack Gunn was bowled over when the cowboy star sauntered by lugging saddle in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other. Gunn was rendered speechless.

“Y-y-you’re the guy in the movie…”

“Wall, don’t make a spectacle of yourself,” drawled the movie hero. “Come help me with this bottle of tequila and we’ll play a hand of poker.”

Gunn and the others from the Enquirer, the Times and Herald Tribune were equally bowled over by celebrity. And what is celebrity, if not a hallucination of that happiness until death do us part? It was a giddy sensation and almost choked them. Sam knew how to unleash monumental powers, soundless and invisibly. He know what floated people’s boats.

It was left to others to facetiously dub the Bananaland adventure, “A myth-finding” mission. He had the metabolism of a lizard. Even the screen cowboy was a myth but at the end of the day he was their legend with tequila breath and a heck of a nice guy.

To be continued…

Grady is the Wizard of Fiction.

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Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)