In some earlier posts, I’ve mentioned the laudable history of Presbyterianism in Guatemala. Nonetheless, there are instances in which Presbyterians have also played a tragic role in Guatemalan history. One of the more deplorable figures was John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State from 1953-1958.
Dulles had deep Presbyterian roots. His grandfather was a Presbyterian missionary in India, his father was a Presbyterian seminary professor, and his own daughter became a Presbyterian minister. Raised in a strict religious environment, Dulles seemed headed for the ministry himself. But he eventually chose a career in law and politics as a student at Princeton University. While he gained power in government circles, Dulles kept up his religious involvements and was ordained as an elder at Manhattan’s Brick Presbyterian Church. During the 1920’s and 1930’s he represented Presbyterianism at church conferences around the world, and he was Chairman and Co-founder of the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace of the Federal Council of Churches. In 1924, he served as the defense for Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick against notorious heresy charges that were brought against him while pastor at New York City’s First Presbyterian Church.
Unfortunately, the religious interests of John Foster Dulles didn’t prevent him from acting disgracefully in the political arena. One of his worst exploits was the coup d’état in Guatemala that he orchestrated in 1954 as Secretary of State during the Eisenhower administration. It destroyed democracy in Guatemala for over a generation. He was driven by cold war paranoia, a love for multi-national corporations, as well as a personal stake in the profitability of the United Fruit Company, on whose board he sat. Claiming that the redistribution of fallow United Fruit land was proof that communists were running the country, Dulles meticulously planned the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz. This turn of events was disastrous for Guatemala’s people, leading to four decades of dictatorship, human rights horrors, deepening hunger, and general havoc. It also ruined U.S. credibility as a proponent of democracy in Latin America, and set a precedent for the manipulation of the United Nations by world powers.
Why do I bring up this regrettable connection between a prominent U.S. Presbyterian and Guatemala? Well, I’m not exactly sure. Of course, Presbyterians today shouldn’t be held responsible for the travesty of another Presbyterian over 50 years ago. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember these things. As we urge that the perpetrators of genocide in Guatemala be brought to justice, it doesn’t hurt for us to be aware of sins from our own past in this part of the world. When we denounce inequitable social structures in Guatemala, it’s not bad for us to confess some historical complicity in the continuation of such structures. In general, I think it’s also good for U.S. Presbyterians to demonstrate extra humility, graciousness and understanding toward Guatemalan Presbyterians in their struggles, and to consciously avoid the arrogance of those who suppose we’re better off than they are because somehow we’re that much better.