The Fish That Ate the Whale:
The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
By Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 320pp; $27.00
In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état in Guatemala that was more ruse than revolution. Agents transmitted fake newscasts of a right-wing uprising, dropped smoke bombs on Guatemala City, and sent a 39-year-old ex-colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas to invade the country with a band of 400 mercenaries. That the operation succeeded in ousting Guatemala’s democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz, was a surprise. That the CIA itself had been manipulated was a catastrophe.
Behind the ruse-within-a-ruse was the most powerful man in Central America, banana salesman Samuel Zemurray, the subject of Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale. Zemurray epitomized the gumption it takes to rise from the depths of poverty to great heights. But his story is also a lesson in what it means for a business to have too much power.
The author of Tough Jews and Sweet and Low, Cohen has created a cottage industry of books about ruthless Jews. Among them, Zemurray stands out as a contradiction: He supported FDR’s New Deal, donated bundles to Tulane University, and built hospitals across Central America—but he crushed fledgling democracies when elected leaders had the gall to demand anything resembling fair play. In the same way Halliburton maintained cozy ties with the Bush Administration, Zemurray’s executives at United Fruit swung easily between government roles and positions at the giant fruit importer. State and corporate interests blurred and the country carried out Zemurray’s dirty work.
By the early 1950s, United Fruit owned 70 percent of all the private land in Guatemala. It grew crops on only 15 percent of it and kept the rest in reserve. To open the land, President Arbenz signed a decree expropriating Zemurray’s uncultivated acres and distributed it to peasant farmers. He had made a terrible enemy.
Zemurray turned to Edward Bernays, often called the “father of public relations,” to help him fight back. Bernays claimed to apply the scientific methods of Sigmund Freud, his uncle, to propaganda. Rather than appeal to Washington on behalf of United Fruit, he found a way to weave their interests together. Bernays planted reports and articles in newspapers, including the New York Times, about how Arbenz had established a communist toehold in the Western Hemisphere. In actuality Arbenz was not an ideologue, but it didn’t matter. Bernays had whipped the McCarthy-era U.S. into a froth, and President Eisenhower approved “Operation Success.”
Once installed as president, Armas, the CIA’s strawman, returned the expropriated land to United Fruit. He also abolished unions and closed newspapers. When he was assassinated three years later, the instability triggered a civil war that left 200,000 Guatemalans dead. When details of the operation surfaced days later, the Justice Department punished United Fruit by filing an antitrust suit. “I feel guilty about some of the things we did,” Zemurray later said. “Maybe we can’t make the people love us, but we will make ourselves so useful to them that they will want us to stay.”
Guatemala may have been Zemurray’s most infamous intervention but it was far from his first. Even before he took over United Fruit, he’d made his career out of upending the Establishment. A poor Russian Jew who moved to Selma, Ala., in 1892, Zemurray began selling bananas off the side of a boxcar at rail stations and over time graduated to plantations in Honduras. “Sam Zemurray was without precedent,” writes Cohen. “The schnorrer, the pushcart nebbish, the fruit jobber from the docks. He came from nowhere to create not just a fortune but an archetype, the gringo in platonic form.”
By the 1910s bananas had become the most popular fruit in the U.S.—even though none grew there. To acquire as much land as possible before anyone else, Zemurray borrowed from bankers and mobsters alike. For his company at the time, Cuyamel Fruit, to remain profitable, he bribed and threatened Honduran officials to extract concessions on taxes and duties. In 1910, however, Zemurray faced a problem. The U.S. State Department had brokered a debt refinance agreement with Honduras that would bring J. Pierpont Morgan bankers into customs houses. The bankers would surely catch on to Zemurray’s bribes—and Morgan was too big to bully.
Instead of giving up, Zemurray organized a clandestine invasion from New Orleans. He loaded a gunship with mercenaries, weapons, and a puppet revolutionary named General Manuel Bonilla. Within a month, Bonilla took over Honduras and rewarded Zemurray with 24,700 acres of land. The victory set Cuyamel up as a contender to face the older and far larger United Fruit, and the two ultimately merged, earning Zemurray $30 million in shares. Zemurray had been assimilated but not beaten. During the Great Depression, when United Fruit stock fell 90 percent, Zemurray staged a takeover. “You gentlemen have been f–king up this business long enough,” he told the board of directors.
“To me,” Cohen writes, “Sam Zemurray’s life is the true story of the American dream—not only of the success but of the prices paid for the ambition that led to success,” he writes.
Like a magnet, two poles lie at the ends of American success: You can succeed by empowering others or you can succeed by exploiting them. Here’s a man (partly if not wholly) responsible for plunging Guatemala into decades of violence. Today Honduras, the country that Zemurray most influenced, has the highest murder rate in the world, and despite its rich soil is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Cohen writes, “If he had one regret, it might have been that he did not raise his children as Jews.” If that’s true, Zemurray never fully reckoned with his terrible legacy.