BITTER FRUIT appears at an opportune moment: the Reagan administration is increasingly worried by developments in Guatemala, where the fiercely anti-Communist Lucas regime confronts a growing challenge from guerrillas of the revolutionary left. The "Pax Americana" is threatened: the State Department claims that international Communist aggression has already marked Guatemala as its next target (after El Salvador), and its people need U.S. assistance. President Reagan is ready--indeed, eager--to lend a hand, but Congress keeps focusing on the disastrous human rights record of the Guatemalan regime, and asks embarrassing questions of administration officials attempting rhetorical acrobatics to uplift the image of their Guatemalan prot,eg,es. In the words of a frustrated lobbyist, "Nobody wants to put himself on the line on the Hill, asking for weapons for Guatemala--even conservative congressmen don't want to get involved."

Bitter Fruit does not deal directly with the present situation; it focuses on an earlier moment in U.S.-Guatemalan relations, an episode which provoked little controversy in the United States; most Americans probably remember it dimly, if at all. It had, however, as the authors note, a decisive effect on the history of Guatemala and is engraved in the memory of many Latin Americans. In the year 1954, the "Pax Americana" was threatened not by guerrillas, but by the democratic--albeit left-wing--government of President Jacobo Arbenz.

Those were simpler times, when ill-behaved governments of banana republics could be overthrown with relative ease (unlike today's Sandinistas), and when European and Latin American allies dared not interfere with U.S. policy in the Caribbean area, even if they thought that Washington's actions were senseless. The Eisenhower administration was able to overthrow the "Red Jacobo" in June 1954 without landing a single Marine (it sent, instead, a handful of CIA agents). In the United States, Arbenz's fall was celebrated by the Congress and the press as a great victory for freedom. Naivet,e and intellectual dishonesty joined hands to create the myth that Washington had given only moral support to Arbenz's foes, and that the Guatemalan people had been saved from the clutches of the Red Octopus (to borrow the colorful expression of Senator Alexander Wiley, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee).

Beginning with the pathbreaking study by the North American Congress on Latin America (Guatemala, 1974), several authors have attempted to assess the true role and motivations of the United States in the overthrow of Arbenz. But none has succeeded as well as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, who have gathered extensive documentation through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with key U.S. participants. One may quarrel with some of their interpretations--for instance, their emphasis on economic considerations in the decision to move against Arbenz--but only the most biased reader could accuse them of lack of objectivity. They let their impressive evidence speak for itself--it is hardly their fault if, as is so often the case with U.S. policy in Latin America, the evidence relates a sordid story.

It is their good luck, however, that the plot they unfold is full of cloak-and-dagger incidents--all well documented, with the CIA in the leading role--fully justifying the publisher's claim in its publicity material that the book will appeal not only to scholars and students of Latin America, but also to "espionage fans."

Yet if the plot is lively, the story is painful. Step by step the authors reveal how the overthrow of Arbenz's reformist government was brought about not through internal unrest in Guatemala or the invasion of a handful of exiles, but through calculated covert actions and ruthless psychological warfare by the United States that ultimately led to the betrayal of Arbenz by the Guatemalan army.

But Bitter Fruit exposes more than the machinations of the Eisenhower administration: it also portrays the naivet,e of the American press (including such stalwarts of the liberal establishment as The Washington Post and The New York Times ). In the case of New York Times' correspondent Sydney Gruson, who had become too perceptive on Guatemalan developments, the matter was settled in a quiet dinner between Allen Dulles and a Times executive: in the name of patriotism, the paper kept Gruson out of Guatemala until after Arbenz had been brought down.

In the final analysis--and this is a point that Bitter Fruit fails to emphasize--the overthrow of Arbenz was not just the achievement of the Eisenhower administration, but the product of a bipartisan consensus that included liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, journalists and politicians. In other words, it was America at its worst, intolerant, aggressive, unsophisticated and racist--the America of the early 1950s, of McCarthy and Jim Crow laws, and a particular contempt for little (and less white) banana republics.

One leaves Bitter Fruit with a bitter taste indeed: whether the United States overthrew Arbenz for economic considerations or out of anticommunist paranoia, the Guatemalan people are still paying the heavy price of Washington's victory. As Schlesinger and Kinzer point out in their careful conclusion, with the fall of Arbenz, "the evolutionary process of social growth leading toward nationhood was prematurely stunted."

Men like Jacobo Arbenz, Ch,e Manuel Fortuny, Carlos Paz Tejada and Charnaud MacDonald, who represented the hopes and contradictions of the three years of the best government that the Guatemalan people have ever had, were forced into exile. In their stead the United States imposed not a moderate government (this was the Arbenz formula) but the only possible alternative: a government of the extreme right, of landowners made even more brutal by the nightmare of Arbenz's agrarian reform and corrupt officers whose sense of nationhood was replaced by fear of Washington and love of graft. These are the children of the American intervention. They have held power, through terror, since 1954.