Peurifoy, John Emil

August 9, 1907–August 12, 1955

Upon passing civil service examinations in 1938, Peurifoy gained employment at the U.S. State Department within the office processing export licenses.

Diplomat. “Jack” Peurifoy was born in Walterboro on August 9, 1907, the son of John H. Peurifoy and Emily Wright. After graduating from high school in Walterboro in 1926, he joined the cadet corps at the U.S. Military Academy, but chronic ill-health forced him to withdraw two years later. For the next several years Peurifoy resided in various states, holding a variety of jobs. By 1934 he was living in Washington, D.C., employed as an elevator operator in the U.S. Senate Office Building. He married Betty Jane Cox, a schoolteacher from Kansas City, in 1936. Their marriage produced two sons.

Upon passing civil service examinations in 1938, Peurifoy gained employment at the U.S. State Department within the office processing export licenses. Although he attended American University and George Washington University, he never graduated from either institution. After the outbreak of World War II, he became a staff assistant with the Board of Economic Warfare. By 1942 he was a special assistant to the Office of Public Affairs at the State Department. Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius in 1945 assigned him to coordinate logistical support for the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. In March 1946 he became special assistant to Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson. On Acheson’s recommendation, in March 1947 Secretary of State George C. Marshall appointed Peurifoy assistant secretary of state for administration. Foremost among his many duties was assuring that State Department employees were not participating in subversive political activities.

In July 1950 President Harry S. Truman nominated Peurifoy to be U.S. ambassador to Greece. Since a major civil war recently had concluded, he found that Greece’s domestic politics were highly unstable. Accordingly, he intervened repeatedly to strengthen anti-Communist political parties and to enhance the constitutional authority of the Greek monarchy. Peurifoy was also a consistent promoter of American interests throughout the eastern Mediterranean. During his tenure in Greece, Peurifoy gained a reputation for being a dedicated “Cold Warrior.”

Although a lifelong Democrat, Peurifoy was retained in January 1953 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office. The following October, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles appointed Peurifoy to be U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. The Eisenhower administration was openly hostile to the left-wing policies of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Peurifoy alleged that Arbenz was attempting to secure closer ties with the Soviet Union. He cooperated closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to organize a coup to overthrow Arbenz’s democratically elected government. In June 1954 Peurifoy’s influence was paramount in uniting the rebel forces behind Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, the Eisenhower administration’s chosen leader.

By September 1954 Peurifoy had become U.S. ambassador to Thailand. His arrival in Bangkok coincided with the growing influence of the United States within Southeast Asia, especially Indochina. Secretary Dulles expected Peurifoy to assume a lead role in combating Communism within that region. But on August 12, 1955, Peurifoy was killed after his car collided with a truck on a rural highway near Hua Hun, Thailand. His younger son, David Peurifoy, also died in the accident. Although these deaths were officially ruled accidental, rumors persisted that the two had been assassinated. They were both interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lewis, Flora. “Ambassador Extraordinary: John Peurifoy.” New York Times Magazine, July 18, 1954, pp. 9, 23, 26.

Schlesinger, Stephen C., and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Peurifoy, John Emil
  • Coverage August 9, 1907–August 12, 1955
  • Author
  • Keywords Diplomat, employment at the U.S. State Department, staff assistant with the Board of Economic Warfare, U.S. ambassador to Greece, U.S. ambassador to Thailand
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 24, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 22, 2019
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