Earlier this year, while researching a piece on the Guatemalan Revolution, I picked up the book Bitter Fruit about the 1954 US-backed coup d’état against Guatemala’s democratically-elected government. I learned that during the 1940s, the United States imposed a weapons embargo on Guatemala, which left it short of weaponry during the 1954 invasion. Then I came across a passage mentioning how Hubert Julian, a black man from Harlem, was the only American who defied Washington and sold guns to the Guatemalan government. I stopped in my tracks.
At the time, President Eisenhower’s government was persecuting alleged communists and their sympathizers. And so peddling weapons to the purported communist Guatemalan president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, would have been considered an act of treason. When I reached out to one of the authors of Bitter Fruit to ask if he or his co-author had left anything out about Julian, he said he didn’t think so. But he did remember being surprised to find out that president Árbenz had help from Julian, who was not only an American, but “someone from the black community, which at the time was regularly controlled, persecuted, and oppressed.” Julian’s son, Mark Julian, echoes this remarkable fact about his father, “he did things no black man should’ve done, and very few white men could have done.”
After further research, I learned more about Julian’s extraordinary life. In addition to being a licensed arms dealer, he was an aviator, a World War II veteran and paratrooper. He was also a beloved figure in the Harlem Renaissance, along with Duke Ellington, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey. Julian was tall, elegant, and extroverted. He wore a suit and tie, donned a top hat, and spoke with the rhythmic cadence of a British person. He would tip one dollar for a 75-cent haircut. Stories about his life and work were published in Air & Space Magazine, Medium, and The New Yorker; he also made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show. There is even a photograph of Julian at the New York State Public Library in Albany, shaking hands with Cassius Clay.
Yet, few people today have heard of Julian. Fewer still are familiar with the part he played in the history of Guatemala, why he got involved, and how, if his last deal with Árbenz had gone through, the country’s history may have been very different.
Julian was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1897. He reported that the first time he saw an airplane was when American pilot Frank Boland performed an air show over Port of Spain on January 3, 1913. Boland lost control of his plane and crashed to the ground, which killed him instantly. Despite the terrible accident, Julian was inspired by Boland’s daring, and wrote in his autobiography, “[f]rom that day on all my interest was in flying. I made up my mind to be one of this race of birdman myself.”
At the start of World War I when Julian was only seventeen years old, he enlisted in the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment of the British West Indies. After five weeks of training, the army deemed him medically unfit to go to war. Two years later, and against his father’s will, he traveled to Montreal to become an aviator. Once there, Julian says he learned to fly from the famed aviator and war veteran Billy Bishop.
In 1921, Julian arrived in Harlem and crossed paths with Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, whose courage, according to a documentary directed by Billy Tooma, impressed Julian. Newly emboldened, Julian began to introduce himself as lieutenant Hubert Julian from the Canadian Royal Air Force. To support his new identity, he hired a tailor to make a fake military suit for him.
On September 3, 1922, Julian made his first parachute jump during a parade in Long Island headlined by Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman pilot. During the following months, Julian performed jumps all over Harlem, stunts that earned him his moniker, “the Black Eagle of Harlem.”
In the 1930s he frequently flew to Ethiopia to help the locals during the second Italo-Ethiopian war, and then later became a commercial pilot. In the 1940s, after hearing how Hermann Göring, the Third Reich’s minister of aviation, called people of color apes, Julian was enraged and publicly challenged the Nazi leader to an aerial duel. He wrote, “it would be a pleasure to die amidst bomb and shell, just to show what dirty rats the Nazis are.” On July 3, 1942, forty-four-year-old Julian enlisted in the US military. But the duel never took place. In September of that same year, he was discharged because of his age. However, because of his months of service, he got his American citizenship.
After the war ended in 1945, Julian used his savings and the money he got from his deceased parents’ estate to fund his own airline. His original intention was to transport medicine and electronic equipment to South America, but that changed after a trip to Indonesia. There he’d met with the rebel leader Sukarno who needed weapons to win independence from the Netherlands. Julian saw a great business opportunity, and decided to look into selling weapons and military equipment to developing nations. In March 1949, he registered with the US Department of State as an arms and ammunition seller. Months later, Julian met Árbenz.
Julian first got involved in Guatemala in 1949, when a military aide to President Harry Truman introduced him to the military attaché at the Guatemalan Embassy, colonel Óscar Morales López. During this meeting, Julian learned that Morales “was seeking all kinds of equipment on behalf of his government.” At the time, when Juan José Arévalo was president of Guatemala, the US government still trusted Guatemala’s political decisions. Or at least, it didn’t resent them. And although the weapons embargo was still standing, Washington didn’t seem to monitor whether any of its independent sellers had a relationship with Guatemala. This proved to be a great opportunity for Julian. He went ahead and found the items for Morales in Europe.
“The Guatemalans were delighted,” Julian wrote. “They paid cash on the nail, so I too was very happy.” In July 1949, Julian flew to Guatemala for the first time. He walked out of the airport wearing a Panama hat, took a taxi to downtown Guatemala City, and checked into the Pan-American Hotel. The next morning he met with government representatives, including Árbenz, who was currently serving as Minister of Defense. He explained to them his specialty and left his business card.
Morales contacted him saying, “our list of needs has grown.” He told Julian the government required armored cars, Jeeps, combat boots, and rifles. “Fulfill this order,” Morales told him, “and there will be others like it.” Julian had the liberty to set the price. He found the supplies including 4,800 pairs of boots he purchased from the Arnoff Shoe Company in New York City for $2 a pair. He turned around and sold them to the Guatemalans for $4.20 a pair.
When Árbenz became president in March of 1951, one of his first orders was to update and expand the country’s armament. They called Julian. “He was now Guatemala’s official arms procurer,” wrote a biographer.
Between 1951 and 1952, Julian sold Árbenz’s government twelve M3 Half-track armored cars, 250 thousand rounds of ammunition, three thousand boots, numerous Jeeps, and a generous load of recoilless rifles.
By then tensions were rising between the US and Guatemalan governments. Árbenz had set into motion Decreto 900, an agrarian reform that sought to redistribute idle land to landless peasants. This law was considered by Washington to be a move against US interests and against the United Fruit Company, an American corporation. In September 1952, an agent from the US Department of State visited Julian in his Harlem office, and let him know that selling “sophisticated” weapons, such as anti-aircraft arms, to a dubious government went against US interests. Julian listened and didn’t mention that he had just ordered twelve Oerlikon cannons from a Swiss arms company for the Guatemalan army. In fact, the cannons had already left a port in Belgium and were on their way to Guatemala via New York.
Julian wasn’t willing to let go of what had been his most lucrative business. Since he had begun selling to Guatemala, he had made over $200,000. In his autobiography, he describes how, at that time, he carried more money in his wallet than what the average American citizen made in a year. “I was looking to keep that business flowing for many years,” he wrote.
At the end of September, just days after an agent from the Department of State talked to him, Julian got a cable saying that the cannons had reached Guatemala in mint condition. He earned $48,000 from that deal, and spent over half of it to buy a custom-made Rolls Royce. His new luxury car had foam-rubber cushions, pull-up steps, a mini bar, and a microphone, which allowed Julian to give instructions to the driver from the backseat. It attracted the attention of local reporters, who pushed him for details. He told them about the contracts with the Guatemalan government, which he insisted were legal but should remain secret due to US hostility toward Árbenz’s regime.
Why he shared this information with the press is a mystery. His son Mark reasons that it was a business decision. “He was his own PR agent,” he says. Tooma, a documentarian, comes to a similar conclusion. “What I think happened is that Julian wanted to keep the contracts flowing,” Tooma says. It’s possible that Julian was thinking of the long-term, risking his relationship with Guatemala for the opportunity to advertise his work to the world. Whatever the reason, when Árbenz found out about the Rolls Royce, and how Julian spoke openly with reporters about some of the details of their deals, he fired him.
Julian was enraged. “One day I will fly back to Guatemala in a jet plane at six hundred miles per hour. My friends had better paint their roofs black as identification against the bombing and revenge of the Black Eagle,” he wrote.
Days later, government officials told Árbenz that although Julian had indeed delivered the twelve Oerlikon cannons, he didn’t send a single shell, rendering the cannons useless. Now desperate, Árbenz tried to find the rounds through independent sellers, but no one wanted to take a risk with him. He had no choice but to call Julian back. Julian’s gamble had paid off.
Julian promised Árbenz he would remain quiet while doing all he could to get the shells. In return, the Guatemalan government would pay Julian a monthly wage on top of the cost of the items sold. Julian finally found the shells in Italy, and convinced the manufacturers to not say a word about the deal. He then flew to Italy and gave instructions to ship the ammunition straight to Guatemala. But things didn’t go as planned, and on November 16, 1953, the ship docked in New York City. The customs agent walked aboard the ship, performed a routine check, and then casually asked the captain where the 170 boxes of ammunition were going. “To Puerto Barrios, Guatemala,” the captain responded. The shipment was seized immediately.
“No, it can’t be!” Julian barked when he found out about what had happened. He had mortgaged his house to pay for the shells and the shipment. The next day he filed for bankruptcy.
Several months later in Guatemala, a counterrevolution against Árbenz backed and funded by the CIA gained ground. On the morning of June 18, an airplane pilot flew over the capital, dropping thousands of pamphlets asking for the president’s resignation. The leaflets announced that if Árbenz was still in office by dawn, the C-47 aircraft would return to destroy the country’s arsenal and bomb the National Palace. The messages were signed by the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, Carlos Castillo Armas’s political party. Well into the afternoon, two P-47 Thunderbolt planes descended over the city, dropping bombs around the Guardia de Honor, one of Guatemala’s most important military bases. Árbenz held out for nine days of attacks, but on June 27, 1954, he gave up and resigned. A few days later, the anti-communist Castillo Armas assumed the presidency.
In August, Julian had a long conversation with officials at the US Department of State, which concluded with his promise to not do business with communist regimes. In return, he got his passport back. Days later, Julian sent a cable to Castillo Armas, congratulating him on his victory and offering him arms dealing services.
“No, thanks,” Castillo Armas replied.
In his autobiography, Julian closes the chapter about Guatemala saying that, as far as he was concerned, he always worked legally, and that’s all that mattered to him. “Árbenz’s regime was the duly elected and properly constituted government of the country, which was perfectly entitled to retain me to buy arms or any other goods. The internal politics of the country were no affair of mine,“ he wrote.
After his time in Guatemala, Julian sold weapons to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was also the democratically elected president of his country, and who could be described as many things, but not a communist. One of Julian’s last weapons contracts was with Moise Tshombe, a leader during the Congo crisis.
“My father didn’t care about no politics,” says his son. “He just wanted to make money.”
An earlier version of this story was published in Plaza Pública.