When William Morgan was twenty-two years old, he was working as a high school janitor in Toledo, Ohio. Seven years later, in 1958, he walked into a rebel camp in the Cuban jungle to join the revolutionaries in their fight to overthrow the corrupt Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista.
The rebels were wary of the broad-shouldered, blond-haired, blue-eyed Americano—but Morgan’s dedication and passion, his military skill and charisma, led him to become a chief comandante in Castro’s army. He was the only foreigner to hold such a rank, with the exception of Che Guevara. Based on interviews with his friends, family, and former fellow rebels, as well as FBI and CIA documents, this is the remarkable story of his journey—and how it ended in 1961, when at the age of thirty-two, he was executed by firing squad at the hands of Fidel Castro.
“William Morgan, an American who made his way to the front line of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, gets thorough and entertaining treatment in this biography. Largely unknown in the U.S., his story is filled with the suspense of a blockbuster war movie, offering new and insightful perspective into the political climate of 1950s Cuba . . . [turns] the intriguing story of one man into a thoughtful examination of 20th-century Cuban history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A figure straight out of Hemingway.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The Americano’s strength lies in explaining how the three anti-Batista forces constantly jockeyed for supremacy and influence. . . . Shetterly nicely weaves FBI, CIA and State Department files on Morgan into his narrative.” —The Washington Post Book World
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In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapors; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2, no. 17
"Why do I fight here in this land so foreign to my own ... Is it because I seek adventure? No, ... I am here because I belive [sic] that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others ... I cannot say I have always been a good citizen but ... [o]ver the years we as Americans have found that dictators, and communist[s] are bad people with whom to do business yet here is a dictator who has been supported by the communist[s] and he would fall from power tomorrow if it were not for the American aid. And I ask myself why do we support those who would destroy in other lands the ideals which we hold so dearly?"
With these words, a young American named William A. Morgan defended his decision to join the Cuban Rebels in their struggle against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. He set his thoughts down in a letter, dated February 24, 1958, and sent them to the New York Times.
Three years later, on March 15, 1961, Herbert Matthews, the New York Times reporter who received the letter, himself something of a legend with a storied and controversial career, sent a note to his friend Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met more than twenty years earlier while covering the Spanish Civil War. That letter outlined the story of the young Morgan, who had just been executed in Havana by the Cuban authorities. William Morgan had, in Matthews's words, "got himself shot" for conspiring against Cuba's government. After suggesting that Morgan's story reminded him of a Hemingway tale, Matthews went on to summarize Morgan's remarkable time in Cuba as a Rebel hero, ending with the thought that "unfortunately for him, he continued to believe in freedom and to disapprove of Communism." Matthews believed that the young man's resistance to compromise on this point had, in the end, marked his path to the firing squad. "From all accounts," wrote Matthews, "he died bravely."
Three years prior to his execution, Morgan had been fighting on the same side as Fidel Castro. Morgan had helped the young Cuban leader come to power, and had done so believing that he was fighting not only against the tyranny of Batista's dictatorship but for democracy and freedom. Today, after more than two generations of a Castro-run Cuba, it's difficult to remember that in the 1950s one could be for revolution in Cuba, consider Fidel Castro a beacon of democratic justice, and hold the line against Communism. Indeed, even Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist, said that the original intention was "bourgeois reform" but that a series of factors, including violent opposition to the Rebels' early policies, forced the Revolutionaries into a more radical position.
In 1961, as Matthews approached retirement, the legacy of his own career was being called into question. Near the close of his letter to Hemingway, he half-jokingly refers to "what I have to put up with these days" and mentions that demonstrators had picketed the New York Times Building to protest his views on Cuba, specifically his early, enthusiastic support of Fidel Castro. Matthews believed that Fidel's intentions had been democratic, but diplomatic clumsiness and heavy-handedness on the part of the United States, in combination with the inexperience and defensive pride of the young Cuban revolutionaries, had forced an outcome that would be undesirable to both sides, namely an incipient relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Within the context of the Cold War, only a few years past the height of red baiting and McCarthyism, there was little, if any, room in the United States for a nuanced position with respect to Communism. Either Fidel Castro was a Communist or he wasn't.
Mix into this indigenous political culture an angry and influential community of dispossessed exiles — the wealthy and well-connected Cubans who had fled Castro's ever more radical reforms — and discussions about sharing blame for Castro's politics sank like leaky boats caught in the strong Gulf currents. Castro, to them, was a violent thief who had taken what they believed to be theirs.
The Cuban and American businessmen whose interests had been circumscribed by the Revolution knew that crying "Communism!" would elicit a Cold War response from the American government. And so they did, early and often. There was to be no talk about Castro's becoming a Communist. By 1960 the issue had settled, officially, into a starkly contrasting black-and-white binary. Castro — and with him Cuba, as far as the U.S. was concerned — was playing on the wrong side.
In a 1961 review of Matthews's book, The Cuban Story, published in the Nation magazine, Warren Miller wrote that "Matthews must feel, as does anyone who tries to make himself heard on Cuba, that no one wants to listen; or if any do, most are determined to go away unviolated by a new idea." It could be argued that this has changed only in degree over the last forty-four years. The biggest difference may be that fewer people now have any real opinion on the subject and those who do know what they think defend their opinions like dogs guarding meaty bones.
By refusing to relinquish his more nuanced analysis, Matthews found himself marginalized as a popular figure and also at the New York Times itself. Both colleagues and superiors believed that Matthews led with his heart, eschewing the dispassionate role of the reporter, and in so doing had damaged the paper's reputation. There is something to this: when Matthews first journeyed into the Sierra Maestra in 1957 to meet Castro and his guerrilla army, it was clear from his articles that Matthews (like the majority of Americans, among them William Morgan) was rooting for the young revolutionary. It seemed that, in Castro, Matthews saw the Great Latin American Hope. Following their meeting, Matthews wrote that Castro "is a political mind rather than a military one. He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections."
Matthews's coverage of the Cuban rebellion would prompt a mocking cartoon, published in the conservative National Review. It showed Fidel Castro astride his country like a cowboy upon his pony with the tag line, "I got my job through the New York Times."
It is little surprise, therefore, that Matthews's tone in the letter to Hemingway reveals some sympathy for Morgan and the younger man's unwillingness to compromise his hope for a democratic outcome in Cuba. Like Morgan, Matthews maintained optimism long after it became fashionable to do so, and he suffered for it. Unlike Morgan, he did not pay the ultimate price.
When the Cuban government executed Morgan, not everyone in the United States was sympathetic to his cause. Even opponents of Fidel Castro, who might have used the American's death to rally anti-Castro sentiment, stayed clear of Morgan's complex story.
Perhaps Morgan's most outspoken public critic was a syndicated columnist named Westbrook Pegler, who also happened to be a friend of the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. In his columns, Pegler projected gritty common sense guided by un-questioning patriotism. The caricature that accompanied his column presents a man past middle age with the lined face of a smoker set in a head shaped like a bow tie turned on end.
Pegler expressed intense distaste for Morgan. He pegged Morgan as someone with no moral foundation, who determined his allegiance not by the quality of a political ideal but by the size of the possible paycheck. In a column for the New York Journal-American shortly after Morgan's death, Pegler quoted the opinion of an American judge "angrily deplor[ing] the glamorous publicity which some of our press had accorded to William Morgan merely because, in the end, he faced the firing squad with the flippant courage of the traditional Latin American filibuster. When he finally looked death in the eye he did not flinch." However, the judge, concluded: "I had no respect for him [Morgan]. He had no loyalty."
The William Morgan that Pegler described was a "nasty fellow," a brutal soldier of fortune, unconcerned with the cost of winning fame and wealth. In Pegler's opinion, Morgan had "ruined the lives of his respectable mother and father and, in the end, he betrayed first the United States to the Communist regime of Cuba and then betrayed Castro."
Despite his virulent and long-held anti-Castro views, Pegler resisted any temptation to exploit Morgan's execution, to canonize the American as a martyr to the cause of removing Castro from power. Morgan's early support of Castro was an indelible stain. Or was it his opposition to Batista? More important than this, however, was the conviction on the part of Hoover and his friend Pegler that individual Americans should be discouraged from playing a part in any Latin American revolution. The only loyalty that counted was allegiance to the United States and its interests; the dirty work was to be left in the hands of the professionals.
A third impression of Morgan arises from an article written by Laura Bergquist. Bergquist was the only one of these three journalists who had met and interviewed Morgan and the only one who believed that he might not have actually turned against Castro at all. (Surprisingly, for all the time he'd spent in Cuba, Matthews had not met Morgan, though his wife, Nancie, had.)
On a rainy day in August of 1960, more than a year and a half after the Rebel victory, Bergquist was "caroming around Cuba for a Look [magazine] study of Castroland" when she roamed west of Havana to visit an American who was raising frogs.
Bergquist barely noticed the frogs. The "guns and bearded bodyguards" distracted her from the aquaculture. After all, the topic that preoccupied most American journalists beating around Cuba during this period was Communism. More specifically, she wanted to know what this American-turned-Rebel soldier-turned-frog-farmer, William A. Morgan, thought of the government installed by Fidel Castro. She wanted to know if Morgan believed that Fidel was creating a Communist government just ninety miles from the United States.
When Bergquist interviewed Morgan and one of his Cuban assistants, each was outfitted in the olive green uniform of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces,. 38-caliber sidearm belted to his waist. In a photo from her visit, Morgan, short haired, clean shaven, the top two buttons of his military shirt unbuttoned, smiles a broad, relaxed smile.
To an American journalist in Cuba, talking with Morgan must have offered a sense of common ground and easy communication. Surely, with Morgan, Bergquist experienced a feeling common to so many travelers in a foreign land: the instinctual understanding, even trust, of a compatriot. These moments of the familiar in an unfamiliar context lend brief comfort and respite from the struggle to understand the new place.
A series of three photographs that accompany the article capture Morgan's expressive face. The cameraman caught him listening intently in one, raising his eyebrows to convince his audience in the next, and appearing to crack a wry joke from the side of his mouth in the last. This was a man of many expressions ... or masks.
When the military tribunal leveled its charges against Morgan, several months later, Bergquist, obviously charmed by the American Rebel, wrote, "I tend to believe Morgan's innocence, for a number of reasons. Among them was the fact that the Cuban intelligence ... kept a hawk-eye watch on Morgan.... His 'counterrevolutionary' activities supposedly took place in September. Yet, late in August, Morgan was a man bursting with future plans...."
In Cuba, one does not find a diversity of opinions about Morgan. The official history is brief and to the point: Morgan worked for the CIA. He was a pawn of the imperialists. He had no real agency of his own. He represents nothing more than a small, shadowy episode in the David and Goliath narrative that pits Cuba against the United States.
In Toledo, Ohio, Morgan's family and the men and women with whom he'd grown up didn't know what to make of the native son who had ended up so far from home. They couldn't get past the transgressions of his youth. He'd dropped out of high school, spent time in jail, and left his young family behind when he embarked on his Cuban adventure. Surprisingly, given the fact that the Toledo Blade kept close track of Morgan's activities in Cuba, many of his high school classmates continued to believe that Morgan had been a Communist. While this idea might not be consistent with the facts, it, like Pegler's version, fits with a story of wrong choices made and the rejection of all things familiar.
Each version of Morgan's story suits the agenda or interests of the teller. Indeed, the retelling becomes a kind of morality tale, meant to teach a lesson to those who will listen. For Matthews, Morgan supports the belief that Cuba might have become a democracy; Pegler uses him to suggest that only cruel, dangerous people support Latin American revolutions; Bergquist shows that earnest idealists were betrayed by the Revolution. The Cuban government bolsters the argument that they are in a life-and-death battle with an amoral and insidious superpower. Morgan's contemporaries in Toledo emphasize the danger of turning away from solid, Midwestern values.
Since 1961 Morgan's story has rested in an uncomfortable limbo. In the ongoing Cold War between the U.S. and Cuba, it froze. One historian has suggested that if John F. Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, we would know more about Morgan; that those interested in figuring out Morgan's story turned their attention to the mystery of who shot the President. However, the primary reason we might know more about Morgan if Kennedy hadn't been killed in 1963 is that the president was working on a possible rapprochement with Cuba. If the political air between Havana and Washington had grown warmer, Morgan's story would, undoubtedly, be told differently.
Beyond its obvious point, the National Review cartoon attacking Matthews suggests that a single person can affect or alter the flow of a historical moment. William Morgan, a curious but by no means successful man in his life prior to the Cuban Revolution, inserted himself into a pivotal moment in the history of the island and became a leader in one of the most important revolutions in the Western Hemisphere, a figure who had to be taken into account by the governments of both the United States and Cuba. He left behind friends, lovers, and enemies in two countries. He began this journey with little more than chutzpah and a dream of reinventing himself.CHAPTER 2
After peaceful elections in 1944 and 1948, Cuba seemed poised to become a reasonably stable — if corrupt — democracy supported by a large middle class. But in March of 1952, Fulgencio Batista snatched power with a military coup and declared himself president. Many Cubans, especially students and young professionals such as Fidel Castro, who had been running for an elected office in 1952, immediately defied the new regime. By the mid-1950s, robust resistance networks existed throughout the country. In December of 1956, Fidel took a boat from Mexico, where he'd been plotting in exile, and landed with eighty-two guerrillas on the southeastern coast of Cuba. He had returned, as promised, to rid the country of Batista and corruption and to restore democracy. By the end of 1957, Fidel and his followers in the 26th of July Movement had been fighting for almost a year. Other opposition groups, such as the Second National Front of the Escambray, encouraged by the success of the 26th of July Movement, formed rebel units and made their way into the hills to join the armed struggle. The overriding mission shared by all such groups — to force Batista from the country — masked political and ideological differences that would emerge later.
* * *
Late January, 1958
Below his sentry post, Ramiro Lorenzo saw a trail of dust float into the air where a path emerged from the trees. He was expecting Faustinito, a peasant farmer who spent his life cultivating and scavenging the hills of central Cuba. Today, Faustinito was due to deliver a recruit to the Rebel camp. Only two weeks before, Faustinito had led Ramiro himself from the city of Sancti SpÃritus to this Rebel camp in the woods, picking his way along the game trails and streambeds as if he had made them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Americano"
Copyright © 2007 Aran Shetterly.
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What People are Saying About This
"The Americano is history at its best: a brilliant, fast-paced account based on solid research that reads like a great epic novel. . . . As engaging as it is revealing, this narrative opens up the history of the Cuban Revolution from within as no other English-language book has ever done."—Carlos Eire, winner of the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction (Waiting for Snow in Havana)
"A compelling history of one of the most intriguing characters and mysteries of the Cuban Revolution." —Ann Louise Bardach, author of Cuba Confidential and coeditor of Fidel Castro’s Prison Letters