Here’s a suggestion for Memorial Day reading, if you’re going to a beach or simply resting in your backyard enjoying the good weather. Buy the May 28th issue of The New Yorker (yes, I know it usually is knee-jerk leftist when it comes to politics), which features an amazing article by author David Grann called “TheYankee Comandante: A Story of love, revolution, and betrayal.”
Grann’s reportage is so good that you will think you are reading good fiction — either a thriller or an adventure story — except that he is telling the very real story of the late William Alexander Morgan, who, as a young man in his 20s, went off to Cuba in 1957 to fight alongside Fidel Castro and his rebels in the guerrilla army seeking to bring down the regime of Fulgencio Batista, the long-ruling authoritarian and corrupt leader of Cuba. I hope that someone gets this article to Andy Garcia and that this Cuban-American exile actor considers optioning it for a film before someone else does.
There were a few other Americans who fought with Castro, but Morgan was the only one to be awarded the rank of comandante, usually reserved for the likes of Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Huber Matos, and, of course, Fidel himself. Like other naive and idealistic young Americans, Morgan was taken with Castro’s cause, having heard many stories about the ruthlessness and brutality of Batista, especially towards his enemies. He went to fight with Castro, he said, because “the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others.”
Two things strike the reader on the very first page of the article. The first is a large photo of Castro applauding Morgan at a Havana meeting in 1959, soon after his victory and the collapse of the Bastista government. The second is the opening paragraph, in which Grann writes about the night in which the now 32-year-old man faced Castro’s firing squad at La Cabana, an 18th century stone fortress overlooking Havana’s harbor. As Morgan stood waiting to be killed, one of Castro’s soldiers yelled out that he should kneel and plead for his life. Morgan answered: “I kneel for no man.” The soldiers then shot him in the knee, forcing him to kneel, before they shot off his head in a blast of gunfire.
What happened between 1957 and Morgan’s execution on the orders of Castro is the story that Grann tells. He describes secret meetings of the CIA and Morgan’s seeming alliance with the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was putting together a secret force to murder Castro. He also tells of Morgan’s friendships and alliances with a key member of the Mafia, Dominick Bartone; the secretive head of the International Rescue Committee, Leo Cherne; and other major players in the various efforts to deal with the reality that Fidel Castro and his rebel band had become Cuba’s new rulers.
I do not wish to try to summarize the twists and turns in the story Grann tells. It is also the subject of a 2007 book by Aran Shetterly, Morgan’s biographer. I have not read The Americano, but although Grann gives the author credit as “incisive,” Grann brings the story up to the present, having interviewed Morgan’s children and the woman he married in a brief guerrilla ceremony, Olga Rodriguez, who fought beside him and was later imprisoned for years by Castro.
If one wishes to gain insight into the living hell that Fidel Castro created in Cuba, look no further than Grann’s article. Castro, like Adolf Hitler, was given luxury treatment when he was imprisoned for trying to overthrow Batista’s government at an earlier moment, before he took to the mountains with his guerrilla band. While incarcerated, he delivered his famous speech, “History Will Absolve Me,” which was published throughout Cuba — the equivalent of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, also written in a luxury prison given Hitler by the Weimar Republic after his Munich beer hall putsch.
Castro has now been in power for many decades and through the reigns of eight American presidents. It is already clear that history will not absolve Fidel Castro, whose crimes have been thoroughly exposed and with whom the oppressed populace of Cuba are all but fed up. Grann’s readers will learn, perhaps for the first time, what kind of treatment Castro gave his political prisoners when they were thrown into his regime’s jail cells. Not only is there no special status for political prisoners, they are the ones singled out for the worst treatment — forced to live in the kind of conditions you would not wish on your worst enemy. Morgan himself was put in solitary confinement for a month, where he became ill, convinced that the food he was being fed was filled with toxic poison. Later, his food was filled with ground glass.
As for Morgan, his greatest mistake was to be taken in by the charisma and leadership skills of Fidel Castro, who he believed (against all evidence to the contrary) was dedicated to creating a democratic republic in Cuba and against making any deals with the Communists, whom Morgan thought Castro opposed. Like so many others in the gullible Western left wing, he overlooked anything that showed the reality: Castro was turning to the Communists as the one group whose members would guarantee that the revolution he led would survive, and that a Marxist-Leninist cadre was needed to provide ideology for the public and the mechanism for social control — so fully developed in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.
Morgan learned the truth much too late, after having done his part in helping Castro stem various attacks that might have succeeded in derailing his regime in its earliest years. Even Herbert Matthews, the gullible New York Times journalist who gave Castro free publicity during his guerrilla campaign, wrote Ernest Hemingway what may be the simplest and most direct assessment written about Morgan:
Here was an obviously uneducated and very simple, tough guy who yet went to Cuba, as he says, to fight for American principles of freedom and against Communism. He went on doing so for so long he got himself executed.
Morgan himself, writing from prison to one of his sons from an earlier marriage, told the boy: “Love your God- and Your Country- and Stand Up for both. And I know that your Country…will Always be proud of you.”
William Henry Morgan made a big mistake — trusting in Fidel Castro and his cause, only to learn that Castro’s goal was not the one Morgan though he was fighting for: democracy in Cuba. Now, David Grann has allowed us to learn about Morgan, and to honor him as one of our country’s great sons, who came to realize the nation he left was the one whose principles he loved and sought to fight for. For those deluded young people among us who believe they should spend their brief time on this earth working on behalf of tyrants who claim to stand for freedom and democracy, Morgan’s story should give them pause. It deserves as wide a readership as possible.