“Speak only good of the dead” is usually a sound maxim. But if I were ever compelled to say something good about the late Fidel Castro, I would have to fall back on a quip that comedian Morey Amsterdam made about the Cuban despot many years ago: “Anybody who has a firing squad and shoots only twenty people a week can’t be all bad.”
So instead I’m going to devote this post to the memory of a neglected hero of the Cuban revolution—an American named William Alexander Morgan.
I was 11 years old when I read the New York Daily News account of Morgan’s execution. Morgan was an American adventurer who had gone to Cuba in 1958 to join the fight against Fulgencio Batista. A brave and resourceful soldier, he became a comandante in Castro’s army—the only foreigner to attain that rank apart from Che Guevara. Yet, just three years after he arrived, Castro denounced him as a traitor and ordered him shot.
I don’t know why that newspaper article lay dormant in the back of my mind for decades afterwards. I think it was because I was a boy who loved the King Arthur stories, and Morgan seemed to me a modern-day knight-errant. So when I chanced upon a copy of The Americano, the first full-length life of Morgan by journalist Aran Shetterly (Algonquin Books, 2007), I decided to read the story of this strange, romantic figure.
I wasn’t disappointed. Morgan might have stepped from the pages of a Hemingway novel—except that Hemingway would never have strained his readers’ credulity by having one of his heroes climb to the roof of a building with a machine gun slung across his shoulder and drive away an enemy bomber single-handed. Morgan did.
When he first found his way to a rebel encampment in Cuba’s Escambray Mountains, the 29-year-old Morgan was greeted with understandable skepticism. He was fair-skinned, fleshy and obviously unaccustomed to tropical climates. Worse, he spoke scarcely a word of Spanish and had little military training. He had served briefly in the U.S. Army but had spent most of his time either AWOL or in the stockade. As a civilian, he had drifted from one dead-end job to another.
Still, he was bull strong and displayed a marked aptitude for knife throwing and hand-to-hand combat. So he was accepted.
He soon proved himself a born leader of men, winning not only battles, but the hearts of his new comrades and the Cuban people, who hailed him as “El Americano.”
When Batista fled the country, Morgan remained in Cuba. He had been a failure at home, so he decided to stay in the land where he had earned success, admiration, and a popularity that made Fidel Castro nervous, since Morgan was an outspoken anti-Communist.
Morgan, for his part, publicly dismissed rumors that Castro was a secret Red. He did more than that. When agents of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, invited Morgan to join them in a coup they were orchestrating against the new regime, Morgan played along with them until he learned their plans, and then he betrayed the whole plot to Castro.
To some leaders, Morgan’s taking on the risky role of double agent in such an affair might be regarded as proof of his loyalty. Fidel took a different view. This mysterious American with a murky past had joined the Cuban revolution uninvited, and had established himself as a popular and charismatic leader. Was he an idealist—or a CIA agent? Why had the Dominicans assumed he would fall in with their plans to overthrow Castro, and just how far had he committed himself before turning back? This yanqui, Fidel decided, was too clever by half.
He may have been right. In his book, Aran Shettlerly maintains that Morgan finally concluded that Castro was a Red after all, and decided to join the growing anti-Castro forces in the mountains. But Fidel struck first and had him arrested. After the formality of a trial, in which he steadfastly protested his innocence, William Morgan was sentenced to death.
The dashing hero to the end, he requested to be shot immediately, even though it was then after dark, rather than being kept waiting until dawn. According to witnesses, he whistled on his way to the execution wall. If my memory of that long-ago Daily News article is accurate, Castro spent the same evening at a party.
Morgan was buried in an unmarked grave in Havana’s Cemetario Colon. Since 2002, his widow and relations have been agitating for the return of his remains.
It would be nice if Morgan could finally rest under a proper headstone in the land of his birth. But perhaps his real monument is a letter he wrote to reporter Herbert Matthews of the New York Times in February 1958, explaining his reasons for joining the Cuban rebels. “Why do I fight here in this land so foreign to my own?” he asked, rhetorically. “Why did I come here far from my home and family? … Is it because I seek adventure? No … I am here because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others.”
Fidel Castro betrayed the Cuban revolution. William Morgan believed in freedom for others and died for it. Maybe one day he will finally get his due.
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