William Morgan was a troubled American, a dishonorably discharged soldier and Mafia associate who, driven by his own personality, traveled to Cuba in 1957 to join Castro’s rebellion. Morgan was inspired by the credulous and dishonest journalism of the New York Times’s Herbert Matthews and other yellow journalists of the day, who swooned over the Cuban guerilla. Now Morgan’s strange life and stranger death are recounted rather more honestly by the New Yorker’s David Grann. Grann’s story opens where so many thousands of Cuban stories ended, in the moat at La Cabaña prison, in the glare of lights and the smell of cordite, standing in the gore of other victims.
Morgan, who was thirty-two, blinked into the lights. He faced a firing squad.
The gunmen gazed at the man they had been ordered to kill. Morgan was nearly six feet tall, and had the powerful arms and legs of someone who had survived in the wild. With a stark jaw, a pugnacious nose, and scruffy blond hair, he had the gallant look of an adventurer in a movie serial, of a throwback to an earlier age, and photographs of him had appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. The most alluring images—taken when he was fighting in the mountains, with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—showed Morgan, with an untamed beard, holding a Thompson submachine gun. Though he was now shaved and wearing prison garb, the executioners recognized him as the mysterious Americano who once had been hailed as a hero of the revolution.
It was March 11, 1961, two years after Morgan had helped to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista, bringing Castro to power. The revolution had since fractured, its leaders devouring their own, like Saturn, but the sight of Morgan before a firing squad was a shock.
Morgan’s death brought no end to the mystery and debate about his life, but Grann’s effort, clearly the product of months if not years of research, interviews, FOIA requests and archive crawls, makes him a much more rounded character than the one who appears in contemporary lightweight journalism (like Mathews’s), Cuban propaganda, or conspiracy-theorist maunderings. The article is good, engaging, and well-written. You know what we’re going to tell you next, right? Right. Read the whole thing.
In a region that does not lack for examples of misrule and prototypes of dictators, Cuba’s sad history stands out, and since Fidel Castro’s public embrace of his brother’s always-overt Marxist-Leninist ideology, Castro has been the lodestone for many would-be caudillos. Cuba’s revolution also illustrates the unhappy but true maxim: historically, most revolutions have left most people worse off than the status quo ante. Batista may have been crooked and cruel (and Grann does dwell at length on apocryphal stories of Batistiano bestiality), but his was cruelty as cottage industry. It took Leninism and Castro to make cruelty the assembly-line, jet-age industry of a nation.
There are many lessons in the Cuban example, and in the pitiful story arc of William Morgan from juvenile delinquent to a set of wretched remains still held hostage by los hermanos Castro, for, as far as anyone can tell, their own amusement.
(In addition to the deep synthesis provided by the Grann article, this page provides many Morgan links, including contemporaneous sources).
Morgan’s survival in a guerilla war at all, given what Grann’s story exposes of his fieldcraft and tradecraft, illustrates the role of luck in war, as well as the genuine incompetence and utter absence of ruthlessness among the supposed Batistiano Menace. That was one Batista error that Castro did not repeat.
The problem with relying on luck is that, as Morgan must have realized as he stared into a thicket of gun muzzles, luck has a way of running out on you.