I'm currently working on a book about the 1979 "Greensboro (North Carolina) Massacre." This project, under contract with Amistad/HarperCollins, has received support from Virginia Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
THE AMERICANO, Algonquin Books
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.
Publishers Weekly's starred review of THE AMERICANO: Fighting with Castro for Cuba's Freedom stated: "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."
The Americano is currently under development for a TV series.
Watch PBS's American Experience documentary American Comandante in which I appeared to talk about William Morgan's life, his time in Cuba, and J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with keeping him from being viewed as an American hero and democratic freedom fighter.
AN EXCERPT FROM THE PROLOGUE OF THE AMERICANO
During the summer of 2002, Comandante Raul Nieves invited me to his duplex apartment across from the Malecon sea wall and promenade in Havana to talk about the Escambray and the Revolution.
Nieves, in his seventies now, is a little hard of hearing, which may account in part for his revolutionary shout, a tone I encountered often among Cubans who find comfort in parroting reams of official history. It's like listening to a quarreling spouse who wants his entire argument to be heard uninterrupted, hoping that some incantatory power will make what he says unquestionable.
It's also like Fidel Castro's impassioned discourses, which are ubiquitous on Cuban television. Be's not just standing there, he's always talking, delivering long lectures that, for the most part, sound nothing like the "reasonable" political speeches to which we are accustomed in the United States. Fidel argues and defends, rants and chides. He pauses to fiddle with the microphones, collects himself for a particularly salient barb aimed at some aspect of U.S. policy. Then he bounces up onto his toes, cocks his head, rolls his Rs, points his finger, accusing and justifying. Regardless of what he's saying, his passion is impressive. The modulation of his voice and his body language persuade before the ideas have come to rest in the listeners' minds. It's great drama and it's on almost every day.
The revolutionary shout of other Cubans seems to imitate the tone of Fidel's conviction, often repeating something El Com.andante en Jefe has said. Sometimes the speakers even reference their source, saying, for example, "As Fidel said about the French Revolution, ... " While the imitators can reproduce the volume, they have trouble reflecting the passion and, since they are merely sourcing their information, when they finish what they can remember they often start over from the beginning.
Nieves gnawed on an unlit cigar and listened to the quick synopsis of my research. Then he disappeared upstairs and brought back his personal archive of photos, documents, and notes on the Revolution. He was planning a book, he said, one that would tell the true story of the Escambray.
As he shuffled his papers, Nieves ignored or didn't hear my first questions about the Second National Front of the Escambray. A rooster walked through the laundry room beyond the kitchen. The Comandante laid out black-and-white photographs from 1958, '59, '60, and '61. Photographs of the Rebel Nieves showed a man who looked like a young Robert DeNiro, wiry, tough, and clearly loving the adventure of rebellion and revolution. "Faure Chomon," he said, identifying his commander and the leader of the DRE. "But who's that?" I asked, pointing at an unnamed man beside Chomon. At first, Nieves ignored me, and I thought maybe he'd forgotten the man's name. I tried again. Finally, exasperated, he bellowed in a pitch-perfect revolutionary shout, "Traidor!- Traitor!"
It soon became evident that only two categories of people existed: heroes and traitors. The heroes had names. The traitors didn't. "Who's that?" I'd ask. "Traitor!" he'd bellow. Misguided. Nothing good about them-ever. Even the things they'd done in support of the Revolution before they became traitors were erased! They mattered only as a category of people to be eliminated, and as a foil to those who had remained loyal to Castro's Revolution.
Our conversation went on from there, question and deflection, parry and riposte, like a fencing match, each of us daring the other to expose a little more of what he knew.
"The Second National Front of the Escambray never fought in a single battle. When Faure Chomon arrived in the Escambray, he realized immediately that Menoyo and his companions were traitors. He denounced them and expelled them from the DRE.
''All they did," he continued in the loud monotone, "was eat the peasants' cows, chase the peasant women, and get fat." That was it, the entire history of the SNFE according to Raul Nieves. Over the course of our two hours, I heard this version several times.
As Nieves told me about "traitors" and "comevacas-cow eaters," I peered over his shoulder at the notes he flipped through as we talked. When he noted my gaze, he turned slightly, as if to block my view, hut he did not put the papers away. In the documents, I caught brief glimpses of lists of men who fought with the SNFE and charts detailing the SNFE's battles with the Cuban Army, battles that Nieves was telling me had never happened. The notes on Nieves's dining-room table, the ones he was allowing me to catch hits and pieces of, contradicted nearly everything he was telling me. On one list, next to almost every Rebel victory in the Escambray was written the name of Morgan or Menoyo. I saw location names: La Diana, Charco Azul, Michilena, Linares, Hanabanilla, Rio Negro. The list went on.
Was he trying to protect himself and give me information at the same time? Or was he careless? Nieves never strayed from the official talking point, that the SNFE were traitors and agents of the imperialists. I had nothing on tape that would compromise him.
When we finished the interview Nieves and his wife insisted on taking me to lunch. We went to an outdoor restaurant that catered to the Cuban elite and foreign diplomats. The three of us were whisked into a mobile, aluminum storage building that had been outfitted as a dining room for special parties. There were no windows. The air conditioning whirred and I shivered as the three of us ate alone in the room. Nieves had a glass of rum, his mood darkened, and I wondered at the personal toll his distortions had exacted.