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The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the ‘New York Times’ 
by Anthony DePalma.
PublicAffairs, 308 pp., £15.99, September 2006, 1 58648 332 3
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On the evening of 15 February 1957, the New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews stepped into a jeep with some anti-government activists and went to meet the young Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Castro was supposed to be dead: sailing from Mexico a few months earlier, he had arrived on the coast of Oriente province with 82 men, and was immediately bombarded by coastguard vessels and army aircraft. The Havana bureau of the United Press, relying on information from the Cuban military, reported that the insurgents had been wiped out; one Cuban general even claimed that the army had the bodies of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Shortly after he had been reported dead, in late 1956, Castro sent word from the mountains to his supporters in Havana that he wanted an American journalist to visit him in the Sierra Maestra, as a way of letting the world know that the revolution continued. The New York Times bureau chief, Ruby Phillips, declined the invitation: had she written about Castro’s ongoing struggle, she would have been expelled from Cuba, and she enjoyed her lifestyle and connections there. Matthews was summoned from New York. At the end of a 16-hour journey from Havana, during which his party stopped for numerous cups of coffee and dodged army roadblocks, he was brought to a location deep in the mountains, where he waited for several hours in the dark. Castro finally emerged at dawn, dressed in fatigues, and they sat down for a breakfast of ham sandwiches and tomato juice. In three hours Matthews had his story. Two days later, when he boarded a plane to New York, his seven pages of handwritten notes were hidden inside his wife’s corset.

‘A story that’s sure to startle the world’ was the way the Times advertised Matthews’s three-part series from the Sierra Maestra, but his audacious reporting did more than startle readers: it made him one of the most reviled figures in American journalism. He had known controversy before. His dispatches for the Times during the Spanish Civil War were mutilated by his editors, pilloried by his critics and celebrated by such admirers as Ernest Hemingway: ‘When the fakers are all dead they will read Matthews in the schools to find out what really happened,’ Hemingway announced in 1938. But nothing compared with the rage and opprobrium that followed the publication of his Castro interview. Colleagues shunned him; the FBI investigated him; congressional subcommittees harassed him; and William F. Buckley taunted him with nicknames like ‘Sherbert Matthews’. He also received death threats from Cuban exiles in Miami, and once had to flee a platform at the University of New Mexico because the local police believed there might be a bomb in the auditorium.

Until 1957, Matthews had been a favourite son at the newspaper: the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, even authorised a loan of $16,000 so he could buy a house in London. In Gay Talese’s book about the Times, The Kingdom and the Power, we see Matthews in 1967 sitting ‘rather forlornly in Room 1048 along a corridor of editorial writers on the tenth floor . . . a man doing penance in an ivory tower because he had embarrassed the Times years ago in Cuba.’ When he died in 1977, he was a ghost in his own country, but an iconic figure in Cuba. In The Man Who Invented Fidel, Anthony DePalma notes that Castro, in the 1960s, had offered to grant him Cuban citizenship: ‘What a splendid Cuban Herbert Matthews would make,’ a Cuban publication proclaimed, ‘so upright and so just!’ On his last trip to Cuba, in 1972, Matthews, gaunt and frail (he was 57 when he visited Castro in the Sierra Maestra), went to see Castro in the presidential palace, and they sat together in rocking chairs. Cuba was ‘the friendliest spot on earth for me’, he told his wife in a letter from Havana.

Matthews was born in 1900 to assimilated Jewish parents and grew up in New York, eventually graduating from Columbia. He began as a secretary-stenographer on the Times in 1922, and in 1931 was sent to France, where he spent four doleful years as ‘second man’ in the Paris bureau. In 1935, he was asked to cover the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. He enjoyed the physical challenges posed by the conflict: much of the fighting took place at high altitudes, in temperatures that reached 140° F. Many foreign correspondents were confined to Addis Ababa, but Matthews travelled with the Italian army, and was on hand to witness the battle in Ende Gorge in November 1935, when the Abyssinians launched their assault on the Italian troops. He rushed to Asmara to file what he considered his best story of the war: it cost $1500 in cable fees, and took up 16 full columns in the Times, the longest single dispatch in the paper’s history.

In May 1936, he entered Addis Ababa with the triumphant Italian army, and saw ‘an imperial capital in ruins – buildings still burning, the stinking dead still lying in the streets, gutted houses and stores gaping blackly and emptily at us as we drove by’. His sympathies were entirely with the Italians: he had studied in Rome in 1925, fancied himself a connoisseur of Dante and of Italian civilisation and, by his own admission, paid no attention to the rise of Fascism. Many Times readers rightly detected Fascist sympathies in his copy. In his book about the conflict, Eyewitness in Abyssinia (1937), Matthews directed scorn at ‘foreign sentimentalists’ who considered the Abyssinians a ‘noble, civilised race . . . actually they were pure savages.’ At the end of his life, he acknowledged that the Italian campaign was ‘a piece of old-fashioned colonial imperialism at its worst’. But he expressed no shame about the role he played in sanitising it: the conquest and plunder of Abyssinia was, for him, ‘a thrilling experience, the climax to nine difficult, gruelling and sometimes dangerous months of war corresponding’.

The event that altered his outlook, and that of so many others, was the Spanish Civil War, which Matthews covered sympathetically from the Republican side. (In a peculiar arrangement, the Times also had a pro-Franco correspondent, William Carney, stationed in the Nationalist zone.) Almost from the start Matthews encountered opposition from his editors in New York, some of whom were Roman Catholics with a deep antipathy towards the Spanish Republic. In March 1937, Matthews discovered that Italian soldiers were fighting in Spain. It was an explosive scoop, the first hard evidence that Mussolini’s support for Franco was not limited to planes, cannons, tanks and advisers. They were ‘Italian and nothing but Italian’, Matthews wrote in one report. But his editors changed the word ‘Italian’ to ‘insurgent’, and admonished him: ‘You’ve been virtually alone in emphasising the Italian angle. Only others so doing being Moscow papers.’

Matthews was a witness to some of the most dramatic events of the conflict: the battle of Teruel, when he, Hemingway and the photographer Robert Capa accompanied Republican forces during their heady initial victories; the siege of Barcelona, where ‘I and a million others saw things which Dante could not have imagined’; the Ebro fighting, when Hemingway saved Matthews’s life by preventing his rowing boat from colliding with a destroyed bridge; and finally the collapse of Catalonia, and the setting up of the squalid refugee camps in France. Matthews also recalled some ‘good days’ in Spain, starting with the time he spent in Madrid in 1937, when he ate ‘scrappy meals’ with Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and listened to Chopin on the gramophone while shells exploded around the Florida Hotel, where they were all living.

The war changed Matthews: he became more analytical, more historically minded, more alert to injustice and class conflict. He developed a capacity for moral outrage and it began to show in his prose; at the same time he started to reconsider American notions of journalistic ‘objectivity’ and restraint; journalism was now a ‘moral act’. The most stirring passages Matthews ever wrote are the chapters on the Spanish war in The Education of a Correspondent (1946), in which he writes, for example, of the 1934 Asturian miners’ revolt: ‘The proletarian forces were defeated, but as Engels had written, “defeated armies are good schools.” It was better to have fought and lost than to have accepted defeat as the German Socialists did the year before.’

‘Spain was a melting pot,’ Matthews wrote in Education, ‘in which the dross came out and pure gold remained . . . we left our hearts there.’ In the early 1970s, however, in the second volume of his memoirs, he reassessed his earlier views, and admitted that he had to some degree oversimplified a very complex situation: ‘It was a civil war, a Spanish war, a conflict whose primary causes and manifestations were to be found in Spanish history.’ Revising his earlier praise of the International Brigades, whom he had described as ‘the finest group of men I ever knew or hope to know in my life’, he now acknowledged that there had been instances of brutality among them and even of fratricide. But Matthews remained unruffled: ‘The International Brigade was not a baseball club. The task was desperate; the men had to be tough as well as brave.’ His memories of Spain would always be infused with romantic conviction: ‘It has been an undying prejudice among us aficionados of the Spanish Civil War,’ he wrote in 1971, ‘that all the best people were on the Loyalist side or sympathetic with it. I still have that prejudice.’

In the late 1960s, an ageing Times reporter told Gay Talese about his first glimpse of Matthews in the Paris bureau in the 1930s: he walked in ‘wearing a grey fedora, beige gloves and spats to match, jauntily carrying an elegantly glossy malacca walking-stick’. In the years after the Spanish war, when Matthews was one of the paper’s young lions and had the close friendship and protection of Sulzberger, he was sent to report from India (whose independence struggle did not galvanise him), North Africa, England and Germany.

In 1950, Matthews returned to New York and joined the paper’s editorial board. For the next 17 years, he wrote nearly every one of the editorials on Central and South America. He made regular visits to the region, and boasted that he was on first-name terms with presidents, from Mexico to Chile. As an editorial writer, he always saw himself as a scourge of dictators and scoundrels: in his memoirs, he claimed that the editorials he wrote ‘contributed significantly to the overthrow of Perón in Argentina, Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela, and Rojas Pinilla in Colombia’. Perhaps so, but he did not always distinguish himself. For example, when the US intervened in Guatemala – it was one of the most sordid episodes of the 1950s – he shared the government’s desire to oust the country’s liberal reformist president, Jacobo Arbenz, disagreeing only with the methods employed by Eisenhower and the CIA: ‘I felt [Arbenz] was hopeless and that it was right to get him out,’ Matthews wrote in 1971, ‘but to me the way to do it was secretly to help the army and the police . . . to stage a palace revolt.’

Yet it was Matthews’s deep contempt for Fulgencio Batista that carried him to the Sierra Maestra in February 1957. He didn’t hold back in the series of articles he wrote for the Times and was effusive about the young Castro, of whom he said: ‘The personality of the man is overpowering . . . here was an educated, dedicated fanatic, a man of ideals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership.’ As for Castro’s political programme, it ‘is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist’. Those words would come back to haunt Matthews: one US senator later accused him of forging a ‘hero image of Castro, in which all the virtues of Robin Hood and Thomas Jefferson, of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were contained in a single man’.

Matthews’s series caused an uproar in Cuba: Batista himself was enraged by it, and one of his top advisers dismissed Matthews’s reporting as ‘a chapter in a fantastic novel’. Congratulatory telegrams poured into the Times, however, and hundreds of Castro’s supporters gathered in front of the paper’s 43rd Street offices to applaud Matthews for telling the ‘truth’ about Cuba. When Matthews returned to Havana several months later, a throng of supporters welcomed him at the airport. ‘The articles . . . which I did in February,’ he gloated in a memo to his editors, ‘have literally altered the course of Cuban history.’

After the 1959 revolution, which Matthews witnessed while on holiday in Havana, there was an unsuccessful effort by the new government to have him named US ambassador to Cuba. Back in New York, however, his position at the newspaper was crumbling. Within weeks of Castro’s victory, reports of summary executions appeared in the US press, and Matthews drafted an editorial in which he tried to explain the underlying rationale for the executions without totally justifying them. If the new government did not punish those responsible for the death and torture of thousands of anti-Batista activists, he argued, in DePalma’s words, ‘mobs would take the law into their own hands, as they had when the Cuban dictator Machado was overthrown in 1933.’ The editorial was killed. Further eyebrows were raised when Castro himself visited the Times offices in 1959, and, nodding at Matthews, informed the publisher that without Matthews and the Times, ‘the revolution in Cuba would never have been.’

Matthews now entered what he later called the ‘worst period’ of his career. In late 1961, Castro gave a rambling speech in Havana in which he declared: ‘I am a Marxist-Leninist and I shall be to the last day of my life.’ The speech created immediate difficulties for Matthews, who, since the revolution, had routinely asserted that Castro had not been a Communist in his youth, in the Sierra Maestra or during his first 18 months in power. After studying a transcript of the speech, Matthews argued that ‘far from admitting that he had always been a Communist, Castro was in fact apologising for not having been one’: a distinction that was lost on the US public at the summit of the Cold War, and on Matthews’s critics, whose numbers were swelling. Hate mail flowed into the Times, some of it addressed to ‘Comrade Matthews’; and now it was William F. Buckley who told the world that Matthews had done ‘more than any other single man to bring Fidel Castro to power’. The Times was acutely sensitive on that score: in 1955-56 the newspaper was targeted by a Senate subcommittee investigating Communist influence on the press; Harvey Matusow, a Justice Department informer, claimed that the paper’s Sunday department had ‘126 dues-paying Communists’ on its staff.

Though without much success, Matthews always tried to position himself as a critical supporter of Castro and the revolution, which he saw not only as an inevitable backlash against US imperialism in Latin America, but as an event comparable to the French Revolution. He wasn’t blind to its defects, however. ‘So long as Fidel Castro remains in power there will not and cannot be democracy and freedom in Cuba,’ he wrote in The Cuban Story in 1961. On his conscience was the case of Huber Matos, one of Castro’s leading comrades in the Sierra Maestra, who was charged with treason in 1959 and sentenced to decades in prison. For Matthews, the Matos affair was ‘an utterly shocking business – but a revolution is not a tea party’. Other aspects of the revolutionary process impressed him deeply: in 1960 he was taken by Castro to visit a number of farms and co-operatives, and came away inspired by the new regime’s commitment to agrarian reform and social justice. For these and other reasons Matthews wished Castro and the revolution well: ‘The death of the revolution as an ideal,’ Matthews told a New York audience in 1961, ‘would leave a desolate Cuba, haunted by the ghosts of an ignoble, wicked past.’

In late 1963, Matthews, who by then was no longer permitted to write for the paper’s news section, was asked by Lester Markel, the Sunday editor of the Times, to write a piece for the magazine; he was travelling in Cuba at the time. It was Markel’s belief that Matthews, with his unique access to Castro, could illuminate some of the vexing questions left over from the missile crisis of October 1962. When the magazine killed the piece, Matthews gave it to Stanford University’s Hispanic American Report, which prompted I.F. Stone to accuse the Times of censorship. Matthews was dismayed by the Times’s rejection of his story. ‘I cannot go through the rest of my life saying and writing nothing about Cuba and what I learned there,’ he told a friend.

And so he continued to write about Cuba, but not always for the Times. After he published an essay in Encounter in 1964, he received a stern note from the new publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who didn’t share his father’s affection for Matthews: ‘Herbert, while I sympathise with your determination to defend your ideas, it is obviously impossible to separate yourself from the Times. Prolonging the Cuban debate . . . is harmful.’ Matthews was livid, and, in DePalma’s words, ‘refused to back down or let the issue rest’. ‘The Times has nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be afraid of on the Cuban Revolution,’ Matthews lectured his publisher. ‘The Times is really hurt when it refuses to print important news from a staff member.’

His career at the Times, which had lasted nearly half a century, was effectively over, and in 1967 he left the paper, settling into austere retirement on the French Riviera, financed in part by the auction, at Sotheby’s, of some Goya prints he had acquired in Spain in the 1930s. In 1969, Simon and Schuster published his political biography of Castro, which John Leonard excoriated in the Times, and in 1971 he completed the second volume of his memoirs, A World in Revolution. In the mid-1970s, he and his wife moved to Australia to be near their son. Matthews died of a haemorrhage in 1977. An obituary in the New York Times described him as ‘one of the most criticised newspapermen of his time’, while a paid death notice from the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade saluted him as ‘a staunch friend’. A friend certainly, but was he a fellow left-winger, as his enemies always insisted? Castro himself had a better grasp of the political impulses that animated Matthews. In a speech in Havana in 1963, he insisted that Matthews was not ‘a Marxist-Leninist newspaperman’, but ‘a man with liberal ideas’.

DePalma has reported for the New York Times from Mexico, Cuba and Guatemala, and he wrote this book in part to determine the extent to which Matthews ought to be included in a Times rogues’ gallery of figures such as Walter Duranty, who had applauded Stalin’s repression of the kulaks and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and Judith Miller, whose submissive reporting about Iraq brought ignominy to the Times in 2004. DePalma’s impulses, then, are closer to those of a prosecutor than a biographer or historian. He had access to the paper’s archives, and does a capable job of recounting Matthews’s skirmishes with the Times hierarchy. He has made use too of the Freedom of Information Act, unearthing the fact that in the early 1960s the CIA had a mole inside the Times Mexico City office who routinely conveyed information about Matthews to the agency.

Matthews deserved a better book than The Man Who Invented Fidel. DePalma writes shapeless, hackneyed prose (‘He was sure that he had one hell of a story on his hands, if he could get into the Sierra to see the mysterious rebel leader’); he lacks knowledge and curiosity about the two conflicts central to Matthews’s intellectual and political formation, and his grasp of Cuban and Cold War history seems superficial. He never brings Matthews to life on the page, and is mostly deaf to the tragic dimensions of his career.

Obviously, Matthews wanted the Cuban Revolution to flourish. Tad Szulc, who replaced him on the Times Cuba beat, believed that ‘in Fidel Castro and his Movement he sensed a vindication of the Spanish tragedy.’ But it seems to me that Matthews’s worst troubles were not chiefly the result of his politics or his idealism, but rather of his recalcitrance and hubris: once he became entangled in the Cuba story, he was unable to extricate himself. His personal and psychological investment was colossal, and he lacked the humility to admit his mistakes. Indeed, he saw himself not only as a witness to events in Cuba, but a top-flight scholar of Fidelismo as well. ‘I know more about the Cuban revolution than anybody else could possibly know,’ he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1972. Unfortunately he lacked the verbal and polemical skills to overcome his opponents; his prose and his public remarks were invariably leaden, sarcastic and self-righteous, and were no match for William F. Buckley’s elegant scorn. In his view, he was a victim, pure and simple: ‘the principal journalistic scapegoat for the rise to power of Fidel Castro and for the success of the Cuban Revolution’, a latter-day Owen Lattimore, the Johns Hopkins scholar whom McCarthy blamed for the ‘loss’ of China in 1949.

Matthews scarcely acknowledged that Castro treated him shabbily. In his 1993 biography of Castro, Robert Quirk reported that in Havana in January 1959, Matthews and his wife were kept waiting for hours by Castro, who devoured a lavish meal in an adjoining room, refusing to offer them so much as a scrap. ‘Fidel,’ his private secretary said anxiously, ‘Matthews is there.’ Castro continued to eat and replied calmly: ‘And I am here.’ In a speech in New York in the same year, he humiliated Matthews by explaining that he had deliberately misled him about the size of his army in the Sierra Maestra by repeatedly parading the same small group of soldiers past him. In spite of all this, Matthews remained both enamoured of Castro and obsessed with the Cuban leader’s place in history, which didn’t stop him from lecturing Castro publicly and privately. ‘I am sick and tired of that old man who thinks he is my father,’ Castro is supposed to have complained.

According to DePalma, in 1995, during a trip to New York, Castro returned to the offices of the Times. Walking down a hallway lined with photographs of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning luminaries, Castro slyly inquired of the publisher: ‘Where is Matthews?’ Not much remains of Matthews today: a dusty shelf of books, all of them out of print; a bronze plaque near the Havana waterfront; and, deep in the remote hills of the Sierra Maestra, a marble monument on which is inscribed: ‘In this place, Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz met with the North American journalist Herbert Matthews on February 17, 1957.’

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Vol. 29 No. 15 · 2 August 2007

According to Scott Sherman, Hemingway saved Herbert Matthews from death in a rowing boat collision (LRB, 5 July). Who was the oarsman – Popeye?

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