Friday, August 19, 2005

Who was Herbert Matthews?

Mora has a Great post at Babalu about the latest stooge at The New York Times that carries water for fidel castro. Some may not know the role that the The Times and one of its writers, Herbert Matthews, had in the Cuban revolution. I found this interesting paper which I have re-printed here. While I don't agree 100% with the author about Herbert Matthews, it will give you a good idea about him. The emphasis you see throughout the piece is mine. Those who say media bias doesn't exist should read this. It's always existed and always will. You can't take anything the press says at face value, even The New York Times, especially The New York Times.


Anthony DePalma
Working Paper #313 - July 2004

Anthony DePalma was the first foreign correspondent of The New York Times to serve
as bureau chief in both Mexico and Canada. His book about North America, Here: A
Biography of the New American Continent, was published in the United States and
Canada in 2001. During his 17-year tenure with The Times, he has held positions in the
Metropolitan, National, Foreign and Business sections of the newspaper, and from 2000
to 2002, he was the first Times international business correspondent to cover North and
South America. As a Kellogg fellow in Fall ’03, he conducted research for a book on
Fidel Castro, Herbert Matthews, and the impact of media on US foreign policy. The book
will be published by Public Affairs in 2005 or early 2006.

Fidel Castro was given up for dead, and his would-be revolution written off, in the months after his disastrous invasion of the Cuban coast in late 1956. Then a New York Times editorial writer named Herbert L. Matthews published one of the great scoops of the 20th century, reporting that not only was Castro alive, but that he was backed by a large and powerful army that was waging a successful guerrilla war against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Matthews, clearly taken by the young rebel’s charms, and sympathetic to his cause, presented a skewed picture. He called Castro a defender of the Cuban constitution, a lover of democracy, and a friend of the American people: the truth as he saw it.

The image created by Matthews stuck, helping Castro consolidate his power and gain
international recognition. US attitudes toward the conflict in Cuba changed, dooming
Batista. But after the triumph of the revolution, US views again abruptly shifted and
Matthews was blamed for having helped bring Castro to power. The perception that
Washington had been hoodwinked by Matthews and State Department officials
sympathetic to Castro led to the development of the hard line which still guides US–
Cuban relations.

In the earliest days of the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro’s very survival was in doubt, a veteran war correspondent of The New York Times named Herbert L. Matthews—by then an office-bound writer of editorials—was drawn into an extraordinary series of events that helped bring Castro to power and set the United States and Cuba on their long decades of suspicion and antagonism. Ever since Matthews’s initial encounter with Castro in the mountains of southeastern Cuba in 1957, there has been a debate—both journalistic and political—about his motives, his biases, and his inadequacies as a neutral observer. There have been questions about how his writing may have influenced American foreign policy by creating popular, though inaccurate, images of Castro and his movement for the American public. And there has been lingering uncertainty about whether Matthews had been duped by Castro or was simply a hopeless romantic caught up in an extraordinary moment of history.

But in all that time there has been no question about the impact of Matthews’s
interview with Castro in the Sierra Maestra and the strange relationship that developed
between the rebel and the reporter. His reporting on Cuba proved that Matthews had
become journalist who was not content to simply report events but had to interpret them
and place them in context, a journalist who relied more on access to key players than
access to key documents as a source for sensitive information, a journalist who wasn’t
afraid to take a position that neither his editors, nor his competitors, could agree with,
marking him as something of a rebel too. In the end, the most important question to ask
about Matthews’s work in Cuba at the beginning of the Castroite revolution is not why he
did what he did but whether he got the story right. And now, nearly half a century after The Times printed his articles, it is clear that on the broad outlines of Castro’s aims,
Matthews had, indeed, gotten it right. Ironically, given how he thought of himself as an
interpreter of events, rather than a mere recorder of them, Matthews’s major failing was
in incorrectly analyzing the context of what was happening in Cuba, and how it would be
perceived in the United States. That in turn contributed to misguided perceptions in
Washington, where poor policy decisions were being made by a cadre of officials with
little or no understanding of Latin America and its deep resentment of the United States.

This paper will assess three main themes: the ways in which Matthews’s
journalism influenced public policy and discourse in the United States; the way the
pervasive Cold War mentality influenced Matthews’s journalism; and the way that both
Matthews’s journalism and the Cold War influenced Castro’s revolution.

It was a series of unrelated happenstances that led Matthews to travel
clandestinely into Oriente Province, the crucible of all of Cuba’s revolutions, in early
1957 to interview Castro. He stayed there just a few hours, but that was enough time to
get what has been generally regarded as one of the great scoops of the 20th century, great
in part because of the spectacular nature of Matthews’s exclusive, and great in part
because of the time in which it occurred.

Matthews’s interview with Castro took place at a singular moment in American history, a time when innocence flirted with treachery and post-war America leaned into the winds of the Cold War. For three hours on that winter morning in February 1957, these two indomitable and restless men, brought together by fate, held together by a common need to exploit each other, crouched beneath the wild brush of the Sierra whispering so the soldiers hunting them wouldn’t know they were there. They talked of many things—freedom, tyranny, justice—but mostly of revolution, and what Matthews heard was like balm for what he called his “old and war-weary soul,” which had been badly wounded decades earlier by the defeat of the idealistic but doomed Republicans he had so enthusiastically covered during the Spanish Civil War. This was his chance to redress that defeat and to ensure that this time the revolution succeeded. To do so, Matthews had to first resurrect Castro. At the time his initial article was published, the world believed that Castro had been killed during a botched invasion of Cuba three months earlier. Matthews would reveal that Castro was alive and, by the words he used, make it seem that he led a powerful rebel force whose eventual victory was almost certainly assured.

“The personality of the man is overpowering,” Matthews wrote in that first article,
which was published on the front page of the Sunday paper on February 27, 1957. “It was
easy to see that his men adored him and to see why he has caught the imagination of the
youth of Cuba.” He called Castro “the flaming symbol of the opposition to the regime,”
and stated without qualification that “thousands of men and women are heart and soul
with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands.” He gave Castro room
to describe his aims as “fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship,”
and he allowed the rebel to declare boldly, “You can be sure we have no animosity
toward the United States and the American people.” Negative references were few, and
most were aimed at Castro’s shaky economic ideas.

His heroic portrayal of Castro as a scruffy mountain rebel leading an insurrection of Cuban youths against Batista was the image on which American perceptions of the revolution would be widely based for several years. [and still today]

By highlighting Castro’s promises to restore Cuba’s constitution and hold free elections, his articles and their prominent display in The Times (two of them on the front page, a third inside, and all three heavily promoted within the paper) increased pressure on Washington to stop shipping arms to Batista. The Cuban Army’s bombing of civilians in the Sierra Maestra was the last straw; a decision was made, in March 1958, to suspend shipments. It was widely viewed as a signal that the tired dictator had lost the support of the United States and could not survive. State Department officials parroted Matthews’s assertion that Castro was not a Communist nor was he likely to lead a Communist revolution. Matthews’s generally glowing portrait of Castro, combined with Batista’s increasingly violent attempts to put down the rebellion, also made it easier for Washington to drop the search for an alternative to both Batista and Castro, until it was too late.

Before the interview, Castro had been seen as a virulent anti-Batista insurrectionist, but certainly not the only one, nor even the one most likely to gain a substantial enough following to pose a real threat to the regime. The violent nature of his 26th of July Movement frightened many Cubans who preferred civil resistance. Castro’sgroup was the most fanatic, but it was not the most numerous, nor the most powerful of those struggling to overthrow the dictator. The 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks had established his reputation on the island. But after he was released from prison in 1955 and exiled in Mexico, other groups, including the Revolutionary Directorate, gained strength in Cuba and became legitimate contenders for leadership of the insurrection.

Publication of the three articles based on Matthews’s interview with Castro introduced a new dynamic to the budding rebellion. It greatly raised awareness of Castro in the United States, both broadly across the population and specifically in Washington, where the Cold War was in high gear. Latin dictators in Argentina, Colombia, and elsewhere were being toppled, and although Batista was cooperative, and liked by big American business, his hard-line regime gained him little sympathy or support. The impact of the articles in Cuba was different because Castro was already so well known. By raising the ire of Batista—who at first denounced Matthews and insisted the articles and accompanying photographs were frauds—and focusing the efforts of the Army on eradicating the remnants of Castro’s small landing group, Batista in effect signaled Castro’s growing importance to the rebellion. Castro’s group used the articles as proof of their growing strength, and in time both fundraising and recruitment benefited substantially from them. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was already with Castro in the Sierra when the interview took place, said that Matthews’s work was more important to the rebels than a victory on the battlefield. The attention Castro gained from the articles influenced others as well. The Revolutionary Directorate, which also had embraced violence, had long planned to attack Batista’s presidential palace and kill the dictator. Just two weeks after the articles were published, the Directorate launched its ill-fated attack. The insurrectionists were stopped before they could reach Batista, and their leader, Antonio Echevarria, was killed.

Matthews added to the initial impact of the articles with sharp attacks on Batista in the editorial pages, where he wrote nearly all of the Times’ opinion pieces on Latin America. Taken together, Matthews’s writing on Cuba had a decisive impact on Cuba’s relationship with the United States. “Seldom has a single writer so influentially set the tone—at least as perceived by a broad cross-section of its interested readership—toward a person, movement or historical phenomenon,” wrote political scientist William E. Ratliff in The Selling of Fidel Castro. The British historian Hugh Thomas declared that Matthews’s writing had “immediately made of Castro an international figure.” In 1960, El Tiempo of Bogotá referred to Castro’s victory as “the Herbert Matthews revolution,” a common sentiment throughout Latin America.

Matthews was no Young Turk looking to establish his reputation at The Times by risking his life in Cuba. He was a middle-aged editorial writer who had already accomplished so much in a long career at the paper that he would have been considered one of the century’s most influential, and controversial, newspapermen even if he had never met Castro. He hadn’t really tracked down Castro; Castro had sent for him, or any foreign correspondent willing to tell the world that he was still alive. The Times’ resident correspondent in Havana, Ruby Phillips, had originally been offered the interview but had turned it down because she didn’t think it was worth the risk of losing her access to the Cuban government or being kicked out of Cuba all together. It was true that Castro had deliberately misled Matthews into thinking he had a much larger army than the ragtag bunch of rebels who followed him into the mountains, but it hadn’t been as simple as marching the same men round and round in front of the reporter. Documents show that the American embassy also was convinced that Castro’s group was powerful enough to pose a real threat to the regime. Matthews had gone to the embassy for a briefing before heading into the mountains.

Matthews represented an important moment in journalism, the point where reporters were being transformed by technology and rising expectations from mere recorders of events to interpreters of the world. The immediacy of radio and television had accelerated the pace of news gathering and contributed to a substantive change in the way news was reported. There was no longer time to allow days to pass before reports could be filed from a battlefield. To have an impact, reporters had to be on the scene immediately, relaying the truth, as it was known at the time. This meant getting to the people who were making the decisions or giving the orders and getting them to reveal their thinking. The danger, of course, is that the reporter becomes reliant on the source, who may be motivated to reveal information that is not necessarily accurate. The great clash between Matthews and Ruby Phillips grew in part from this distinction, and created the untenable situation in which two veteran journalists filed conflicting reports from and about Cuba. She was an old school reporter who presented just what she saw without delving too deeply into what it meant. Maintaining access and her entrenched position in Havana influenced her early reporting on the revolution and made her reluctant to give the rebels too much of a chance for success. But once Castro triumphed, she exposed his abuses and his hypocrisy and was eventually expelled. From the hours of his first interview in the Sierra, Matthews was pushing journalism in a different direction, one shaped by interpretation, explanation and, ultimately, the personal opinions of the writer. Matthews put what he saw in Cuba into the perspective of history, which could make what he wrote seem off base at the time he wrote it, while Phillips’s reports, though pedestrian, seemed to catch the events of the day more accurately. Both relied on access—Philips to Batista, Matthews to Castro. Each paid for their actions. Phillips was censored by Castro and eventually was thrown out of Cuba. Matthews became so closely identified with Castro that he surrendered his objectivity.

But for a brief time after his Sierra interview appeared, Matthews basked in the broadest adulation of his profession. He became one of the first great print superstars, and one of the last print giants to stand center stage in the spotlight before television became the most glamorous news platform. He was a bona fide celebrity who appeared on The Tonight Show when the biggest audience most print reporters ever had was the crowd at the local saloon. His adventures in the Sierra Maestra were celebrated in song and poetry, including an elegy written by Florence Ripley Mastin of Piermont, N.Y. and submitted to a poetry editor at The New York Times:

“Your ancestors fought like Castro and like him
In peril of your life, you braved the guns
Of night patrols. In dripping forests dim
With rain, when the icy stream of danger runs
In the veins you found him—and your story
Of his fight adds luster to Old Glory.”

The newspaper rightly declined to publish the poem, but Matthews kept a copy of
it in his files until he died. A man of no small ego, Matthews saw his escapade as a
personal triumph over what he considered to be his too-early banishment to the editorial
board of The Times. He was 57 when he climbed the Sierra to meet Castro, who then was
only 30, and doing so proved he could still scoop the best of a new generation of
correspondents. When he won the George Polk Memorial Award for international
reporting in 1958, the citation from the Overseas Press Club read: “The articles of his
exploit played down the danger, a natural reaction of a dedicated reporter who has
covered more than his share of war and revolution.”

His fame in the United States was widespread, but in Cuba, where the gaunt,
bespectacled American was a major celebrity, it bordered on hysteria. “I have never
expected and certainly never wanted to be placed in the position of a public idol like
Clark Gable or Frank Sinatra,” he wrote in a memo to his editors after his first return trip
to Cuba in June 1957. “I have discovered on this trip that there is nothing more
embarrassing or more tiring than to be a hero and I found it a very painful as well as
naturally gratifying experience.”

Other writers who followed Matthews into the Sierra or who attempted to profile the budding revolution in the late 1950s came back with sympathetic portraits, a few of them even more stirring than Matthews’s had been. Norman Mailer did not trek into the Sierra but when he said of Castro “the ghost of Cortéz had appeared in our own century while riding Zapata’s white horse,” his hyperbole probably exceeded Matthews’s own. However, some observers did pick up worrisome signs of conflicts in Castro’s personality. In June 1957, just three months after Matthews’s articles made it seem that all of Cuba supported Castro heart and soul, Carleton Beals wrote in The Nation that while some Cubans considered Castro a great liberator, “others see in him a more ruthless and less predictable dictator than Batista.”

But in the days before cable TV and 24-hour news coverage, it was Matthews’s depiction of Castro that had greatest impact. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of Castro appearing exclusively on page one of The Times’ in 1957. As the paper came off the presses, Castro’s dark past was largely replaced in the United States by instant legitimacy. Matthews made Castro into a likeable rebel, a roguish character with a beard and a youthful perspective who became a laudable symbol of defiance throughout the world.

After the Sierra interview, both Castro and Matthews became heroes in each other’s homelands as well as in their own. Later both were transformed into international villains. Castro took on the mantle of bombastic herald of a new age of rebellion and revolution, an enemy of America that the United States itself had helped create. After his brief gust of glory, Matthews was called a traitor who had deliberately misrepresented Castro to further his own personal and political ambitions. Obsessed with Castro and the revolution, Matthews swallowed the criticism and continued to write what he saw happening there, claiming at times that he was the only one able to actually identify the truth.

The unfolding tragedy was shaded by the deep haze of the Cold War. At Senate
Judiciary Committee hearings looking into the Cuba situation, witness after witness
roundly denounced Matthews, implying his guilt by association with Fidel. Senator
Joseph R. McCarthy had convinced many people that the State Department was
infiltrated by Communists, and later Senators James O. Eastland and Thomas J. Dodd
attempted to prove that Matthews had shaped the State Department’s misguided views on
Cuba and Castro’s embrace of Communism.

Matthews never had many friends in the media; he wasn’t the kind of correspondent who liked to warm bar stools or tell war stories. When diplomats and government officials attacked him, few of his colleagues came to his defense. Some joined the attack. Time magazine became a particularly harsh critic, saying of him: “Dazzled from the start by the dashing revolutionary, Matthews fell into the trap that everywhere awaits the unwary reporter: he let emotional bias suspend his judgment.”

Matthews did have a few supporters. Most were academics, which is what he
once thought would be his own destiny. He was a member of the advisory board of the
Hispanic American Report, published by Stanford University, which once said in his
defense that blaming Matthews for what happened in Cuba was “as absurd as blaming a
meteorologist for a thunderstorm.” While he complained that after the Cuba controversy
erupted he sometimes was treated like “an untouchable” within The Times, Matthews
could generally count on the support of John B. Oakes, the powerful editor of The Times’
editorial page, who continued to defend him even after Matthews died in 1977. Just
months after he had his own run-in with the publisher and was forced to resign from the
editorial page, Oakes publicly complained about The Times’ obituary of Matthews, which
had prominently mentioned the controversies over his coverage in Spain and Cuba. “If
Herbert Matthews was one of the most ‘controversial’ journalists of his era,” Oakes wrote
in a “Letter to the Editor” that was published in The Times, “that is only because nothing
arouses more bitter controversy among a newspaper’s readers than honest reporting that
contradicts their emotional preconceptions.”

Matthews was glad to have the meager votes of confidence he received during the troubled times of his life, but he was not afraid to stand alone in support of what he had written. As other Castro sympathizers turned critical of the revolution following the first executions of Batista supporters in 1959 and the later confiscation of American property, Matthews continued to defend Castro and to deny that he, or the revolution, was Communist. As scorn was heaped on him, he lashed out at other journalists, editors, diplomats and State Department officials who didn’t see things his way. He repeatedly declared American coverage of the Cuban Revolution to be the “worst failure in the history of American journalism,” and he warned one of his editors in 1960 that unless Americans understand what is happening in Cuba from the Cubans’ point of view, “the conflict between us will remain insoluble and perhaps even become a catastrophe.” Matthews and The Times were sharply criticized for the way Castro was covered. William F. Buckley Jr. famously quipped that Castro could claim “I got my job through The New York Times.” Matthews’s closeness to Castro became as much a liability as an advantage. Rather than represent the sensational peak of a long and distinguished career, his interview with Castro became a black hole in his life, drawing in his reputation and his vitality. Matthews’s name was ruined, and The Times, which had initially played up his coverage of Cuba, was considered guilty by association. The State Department went from agreeing with Matthews’s assessment that Castro was not a Communist, to branding Castro the most dangerous foot soldier in the Communists’ global conspiracy. And since Matthews had helped him gain power, he became a convenient and very public scapegoat.

Matthews’s private papers, which he donated to Columbia University, show that it
angered him to be seen as a fool or, worse, a traitor who had helped the enemy. In the
paranoid Cold War atmosphere of the early 1960s, Matthews’s name was mentioned
prominently in every one of a series of blistering Senate hearings about the Communist
threat. His work stirred up such intense emotion that, for a time, he feared for his life. A
formerly classified document released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Matthews received a death threat so credible that J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. felt obliged to
offer him a bodyguard. Other released documents showed that the F.B.I. had tailed
Matthews for years and tapped some of his phone conversations because Hoover
considered him “an apologist for Castro’s government.”

His editors struggled to support him during the barrage of bad press, but the criticism heaped on him tainted The Times as well. His editors eventually determined that Matthews had committed professional suicide and for the good of the paper had to be taken off the story. “Herbert has been unfairly maligned by many people, but to a great extent he has brought about this state of affairs himself by his subjective and at times emotional style of reporting,” the Times’ foreign editor, Emanuel R. Freedman, wrote to Editor Turner Catledge in 1962. “Herbert has destroyed his usefulness as a reporter on Cuba.”

The Times’ archives indicate that Matthews’s coverage of Cuba triggered a
bruising battle between those editors who doubted Matthews’s objectivity, and those who
defended his integrity. Eventually, he was prohibited from writing about Cuba in the
paper’s news columns, a painful blow to a man who’d devoted his life to The Times.
Both Matthews and Castro had been driven by dreams and personal beliefs to help
shape the great events of their day.

They ended their relationship as they began it, strangers linked by fate. Castro once told a confidant that he was “sick and tired of that old man who thinks he is my father. He is always giving me advice.” The turn that their relations took foreshadowed the collapsing relationship between their two countries. Relations between the United States and Cuba had been strained since the 19th century, and were nearly fractured by the US intervention at the beginning of the 20th century.

Castro effectively mined a vein of ill-will that ran through Cuban society, making of the
United States Government a devil the Cuban people would fear and hate. Castro’s ability
to use anti-Americanism to unite Cuba bedeviled American officials, up to and including
President Eisenhower, who seemed oblivious to the troubled history of the two nations.
He never could understand why Cubans did not appreciate the United States more.
Matthews’s early articles affirming Castro’s democratic leanings fueled a suspicion in
Washington that the Cuba had betrayed the revolution and misled the United States,
creating a legacy of mistrust that continues to poison the 90 miles between Key West and
Cuba today.

Other journalists have been rebuffed by history for their empathy with
revolutionary movements. The Pulitzer citation of another Timesman, Walter Duranty,
bears an asterisk acknowledging deep doubts about the sincerity, and veracity, of his
work in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. His record became an open target for Ukrainian
nationalists who to this day, say they will not rest until his 1932 Pulitzer Prize for
international reporting is revoked. The Times itself has admitted that Duranty’s work
suffered from serious lapses and that his dispatches glossed over or simply ignored the
roots of the famine that would kill millions of Ukrainians. The Pulitzer Committee
recently determined that Duranty’s work in the Soviet Union falls far short of
contemporary standards, but said that because a committee 70 years ago recognized the
work as significant, the prize should not be revoked. The decision implied that Duranty’s
flawed work had itself become part of the history of that time.

There have been others. Edgar Snow’s sympathetic and generally unquestioning
picture of the Chinese Communists, Richard Harding Davis’s biased reporting on the
Spanish-American War, John Reed on the Bolshevik Revolution: the list of journalists
whose work overseas was as significant historically as it was suspect journalistically is
long and still debated widely. Inevitably, Herbert Matthews’s name is included on that
list, though it may not necessarily belong there.

Nor should Matthews be grouped with fabricators like Stephen Glass of The New
Republic or the latest Times reporter to shame the paper, Jayson Blair, whose deceptions
were elaborate and deliberate. Matthews was not trying to curry favor; even after he
broke with Castro, his pivotal role early in the revolution guaranteed him free access. He
was prohibited from continuing to report about the revolution when his own editors—not
foreign leaders—stopped him. Matthews wrote sympathetically about Castro not because
he was worried about being kicked out of Cuba but because journalism was a crusade to
him, a weapon for righting wrongs and tipping power towards the powerless.
Matthews well understood the dynamics of power and powerlessness. He grew up
a non-observant Jew in a New York of workmen’s circles and socialist meetinghouses,
the son of a tailor and grandson of a Jew from a 19th century Poland that was occupied by
Imperial Russia. Although he had the benefit of a Columbia University degree, a
reverence for Dante, and a fascination with European history, his academic training came
after he had served in France with the US Army Tank Corps. During the 1930s and 40s,
he observed great movements that promised to elevate workers and the poor, and he gave
his heart to them, sometimes at the expense of his own well being. In Rome during the
war, when food was scarce and an American correspondent’s PX ration card was more
valuable than gold, Matthews used his entire weekly allotment to buy groceries that he
then carried up six flights of stairs and gave to an Italian friend who was dying.

He had a soft spot for underdogs, and an apparent blind spot for tyrants. “I make
no apologies because once I thought I admired Fascism,” he wrote in 1946. Matthews did
not fear his biases because he was certain that they never clouded his judgment or swayed
his pen. As he neared death in 1977, weakened by a bad heart and recurrent tuberculosis
that he believed had been triggered by his trip to the Sierra, Matthews insisted that he
could not divorce his feelings from his reporting. “One must feel the Cuban Revolution in
order to understand it,” he wrote. And he believed that his bias, which was natural, had
never interfered with the truth of what he wrote. Despite all the honors and awards he
received through his long career as one of the 20th century’s most accomplished foreign
correspondents, he often said he could truly boast of just one thing: that he never wrote
anything he didn’t believe was the truth.

The half-century that has passed since his famous interview with Castro has not disproved Matthews’s boast about the truth. Certainly some of what he wrote turned out to be jaw-droppingly misguided. [Understatement!] But at the time he wrote it he believed it to be true, even when, as he would say, the truth ran counter to where his heart truly lay. He did not perceive anything he wrote as dishonest. But neither was what Matthews wrote always the truth.[Another understatement!]

There seems little doubt that in the days before the triumph of the Cuban
Revolution on January 1, 1959, Matthews had been, if not dazzled by Castro, then
mightily impressed by him, so much so that his empathy for the rebel and his movement
took control of his pen. “I was moved, deeply moved, by that young man,” Matthews
confessed in The Cuban Story, published in 1961. In his 1969 biography of Castro, he
compared the rebel leader to Oliver Cromwell and called him “one of the most
extraordinary men of our times.” When challenged by critics who felt he had tried to
make Castro a hero, Matthews claimed he had only reported what he had seen.

considered factual errors, like wildly overestimating the strength of Castro’s forces and the number of telescopic rifles the rebels possessed, to be simple mistakes that did not materially affect the story.

Later, however, when the question of whether Castro was a Communist caused
hysterics in Washington, Matthews presented so complicated a response that his answers
were often seen as mistruths and deliberate distortions. They were actually carefully
nuanced explanations of complex political ideas. “There was no error in writing what I
did in my story about the ‘democratic’ ideals of the guerrillas because the statements
accurately reflected what Fidel said and—in my opinion—believed,” he wrote.
“Communism,” he insisted, “was not a cause of the Cuban Revolution; it was a result.”
He held to his theory that Castro had not been a Communist when he took power; he
insisted, in fact, that the Cuban Communist Party had played no role in the revolution.
But Matthews believed that Castro was willing to call himself one after the United States
tried to corral the revolution. Embracing the Soviet Union became a palatable alternative,
though not one that reflected any profound ideology that Castro held.

“The Cuban Revolution has taken a Marxist-Leninist form as a man would don a
suit of clothes,” he wrote in Revolution in Cuba: An Essay in Understanding, his last
book, which was published in 1976, a year before he died. “It is the man who counts, not
the clothes. What matters in Cuba today is the revolution, not the label.”

But in Washington it was the label that counted, and every time Matthews wrote
that Cuba was not Communist his detractors multiplied like ants on an overripe mango.
Confusion was rampant through the first years of the revolution in large measure because
Castro’s own ideology was still undergoing violent transformations, and only the
demagogues could be certain of what was happening.

Given the tangled history between
the two countries, few Americans, or Cubans for that matter, could believe that Castro would actually attempt to distance himself from the United States by inviting in America’s greatest enemy. And yet they watched as he confiscated American property, broke up large landholdings, and refused to call elections, just like a Communist.

There is no doubt about the direction Castro eventually took but his Communist
roots remain unclear more than 45 years after Matthews’s first articles appeared. “Castro
really never became a ‘communist’ at all,” Georgie Anne Geyer wrote in her biography,
Guerrilla Prince. She, like Matthews, believed that Castro came to use Communism to
stand up to the United States. “He did not adapt himself to an ideology; he found an
ideology to adapt itself to him,” Geyer wrote, decades after Matthews had said essentially
the same thing. In the end, it matters little whether Castro was or wasn’t a Communist.
What does matter is the way he unleashed a sweeping social revolution and kept it alive
with rants against capitalism, democracy, and American power.

Matthews struggled against the public role thrust on him as Castro’s inventor even
as he basked in the implied glory and implicit responsibility of being the reporter who
had a hand in reshaping not only the history of Cuba, but of the United States and the
western hemisphere.

Matthews insisted publicly that he had done no more in his articles
than to give Castro the opportunity to be himself, and he rejected suggestions that the publication of his articles had been of immense help to the Cuban insurrection. And yet, when he pleaded with his editors to be allowed to return to Cuba in 1958, he asked them to recognize the “unavoidable fact that I, as the inventor of Fidel Castro, am caught up in the chain of events occurring in Cuba.” In 1959, he proudly accepted a medal from Castro formally declaring him a member of the “Sierra Maestra Press Mission,” and he safeguarded the medal for the remainder of his life.

Matthews wrote about Cuba well before the tragedies of Vietnam and Watergate
drove a wedge between reporters and government officials. During his day,
correspondents worked closely with the government and the line between the press and
public policy sometimes blurred. He regularly briefed his friends at the State Department,
as did other correspondents. When Earl E.T. Smith was named the new ambassador to
Havana, his superiors instructed him to get briefed by Matthews before heading to
Havana, which he did. After Matthews was no longer permitted to write about Cuba in
the news pages of The Times, he continued to try to mediate between Washington and
Havana. Just before the missile crisis reached its riskiest stage, he asked State
Department officials to help him get into Cuba. In exchange, he promised to brief them
on everything he learned. He wanted one more chance to make a significant contribution
toward an understanding between two capitals, and two peoples, that were growing
increasingly distant from each other. But before the government could decide what to do,
Matthews’s editors forbade him from entering Cuba.

In the end, it was that kind of activism, that need to be involved in altering the
political landscape, that became Matthews’s undoing, though he never regretted it. Given
the choice between explaining the world and changing it, Matthews, like some other
journalists of his and subsequent generations, damned passive objectivity and chose to be
an actor, wearing his heart clearly on his sleeve and never apologizing for it. “True
journalism, like true historiography, is not mere chronology, not…simply…describ[ing]
the to describe the event exactly as it happened,” he wrote in 1946, more than a decade
before he climbed the Sierra Maestra in search of Castro, “but placing it in its proper
category as a moral act and judging it as such.”

As he neared the end of his life,
Matthews hadn’t changed his views at all. If anything, they had become more direct: “I would always opt for honest, open bias,” he wrote. “A newspaperman should work with his heart as well as his mind.” He never conceded the immense danger of permitting his personal views to slither into his reporting, nor did he acknowledge the dangerous consequences, for newspapers as well as for nations, of creating myths.

Would the world be different if Matthews had not gone to the Sierra to hear
Castro’s revolutionary confession? Consider that if it had been some other correspondent
who was less willing to allow Castro to shape his ideas, or perhaps someone who wrote
for a less influential publication than The Times, Castro’s image might have been
questioned more critically, which could have weakened his chances of being seen by US
officials as the unquestioned symbol of the anti-Batista forces. Had Matthews’ portrait
been less heroic—as one written by Ruby Phillips would likely have been—there might
have been less pressure on Washington to withdraw support from Batista. Had Matthews
not been such a lighting rod for criticism, and The Times so reluctant to be seen as aiding
the Communists in Cuba again, the newspaper’s editors would not have been so reluctant
to reveal in advance details about the Bay of Pigs invasion, which President Kennedy
said would have kept him from allowing the plan to proceed.

Matthews did not create
Fidel from Sierra mud; he did not endow him with the fanaticism and incredible ability to survive by which he eventually triumphed over Batista. But he did create for Americans the image of a youthful rebel valiantly fighting from his mountain hideout against a brutal dictator. And the revolution turned on images, not battlefield victories. After Matthews made Fidel the symbol of the revolution in the United States and much of the West, Castro’s most important mission was simply to survive.

Square of shoulder and somber in demeanor, over six feet tall, hurtfully thin, with
a low voice and war weary, hazel eyes, Matthews lived a life of intellectual passion and
commitment that brought him a constant stream of both elegy and infamy, and committed
him to the circle of hell reserved for those with unshakeable faith that they alone are
telling the truth. Despite his awards and all the criticism directed against him, the taciturn
loner with the bearing of a professor—who only enjoyed the camaraderie of other men in
combat—never veered from referring to himself as, simply, a newspaperman, a
surprisingly down-to-earth title for a man who treated himself to good cigars, fine wines
and Saville Row suits, and who sometimes used a walking stick presented to him by
Mussolini. The last line he wrote after 45 years in the employ of The Times was a
summing up of that perception of himself, and of his life: “A newspaperman walks with
the great of many lands, but he must go his own way—right to the end of the road.”

In Castro, and in Che Guevara, Juan Almeida, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the other
bearded rebels he met in the mountains, Matthews believed he had at last found true revolutionaries who could carry out the shattered legacy of the Spanish Civil War—as he had interpreted it during his time covering the war. To him, it was natural for a correspondent to want to take sides, and to want his side to win.

That is how he had worked in Spain, and it was how he went about his business in Cuba. “I feel about Cuba somewhat as I did about Spain,” he wrote in his private notes in 1958. “One sees the tragedy and wants to share it, to be there, to share, if only as a sympathizer, what the
Cubans are suffering. This is a personal reaction having nothing to do with the
professional and more scientific desire to see what was happening.”

He espoused a journalism of compassion, believing that foreign correspondents
were obliged to try to see what was happening in the countries they covered from the
point of view of the people living there. What others objected to as bias, he offered as
clarity; what others saw as personal involvement, he believed was a greater search for
truth. For Matthews, the central dilemma of finding the truth was not simply a matter of
retaining objectivity. Rather, for him what was most important was being comprehensive,
which required the correspondent to see things from another’s point of view. This
approach presaged the most controversial reporting on Vietnam, through the Watergate
period, and right up to the current reporting on the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Such multi-layered reporting isn’t usually well received by public officials, nor always
understood by readers. However, it explains a great deal about what Herbert Matthews
was trying to do.

1 comment:

Alberto Quiroga said...

I pray Matthews and Duranty are sharing space in hell with such OUTSTANDING members of the mainstream media such as Josef Goebbels and Julius Streicher. All of them fellow-travelers on the Yellow Brick Road of Lies leading to the New York Times...