Just how powerful is The New York Times? That’s the question asked by one of the paper’s own senior correspondents, Anthony DePalma, in his new book, The Man Who Invented Fidel. In conservative circles, and particularly among older Cuban exiles in Miami, Herbert Matthews has long been viewed as the scoop-hungry reporter who was charmed and then conned by Machiavellian sources trying to steer U.S. foreign policy—a late 1950’s precursor to Judy Miller. And just as many on the left now blame Ms. Miller for single-handedly paving the road to war in Iraq, Matthews was accused of enabling Fidel Castro’s rise.
Indeed, mocking a then-popular Times promotional slogan, William F. Buckley Jr. headlined a 1961 magazine story on Matthews with “I Got My Job Through the New York Times: How one man’s opinion, disseminated through an influential newspaper, helped put Castro in power.” It was an assessment The Times’ own publisher and abashed editors came to agree with. Following his now-legendary 1957 front-page sit-down with Mr. Castro in the guerrilla leader’s mountaintop hideout, Matthews was thought too emotionally close to the story to render it objectively, and was initially barred from returning to Havana as a foreign correspondent.
What followed was a decade-long war within The New York Times’ newsroom, one that ran in tandem with the actual battles being waged in Cuba. Mr. DePalma’s book expertly intertwines these two historical strands, unearthing internal memos from The Times’ own archives (many of which are every bit as colorfully acrimonious as their latter-day e-mail counterparts), as well as Matthews’ personal correspondence and now-declassified F.B.I. records (including surveillance by a fellow Times reporter). There’s plenty of juicy grist for Kremlinologists of both stripes—Times-ian and Cuban.
The first myth to be demolished by Mr. DePalma is that Matthews’ fawning profile of Fidel was the product of an impressionable cub reporter. The 56-year-old Matthews was anything but green, though his Times résumé was checkered: His Spanish Civil War reportage alongside Ernest Hemingway had already drawn flak from editors worried about his pro-Loyalist bias. Any reservations were overruled by then-publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, with whom Matthews had developed a close personal relationship. In fact, Sulzberger eventually granted Matthews a unique position on The Times’ editorial board—the first and last time in the paper’s history in which a reporter was allowed to pen both news stories and unsigned editorials.
It was from this privileged roost that Matthews swept into Havana in 1957, itching to land a career-capping story and, in the derisive opinion of one colleague, live out his “Lawrence of Arabia” fantasies one last time.
Slipping past police roadblocks in an all-night drive to meet the rebel leader—then presumed dead—he certainly found plenty of stirring source material. In a series of articles, he presented to the world a dashing Fidel Castro, a Robin Hood whose only goal was to end the Batista dictatorship and usher in free elections. Just as crucially, whereas in reality Castro had perhaps two dozen poorly equipped men under his personal command, Matthews estimated his strength at upwards of 1,000—and growing daily. (It wasn’t the last instance of Matthews’ failed intelligence-gathering skills that Mr. DePalma wryly compares to those of Ms. Miller.) The results “did not create Fidel from nothing,” Mr. DePalma observes of the ensuing publicity, “but they did change his image from hotheaded loser to noble rogue with broad ideals, a characterization that appealed to a large spectrum of Cubans as well as Americans.”
Ironically, the sharpest rejoinder to Matthews came from The Times’ own Havana bureau chief, Ruby Hart Phillips, and over the next few years the paper was full of dueling accounts: Was Fidel Castro a Soviet stalking horse or a misunderstood democrat? Were the newly victorious rebel army’s firing squads producing a “blood bath” on the flimsiest of evidence, or were they merely administering rough justice in the name of the greater social good? It all depended under whose byline the story ran, Phillips or Matthews.
Meanwhile, Matthews’ involvement was ranging beyond his typewriter as he provided counsel to policymakers. Mr. DePalma notes that his input was influential in the hiring and firing of ambassadors to Cuba, in ending the arms sales to Batista (which sealed his fate) and in producing the ambivalent U.S. response to Castro’s initial months in office. As with Iraq, the State Department (where Matthews had the ear of the Cuba desk) hoped for an accommodation of some sort, while the Defense Department angled for a military strike. Accordingly, it was the desire to distance themselves from Matthews which helped persuade Times editors to defang their Bay of Pigs exposé, lest they be accused of tipping off Castro to the C.I.A.’s invasion plans.
However, by January 1962, a new publisher was in place at The Times, and Orvil E. Dryfoos shared little of his predecessor’s affection for Matthews. The result was a memo from on high which rivals in its bluntness 2002’s notorious inter-office e-mail demanding “we have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times”: “I trust that Herbert Matthews will remain: 1.) out of the news 2.) and not write for the news department.”
It’s not surprising that Matthews persisted in his cherished illusions. After all, he was hardly the only one to fall for Castro’s charms—Miami is full of figures, from business moguls to erstwhile comrades-in-arms, who can speak eloquently to their own rude awakenings. And among creative types, from Oliver Stone to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there still exists a storied tradition of acting as Castro’s apologist. (Castro has publicly boasted of using Mr. Garcia Marquez in the late 90’s as a back-channel envoy to President Bill Clinton.)
What’s shocking is that The Times allowed Matthews to dispense his folly for so long. He wrote editorials arguing that Cuba had no designs on its regional neighbors even as Che Guevara embarked on his doomed Bolivian insurrection; and as late as December 1966, eight months before his retirement, after 45 years at the paper, he was still injecting tsuris into the heart of yet a third Times publisher, Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger.
Like any old-school Times vet, Mr. DePalma largely reserves judgment through all this, remaining coolly dispassionate as Matthews eerily echoes Castro’s own belief that “history will absolve me” and returns to Cuba for one last trip in 1972, gathering material for what he hoped would be a score-settling tome. At the very moment when homosexuals, hippies and anyone else deemed “counterrevolutionary” were being rounded up and sent to forced-labor camps—a chilling period recalled in Reinaldo Arenas’ 1992 memoir, Before Night Falls—Matthews felt that the island’s rulers had at last “struggled through to something good for Cuba, and something that is at last beginning to succeed.”
It’s in his book’s last pages that Mr. DePalma finally sets his dogged evenhandedness aside and deftly carves up Matthews. “It is certainly arguable that the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban peoples are better off under Communism than under their previous regimes,” Matthews opines in his final unpublished manuscript, completed just before his death in 1977—a viewpoint Mr. DePalma isn’t about to let stand. He closes The Man Who Invented Fidel by traveling to the same jungle-shrouded spot in Cuba where Matthews first met Castro, and then speaks with the now-elderly local farmers in whose name the revolution was first waged. His discovery? “Only the calendar year seems to have changed.” Area families remain dirt poor, without even electricity, paralyzed into submission by their fear of a police state and waiting—praying—for Castro to finally die so a better future might emerge. “The sheer desperation of the scene stunned me. All the rancor and bloodshed of half a century, for this? How could so little have changed, when so much has changed?”
But don’t blame The Times for any of this. “Castro could have triumphed without Matthews,” Mr. DePalma insists, and he’s quick to share out responsibility to the horde of reporters who initially parroted Matthews’ take on the revolution, as well as uninformed U.S. diplomats in Batista-era Havana and their equally clueless counterparts in Washington, D.C.
Anthony DePalma coyly leaves it to the reader to substitute the word Iraq for Cuba, dancing right up to the obvious parallels. But while he may be unwilling to compare and contrast l’affaire Judy with the Matthews debacle, The Times’ current stewards would seem to have the similarities firmly in mind. As Mr. DePalma quips in the acknowledgements, executive editor Bill Keller “winced when he heard that I was writing about Matthews after so many unflattering books about the newspaper were being published.” No doubt.
Brett Sokol has written about Cuban culture and politics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vibe magazine.