Review: ‘The Yankee Comandante’ by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss

The Yankee Commandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba. Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss. Lyons. 265 pages. $26.95.
The Yankee Commandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba. Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss. Lyons. 265 pages. $26.95.

In a tomb in the far corner of a Havana cemetery lie the remains of William Morgan, an American adventurer who became a hero of the Cuban revolution before he was executed by a firing squad on the orders of Fidel Castro in 1961.

Morgan, 32, died a man without a country.

Morgan’s saga reads like a spy vs. spy Cold War thriller too improbable for Hollywood. A misfit, an AWOL Army soldier, a circus sword swallower, a Miami bouncer and an errand runner for mobsters in Ohio, Morgan snuck into Cuba and joined rebel forces fighting the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. He became an important revolutionary leader — with the rank of commandante — and married the only woman in the rebel camp.

The Yankee Comandante by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss recounts this irresistible story in rich detail with a rapid-fire narrative that emphasizes the love story of Morgan and Olga Rodriguez over the complex political intrigue of that revolutionary time.

This book comes out after two lengthy accounts of the same story. Historian Aran Shetterly helped revive interest in Morgan’s exploits in The Americano in 2007. In a lengthy New Yorker piece three years ago, David Grann explored FBI and CIA efforts to track Morgan, concluding that he was a Hemingwayesque free spirit and was never a U.S. operative despite some speculation.

Sallah, a Miami Herald reporter, was the first to report on Morgan’s case in-depth in 2002. Working for the Toledo Blade at the time, he discovered Olga Rodriguez living quietly in that city. She had remarried, keeping old photos and a memoir to herself. She gradually opened up in a series of interviews and gave Sallah access to her memoir and several letters, leading to a three-part series in the Blade.

What sets apart The Yankee Comandante from other accounts is the authors’ decision to make Rodriguez, now 78, the backbone of their book. Morgan’s farewell letter to her from prison on the eve of execution is just one of the riveting personal elements.

“Since the first time I saw you in the mountains until the last time I saw you in prison, you have been my love, my happiness, my companion in life and in my thoughts during my moment of death,” he wrote.

Rodriguez’s saga rivals Morgan’s. A student leader who joined the rebels, she had two daughters with Morgan and later was brutalized in Castro’s prisons for 11 years before her release. She escaped during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and was taken in by Morgan’s mother in Toledo.

Rodriguez’s memories animate The Yankee Comandante. The 150-page manuscript she wrote after fleeing Cuba contains heartrending stories. “I don’t have anything to give you but my love,” she tells Morgan on their wedding day. “Your love is more than enough for me,” Morgan responds. “When your country is free, we will be very happy and love each other more.”

Sallah and Weiss, along with Grann and Shetterly, all had access to declassified documents showing intense U.S. government interest in Morgan during and after the revolution. Grann does the most thorough job of dissecting the first serious anti-Castro plot, in which Morgan acted as a double agent for Castro, pretending to work with the plotters — including Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo — until they were exposed.

But Weiss and Sallah benefit from extensive interviews with Morgan’s compatriots in his rebel group, the Second Front, including mentor Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who died in 2012, and Roger Redondo. They described Morgan’s military prowess, how he won over skeptical rebels and his growing disillusionment as Castro turned toward communism.

The group began to hide weapons and conspire against Castro. When Morgan was captured and executed, he became little more than an historical footnote, branded a traitor in Cuba and forgotten in the United States.

A debate continues about Morgan’s true motivations. Sallah and Weiss portray him as largely non-political but intensely loyal to the men he bonded with in the mountains. The Morgan in Grann’s account becomes a vocal anti-communist who did not shy away from political intrigue.

For his part, Morgan told an interviewer that he was not an idealist when he came to Cuba but became one during the revolution. The State Department stripped him of his citizenship for helping Castro, and Morgan lamented that he “had run out of countries.”

The Morgan story is now fresh for several reasons. His widow strives to revive his reputation and in 2007, the State Department admitted error and restored Morgan’s citizenship.

Ohio members of Congress met with Cuban government officials, asking that Morgan’s remains be returned to the United States. That hasn’t happened, though the recent U.S.-Cuba opening may make it possible. Rodriguez told the authors of Yankee Comandante that she will keep working toward that goal: “This was his country. This is where he belongs.”

Frank Davies is a writer and editor living in northern Virginia.