Herbert Lionel Matthews (January 10, 1900 – July 30, 1977) was a reporter and editorialist for The New York Times who grew to notoriety after revealing that Fidel Castro was still alive and living in the Sierra Maestra mountains, though Fulgencio Batista had claimed publicly that he was killed during the 26th of July Movement's landing.
The grandson of Jewish immigrants, Matthews was born and raised in New York City’s affluent Riverside Drive in the Upper West Side. Matthews volunteered for the Army near the end of WWI, and went on to become a graduate of Columbia University. He subsequently found employment with the New York Times and reported from Europe during the Spanish Civil War. His coverage of that war and later the Cuban political situation were subject to substantial criticism for showing communist sympathies, a charge Matthews rejected for years. He also reported during the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936; and then wrote Eyewitness in Abyssinia: With Marshal Bodoglio's forces to Addis Ababa in 1937.
Interview with Fidel Castro
"When the world had given us up for dead, the interview with Matthews put the lie to our disappearance."
In February 1957, Herbert Matthews was invited down to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution. Ruby Phillips, the correspondent in Havana for The New York Times at the time, had received information from an emissary of the 26th of July Movement that Castro wanted to meet with a reporter from one of the most influential papers in the United States, and Matthews seized the opportunity as soon as it was available. The interview was conducted in secret so that Fulgencio Batista, the President of Cuba at the time, would not find out about their meeting. Matthews’ interview contained information revealing that Fidel Castro was in fact alive, unlike Batista had been claiming, which was not only shocking news to both the United States and Cuba, but the news also gave the revolutionaries in Cuba hope that the revolution could continue, as their leader was still alive, and so was the revolution. Within the interview, Castro also misled Matthews to believe that his rebel force, that had adopted guerrilla warfare as a tactic, was much bigger and more powerful than previously conceived. Matthews’ portrayal of the army made it seem like Castro had a large following and that the majority of Cuba was aligned with him. Both Castro and Matthews understood how surprising the news of his survival would be, so they made a point of taking a picture together and Castro signed the interview, just to add proof of the event. Batista, still trying to squash the revolutionary forces rising in Cuba, claimed the photograph was a fake and continued lying about Castro being dead.
In regards to the importance of the interview, it has been said to be one of the greatest scoops of the 20th century, as it revealed information that Castro had survived as well as the historical context in which the interview was conducted. Around the time of the interview, the United States had just entered the era of the Cold War, meaning that there was a clear anti-Communist sentiment throughout the country. Referring to Castro’s army and revolutionary force, Matthews wrote in his article, published 24 February 1957, that:
“[His] program is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist. The real core of its strength is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.” Herbert Matthews, 24 February 1957
Matthews’ early claim that Castro was driving an anti-Communist revolution would soon affect not only the image of Castro and the revolution, but also affect how the United States acted toward Cuba in the upcoming years.
Matthews in the Cuban Revolution
Matthews’ articles in The New York Times played a significant role in U.S. foreign policy at the time, as in 1958, the articles, which consistently demonstrated the idea that Castro would hold free elections and restore the Cuban constitution, helped persuade Washington to cease the shipment of arms to Batista. Instead, Matthews wanted the United States to spend its energy providing some kind of Marshall Plan for Latin America. The State Department believed Matthews in his claims that Castro was not a Communist leader, and the constant presence of Castro in the news increased the awareness of the revolution in the United States. Within the United States, as journalist and historian Anthony DePalma states, “Castro’s dark past was largely replaced in the United States by instant legitimacy”. Matthews had turned Castro into a likable rebel.
Throughout 1959, Matthews visited Cuba several times and constantly continued to deny that Castro was a Communist. He claimed that Castro’s revolution itself was not inherently Communist, and that Castro simply wanted a full-blown social revolution. One of Matthews’ most famous statements concerning Castro was made on 5 July 1959, and he stated that:
“There are no Reds in the Cabinet and none in high positions in the Government or army in the sense of being able to control either governmental or defense policies. The only power worth considering in Cuba is in the hands of the Premier Castro, who is not only not Communist but decidedly anti-Communist…” Herbert Matthews, 16 July 1959
As the Cuban revolution continued, Matthews still attempted to prove that Castro’s revolution and regime were not linked to Communism, but in 1960, Castro declared that he would adopt the Communist ideals to reshape Cuban society. Matthews continued to state that the revolution itself had never been associated with Communism and that Castro had not been a Communist when he took power. However, Matthews’ efforts were futile, as many, both in the United States and in Cuba, blamed him for the rise of the Communist leader. Several believed that he had known Castro was a Communist, while the some in the State Department claimed that Matthews had led them to believe Castro had democratic intentions and thus postponed their ability to act on the growing Communism. Few academics did not discredit Matthews, and his more opinionated journalistic style was frowned upon.
Matthews has been compared to Stalin apologist Walter Duranty, a fellow journalist on The New York Times staff, as well as other journalists such as Edgar Snow, Richard Harding Davis, and John Reed, all who demonstrated empathy for revolutions and created controversy in their time.
In 1997, on the fortieth anniversary of the interview, a three-foot-tall marker was erected by the government on the spot where the interview took place, which reads: "In this place, commander-in-chief Fidel Castro Ruz met with the North American journalist Herbert Matthews on February 17, 1957".
In February 2007, Cuba's state news agency reported that Cuba had unveiled a plaque in the Sierra Maestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the interview.
- Herbert Lionel Matthews Papers 1943-1982
- One Year of Combat by Che Guevara, El Cubano Libre no. 3, January 1958
- Richard E. Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution." The Historian 47 (1984): 2
- Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution." 1.
- Anthony DePalma, "Myths of the Enemy: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times." (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2004), 3.
- DePalma, "Myths of the Enemy." 2.
- New York Times, 24 February 1957. As cited in Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution." 3.
- DePalma, "Myths of the Enemy," 4.
- Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution," 6.
- Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution," 4-5.
- DePalma, "Myths of the Enemy," 9.
- New York Times, 16 July 1959. As cited in Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution," 5.
- Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution," 11.
- DePalma, "Myths of the Enemy," 17.
- Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution," 12 and 14.
- Welch, "Herbert L. Matthews and the Cuban Revolution," 15.
- DePalma, "Myths of the Enemy," 14.
- DePalma, Anthony (2006). The Man Who Invented Fidel. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 279–280. ISBN 1-58648-332-3.
- Koch, Stephen 2005 The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles. Counterpoint Press, New York ISBN 1-58243-280-5
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel 1961 The Cuban story. G. Braziller ASIN: B0007DNCMS
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel 1961 The yoke and the arrows; A report on Spain. G. Braziller; Rev. ed edition ASIN: B0007DFF7I
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel -1964 Return to Cuba. Stanford U, Institute of Hispanic American & Luso-Brazilian Studies, A Special Issue Of ‘Hispanic American Report’ Stanford, Ca
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel – 1969 Castro: A Political Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel – 1969 Cuba. New York: The Macmillan Co. London: Collier-Macmillan
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel 1969 Fidel Castro. Simon & Schuster, Clarion Book New York
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel 1973 Half of Spain Died: A Reappraisal of the Spanish Civil War. New York, Scribner, 1973
- Matthews, Herbert Lionel -1975 Revolution in Cuba: An Essay in Understandings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons