The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial 
by Moshik Temkin.
Yale, 316 pp., £25, July 2009, 978 0 300 12484 2
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Until the detention of ‘enemy combatants’ at Guantánamo Bay, few legal disputes in the United States had provoked such impassioned international criticism as the 1921 conviction and 1927 execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants found guilty of robbing and murdering a factory paymaster and a security guard in broad daylight in South Braintree, Massachusetts.

The reasons for concern in the case of Guantánamo are clear enough. The assertion that the US was not bound by any law with respect to the indefinite detention of foreign nationals not surprisingly had a powerful effect. Guantánamo symbolised the primacy of power over law in a way that threatened not only the hapless detainees, but every other country in the world. It seemed to say that the US considered itself free to ignore any legal constraint it deemed an obstacle to its interests.

The reasons for international concern in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti are less obvious. The New Republic at the time called them ‘the two most famous prisoners in the world’. The day they were executed, riots broke out, as protesters attacked US targets from South America to Paris, from Brussels to Berlin. By the time the governor of Massachusetts, Alvan Fuller, rejected their pleas for clemency, these militant anarchists had the support of an unlikely coalition of political leaders and intellectuals, including Stalin, Einstein, Henry Ford, Mussolini, Fritz Kreisler, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, H.L. Mencken, Anatole France, H.G. Wells, the dean of Harvard Law School, Roscoe Pound and 205 members of the law school’s 1927 graduating class. Interest in the case did not die with the men’s executions. It has been the subject of countless books, articles and TV documentaries, it has also inspired novels and films, and even came up on The Sopranos, cited by Tony and Carmela Soprano to their children as evidence of the prejudice that had greeted their Italian immigrant ancestors.

Most historians, lawyers and journalists who have studied the case have tried to determine whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty or innocent – a matter that can never be finally resolved. In The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair, Moshik Temkin takes a different approach, focusing instead on the political dynamics that transformed a domestic murder case into an international controversy. ‘Sacco-Vanzetti scholarship (and public discussion) of the past five decades’ has, he writes, been obsessed ‘with the question of one or both men’s guilt or innocence . . . at the expense of the social, political, intellectual and global context and ramifications of their case’.

The global significance of the case is certainly a more interesting issue. What, after all, could possibly have united so many unlikely bedfellows in support of a pair of radical anarchists? Why did Sacco and Vanzetti attract so much attention given the much more widespread injustices done to black Americans in the criminal justice system? Why did a cause that gained so much national and international support ultimately fail? And what does the case tell us about relations between the United States and the rest of the world between the wars? Temkin does a brilliant job answering these questions. And in his answers, it turns out, lie the roots of the current controversy over America’s war on terror.

Still, it’s best to begin with the facts. On 15 April 1920, two men who had been waiting outside a shoe factory in South Braintree shot and killed a paymaster and a security guard who were carrying $15,776.51 into the factory. Joined by a third man, they grabbed the money, jumped into a Buick already carrying two others, and sped away, wielding a shotgun and throwing tacks in their wake to make pursuit difficult. The authorities arrested Sacco and Vanzetti some time later because they had been linked to the owner of a second car thought to have been involved in the crime. Nicola Sacco, 29 and happily married with a young son, was a trusted employee in another shoe factory; Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 31 and single, peddled fish in the streets. They had eked out a living in the United States for just over a decade, and still spoke relatively little English. (In jail, their English improved considerably, and Vanzetti became a prolific correspondent and writer, apparently charming all those who came into contact with him.) Both were militant anarchists, followers of Luigi Galleani, another Italian immigrant to Massachusetts, who advocated violent direct action against the state, as well as robbery and theft in support of the cause. Both were carrying guns and live ammunition when arrested, and lied to the police about the weapons in their possession.

At the trial, both sides relied largely on eyewitnesses, who offered starkly contrasting accounts. Nearly 150 witnesses testified, some claiming to have seen Sacco and/or Vanzetti at the scene of the crime, others claiming to have seen them far from South Braintree at the time the crime was committed. The government offered evidence that the bullet that killed the paymaster had markings consistent with those that Sacco’s gun might have made, though this was disputed by the defence experts. The jury convicted, and the judge sentenced both men to death.

There were good reasons to question the verdict. Several of the government’s key witnesses admitted before the trial that they could not identify Sacco or Vanzetti as the perpetrators, only to testify months later at trial that they were sure of their identifications. Some recanted after the trial. The testimony of the government’s star witness was tainted by the fact that the police initially presented Sacco to her in a prejudicial one-on-one ‘show-up’, rather than in the much fairer ‘line-up’, in which the witness has to choose between several individuals. And several years after the trial, in 1925, a man already in jail for another murder committed during an armed robbery confessed that he had taken part in the South Braintree affair, and claimed that Sacco and Vanzetti had not been involved. Yet more detailed ballistic analysis completed long after the trial, in 1961, strongly suggested that the bullet that killed the paymaster had indeed come from Sacco’s gun.

The trial took place after a co-ordinated series of bombings in 1919, attributed to Italian immigrant anarchists, had sparked a nationwide round-up of ‘radical aliens’. Federal officials, directed by a young J. Edgar Hoover, arrested between five and ten thousand foreign nationals in what came to be known as the ‘Palmer raids’, denied them access to lawyers, coerced confessions from them and ordered them to be deported, frequently on the grounds that they associated with Communist or anarchist groups. (None of the detainees was found guilty of the bombings.) Then, shortly after Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest, another bomb went off in Wall Street, killing 39 and injuring hundreds more – also apparently the work of militant anarchists. Anarchists were seen as a real threat, committed to violence and able and willing to carry it out. In such an atmosphere, it was critically important that the trial be kept free of prejudicial influences.

Instead the prosecutor harangued Sacco and Vanzetti as ‘draft dodgers’ for going to Mexico during the First World War, and Judge Webster Thayer joined in, sarcastically calling the men’s loyalty into question. Thayer opened his final instructions to the jury by praising the jurors’ loyalty to the country and comparing them to soldiers, further emphasising the irrelevant issue of Sacco and Vanzetti’s failure to serve in the war. Away from the bench, the judge was said to have referred to the defendants as ‘anarchistic bastards’, and the jury foreman reportedly said, on learning of evidence potentially exonerating them: ‘Damn them, they ought to hang anyway.’

While the trial was going on, it received relatively little attention beyond the pages of the Nation and the New Republic. Anarchists scrambled to organise support, and Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical lawyer, Fred Moore, dashed off letters to everyone he thought might be interested. But the case did not attract broad interest until 1926 or 1927. In April 1927, the Massachusetts Supreme Court denied the men’s final state court appeals, and Judge Thayer sentenced the men to death, disregarding their passionate courtroom protestations of innocence. A month earlier, the Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter had published an extremely influential article on the case in the Atlantic. He reviewed the record calmly and meticulously, and demonstrated that the conviction rested on questionable evidence and that the trial had been conducted in a prejudicial manner. The article, which was immediately turned into a book, had a broader appeal than the radical critiques favoured by the anarchists, who launched a sweeping indictment of the American justice system. In Frankfurter’s view, questioning the result and arguing for a retrial did not require challenging the entire structure of American capitalism, but merely holding America to its commitment to fair process.

Americans were much more inclined to view Sacco and Vanzetti sympathetically in 1927 than they had been in 1920. The hysteria of the first Red Scare had faded (although it remained an important undercurrent of American politics, resurfacing in even more potent form in the McCarthy era). Anarchist violence had ebbed and the government’s abusive tactics during the Palmer raids had been widely condemned by such influential figures as Frankfurter and his Harvard Law School colleagues, Roscoe Pound and Zechariah Chafee; Louis Post, who, as acting secretary of labour, reviewed the deportation orders resulting from the raids and reversed most of them; and Judge George Anderson, who declared the raids illegal in 1920, writing in his decision that ‘a mob is a mob, whether made up of government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals, loafers and the vicious classes.’

In Europe opinion was also moving in favour of Sacco and Vanzetti. They were Europeans, after all, and appeared to have been denied a fair trial in part because of their foreign origins, as well as their class and political allegiances. The case was often compared to the Dreyfus affair; both, Temkin argues, ‘attained totemic status as examples of grave injustices inflicted by the powerful against the powerless’, and both, ‘in the eyes of many, were the result of the persistence and pervasiveness of racism and prejudice’. European sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti also reflected deeper concerns about American power and European decline. In a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harold Laski noted that ‘this case has stirred Europe as nothing since the Dreyfus case . . . the ill-feeling against Americans is . . . profound.’ Dreyfus himself made an appeal on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, despite his antipathy to anarchists.

All this put considerable pressure on the Massachusetts authorities to give the men a new trial. But, Temkin suggests, the pressure may have backfired: US officials didn’t want to be seen to change their minds in response to foreign criticism. They bristled at interference even from Americans who did not live in Massachusetts; foreign advice was still more unwelcome. In 1930, former governor Fuller told a German journal that ‘the tendentious prejudice and general bitterness’ in Europe against the United States ‘only damaged the two men. Perhaps without such pressure from outside another solution might have been possible.’ Senator William Borah, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, argued that ‘it would be a national humiliation, a shameless, cowardly compromise of national courage to pay the slightest attention to foreign protests . . . This foreign interference is an impudent and wilful challenge to our sense of decency.’ Temkin goes so far as to claim that ‘the two men were executed not despite the international campaign on their behalf but rather because of it.’

That overstates the case. Temkin shows that multiple forces contributed to the men’s execution. These included political divisions within the US itself between ‘law and order’ conservatives, liberals concerned about specific defects in the trial but broadly supportive of the American system, and radicals who saw the case as an example of structural class oppression. The convictions themselves came when violent actions carried out by anarchists in the United States were at their peak. The appeals were hampered by the peculiarities of Massachusetts legal process, which required the defendants to present many of their claims in the first instance to the judge who had presided over the original trial. Thayer, who sentenced the men, was fervently opposed to anarchism, while Fuller, who declined to grant clemency, may have been motivated by his ambition to become the 1928 Republican vice-presidential candidate. And, of course, there was some evidence (albeit disputed) to support the men’s guilt.

The reason the case attracted such concern abroad seems to have had less to do with the facts of the case than with the American reaction to outside criticism. Americans were not only uninterested in, but hostile to, European views. The relations between Massachusetts and Sacco and Vanzetti became a stand-in for the relations between the United States and Europe. Just as Massachusetts was deaf to the reasonable pleas of Sacco and Vanzetti, so the United States was deaf – at best – to the petitions of Europeans on their behalf. As Temkin writes, there was a ‘growing perception that the Sacco-Vanzetti case was the symptom of an America gone completely wild after the war, drunk on its own economic and global power, crushing the weak, persecuting the alien, flouting international opinion, isolated from the rest of the world, ignoring reasonable appeals from even the heads of friendly democratic states’.

H.G. Wells’s intervention was emblematic. In 1927, the New York Times published two articles by him on the case, both deeply critical of the trial, but also of what Wells saw as an American mindset that permitted two seemingly innocent men to be executed for their political beliefs. Wells condemned those who supported the verdict as having ‘underdeveloped minds; the minds of lumpish overgrown children. They have had no fine moral and intellectual training. They have lived in an atmosphere where there is no subtle criticism of conduct and opinion, where everything is black and white . . . everything is overemphasised.’ Wells’s article sparked a flood of angry letters to the Times. The paper told him that it would not publish his articles in the future. In his next essay, which the Times, true to its word, rejected, Wells defended his right to criticise the United States:

The world becomes more and more one community, and the state of mind of each nation has practical reactions upon all the rest that were undreamt of half a century ago. The administration of justice in Massachusetts or Italy concerns me almost as much as . . . in London or Glasgow. Particularly when the lives of aliens are involved . . . The world becomes my village . . . part of me walks down Main Street and defies all America to expel it.

Wells had a point, of course. At the same time, his critique itself seemed to see things in ‘black and white’, and to be more than a bit ‘overemphasised’. Fuller, for example, was sufficiently sensitive to criticism to appoint a commission to review the case, headed by the president of Harvard, Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Many of Sacco and Vanzetti’s supporters thought this would be their salvation, as elite opinion generally, and Harvard opinion more specifically, strongly supported the men’s cause. Yet the commission concluded that while there was evidence that the judge was personally biased, he had not displayed that bias in the courtroom, and the conduct of the trial contained no errors warranting clemency. The commission report was widely criticised, but it certainly complicated matters, as the verdict could no longer be blamed on a single biased judge.

It isn’t hard to see in the Sacco-Vanzetti affair the genesis of an international dynamic that continues to this day. Coinciding with the rise of American global power after the First World War, the case became a focal point for the world’s concerns about America’s newfound authority and how it would exercise it. But, even as American influence was spreading, many Americans clung to an isolationist attitude. It was this contradiction which, according to Harold Laski, ‘angered thinking people most’. He cited the case of a Frenchman who’d said to him: ‘If we have to mobilise five thousand troops to protect American lives and property, we are at least entitled to consideration.’ This contradiction between the reach of American influence and Americans’ stubborn resistance to the views of those inevitably affected by it is still evident today. Where Senator Borah in the 1920s rejected ‘foreign interference’ as ‘impudent’, Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 dismissed France and Germany’s opposition to the Iraq war as the views of ‘old Europe’. The Bush-Cheney White House considered international hostility to the US inescapable, and therefore gave it no weight at all. When John Kerry suggested during a 2004 presidential debate that American military intervention should satisfy a ‘global test’, Bush immediately condemned this as a sign of weakness – and by most accounts, won valuable debating points with the American public in doing so.

Barack Obama has struck a markedly different tone on foreign policy and national security. Starting with his inaugural address, he has emphasised the importance of multilateralism, of co-operation and engagement with the outside world, and of international law and alliances. But, even before his administration took over, international protests against US policy on Guantánamo, extraordinary renditions and torture had forced the Bush administration to retreat from its most extreme positions. There remains a strong vein of isolationism, provincialism and almost perverse naivety in the US regarding its role in the world, perhaps best captured by the ‘Why do they hate us?’ discussions that dominated public discourse after 9/11. But that isolationist streak is less prominent today than in the 1920s. Americans today seem more ready to listen – if not yet eagerly – to the views of others.

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