Saturday, June 6, 2009

Moshik Temkin's "The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair"

Moshik Temkin is an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Previously he taught American and European history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at Columbia University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial captures what may have been the central paradox of the entire Sacco-Vanzetti affair: that international controversy turned Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti into famous men–one magazine called them “the two most famous prisoners in the world”–and ultimately also sealed their fate.

Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants and anarchists whose 1921 conviction for the robbery and murder of a paymaster and his guard outside Boston was increasingly seen, by people inside and outside the United States, as a judicial travesty and a symbol of everything wrong with America. On page 99 I discuss Georg Branting, a Stockholm attorney who visited the United States in the Spring of 1927 to investigate the case on behalf of “European opinion.” He became convinced that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent, and that, because of this, the authorities would stop their execution. When that didn’t happen, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in August 1927, Branting came to the grim conclusion that the international pressure exerted on the United States by Europeans, Latin Americans, and others around the world made many Americans in positions of power worry about appearing weak in the face of “foreign interference” and international “terrorism”. This was especially true of Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller, a man with presidential aspirations who chose, at the moment of truth, not to pardon Sacco and Vanzetti. This meant that, as opposed to what American high school and college students read in their history textbooks, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed not in spite of the global protest on their behalf, but rather because of it. In this sense, the Sacco-Vanzetti affair revealed a powerful division among Americans, between those who viewed the U.S. as part of an international community, and those who insisted on its principled separateness from the rest of the world. This conflict, in many ways, continues today.

Here’s a quote from page 99:

Ultimately, in the debate over whether individuals or a system were the downfall of Sacco and Vanzetti, [Georg] Branting came down firmly on the latter side.... In his opinion, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed because of ‘mighty forces that were in motion’.... No other outcome, Branting now wrote in contradiction of his hopeful public statements in June 1927, could seriously have been expected. To his mind, the questions that the legal and political authorities in the United States and Massachusetts were asking themselves in the heated days of 1927 were: ‘Should the ruling party, with the presidential campaign impending, yield to the radicals’ demands? Should one risk...being suspected of weakness toward the “reds”? The answer: never, it must not happen! Foreign countries, let them go to the devil.’

It is safe to assume that Branting, who was back in Stockholm, did not read the self-satisfied editorial that appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript on August 24, 1927, the day after the executions, but it showed how correct his assessment probably was. ‘The Sacco-Vanzetti case’, wrote the editors, ‘has been the vehicle of as vicious propaganda as ever deluged a community. Radicals the world over...saw here an opportunity to further what they call their cause. Without their meddling interference the case never would have assumed unusual proportions ... Many well-meaning [American] citizens either thought these foreign agitators were in earnest or were afraid of what they might do.... Massachusetts could not pay the slightest attention to European protests or the sentiments voiced by the journals and public men of distant lands.’

In this, the editors of the Transcript faithfully captured the jingoism and anti-outsider feeling that ultimately did in Sacco and Vanzetti, and the editorial reinforces the impression that Sacco and Vanzetti were executed because men in positions of power made the choice to allow it to happen. And these choices were made in a political context that made it seem to these individuals that clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti would mean a surrender to foreign pressures and subversive activities.”
Read an excerpt from The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

Visit Moshik Temkin's Harvard faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue