Radical Aliens

David Cole

  • The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial by Moshik Temkin
    Yale, 316 pp, £25.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12484 2

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.

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