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Book Review: Temkin’s The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair

This install­ment in our ongo­ing series of book reviews fea­tures J. Ben­ton Heath’s assess­ment of Moshik Temkin’s The Sac­co-Vanzetti Affair: Amer­i­ca on Tri­al. In his review, Heath finds that Temkin’s book brings a unique inter­na­tion­al dimen­sion to the analy­sis of the Sac­co-Vanzetti affair, and reveals how events sur­round­ing Sac­co and Vanzetti informed ongo­ing dia­logue on U.S. glob­al dom­i­nance and domes­tic pol­i­cy.

By J. Ben­ton Heath

Two years after the 1927 exe­cu­tion of Ital­ian-Amer­i­can anar­chists Nico­lai Sac­co and Bar­tolomeo Vanzetti, H.L.Mencken wrote that their case “refus­es to yield.… The vic­tims con­tin­ue to walk, haunt­ing the con­science of Amer­i­ca, of the civ­i­lized world.” Eight decades have passed since Mencken’s writ­ing, yet Sac­co and Vanzetti con­tin­ue to stalk the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, attract­ing renewed inter­est from schol­ars, jour­nal­ists, com­men­ta­tors, and nov­el­ists. Temkin’s engag­ing and insight­ful work attempts to estab­lish the his­tor­i­cal place of Sac­co and Vanzetti by focus­ing on the nation­wide and transat­lantic dimen­sions of their case. By focus­ing on the inter­na­tion­al reac­tions to the con­vic­tions and exe­cu­tions, and on the effects of for­eign crit­i­cism, Temkin finds his own unique niche among the exten­sive schol­ar­ship on the case.

In his analy­sis, Temkin dis­tin­guish­es between the Sac­co-Vanzetti case, mean­ing the actu­al crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ing, and the affair itself. The case began with the rob­bery and mur­der of a shoe fac­to­ry pay­mas­ter and his secu­ri­ty guard in an indus­tri­al Boston sub­urb on April 15, 1920, result­ing in the arrest, weeks lat­er, of Sac­co and Vanzetti. It cul­mi­nat­ed when the two men were con­vict­ed in 1921 and lat­er sen­tenced to death. The legal case was char­ac­ter­ized by a woe­ful­ly unfair tri­al, an unsym­pa­thet­ic judge, and a pre­dom­i­nant post­war mood char­ac­ter­ized by xeno­pho­bia and the Red Scare. By con­trast, the affair, as Temkin uses it, stands for the inter­na­tion­al con­tro­ver­sy that devel­oped around the two men between their con­vic­tion and their exe­cu­tion six years lat­er. Temkin focus­es exclu­sive­ly on the affair, thus avoid­ing ques­tions of whether Sac­co and Vanzetti were inno­cent or whether they received a fair tri­al, and instead exam­in­ing a cli­mate of crit­i­cism and debate that only became more nox­ious as the two men’s exe­cu­tions neared.

Chap­ter 1 exam­ines the evo­lu­tion of the inter­na­tion­al affair, out of what was orig­i­nal­ly described as “just a cou­ple of wops in a jam.” The orig­i­nal mur­der tri­al drew the ire of left­ist groups in the Unit­ed States and abroad, as well as the atten­tion of a few Boston intel­lec­tu­als and the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, but it was noth­ing near the cause cele­bre it would become in 1926 and 1927. Temkin notes that news­pa­pers, for exam­ple, cov­ered the ear­ly stages of the tri­al “in a spir­it of fear” con­sis­tent with the Red Scare of the ear­ly 1920s, but by the time of Sac­co and Vanzetti’s exe­cu­tion this atti­tude would large­ly change. Short­ly after the two men’s final motion for a new tri­al was denied, the Boston Her­ald pub­lished an edi­to­r­i­al call­ing for a reex­am­i­na­tion of the case. Temkin notes that, “in anoth­er sign of the chang­ing times,” the edi­to­ri­al­ist won a Pulitzer Prize.

In explain­ing this tran­si­tion, Temkin wise­ly mod­i­fies the tra­di­tion­al claim that the Red Scare was large­ly “over” by 1926 and that anti-Com­mu­nist fer­vor had rapid­ly declined. Temkin’s more nuanced account char­ac­ter­izes the era as “a tran­si­tion peri­od” in which those who rose to pow­er on a wave of anti-Com­mu­nism found them­selves chal­lenged by an increas­ing­ly con­fi­dent group of crit­ics from the intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal elite. This embold­ened stance led to increas­ing­ly vocal crit­i­cism (such as Felix Frankfurter’s famous study on the case) from influ­en­tial fig­ures in the Unit­ed States, as well as from com­men­ta­tors abroad. H.G. Wells focused his attacks on the tri­al judge, Web­ster Thay­er, writ­ing, “What is the mat­ter with Judge Thay­er is not that he is anti-moral, but that he is … extreme­ly obtuse men­tal­ly and moral­ly. This men­tal and moral obtuse­ness seems to have extend­ed … to a con­sid­er­able body of opin­ion in the Unit­ed States.” This kind of cul­tur­al diag­no­sis from Europe’s lead­ing intel­lec­tu­als sparked a back­lash in the Unit­ed States that, Temkin argues, ulti­mate­ly doomed Sac­co and Vanzetti.

Chap­ter 2 explores the domes­tic reac­tion to for­eign inter­est in the case, argu­ing that world­wide protest, and cul­tur­al crit­i­cisms such as Wells’, sealed the fate of Sac­co and Vanzetti, even as it con­tributed to grow­ing domes­tic sup­port for the two men. Temkin mar­shals an impres­sive com­pi­la­tion of state­ments from intel­lec­tu­als, politi­cians, and jour­nal­ists, express­ing the sen­ti­ment that a grant of clemen­cy or even a new tri­al for Sac­co-Vanzetti would con­sti­tute capit­u­la­tion to “for­eign inter­fer­ence.” Most chill­ing is then-Mass­a­chu­setts Gov­er­nor Fuller’s state­ment that inter­na­tion­al pres­sure on behalf of Sac­co and Vanzetti “proved that there was a con­spir­a­cy against the secu­ri­ty of the Unit­ed States” and that such crit­i­cism “only dam­aged the two men. Per­haps with­out such pres­sure from out­side anoth­er solu­tion would have been pos­si­ble.”

But it is not obvi­ous from Temkin’s inves­ti­ga­tion how one should view these sen­ti­ments. It could be argued that, in the 1920s, resis­tance to for­eign inter­fer­ence was inevitably linked to atti­tudes about the influ­ence of com­mu­nism and oth­er forms of rad­i­cal left­ism fol­low­ing World War I. This view finds sup­port in many of the cit­ed state­ments and edi­to­ri­als, which appear unable to dis­tin­guish between for­eign cri­tiques of an unfair and pro­ce­du­ral­ly defec­tive tri­al on the one hand and the plots of bomb-throw­ing anar­chists and sin­is­ter com­mu­nists on the oth­er. Seen in this light, the intran­si­gence dis­played by those who sup­port­ed Sac­co and Vanzetti’s exe­cu­tion rep­re­sent­ed the lin­ger­ing influ­ence of the Red Scare in Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life, and thus was some­thing unique to that peri­od.

Temkin, how­ev­er, seems to pre­fer a broad­er read­ing of this reac­tion to inter­na­tion­al pres­sure, argu­ing that the affair chal­lenged Amer­i­cans to “accept the rec­i­p­ro­cal, even inevitable, con­se­quence of Amer­i­can glob­al suprema­cy: the inter­est and involve­ment of non-Amer­i­cans, espe­cial­ly Euro­peans, in U.S. affairs.” Viewed in this con­text, the Sac­co-Vanzetti affair was the first major flash­point in an ongo­ing con­flict that remains cen­tral to Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. From Guan­tanamo to ille­gal immi­gra­tion, from domes­tic sur­veil­lance to the Medellin deci­sion, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has repeat­ed­ly claimed what Euro­peans then called a “right to crit­i­cize” U.S. pol­i­cy, but Amer­i­cans remain divid­ed as to what heed they must give to inter­na­tion­al voic­es.

Chap­ter 3 looks at the Sac­co-Vanzetti affair from the oth­er side of the Atlantic, focus­ing on the French response and plac­ing it in the con­text of a broad­er Euro­pean reac­tion. Temkin demon­strates that the transat­lantic Sac­co-Vanzetti affair grew, at least in part, out of fears that the Unit­ed States, now the world’s dom­i­nant eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and cul­tur­al pow­er, “was fright­en­ing­ly out of touch with the moral com­pass of the rest of the world, threat­ened extinc­tion of the Euro­pean way of life, and seemed imper­vi­ous to any for­eign influ­ence, yet at the same time seemed deter­mined to export its way of life across the ocean.” This fear inter­twined with a sense of “betray­al” by many lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­als, who had hoped that an increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful Amer­i­ca would stand as a bea­con of tol­er­ance, free­dom, and jus­tice. The chap­ter sup­ports these con­clu­sions with exten­sive exam­i­na­tions and analy­sis of the pub­li­ca­tions and pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence of lead­ing Euro­pean, and par­tic­u­lar­ly French, intel­lec­tu­als. Temkin also deft­ly explores fac­tors pecu­liar to the his­tor­i­cal moment of the 1920s, such as ten­sions between rival groups of com­mu­nists, syn­di­cal­ists, and anar­chists on the rad­i­cal left, which ren­dered these groups unable to send a uni­fied mes­sage in protest­ing the plight of Sac­co and Vanzetti.

It is unfor­tu­nate that Temkin does not give more atten­tion to the “stub­born ques­tion” of the transat­lantic affair: why, of all Amer­i­can injus­tices, did the Euro­pean com­mu­ni­ty latch onto Sac­co and Vanzetti? Why not the count­less lynch­ings of black Amer­i­cans, or the 1925 Sweet mur­der tri­al? Temkin briefly offers two answers to this ques­tion. Most obvi­ous­ly, Sac­co and Vanzetti were Euro­pean. More­over, they chal­lenged America’s dom­i­nant social and polit­i­cal order, and Euro­peans of all polit­i­cal alle­giances who feared the ris­ing influ­ence of the Unit­ed States could cer­tain­ly iden­ti­fy with them to some extent. But Temkin, cit­ing Pro­fes­sor Frank Costigli­o­la, offers the more inter­est­ing con­clu­sion that the Sac­co-Vanzetti affair gained sym­bol­ic sig­nif­i­cance in the con­text of the glob­al strug­gle between rev­o­lu­tion­ary left­ism and lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism. “If even the pow­er­ful Unit­ed States could not strike a mod­er­ate pose between reac­tion and rev­o­lu­tion,” Temkin quotes Costigli­o­la as writ­ing, “how could Euro­pean democ­ra­cies hope to do so?” If cor­rect, this inter­pre­ta­tion would invite a use­ful com­par­a­tive study of the Sac­co-Vanzetti affair and the mod­ern cul­tur­al ten­sions between lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism and rad­i­cal Islam. How­ev­er, it is unclear from this book whether this con­clu­sion accu­rate­ly reflects the dom­i­nant mood among Sac­co and Vanzetti’s con­tem­po­raries in Europe, and Temkin seems to leave the ques­tion open for fur­ther study.

Chap­ters 4 and 5 con­sid­er aspects of the affair that have less direct rel­e­vance to its inter­na­tion­al scope. In chap­ter 4, Temkin inves­ti­gates the sto­ry of the Low­ell Com­mis­sion, a group of experts estab­lished by Gov­er­nor Fuller to reex­am­ine the Sac­co-Vanzetti case. The com­mis­sion, led by Abbot Lawrence Low­ell, the pres­i­dent of Har­vard, rep­re­sent­ed the last, best hope for the two men, since a fair review of their tri­al could clear the way for exec­u­tive clemen­cy, a par­don, or oth­er action. Instead, the com­mis­sion rub­ber-stamped the ver­dict, pro­ceed­ings, and sen­tence in a slop­py, poor­ly rea­soned report. Temkin sug­gests that the commission’s con­clu­sions may have been dri­ven more by a desire to “return to nor­mal­cy” and close the affair, rather than by ques­tions of truth or fair­ness. In fact, the report had the oppo­site effect, push­ing lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­als fur­ther to the left, spark­ing protests at home and abroad, and dam­ag­ing America’s image world­wide. Chap­ter 5 dis­cuss­es the res­ur­rec­tion of the Sac­co-Vanzetti affair in the 1960s, fol­low­ing efforts by con­ser­v­a­tive intel­lec­tu­als to show that the two men were guilty. Temkin argues that these lat­er strug­gles over the “myth” of Sac­co-Vanzetti only solid­i­fy the affair’s place in Amer­i­can and Euro­pean his­to­ry.

Temkin pulled togeth­er a tremen­dous amount of sources for this work, but The Sac­co-Vanzetti Affair would have ben­e­fit­ted from a more con­trolled, method­i­cal struc­ture. The plight of Sac­co and Vanzetti moti­vat­ed a vari­ety of com­men­ta­tors, his­to­ri­ans, and inter­est groups, each with their own inter­pre­ta­tions of the case and its sig­nif­i­cance. More­over, these dis­parate reac­tions took place in a com­plex polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al cli­mate that saw the rise of Sovi­et Rus­sia, the growth of both Amer­i­can pow­er abroad and iso­la­tion­ism at home, and the shift­ing posi­tions and influ­ence with­in the Unit­ed States of both the lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­al elite and the rad­i­cal left. In address­ing the inter­na­tion­al dimen­sions of this affair, Temkin clear­ly under­stands that he is telling a com­plex, nuanced sto­ry; but his orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture, which often jumps between ear­ly reac­tions to the case in 1920 to reflec­tions and protests after the exe­cu­tions, makes it dif­fi­cult to pin down his con­clu­sions. This may be less of a prob­lem for those inti­mate­ly famil­iar with the pol­i­tics and cul­ture of the peri­od, but for oth­ers it becomes dif­fi­cult to assim­i­late the intri­cate web of domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al rela­tion­ships.

This work is unique in its focus on the inter­na­tion­al aspects of the affair, but the con­clu­sions that Temkin reach­es, read sim­ply, will seem quite obvi­ous. If one learns a sin­gle les­son from the past nine years of Amer­i­can inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, it is that the Unit­ed States exhibits remark­able inflex­i­bil­i­ty when con­front­ed with “for­eign inter­fer­ence,” and that its lead­ers will cite the need to “stand tough” against inter­na­tion­al crit­i­cism at the risk of repeat­ing past mis­takes or entrench­ing injus­tice. Instead, the great­est val­ue of The Sac­co-Vanzetti Affair may be found in the details. In gath­er­ing a wealth of com­ments and crit­i­cisms from a vari­ety of sources, Temkin reveals that the events sur­round­ing Sac­co and Vanzetti formed an ear­ly part of an ongo­ing dia­logue regard­ing U.S. glob­al dom­i­nance and domes­tic pol­i­cy.

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