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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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