Trying again to interpret Sacco-Vanzetti

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, Italian-born anarchists, were executed in 1927 for murder and robbery. Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, Italian-born anarchists, were executed in 1927 for murder and robbery. (From The Film ''Sacco And Vanzetti'' By Peter Miller)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / June 16, 2009
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When the personal papers of the late Harvard College president A. Lawrence Lowell dealing with the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case were opened in 1977, 50 years after the two men's executions, there was speculation that the contents would finally settle some lingering questions.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, Italian-born anarchists, were convicted in 1921 of the murder and robbery of a shoe factory paymaster and his guard in South Braintree.

Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller had convened a blue-ribbon panel involving Lowell (president at Harvard from 1909-33) to give the case a final review, perhaps to provide Fuller with a reason to commute the death sentences imposed after a trial that many onlookers saw as unfair. But the report of the Lowell Commission, as it came to be known, provided no such justification. What it did do, writes Moshik Temkin in "The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair" was to mark the dividing line between Sacco-Vanzetti as case and as affair.

"Scholars and buffs alike were bitterly disappointed," Temkin writes, that Lowell's papers themselves did not contain "the long-awaited smoking gun that would settle the case once and for all." But that, he writes, is to ignore "the papers' broader implications." For instance, the papers, especially the personal letters received by Lowell, writes Temkin, a historian at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "put to rest the common perception that the division over Sacco and Vanzetti followed class lines."

"The more marked conflict," he writes, "was over Americans' reaction to foreign interference in the affair."

And that points to what Temkin calls "a paradox" for historians. "Without the appeals and protests of non-Americans," he writes, "there would have been no 'affair,' " and the two men would have been executed sooner and without much controversy. But those pressures from Europeans and others "ultimately had the effect of damaging their chances at survival."

As evidence, Temkin cites an editorial that appeared the day after the executions in the Boston Evening Transcript, then the voice of the city's Brahmin establishment. Its attack on "radicals the world over" who used the case "to further what they call their cause," writes Temkin, "faithfully captured the jingoism and anti-outsider feeling that ultimately did in Sacco and Vanzetti."

Temkin's book carries the subtitle "America on Trial," but as Temkin makes clear, Massachusetts was also very much on trial. Temkin argues that many American progressives who were supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti saw the case as the result of "the depressing transformation of Massachusetts, once the jewel in the nation's cultural crown, into a provincial, paranoid, bigoted, infighting backwater" that was "the laughingstock of the civilized world," as one critic put it. Those attacks and smears from other Americans, Temkin argues, triggered the same defensive hostility as the attacks from foreign commentators.

The most significant impact, Temkin suggests, was on Governor Fuller, the man who decided to carry out the executions. Fuller, in the view of reporters who covered the case, "had been inclined to grant clemency," using the Lowell Commission as his political cover.

But he changed his mind when, in August 1927, President Coolidge, once a tough-minded Massachusetts governor himself, announced he would not seek reelection in 1928. Fuller, the argument goes, saw a chance to win the Republican nomination as a law-and-order candidate, and thus, writes Temkin, "opportunistically decided against clemency." In any case, Republican leaders saw a Fuller candidacy as making the Sacco-Vanzetti case a divisive issue in the campaign, and his political career was over. (The men were executed later that month.)

When he was two years out of office, Fuller suggested an underlying reason for his turnaround. In an interview with a German newspaper, he said 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." In words that have a present-day ring, he continued: "The widespread support that Sacco and Vanzetti enjoyed abroad proved that there was a conspiracy against the security of the United States and that we should have to defend ourselves with every means at our disposal."

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

THE SACCO-VANZETTI AFFAIR: America on Trial By Moshik Temkin

Yale, 316 pp., illustrated, $35