On the night of August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants and revolutionary anarchists, the former a heel-trimmer and the latter an unskilled laborer, were executed in Massachusetts. It was an awful end to an unprecedented seven-year legal and political battle that put American justice on trial and involved political leaders, social activists, public intellectuals, religious figures, artists, workers and countless ordinary people, Americans and non-Americans.
The case against Sacco and Vanzetti–who pleaded their innocence and were tried while seated in a barred metal cage–was flimsy at best and tainted by the open prejudice of judge and jury. Accused of being part of a gang of bandits that carried out the April 15, 1920, robbery and murder of a factory paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, an industrial suburb of Boston, they were convicted in July 1921. The verdict and subsequent death sentence were upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, approved by a special advisory commission to Governor Alvan Fuller led by Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell and, at the moment of truth, tacitly sanctioned by laissez-faire President Calvin Coolidge and progressive Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis and Harlan Stone.
But the executions did not go over silently. In Boston and New York thousands of supporters gathered, despite oppressive police guard, in somber “death watches.” Throughout Latin America, general strikes were held and grown men and women wept in the streets, many screaming for vengeance. In Paris, London, Geneva, Berlin and several other European cities, furious demonstrators rioted and clashed with police, many of them ending up in prisons and hospitals. Coolidge was on his summer holiday, fishing for trout in the Dakotas.
Sacco and Vanzetti had come a long way. In 1920 they were anonymous aliens who knew practically no English; by 1927 they were international celebrities with famous friends and correspondents from New York to Shanghai to Paris. While their 1921 trial was dismissed by one reporter as “no story…just a couple of wops in a jam,” six years later they were constant headline news the world over. Perhaps no other event until the Vietnam War evoked as much anti-American sentiment among non-Americans who were otherwise prone to hold a favorable view of the United States. Even in supposedly frivolous late-1920s America, opinion was bitterly divided. Publisher Robert Lincoln O’Brien swore that Americans had not seen such controversy since the days of slavery. Edmund Wilson believed the case “revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions, and points of view, and raised every fundamental question of our political and social system.” To some, Sacco and Vanzetti were reincarnations of the executed radical abolitionist John Brown or even of Jesus Christ; to others, America’s version of Alfred Dreyfus. These Americans found the executions as horrifying as the trial had been unjust. “We are shaken to the core,” wrote the editors of The Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard and Freda Kirchwey. The executions were “a judicial murder” that “struck at the reputation of the whole nation” and “everywhere strengthened all those who believe that the world can be reformed only by bombs and bloodshed.” To another group of Americans–for whom the Sacco-Vanzetti affair was the invention of foreigners and eggheads–the executions came as a relief; for a while, it had looked as though the authorities would give in to the demands of evildoing international “terrorists.” “The Sacco-Vanzetti case,” wrote the editors of the Boston Transcript, “has been the vehicle of vicious propaganda…radicals the world over saw an opportunity to further their cause. Without their meddling interference the case never would have assumed unusual proportions.” But Americans “could not pay the slightest attention to European protests or the sentiments voiced by the journals and public men of distant lands.”
Eighty years after their deaths, Sacco and Vanzetti continue to occupy pretty much the same set of roles in the political imagination as they did in 1927. For many, they were the innocent victims of America’s first ill-conceived “war on terror,” their execution a terrible injustice rooted in the fear of immigrants, persecution of radicals and oppression of workers, all in high tide after World War I–when being proletarian, Italian and an anarchist was a suicidal cocktail, perhaps the equivalent of being labeled an “enemy combatant” today. For others, they were criminals and terrorists who benefited from a worldwide propaganda campaign led by people who despised America and its institutions.
These two perceptions are both based primarily on a belief either in the men’s innocence or guilt (the first question any Sacco-Vanzetti scholar is always asked is “So, did they do it?”). Bruce Watson’s new book, Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind, is a good example of this obsession: It is the most thorough and readable plumbing yet of the Case Record, and although the author devotes substantial attention to the inescapable question of guilt or innocence, he does not (and cannot) provide a final answer. It is time to face facts: Despite the extensive study of the evidence, we are no closer to a resolution now than we were in the 1920s. We will never definitely know whether Sacco and Vanzetti actually “did it.” What is clear, and more important, is that their trial was highly unfair and their execution an intolerable act of barbarism.
Sacco and Vanzetti, it seems, have become iconic but somewhat abstract figures, symbols of persecution and injustices of all sorts. But their place in our civic life is not at all clear. Perhaps it never will be, as long as people continue to focus on the men’s guilt or innocence rather than on the deeper meanings of their story (in the Dreyfus affair in France, things were clearer–both opponents and supporters of the Jewish army officer knew he was innocent). There are more penetrating questions to ask. The Sacco-Vanzetti affair remains a matter of interest because it presents us with so many eerie and sobering connections to the present. Terrorism, justice and injustice, jingoism, isolationism, radicalism and the treatment of immigrants and minorities are concerns as central today as they were in Sacco and Vanzetti’s time. Ultimately, their execution revealed how fractured the relationship between America and the rest of the world had become. Villard and Kirchwey, pleading in The Nation for Sacco and Vanzetti’s lives, asked the authorities to pay a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Then, as now, too many Americans in power were determined to forge ahead with a bad decision because they thought to change course would have meant showing weakness and giving in to foreigners. Since 1927, one fears, too little has changed.