Sacco and Vanzetti: 80 Years On

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[“Sacco and Vanzetti” by Ben Shahn]

Authors from across the political divide have been reassessing the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists who were tried, convicted and executed for murder. Thus far, the most balanced article I’ve read was in the NYT. Here is a bit:

New York would figure again in the two men’s lives. In the spring of 1919, anarchists — most likely from the circle in which Sacco and Vanzetti were involved — tried to send mail bombs to J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Sr. and other figures in business and government. In April, a bomb sent to a senator in Georgia wounded a maid, and a postal worker discovered bombs at a Midtown post office; the packages had not been delivered because of insufficient postage. Other bombs were recovered before reaching their targets.

But in June, anarchists detonated hand-delivered bombs at the homes of judges, politicians and law enforcement officials. In Manhattan, a 71-year-old security guard was killed by a bomb planted at the brownstone of a judge at 151 East 61st Street.

The bombing campaign was a major cause of the Red Scare. Mr. Watson said he did not believe Sacco and Vanzetti were directly involved. “My feeling is they were radical dreamers,” he said. “They didn’t strike me as the type who would plant a bomb that would kill someone, but they would not have discouraged other people from doing that because they believe it would hasten the revolution, in some strange way.”

The bombings indirectly led to the apprehension of Sacco and Vanzetti. Federal agents, led by J. Edgar Hoover, mobilized around the country in response to the bombings and attempted bombings. An informant led the authorities to an anarchist print shop in Brooklyn. Vanzetti came back to Manhattan to find out how to help — he also hoped to visit the Statue of Liberty, which he had missed when he arrived at Ellis Island because of fog. Expecting a raid by federal agents and the police in New England, he quickly returned to Boston to help his fellow anarchists hide radical pamphlets. Days later, on May 5, 1920, he and Sacco were arrested in Bridgewater, Mass., accused of killing two payroll guards during an ambush robbery in Braintree, Mass., on April 15.

Sympathizers — including generations of American leftists — have long maintained that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent victims of a criminal justice system determined to crack down on anarchists, socialists and Communists. (Andrea Camilleri examines Italians’ views of the case in an op-ed essay in today’s Times.)

But Mr. Watson, in his new book, urges readers to draw their own conclusions. “There is far more evidence of innocence than of guilt, but unfortunately, especially with Sacco, guilt can’t be ruled out,” he said. “Their characters don’t fit the crime. There is so much doubt surrounding their trial. The one thing I say definitively is that they deserved a second trial.”

A review of Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti: the Men, the Murders and the Judement of Mankind is here.

Most of the articles coming from leftist newspapers and websites refuse to admit that either man had a role in the shootings, while more balanced accounts imply that Sacco was involved.

For example, this anarchist website claims that Sacco and Vanzetti were “arrested for their political and union activities.” This borders on naïveté. Neither man was a member of a union and, in fact, the anarchist tendency they followed was quite critical of craft unionism, industrial unionism and revolutionary syndicalism.

Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of Luigi Galleani, an anarcho-communist activist and editor of Cronaca Sovversiva who advocated “propaganda by the deed” i.e. terrorism. Galleani wrote La Salute è in voi! (Health is in You!), a 46-page bomb-making manual in addition to numerous articles advocating terrorist acts.

When Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, both were carrying pistols. Sacco’s pockets contained extra bullets and Vanzetti’s held shotgun shells. Trying to distance the men from this especially violent tendency within the anarchist movement is not only historically innacurrate, it is denying the men’s political identity. As the late, great, historian of the anarchist movement, Paul Avrich writes:

[O]ne cannot deal with Sacco and Vanzetti without talking about anarchism…the greatest single shortcoming in the literature on the case-a literature that is vast, enormous-is its failure to come to grips with Sacco and Vanzetti as anarchists. Anarchism was a central feature of their lives. To write about Sacco and Vanzetti without talking about the anarchist connection, the anarchist dimension, is equivalent to writing about Eugene Victor Debs without talking about socialism, or to writing about Lenin and Trotsky without talking about communism. Anarchism was the passion, the great idea of Sacco and Vanzetti. It was the driving force of their lives. It was their obsession, their love, their chief interest on a day-to-day basis.

Others, including Howard Zinn, attempt to establish a direct linkage between the first Red Scare that took place early in the 20th century and anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment occuring in the United States today.

Infoshop News, another anarchist website notes:

We invoke our local history not only out of reverence for Sacco and Vanzetti, but to demonstrate how little has changed in the 80 years following their execution. Nationalist fearmongering and the repression of dissidents is as prevalent today as it was during the Red Scare in the early 20th century. The way in which Arab and Latin@ immigrants are rounded up, detained and deported today under the pretext of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs is eerily similar to the Palmer Raid targeting immigrants in the 1920s.

Conservatives think differently. Convinced of the duos guilt from the beginning, they seem unable to distinguish between the two men as individuals. Sacco and Vanzetti, in their narratives, become Sacco-Vanzetti. Unfortunately, most radical leftists think similarly. Only, in the minds of leftists, both parties are innocent.

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