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  • The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial
  • Stephen J. Whitfield
The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial. By Moshik Temkin (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009) 316. pp $35.00

The arrest of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for a payroll robbery and murder in Massachusetts created a tumult that did not sink into oblivion with the electrocution of two Italian-born anarchists. The affaire continued to arouse international indignation at the American criminal-justice system. For about nine decades, the issues that the case raised could be reduced to the following questions: (1) Was either or were both of the defendants guilty as charged? (2) Did they get a fair trial? (3) Was their trial just an excuse to impose capital punishment? The most striking feature of the latest addition to the bulging shelves of books already devoted to Sacco and Vanzetti is the author’s reluctance to answer any of these questions. “The truth about the 1920 crime in South Braintree is not known (and never will be),” Temkin writes (7). He is equally agnostic on the salience of the Sixth Amendment, though his book presents enough evidence of the antiradical and nativist atmosphere in which the upper-crust judge conducted the trial to reinforce the disturbing procedural argument that Felix Frankfurter famously presented in “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti,” Atlantic Monthly, 139 (March 1927), 409–432. Given such criticism, shouldn’t the lives of the “good shoemaker” and the “poor fish peddler” have been spared? Pope Pius XI, Alfred Dreyfus, Henry Ford, and many other luminaries thought so, but Temkin maintains silence on this issue as well.

Instead, Temkin’s book explores the reactions throughout the United States and abroad, especially in the defendants’ native Italy, and in France, Germany, Sweden, England, the Soviet Union, and Latin America. The international dimension of the case, and the intensity of anti-American sentiments that the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti aroused, have nowhere else in the scholarly literature been so fully explored as in this book. Inevitably, some conservatives at home and abroad defended the correctness of the guilty verdict, the legality of the judicial procedures, and the justness of the death sentence. But opinion was overwhelmingly hostile, often interpreting the affaire as symptomatic of the divisions of class and ethnicity that could not give these previously obscure anarchists an even break in the courts.

Temkin does a superb job of locating the wide range of responses, [End Page 477] both geographically and diachronically. Witness William F. Buckley’s contempt for the enduring sympathy that the pair engendered (“At the rate we are going, the only man left who will be universally acknowledged to have been guilty is Adolf Hitler” [302]), as well as Gov. Michael Dukakis’ 1977 decision to grant Sacco and Vanzetti what was in effect a posthumous pardon. Though Ben Shahn’s iconic paintings of 1931/32 are surprisingly ignored, Temkin’s research has been unusually thorough and ingenious, and his prose is vivid and engaging. The Sacco- Vanzetti Affair does not stake out an explicitly interdisciplinary claim, however. Nor does Temkin explore in any depth what the Constitutional right to a fair trial meant during the 1920s (or later). But even though he slights the relevance of the philosophy of law, his book leaves little doubt that prejudice pervaded both the courtroom and the appellate process.

Indebted, at least distantly, to the sociology of knowledge, Temkin does not seek to apply any grand theory to the recorded opinions of political activists, intellectuals, lawyers, artists, and journalists. But one consequence of his vigorous empiricism, his admirable tenacity in the pursuit of sources, happens to be repetitiveness; the number of perspectives on the case is large but hardly infinite. The book therefore seems a little padded. One of its key findings, however, has implications for cultural studies. The extraordinary anger that the case stirred abroad may well have hurt chances for judicial reversal or for a lesser sentence. According to Temkin, the protests of foreigners were resented as annoying interference. If so, the episode that is at the center of this book is a reminder of the force of nationalism, which can trump even...


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pp. 477-478
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