We are Two Nation

On the 80th Anniversary of the Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti

Martin Oppenheimer

HAT IS IT THAT RADICALIZES PEOPLE? For Bartolomeo Vanzetti it’s fair to say that it was life and literature. Born in Italy in 1888, Vanzetti went to work at age thirteen, came to the U.S. in 1908, moved from job to job, and in Plymouth, Massachusetts, got involved in a strike at the Plymouth Cordage Company. He led the life of an itinerant laborer. He was often unemployed. As one journalist described his situation, „He learned to line his clothes with newspaper when he slept outdoors in cold weather. He saw men … fumble in garbage cans for cabbage-leaves and half-rotten apples . . .”1 In 1917 he moved to Mexico to avoid the draft. He considered World War I an imperialist conflict. Later, in one of his many published letters, he would say,

We believe more now than ever that the war was wrong … all that they say to you, all that they have promised you — it was a lie … an illusion… a cheat… a fraud … a crime. They promised you liberty. Where is liberty? They promised you prosperity. Where is prosperity?2

After the war he returned to Plymouth, working as a fish-peddler. He read a lot — Kropotkin, Tolstoi, Zola, Hugo, Gorki, Marx, Darwin, Spencer, Proudhon, Emerson, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus had been vehemently attacked by the Catholic Church.
In the winter of 1919-20 a wave of anti left-wing panic swept the country in the aftermath of the Soviet Revolution. Anarchists and other foreigners of radical bent (even some who were citizens) were deported to various European countries, including the Soviet Union, in large numbers during the so-called Palmer Raids (named after A. Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General). Vanzetti and his close friend Nicola Sacco were active in protesting these events.
On May 5, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with an attempted holdup in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the previous December. Sacco had an air-tight alibi and was released, but Vanzetti was quickly convicted and sentenced to 15 years. But just prior to the arrest, on April 15, a paymaster and his guard had been robbed and shot to death in Braintree, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted for that crime as well. The trial began May 21, 1921. The prejudicial statements, both in court and out, of both judge and D.A. have been amply documented, and the evidence in the case has been scrutinized repeatedly over the years, not without controversy.3 Suffice it to say that there was vastly more than a reasonable doubt of their guilt, and literally dozens of people who have examined the evidence believe them to have been innocent (plus perhaps a few dozen who think, as in the Rosenberg case, that at least one of them was guilty). Nevertheless they were found guilty and, later, sentenced to death.
They were undoubtedly guilty of being foreigners and activist radicals during a terrible moment in U.S. history. It was New England „society“ that engineered the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti and, despite years of appeals and world-wide pressure by liberal, labor, and left groups, and literally dozens of famous and reputable people not of the left — even including the not-so-reputable Henry Ford — sent them to the electric chair on August 23, 1927.
FIRST BECAME AWARE of the Sacco-Vanzetti case as a teenager, when I chanced on a book in my parents‘ library, Days of Our Years, by a Dutch journalist, Pierre van Paassen.4 The bulk of his book describes his journeys in Europe, Africa and Palestine (the British Mandate) between the World Wars. In 1927 he is in Paris. He involves himself in last-minute appeals on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, and seeks a statement from Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus refuses. Van Paassen continues:
On the day set for the execution, Paris offered the strangest spectacle I have ever witnessed: the boulevards were deserted … not a wheel turned in the factories. The silence was so intense it was frightening… The Parisian worker remained home that day, spontaneously and naturally, as if a great national emergency had suddenly arisen … In its bewilderment the government rushed the army in, and the troops took up their positions in the deserted squares . . . stacking their rifles and uncovering their machine guns, ready for action … In the crowded working-class districts, people closed their shutters in a gesture of colossal contempt for the martial display … Nothing like it had happened since the year 1871, when the German army staged its insolent march of triumph down the deserted Champs-Elysees and, in consternation over the menacing silence and the barred windows, turned back before it had advanced a dozen blocks.
Vanzetti had become, in the course of his seven years‘ imprisonment, a remarkable literary figure. He had joined evening classes and taken a correspondence course. Even after his final sentencing on April 9, 1927, he continued to follow a careful routine of reading, writing and studying. He averaged four letters to the outside per week over seven years and three months, plus articles and essays on social conditions.5
Meanwhile virtually the entire literary and cultural world had aligned itself with the campaign to free Sacco and Vanzetti, or at minimum obtain a new trial. The case would continue to evoke cultural expressions for years after the execution. A few examples from a very large body of post-1927 work: Ben Shahn’s series of paintings, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, (1932) is among the best-known of these expressions. There is Maxwell Anderson’s verse play Winterset (1935); Upton Sinclair’s Boston (1928), which makes crystal clear the class-struggle implications of the case; there are ballads by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, among others, and there are several films including one in Italian released around 1970, and a new documentary just released.6 In one of John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A. „Camera Eye“ sections in „The Big Money“ volume he writes:
They have clubbed us off the streets they are stronger they are rich they hire and fire the politicians the newspapereditors the old judges the small men with reputations the college presidents the wardheelers … all right you have won you will kill the brave men our friends tonight . . . America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch all right we are two nations …
For many Americans living in the 1920s, the Sacco-Vanzetti case marked a watershed that converted them to radicalism, in much the same way that the Spanish Civil War did in the 1930’s, or the Rosenberg execution or the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy in the 1950’s and 1960’s. There is little doubt that the case did far more to stimulate radicalism than it did to suppress it. Sacco and Vanzetti will be remembered, as Vanzetti said on their conviction, „when your [the judge and D.A.] name, his name, your laws, institutions, and your false gods are but a dim memory of a cursed past in which man was wolf to man …“

Martin Oppenheimer is professor emeritus of sociology, Rutgers University. His latest book is The Hate Handbook (Lexington).

John Nicholas BefTel, „Odyssey of a Wop,“ American Mercury April, 1932.

The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, ed. Marian Denham Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson, 1928.

For a fairly recent discussion, see Dorothy Gallagher, Ail the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Cario Treses 1988.

The Dial Press, 1940.

There is a selection of Vanzetti s letters in John Davis (ed.), Sacco and Vanzetti, in the Rebel Lives series published by Ocean Press, 2004.Willow Pond Films, directed by Peter Miller.

Virtually the entire literary and cultural world had aligned itself with the campaign to free Sacco and Vanzetti.