Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War

By Joel Isaac; Duncan Bell | Go to book overview

10
Cold War Culture and the Lingering
Myth of Sacco and Vanzetti

MOSHIK TEMKIN

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti probably should never have become the stuff of angry, politically charged conflict in the late 1950s and early 1960s; they were protagonists of an earlier, entirely different era, the turbulent years that followed World War I. In May 1920, at the height of the postwar Red Scare, Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and revolutionary anarchists who had been living and working in the United States for twelve years, the former as a skilled heel trimmer and the latter as an unskilled laborer, were arrested for taking part in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts, an industrial suburb of Boston. Their 1921 trial did not make national headlines at first. The criminal evidence against the two men— who pleaded not guilty—was mostly circumstantial. The prosecution based much of its case against the two men on a so-called consciousness of guilt: the defendants had made false statements to the police and, supposedly, behaved “suspiciously” before they were arrested. To no one’s great surprise, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in July 1921. As expected under Massachusetts law, they were later sentenced to death by electrocution. They were not executed, however, until August 23, 1927, by which time their previously obscure case had become a national and worldwide cause célèbre, fueled by the notion that they were innocent men punished by the authorities for their radical political beliefs, ethnic background, and social position, and resulting in a period of unprecedented global protest and domestic wrangling that involved public intellectuals, political leaders, religious figures, legal experts, social activists, business elites, artists, diplomats, and countless ordinary people.

There have been numerous volumes published on this famous case since the 1920s, most of which have focused primarily on one of two things—trying to show either that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent or that they were guilty. Often

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