Moshik Temkin


On his book The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial

Cover Interview of March 04, 2010

A close-up

The end of chapter 2, pages 95-100, just before the book’s gallery of photos, deals with one of the biggest questions I faced when doing the research: why, in fact, were Sacco and Vanzetti executed?

It was always assumed that the executions were just a follow-up to their convictions, and the two events, the conviction and the execution, were treated as almost one and the same.  But six years passed between the time they were found guilty and the time they were led to the electric chair, and during that period a lot had happened—the entire context of the case had changed.  Sacco and Vanzetti went from being anonymous anarchists who barely knew English to being international celebrities and, for some, even folk heroes (for others, they were dangerous terrorists, frauds, criminals, or all three).  It wasn’t enough to say that they were executed because they had been found guilty; to execute them in 1927, at the height of the political storm that surrounded them, required a decision.  I wanted to know how and why this decision was made. A member of the French Comité Sacco-Vanzetti collects signatures for a petition to be sent to President Calvin Coolidge and Governor Alvan Fuller, Paris, May 1927. (Photo by Henri Manuel/Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library/Rare Books.)

In this part of the book I try to answer these questions by telling the story of Georg Branting, a Stockholm attorney who visited the United States in the Spring of 1927 to investigate the case on behalf of “European opinion.”  After meeting with many of the protagonists of the story, including Sacco and Vanzetti, Branting became convinced that the men were innocent, as they claimed all along, and that, because of this, the authorities would stop their execution.  When that didn’t happen, he came to the grim conclusion that the international pressure exerted on the United States by Europeans, Latin Americans, and others around the world made many Americans in positions of power worry about appearing weak to the rest of the world.  This was especially true of Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller, a man with presidential aspirations, who appointed a special advisory commission led by Harvard University President A. Lawrence Lowell, but who chose, at the moment of truth, not to pardon Sacco and Vanzetti. They were executed, in other words, for the same reason they became famous.

This is part of why I argue in the book that, as opposed to what high school and college students read in their history textbooks, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed not in spite of the global protest but rather because of it.  In this sense, I think the affair revealed a powerful division among Americans between those who viewed the U.S. as part of an international community, and those who insisted on its principled separateness from the rest of the world.  Ironically, by the way, Fuller lost his political gamble, because the Republican Party, fearing to make the Sacco-Vanzetti case an issue in the 1928 presidential election, essentially sidelined him.  By 1928 Fuller was out of politics and back at his business, selling automobiles.