The Defense of Thugs

Sacco and Vanzetti case set a precedent for anti-Americanisms.

by Terry Scambray

The Fresno Bee

Hatred for America is not a recent phenomenon. Despite the opportunities offered in America for all races, creeds and nationalities, a tradition persists that Americans are racist, superficially religious and uncomfortable with foreigners.

One of the episodes in American history used to support this lie is the Sacco & Vanzetti case, enshrined as the most shameful example of American racism, intolerance and xenophobia. However, despite the parade of books, movies and monuments commemorating Sacco & Vanzetti as victims of American bigotry, the truth is that they were assassins and terrorists.

The Crime

On April 15, 1920, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a paymaster and his guard were shot to death by two bandits who took $16,000.

Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted and sentenced to death for these crimes. After various legal motions, capped by an exhaustive investigation by a governor’s committee, the verdict was upheld and they were executed on August 23, 1927, amid international, anti-American protests in which several people were killed.

The Evidence

When arrested, Sacco carried a loaded Colt automatic along with a variety of spare bullets. Ballistics tests matched his gun to one of the fatal bullets — a conclusion confirmed by ballistics tests in 1961 and 1983. Also confirming Sacco’s guilt was the fact that some of his spare bullets, though extremely rare, matched the fatal bullet. Also, the bullets found on him matched the brands of the spent shells at the crime scene. Though no more evidence was needed, tests in 1983 revealed that shells found at the crime scene were manufactured by the same machine as the bullets found on Sacco.

Vanzetti, though not tied to the crime by such unequivocal evidence, also carried a loaded revolver like the one that was taken from the paymaster’s guard as he was dying. Also incriminating were the contradictory alibis that Sacco & Vanzetti improvised in order to explain their suspicious behavior.

Yet, despite the obvious guilt of the defendants, how did this case become the bronzed icon known as “The Case of the Century”, or, as Stalin called it, “The second most important event of the 20th century”?

A Publicity Stunt

Realizing what a lame case he had, Fred Moore, Sacco & Vanzetti’s defense attorney, framed it as a morality play, pitting xenophobic New Englanders against two indigent immigrants with unpopular anarchist ideas. Moore thus pioneered the use of the “Oprah” factor, now relentlessly exploited to gain sympathy for a variety of miscreants, including Guantanamo detainees.

But the man who really energized the case as a vehicle of international anti-Americanism was Willi Munzenberg, Stalin’s public relations genius. Munzenberg saw the case as a way to discredit America as the world’s great melting pot which rivaled the Soviet myth of Russia as a worker’s paradise.

He finessed Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard professor, into writing an article which became the most influential polemic supporting the defendants. Though the article was rubbish, Frankfurter’s prestige mesmerized the intelligentsia.

Munzenberg had the article circulated worldwide which attracted a host of gullible world class figures like H.G. Wells and others who relished seeing America degraded. So Munzenberg’s lie took root.  As Paul Johnson, the peerless British historian writes: “The Sacco Vanzetti case laid the first of what were to be many archeological layers of anti-Americanism in the world, and destroyed the faith of many innocent people in the American dream.”

The Background

Sacco & Vanzetti though portrayed as victims were members of a European anarchist cult which preached that capitalism must suffer a catharsis of violence to pay for its sins, a justification for violence akin to “the chickens have come home to roost” canard offered by contemporary America haters. In 1920, an anarchist confidante of Sacco & Vanzetti planted the Wall Street bomb which killed 40 people and wounded hundreds, a foreshadowing of the 9/11 attacks. Like today’s terrorists, these were delusional and barbaric individuals. As liberal journalist William Pfaff says, secular utopianism can produce “a lethal dogmatic idealism served by an intense cruelty.”

The Times

The early 20th century was a time of understandable social unrest. Nonetheless, American capitalism yielded endless opportunities. Sacco, for example, had a well paying job and $1,500 in savings. Vanzetti chose to be a peddler, which freed him to preach anarchy. Like today’s terrorists, these were not destitute men.

Even by 1900 the United States was not a nation of rubes. For it then led the world in per capita income, had twenty-two hundred newspapers, a thousand colleges and more high school students than any other country.

And as for America being xenophobic, between 1880 and 1920, she assimilated 24 million immigrants, accepting 900,000 yearly between 1900 and 1914. As one historian writes, if assimilation “inevitably resulted in frictions and various shadings of discrimination, it was nevertheless a remarkable social accomplishment. What other nation has done as much?

Or even come close?

Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

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