I'll be speaking on my book "Suosso's Lane" at Duxbury Library on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m., my first opportunity following the inauguration of a new administration to address the potential lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder in 1920 after a biased trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt.
When that date arrives we will be a week into the reign of a new president whose election threatens to signal a decline of democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which two men were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.
A time of "us" and "them."
Following an election year when voters, given the creakingly vestigial Electoral College system, selected a candidate who proposed building a wall to keep out immigrants, creating a registry of all Americans who practiced a certain religion, and tightening entry rules to deny refuge even to those Muslims fleeing the violence of terrorists in their own countries, it may be wise to remember an earlier time when American democracy society had a nervous breakdown over immigrants. In 1919 and 1920 American democracy buckled under stress, resulting in the period known to history, but largely forgotten by the generations that followed, as the "Red Scare."When, years ago I asked Plymouth town selectman Alba Martinelli Thompson, the town's first female member of its governing select board and a former Air Force officer, what she remembered hearing from family members about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, she replied (in part), “They weren’t at all sure that the facts of the case were being honestly distributed. Also, it was the twenties. It was the Red Scare. Anybody with an immigrant name was suspect…”
The Red Scare came on the heels of a four-decade long period of record immigration, from 1880 to 1920, when 20 million immigrants mostly from southern and eastern Europe -- Italians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Serbs, Syrians and others -- transformed the ethnic make-up of America's cities and towns and provided labor for its industrial revolution. The largest national group, more than 4 million, were Italians. Native-born Americans worried that their country was being 'flooded' by immigrants, and the influx was accompanied by so-called 'scientific'
racial theories that teaching that people from those part of the world represented different, and inferior races.
On top of this growing resentment and fear of these 'new Americans,' two major events transformed the nation's political climate in 1917. The United States entered World War I. And the Russian Revolution created a Communist regime frankly inimical to America's capitalist economic system. Communist parties elsewhere claimed Russia's transformation was the forerunner of a world-wide revolution, making other governments, including ours, nervous.
America's entry into World War I led to a military draft. In the face of opposition, the government passed laws that criminalized political dissent, making criticism of the draft and the decision to fight the war illegal.
These stress points led to open fractures because opposition to the war and draft was fierceist among the radical labor movements led by Socialists and Anarchists, many of whom were foreign nationals. Determining that 'opposition' meant 'subversion,' the federal government created the first true national police -- or spy service -- to investigate war opponents such as prominent Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, founder of the Italian language newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva. Its subscribers included Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Apparently fearful of violent revolution, or widescale draft resistance, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer obtained thousands of warrants to arrest radicals, search their premises, confiscate literature, and destroy presses. Under the influence of the country's new security apparatus he demonized the left-wing opposition to the war, saying: “The Red Movement is not a righteous or honest protest against alleged defects in our present political and economic organization of society… It is a distinctly criminal and dishonest movement in the desire to obtain possession of other people’s property by violence and robbery.” Each radical was therefore “a potential thief.”(25) If you believed that, you could believe that anarchists were likely to rob factory payrolls.
A later generation would recognize this wholly ignorant smear of radical thought as McCarthyism. While anarchists and some socialists did not believe in private property, they believed property belonged to the whole community; and they did not believe in or practice taking property by theft or violence.
When Galleani and other leaders of the Italian anarchist movement were prosecuted under laws banning criticism of the draft -- for comparison, imagine the result of this sort of laws during the Vietnam years -- and deported to Italy, Galleani's supporters struck back. Denied legitimate means of protest, their press shut down, its subscription list confiscated, their freedom of speech, press and assembly criminalized, anarchists turned to the only means they believed available to them: bombs. Bombs were mailed to government and big business targets in April of 1919; and hand-delivered to the homes and offices in June. One of the latter bombs destroyed half of Palmer's house, though no one there was hurt.
These events were the immediate backdrop to the increased repressions of the Red Scare. Palmer launched two series of raids, in November of 1919 and January of 1920. His agents arrested thousands of 'aliens' without warrants, holding many for deportation often in horrendous conditions and without due process of law. Ultimately, only 446 were actually deported, once the courts intervened and a reaction against abuses of executive power took place. There were fourteen raids on leftists in Massachusetts, and in Boston five hundred aliens were marched through the streets in chains and taken to the Deer Island House of Correction, where they were isolated "in brutally chaotic conditions,”according to later government reports.
It was against this backdrop that Sacco and Vanzetti -- two names federal agents knew from the subscription list to the anarchist newspaper "Cronaca Sovversiva" -- were charged with the robbery a Braintree shoe factory payroll and the killing of two payroll officers despite the absence of direct evidence, convicted by a native-born Massachusetts jury that believed foreign anarchists should be 'strung up,' and sentenced to death by judge who bragged to a friend, "Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?"
The Sacco-Vanzetti case appears to shine a light on the darker side of American society's historical treatment of immigrants of 'unfamiliar' ethnicities. Periodically -- especially in those periods when a 'new' group of foreign nationals arrives in large numbers -- the so-called 'nation of immigrants' has exhibited a desire to close doors and build walls. Forgetful of their own non-native origins, many Americans are quick to close the borders on the next group of newcomers, whose language or manners, or religion, or skin tone, or potential for economic competition, or imagined demand for public services, appears to threaten the well-being of those already comfortably settled in the United States. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it was the turn of Italians to be the most numerous and visible of these presumed-to-be-problematic newcomers.
The Sacco-Vanzetti case may still hold lessons for the 21st century, especially at a time when many countries in both the new and the old worlds are experiencing crises over the arrival of large numbers of 'others' within settled, comfortable, more ethnically homogeneous borders.
One such lesson, at least in the US, appears to be that a native-born English-speaking population is disposed to believe that foreign nationals are capable of behaving in a criminal, violent manner and committing all manner of horrendous acts simply because they belong to "races" or "peoples" who are inherently different from themselves. They are foreigners, outsiders, trouble-makers, aliens, "illegals." As immigrants from a body of people inherently "different" from "us," they are more likely to believe in hateful, radical, un-American ideas -- such as Sacco and Vanzetti's anarchism of a century ago, or today's so-called 'Islamic' militancy -- than are those born in this country from "old stock," speaking English and capable of "understanding democracy."
It's hard not to conclude that the simple fact that the two men were Italians -- not 'real' Americans -- weighed, perhaps fatally, against Sacco and Vanzetti. As Vanzetti himself put the matter in his last speech to the court:
"I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian."