Sacco and Vanzetti: How Russia co-opted a US controversy

by Chris Zappone

There is a lot of talk about Russian influence ops these days.

Have a look at how Russia successfully co-opted an issue in the US in the 1920s.

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Book cover from a Soviet-backed outlet in Germany.

In the 1920 Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartomoleo Vanzetti were accused of murder after a botched bank robbery in Massachusetts.  Put on trial, they were found guilty and sentenced to death. Being foreign-born anarchists during the time of the first Red Scare hardly endeared the duo in the eyes of the public. Radicals had rallied in support, demanding their case be reopened. Before long, news of the case spread around the world, thanks in large part to a network of activists – ultimately answerable to Moscow – who organised protests, letter-writing campaigns, and petitions. In the end, despite a separate convicted criminal confessing that he was involved in the bank robbery, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927.

The Labor Defender (cover pictured below) was the publication of Chicago-based International Labor Defense, which itself was earlier known as the Chicago chapter of the FSR, Friends of Soviet Russia, created to support Communist Russia in 1921, according to historian Historian Sean McMeekin.

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As the pages from the Labor Defender show, there was no shortage of people drawn to the cause of saving the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Citing dozens of unions, the publication claimed 60,000,000 rallied for the duo (at a time when the US population was only 119 million). Prominent figures, such as Professor Albert Einstein, Clarence Darrow, Norman Thomas signed on. Protests were staged across the US, across the Atlantic and in South America. McMeekin called the Sacco and Vanzetti fanfare of 1927 “the greatest propaganda event of the year.”

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What many people didn’t realize at the time (and may still not today) is the double-sided nature of the message around Sacco and Vanzetti. Of course, any worker, writer or intellectual with a heart would heed the call for justice and against the death penalty (Sacco and Vanzetti’s innocence is still a matter of debate today).

But the campaign was also an effort to discredit capitalist America as a desirable place for the worker.

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Some of the demonstrations

 

That can be seen in the words of Henri Barbusse, the French writer included in the Labor Defender.

“The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti can be considered hereafter only as a tremendous challenge to the entire public opinion. It will engender ever-lasting hatred on the part of the working masses and be condemned by all loyal, wise and enlightened spirits whom it will transform into enemies of a system of domination which employs such methods.”

And that was just one writer. Many others literary figures joined the call: Katherine Anne Porter, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Upton Sinclair, among others. John Dos Passos, then a hot young Lost Generation author and Ernest Hemingway peer, was among the most passionate supporters. He would later write about the fate of the Italians in his USA trilogy.

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Of course, it only follows that during Sacco and Vanzetti’s organised defense, money had been raised for their legal bills. Most of that sum (up to $500,000 in 1927), had been pilfered by the American Communist Party, according to McMeekin.

This is an example of how Soviet Russia successfully coopted and amplified a controversy in the West for their own propaganda purposes.

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