The Cold War Daily

Notes on the new great power struggle.

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

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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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The troll’s creed

The troll’s creed:

Where there is error, let there be deception.
Where there is uncertainty, let there be confusion.
Where there is identity, let there be anonymity.
Where there is doubt, let there be disbelief.
Where there is despair, let there be hopelessness.
Where there is darkness, let there be an abyss.
Where there is sadness, let there be desolation.
Where there is hatred, let there be loathing.
Where there is offense, let there be anger.
Where there is discord, let there be division.

It doesn’t sound right, does it?

It shouldn’t. This ‘troll’s prayer’ is an satiric adoption of a real prayer, reverse-engineered to capture the true effect of online trolls.

The real-life inspiration for this ironic re-working is what’s known as the Prayer of St Francis, which directs people in the opposite direction of trolls: together, rather than apart.

The ‘troll’s creed’ however, helps explain the effect of a lot of online trolling.

Pope Francis’ critique of fake news, called The truth will set you free: Fake news and journalism for peace, is a refreshing antidote to the torrent of cynicism .

The broadside elevates the value of Truth to a spiritual level while defining fake news as a weaponised narrative tapping the worst impulses of humanity. The document is a remarkable combination of timeless religious principles applied to an emerging technological reality.


Adam in a 12th Century mosaic

Pope Francis traces misinformation back to the Garden of Eden.

The Vatican’s doctrine on misinformation is a point of difference in dogma and practice between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. As I’ve written before, sensible religion can be a shield against weaponised narratives. Religion is no substitute for verifiable facts and no one sensibly wants a theocracy to replace democracy. It’s for that reason, not in spite of it, that religion matters. The hopelessness of Russian propaganda hinges in part on the division it foments. This division is a powerful tool to rip apart democracies. So a system of values that sees the fundamental goodness and the brother- and sisterhood of humanity has special importance these days.

The Vatican’s broadside against fake news is contained in its ‘World Communications Day’ message released last week. The document also has its own adaptation of the Prayer of St Francis – but this time refocused on communication. It includes verses such as…

Where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
Where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
Where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;

See bottom of Vatican statement for the full adaptation.

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