Reexamining the Sacco-Vanzetti Case - Howard Zinn

The LA Times reported in December 2005 that Upton Sinclair had allegedly written in a letter that an attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti, Fred Moore, had confided to him of his clients' guilt. Many conservative commentators responded by issuing blanket condemnations of the left's support for various political prisoners. In light of this, Sonali Kolhatkar and Gabriel Roman spoke with the now late historian Howard Zinn, who wrote the introduction for the reissue of Sinclair's novel Boston, about the significance of the alleged Sinclair letter.

Submitted by wojtek on February 21, 2012

Kolhatkar: What was the significance of the Sacco-Vanzetti case when it happened? What was its significance to social movements in the United States?

Zinn: I believe that the importance of the Sacco and Vanzetti case is that it took place very shortly after the end of World War I [when] the country was still living in an atmosphere created by the war. It was an atmosphere in which there was a government hunt for radicals. In 1919, right after the war the Palmer Raids took place and people who were not born in the United States were rounded up by the thousands and deported without trial, without due process, very much the kind of thing that is happening today where people are rounded up and if they are are not citizens they can be detained and nobody will hear from them or about them. So it was a war-time atmosphere. At the time that they went on trial, there were still bodies coming back from Europe of the G.I. soldiers who had died. Patriotism was still in the air. In fact, the trial took place just shortly after Memorial Day. Memorial Day was an occasion for patriotic fervor and in this case, a kind of wartime spirit. And so the important thing about their case is really not the question of their guilt or innocence - which certainly was not resolved by their trial, and I don't know if it will ever be resolved - the important thing about it was that it revealed the nature of the justice system in the United States, a system of justice which has always been unfair to foreigners, unfair to poor people, unfair to radicals and which becomes especially notorious in times of war, in times of a Marshall atmosphere. So I would say that the importance of their case was that it was one of those many cases in American history. I'm thinking of the Haymarket affair 1886, I'm thinking of the case of Tom Mooney and [Warren] Billings which took place during the war. I'm thinking of what happened later after World War II, the Rosenberg case, which interestingly enough started shortly after the Communist victory in China, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti case started shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. And then, coming down to our time, I'm thinking of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In other words, throughout American history there's certain critical cases that come into the courts and are decided in an atmosphere which is not conducive to fair play for black people, for radicals, for non-citizens, for poor people. And I think that the Sacco-Vanzetti case takes its place in that line up.

Kolhatkar: There were many radical activists and writers at the time who rallied to support Sacco and Vanzetti including Upton Sinclair who wrote a novel, Boston, based on the case and in its reissue you wrote the introduction to that novel. Can you talk about why so many of the folks like Upton Sinclair rallied to the case of Sacco and Vanzetti and, in a way, put their own credibility on the innocence of these two men?

Zinn: Well, I think they rallied to them because they could see that they were not getting a fair trial. That is, even if they could not conclusively decide that they were innocent, because all of these cases are complicated, and in all of these cases in order to decide definitively that somebody is guilty or innocent, you would have to be an expert in ballistic evidence, you would have to go into a very thorough examination of the facts of the case and even then you might not be sure. And so, what brought these important figures, literary figures, people in the arts, law professors like Felix Frankfurter - a law professor at Harvard law school who wrote a brief on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti - what brought all of them to this was their understanding that whether guilty or innocent, Sacco and Vanzetti were being tried, not because they had or had not committed a robbery and a murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, but because they were trouble makers, because they were radicals, because their names had already appeared on Department of Justice lists, because there was a general hunt at that time for anarchists. And just looking at the trial, at the prejudice of the judge, looking at the all-American [born] jury, looking at the fact that an interpreter had to be used in the court to interpret for Sacco and Vanzetti and seeing that the atmosphere of the courtroom was so deeply prejudiced against these foreigners, these anarchists, this shoemaker and fish peddler - [these are] the kind of circumstances that would draw the sympathy of anybody with any kind of critical faculty, anybody who was already liberal or progressive, or radical, and who knew that American society, in its system of justice especially, did not give fair play to people like Sacco and Vanzetti.

Kolhatkar: What was your initial response to the Los Angeles Times report (December 24, 2005) that revealed that a man in Orange County, California, had apparently discovered a letter that Upton Sinclair had written that Sacco and Vanzetti were indeed guilty as per a conversation with their lawyer?

Zinn: Well, my first reaction was, well, I'm not going to immediately claim that the letter was fraudulent or anything like that. I've never said definitively that I knew whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty or innocent. My first reaction was, well, it's possible that this letter is a credible piece of evidence about their guilt, but on the other hand, I'm not sure about that. That is, this one letter that Upton Sinclair wrote based on a conversation with one of the attorneys, I don't think this is conclusive evidence that they were guilty. I mean, they had other attorneys besides Fred Moore, besides the one that Upton Sinclair claimed spoke to him about that.

Kolhatkar: There was also a confession by a Portuguese immigrant [Celestino Madeiros] wasn't there?

Zinn: Yeah, there was a confession by another person who said that he knew the gang that had organized this holdup. And in fact, there was so much evidence that threw doubt on their guilt. The fact that you can not find a motive for them in this robbery, they did not have criminal records, they had not engaged in robberies before. If they robbed the paymaster, as was done at that time, where was the money, what had happened to it? In a situation like that, the money has to show up somewhere. There's no indication that they had any money, that they disposed [of] any money. There were so many elements in the case that threw doubt on their guilt. The fact that they maintained their innocence to the end publicly, and to people around them, and the idea that one of them would declare guilt to one of their attorneys strikes me as, well, not impossible, but kind of dubious.

Kolhatkar: I want to quote from the research that Sinclair apparently did for his novel Boston, where in his research he wrote of his skepticism with respect to the anarchist ideals of the two men, in particular Vanzetti. Sinclair wrote, I became convinced from many different sources that Vanzetti was not the pacifist he was reported under the necessary defense propaganda. He was, like many fanatics, a dual personality, and when he was roused by the social conflict he was a very dangerous man. How do you respond to the issue that perhaps these men were not murderers, but perhaps they were not pacifists either?

Zinn: They were not pacifists. I have no doubt of that. And anarchists in this period of history, both in Europe and the United States, were in general not pacifists. I mean, they did not believe in wars fought by capitalist governments, but they were not pacifists in the sense that they would renounce the idea of violence on behalf of a case. After all, not long before that, the Anarchist, Alexander Berkman had tired to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick so I certainly wouldn't claim that they were pacifists. But it's one thing to understand that anarchists not being pacifists might be very willing to use violence on behalf of a social cause, but that's very different than the kind of violence against a guard, the violence that is accompanied by a robbery, that is not the kind of political act of violence that an anarchist might be capable of.

Kolhatkar: The issue of backing political prisoners is very relevant today as you yourself cited the case of Mumia Abu Jamal. More recently, here in California we had Stanley Tookie Williams who was executed, many people maintained his innocence. What is the risk that progressives take when they back political prisoners, because there is always the chance that the person you're defending may indeed be guilty? What then?

Zinn: Well, I would argue that even if the person that you're defending may turn out to be guilty; that does not really eliminate the reason that you came to this person's defense in the first place. I say that in relation, thinking of myself and Mumia Abu-Jamal. I mean, how many people who have come to the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal really know what happened on that night when a policeman was killed? How many people know the details of that? It's impossible to know for sure what happened. The reason people came to his defense; that reason would remain even if you found out he was guilty, that he could not possibly get a fair trail to decide whether he was guilty or innocent. Now that's aside from the question of the death penalty because aside from the question of the judicial system punishing people who are black and poor and radical, Mumia Abu-Jamal fits all of those descriptions, besides that, I think people would come to the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal because he was given a death sentence and anybody who is opposed to capital punishment, I think, would oppose that.

Kolhatkar: What do you say to the right-wing response to the news of the alleged letter from Upton Sinclair? In particular, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in the LA Times following the initial article, an editorial called "The Clay Feet of Liberal Saints". And he does cite people like Mumia Abu-Jamal. Jonah Goldberg takes the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, and certainly takes the revelations of the Upton Sinclair letter at face value, to try to expose progressive causes as being liberal lies and mythmaking.

Zinn: Well, of course, it's understandable that somebody who is on the right and therefore starts off with a presupposition that people on the left are going to be wrong, is going to jump on this piece of evidence. As I said before, that piece of evidence may in fact throw into question, once again as has been done many times, the issue of whether they were guilty or innocent, but it does not in any way weaken the liberal or radical case, which is the most crucial factor, for the argument that justice in this country does not operate equally for radicals, for people of color, for poor people, for immigrants. That fundamental critique of the system, which liberals and radicals hold, remains steadfast whatever guilt or innocence of somebody in a particular situation is.

Kolhatkar: If the Upton Sinclair letter was authentic, just assuming it was authentic, should Upton Sinclair have kept the revelation that he found hidden or should he have revealed it?

Zinn: Of course, Boston was a novel which may even be a strong argument for complicating the situation, but I don't think he should have concealed that letter. I think he should have been honest about it and told about the letter. But at the same time, [he should have] put that letter in the kind of context that I described and not assumed that that letter, that what he heard from this attorney, was therefore conclusive evidence of their guilt. After all, he was getting it second hand. He doesn't know what Sacco or Vanzetti said to the attorney, which the attorney might have interpreted as a confession of guilt. It is a very shaky piece of evidence. Although, it's a piece of evidence which should not be concealed, but I think Sinclair should not have held it back but I think he should have examined it in a rational way and given it it's proper place as one piece of evidence among many, not a conclusive piece of evidence, and not as important as the larger issue of the fairness of justice for people like Sacco and Vanzetti.

Kolhatkar: And that's even assuming that the letter was authentic.

Zinn: Yes, that's even assuming that, yes.

This interview aired on Wednesday January 18th, 2006 on Uprising at KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, and is available on an audiostream at The transcript of this conversation was retrieved from ZNet on 21 February, 2012.