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Shedding new light on an old crime

Sacco & Vanzetti: The Case Resolved, by Francis Russell. New York: Harper & Row. 245 pp. $16.95. Francis Russell's ``Sacco & Vanzetti: The Case Resolved'' is above all a personal book. Rooted in the author's long preoccupation with the case of two Italian immigrants executed for murder, a case often referred to by him and others as the American Dreyfus affair, this book reflects Russell's 25-year attempt to lay the controversy surrounding the case to rest.

On April 15, 1920, a factory paymaster and security guard were robbed and killed in South Braintree, Mass. Two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested, tried, and, on July 14, 1921, convicted.

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The case gained international attention; communist-organized demonstrations made headlines in many countries; a review committee, including president Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard University, went over the case in detail and found basis for the claim that anti-foreign and anti-radical feelings had corrupted the proceedings. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927.

Author Russell, like most other liberals, startedout prejudiced in favor of Sacco and Vanzetti. As he shows here, the case had galvanized the liberal community, which came to include the ``formidably assured ladies'' of Boston immortalized in Henry James's ``The Bostonians,'' some of the press, some of the faculty of Harvard (who vilified Lowell for his part in the review process), the great names -- Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Norman Thomas, Jane Addams, H. L. Mencken, John Dos Passos -- and labor leaders and fellow-travelers of every stripe.

To this day the case has political power. When Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) of Massachusetts proclaimed Aug. 27, 1977, a special day in memory of Sacco and Vanzetti, it was widely believed that he was after the Italian vote. A movie about Sacco and Vanzetti is still popular on college campuses. The case still generates controversy.

Francis Russell would like to think that the patient research into the case reflected in his first book on the subject (``Tragedy in Dedham,'' 1962) and now in his second, would change all this. It's unlikely to. Things are not so different now than they were in 1927. Russell writes: ``In the feverish months of 1927 the case became a rallying point for the intellectual and academic commonality that in many cases set the tone for their entire lives. As a vehicle of protest it filled a need. To intellectuals in their postwar sense of isolation and alienation, it gave a community of spirit, the pentecostal feeling of belonging, as well as the unadmitted satisfaction of identifying themselves with an elite. Their indignation was itself liberating, a catharsis of the emotions, a commitment of faith where the need to believe became the will to believe.''

Liberals still need a cause. Russell's own faith in reason and scientific fact led him away from the liberal position to the conviction that Sacco was guilty of murder and Vanzetti of being an accessory.

His first book made him an outcast in the liberal community; this second, while perhaps winning a few converts, will do nothing to change that. Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists who believed that violence was justified in the name of social change: Some liberals still find that romantic.

One of the strengths of Russell's book is his sympathy with the social origins of Italian-American anarchism. He writes: ``The peasants and workers, the poor and dispossessed, alienated from the land of their birth, had swarmed to America from Italy to find in the new world a life of similar rejection, of poverty and long hours and little hope. Scorned or disregarded by the native-born, locked in their slum enclaves, they remained apart. Anarchy offered many of them a cult's sustaining reassurance.''

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Russell knew that Sacco and Vanzetti's lawyer had come to question their innocence; Russell knew that advances in microscopy had made it possible to prove that the bullets that killed the paymaster and the guard came from Sacco's gun. But this testimony and these facts had not compelled belief within the liberal community.

One overcast November afternoon in 1982, Russell received a letter containing ``irrefutable proof'' that Sacco was guilty of murder. This is the starting place he works back from in his new book. His correspondent testified that the conspiracy of silence to which the anarchists were pledged had weakened with the passing of the generation involved in the affair. Now he knew for sure that Sacco was guilty of murder and that Vanzetti had died with him, in keeping with the code of silence.

Compact and eloquent, ``Sacco & Vanzetti: The Case Resolved'' is more than a piece of revisionist journalism. Russell, who has written more than 16 books on American history and modern literary topics, reminds me of a French intellectual, a l'homme engag'e, whose writing is his chosen symbolic form of participation in the flux of opinion we call history. That he has managed to make the flux stand still for a moment qualifies him as a writer of unique stature. It's tempting to say his book will be read long after Sacco and Vanzetti have been forgotten. The truth is, it will keep their memory, and their sad, tragic truth, alive.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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