Many Italian newspapers, including the most important ones, published memorial articles Aug. 23 noting the 80th anniversary of the execution in Massachusetts of Ferdinando (Nicola) Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and retelling the story of the notoriously unfair trial that sent them to their deaths. In fact, such articles have appeared every single year since 1927.
A new American book about the trial, “Sacco and Vanzetti — The Men, the Murders and the Judgment of Mankind,” by Bruce Watson, makes a strong case for the proposition that the prosecution manufactured evidence, the defense was incompetent, and the judge did his best to prejudice the jury. And all this took place in the midst of public hysteria stirred up by politicians using fear and ethnic prejudice to gin up political support and by journalists, acting as handmaidens for those in power rather than as watchdogs for their readers and for the nation at large.
It is a tale not without relevance in our own times.
Not so long ago, in 1969, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, that anybody reading the story of Sacco and Vanzetti “will have difficulty believing that the trial… took place in the United States.” That may have been true then, but it isn’t now.
Many Italians, like many Europeans, think of America as a place where many of society’s most important decisions are overly politicized, and political decisions are driven by unsophisticated people whipped into recurrent frenzy by manipulative politicians and their allies in “the media.”
In general, Europeans believe in a system where the vast majority of decisions affecting the public welfare are made by well-trained and well-paid experts supervised, in a general way, by elected politicians. In Europe, decisions about which bridge, or stretch of highway, or dam has the highest priority for replacement or repair are made by engineers or others with appropriate expertise. In America, all too often, such decisions are made on the basis of which political party is in power and whose member of Congress has the most seniority, and, therefore, the most clout on Capitol Hill.
Some years ago, the United States and the European Union were trying to harmonize their rules on testing for new chemical substances, so their respective government agencies responsible for protecting human health and the environment could use the results of a single set of tests, which would mean, among other things, that chemical manufacturers could save lots of money.
As one participant described the level of the conversations, they revolved around such questions as, “At what temperature should we test for pH?” The European civil servants had total autonomy to make such decisions, and knew it, but the American experts had to refer everything to the political level, and knew it. One observer said it reminded him of the old story about the kindergarten class playing with a bunny rabbit. One child asked the teacher if it was a girl rabbit or a boy rabbit. The teacher didn’t have a clue. The children started arguing. Finally, one said, “I know how we can decide it: It’s simple. We’ll vote on it.”
Europeans share a general consensus there are limits to how far democracy usefully can take us in answering public policy questions. Beyond bridges and dams and technical scientific questions, there are broader issues, such as determining the national interest, that are left to experts. Of course, Europe does have traditional political pressure groups that try to influence such political issues as who pays what percentage of taxes, or how much the government spends to support farmers.
But pressure groups on foreign policy are unknown in Europe. In the middle of this century, American foreign policy in the Far East was shaped, to a very large extent, by the “China Lobby,” led by the likes of Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time magazine, and Sen. William Knowland, California Republican, who was so supportive of China’s ousted Generalissimo Chang Kai-shek that he was often called “the senator from Formosa.”
U.S. relations with the Soviet Union were shaped to a considerable extent by politicians currying favor with voters who had emigrated or whose ancestors had emigrated from “captive nations.” Our relations with Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have been determined, to at least some extent, by the fact the U.S. has more voters of Greek than of Turkish descent. Finally, of course, there is the Israel lobby.
On too many issues, we make decisions about who gets prosecuted and who doesn’t, what bridges get replaced, where our national interests lie, on the same basis as kindergarteners deciding democratically whether a bunny is male or female.
It is an increasingly ineffective way to make such decisions.
George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.