Moshik Temkin on History, Politics and Public Policy

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on Jan. 29, 2009

The interplay between history, global affairs and domestic policy is the focus of much discussion and debate among U.S. public policy scholars and practitioners. Associate Professor Moshik Temkin is an historian whose current research projects include a history of the death penalty in a transatlantic perspective, a study of Malcolm X's career and politics in global context, and a history of internationalism and political culture between the two world wars. He teaches courses on “Reasoning from History” and “Policy, Politics and the Uses of History.”
Q: Your recent book, “The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial,” examined the political dimensions behind a controversial episode in American history. With immigration and ethnic bias remaining hot topics in Washington, what lessons can current policymakers take from the Sacco-Vanzetti case?
Temkin:Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrant anarchists working and living in Massachusetts who, in 1920, were arrested and charged with the robbery and murder of a paymaster and his guard outside Boston. Their arrest and trial took place in the context of the “red scare” in the wake of World War I in which political radicals and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were viewed with enormous suspicion and hostility by many Americans as well as by the federal government.
So Sacco and Vanzetti – who were politically active revolutionaries but who had no criminal record – pleaded their innocence, but were convicted and found guilty in 1921 and sentenced to death.
The case became an international cause for many reasons, some of which had to do with Sacco and Vanzetti’s eloquent and impassioned defense, but also because this was the moment in which the United States for the first time became a global power. In the wake of World War I, European nations fell into a kind of decline and became debtors to the United States, and the U.S. really came to the world’s attention as a major global power. So the Sacco and Vanzetti affair came to symbolize this new American power and focused attention on whether or not the United States would treat immigrants – particularly European immigrants – fairly, because it was becoming widely considered by many people that Sacco and Vanzetti were indeed innocent.
I think that one of the more fascinating aspects of this event was that as international pressure mounted on the U.S. it had a paradoxical effect on American leaders and policymakers. On the one hand it did turn Sacco and Vanzetti into famous men in the United States and it created an internal political pressure on then-President Calvin Coolidge and Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller to reconsider the case. On the other hand, it also, in my view, eventually led to Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution because the main reason they were put to death in 1927 was not in spite of international pressure, but rather because of it.
There is a powerful contradiction that runs through American political culture throughout the 20th century, even into the 21st century. On the one hand, there is one perspective among Americans that considers the U.S. as part of the world, linked integrally to other countries, but there is another perspective that sees the United States as a kind of separate entity, an “exception” that stands apart from the rest of the world. According to this perspective if the rest of the world puts pressure on the U.S. to do something, the U.S. needs to stand firm and not give in to the demands of foreigners.
One lesson from the Sacco-Vanzetti affair is that Americans, especially American policymakers, need not necessarily fear immigrants and what they bring to this country, nor the opinions of international leaders – political, intellectual, social or economic. We must understand that in some instances they do not mean the U.S. harm but actually wish for the U.S. to step up and affirm its own principles.
Q. Do you see any historical parallels between the Sacco and Vanzetti affair and the aftermath of 9/11?
Temkin:What we’re seeing now in the long aftermath of 9/11 and the debates among American policymakers over how to deal with people and groups who were involved in this crime, or suspected of being involved, can be linked to what transpired during the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. If you look at 9/11 as part of a stream of time in terms of its place in American history, at least since World War I, you’ll see that a lot of these kinds of debates about how to handle people who allegedly threaten national security happen in the context of a war in which Americans tend on the one hand to rediscover their patriotism and their sense of community, but on the other hand sometimes turn on those who they consider different, foreign, and un-American.
Q: The United States remains one of the only western countries with a death penalty. How does that fact undermine America’s power and influence on the global stage?
Temkin:I think the death penalty has an enormous influence on American prestige, power and influence on the global stage, in ways that often go unrecognized by the American public and largely, I believe, by American policymakers.
For example, when Secretary of State Clinton visits China, she is under pressure from American policymakers, pundits, intellectuals, and leaders to at least pressure Chinese leaders on the issue of human rights. The Chinese generally respond by saying that both we and they have the death penalty and there isn’t any significant difference – if China is a human rights violator, so is the U.S. To Americans that may seem like a strange argument, because the issue for Clinton and for many American policymakers in the mainstream is how the Chinese treat political dissidents. The death penalty in the United States, by contrast, is traditionally reserved for criminals, people who commit murder primarily. That’s the way Americans tend to view the death penalty, as something separate from human rights.
But if you look at Western Europe – and this is one part of the world that I focus on in my historical work – the death penalty has become an integral part of the package of human rights. In order to be considered a state that recognizes human rights in the modern sense, you cannot have the death penalty. France is a prime example of this. It had the death penalty until 1981; it has since abolished it. The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty in 1969. West Germany abolished it in 1949. And so if you want to be a member of the Council of Europe or even if you want to join the European Union, you are not allowed to do so if you have the death penalty, because that is considered a major human rights violation. And so in the eyes of many Europeans the fact that the United States still has the death penalty is quite a disturbing issue at the level of policy and even at the level of morality and principle. I think this is something that American policymakers and political leaders will eventually need to take in to account.
Q: What overarching issues motivate your research, and how do you see the import of these topics and issues in terms of educating students at a school for public policy?
Temkin:What I always emphasize to my students and even to my colleagues, is that really the U.S., historically, and even in a contemporary sense, cannot be separated from the rest of the world, and by the same token the rest of the world can’t be separated from the U.S. To me as a historian, it’s almost meaningless to study, say, the history of the U.S., or the history of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, the history of the death penalty, and my new project which is about Malcolm X from an international perspective. It’s fairly, almost hopeless to try to understand the major issues that come into my view without taking into account the place of the U.S. in the wider world, and as I said before, also the place of the wider world in the U.S. And if I have a goal in my scholarship, it’s really to make a connection, to have a kind of understanding between Americans and non-Americans, to alleviate suspicion and mutual fear that exists between Americans and Europeans.
We tend to think of Europeans as our allies, but as I travel in Europe I often sense a certain degree of disappointment with American politics and leadership. The fact that so many Americans do not have health insurance is a horrifying idea to many Europeans, as is the price that insured Americans pay for coverage. The issue of the death penalty for Europeans is also, as I said, an extremely disturbing issue. So while there are very important historic connections between Americans and other nations, I try to convey through my teaching a sense to American students, future leaders, and policymakers that with U.S. leadership comes not only responsibility, but also, sometimes, the need to take into account what the world thinks. And I feel that American leaders do have an obligation to look externally even as they decide on internal American policy.
As a historian I thought the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a fascinating phenomenon because we tend to think of the American voters and the American people generally as very suspicious of what the world thinks. In a sense Obama’s immense popularity abroad was even used against him in the presidential campaign. This case demonstrates the fact that the broader world is quite interested in what happens in the U.S. and projects all sorts of ideas and even fantasies onto American political leadership, and that is not necessarily a dangerous thing. Indeed, it can be something that is welcome, and something that helps the U.S.
But on the other hand, we still have this very powerful view – which I think is always an underlying current in American politics – that the U.S. really has no business interacting with the rest of the world, and really should only concentrate on what is going on inside the country. This almost isolationist tendency that is a major feature of modern American history isn’t talked about so much in those terms today, but I do think it still exists.
And so I stand very clearly on the side of the internationalists. I think the U.S. is a part of the world, and should see itself that way, not just in terms of projecting power. I recognize of course that there are people outside of the U.S. who mean us harm, and they are dangerous. But the way to combat that danger is not to alienate our allies or alienate people around the world, but rather to find connections with them and even compromise with them, and remind them that the U.S. is not necessarily so different, and can be a part of, and a leader of, the international community.

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