Sixty Years Ago: Congressional Red-Hunters Set Their Sights on Bridgeport

Passed into law in 1940, the Smith Act made it illegal to "teach, advocate or encourage the overthrow" of the government and extended to any member of an organization that allegedly did so. The notion that in 1956 the Communist Party was interested in, let alone capable of, overthrowing anything was patently absurd. From a 1940's peak of around 80,000, the CP's national membership had dwindled to perhaps 10,000 by the time of the hearings in Connecticut.
Andy Piascik
June 7, 2016
Josephine Willard, testifying before the HUAC - the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Bridgeport, September 1956.
http://bportlibrary.org/hc/hc/uploads/Josephine_Willard.jpg

 

In September 1956, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as HUAC, came to Connecticut. The purpose was to hold hearings about activities of the Communist Party in New Haven and Bridgeport. HUAC had been formed in 1938 and was in its tenth year of actively investigating Communism.
 
Committee members Edwin Willis, Democrat from Louisiana, and Bernard Kearney, Republican from New York, along with several aides, set up shop in the federal courthouse in New Haven. The ostensible reason was to investigate alleged violations of the Smith Act. Passed into law in 1940, the Smith Act made it illegal to "teach, advocate or encourage the overthrow" of the government and extended to any member of an organization that allegedly did so.  
 
The notion that in 1956 the Communist Party was interested in, let alone capable of, overthrowing anything was patently absurd. From a 1940's peak of around 80,000, the CP's national membership had dwindled to perhaps 10,000 by the time of the hearings in Connecticut. Riddled with divisions and reeling in the face of government assaults, the number of members would soon dwindle further to less than 5,000. A strong tendency that had emerged within the Party to scale back its ties to the Soviet Union and reject Leninism in favor of an organic path to socialism would soon be defeated by orthodoxy, leading most of the best organizers to leave by 1958.
     
Like HUAC hearings around the country, the majority of those who testified in Connecticut did so in response to a government subpoena - that is, under threat of arrest and imprisonment for noncompliance. As was the case nationally, information about Communist activities was culled from the work of HUAC staff, the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and information provided by Communist Party members who had become government informants. Since HUAC knew the names of virtually every Communist Party member in the country, and since they knew very well that the CP was in catastrophic decline, the hearings were, in fact, designed to intimidate activists and dissidents rather than to investigate anything.
 
Much of the questioning about Bridgeport focused on workers employed at the General Electric factory on Boston Avenue. The first person called was Bert Gilden, a combat veteran of the Second World War who, after the war, had begun a freelance writing career in collaboration with his wife Katya.[1] They had published articles in magazines such as Collier's and Liberty and would achieve literary success in 1964 with their novel Hurry Sundown. They would also write Between the Hills and The Sea, a novel published in 1971 based on their experiences in Bridgeport covering the years 1946 through 1956. 
 
In addition to his writing career, Bert Gilden had worked at a number of factories in Bridgeport including GE. The committee made much of the fact that he had not included on his application for employment at GE that he was a graduate of Brown University. Otherwise, the bulk of Gilden's testimony was much like what had occurred hundreds of times by 1956: Gilden provided basic information about himself but invoked the first and fifth amendments when questioned about certain activities and associates. 
 
As happened with other witnesses, Gilden was briefly excused while an informant - in this case, Harold Kent -- was sworn in. Kent testified that he joined the Communist Party in Bridgeport in 1949. After dropping out, he re-joined at the behest of the FBI and provided the Bureau information about the Party's activities in Bridgeport. He testified that he had seen Gilden and many others from Bridgeport who had been subpoenaed at Communist meetings.
 
In addition, Kent testified that Gilden had refused to inform GE about his education at Brown because he and the CP were "colonizing" the workers of Bridgeport. Colonizing is a negative way of describing what Latin American practitioners of liberation theology call accompaniment (acompañamiento) in which a person with certain intellectual skills chooses to live and/or work in close proximity to the poor and working classes. It is, in fact, one of the most admirable traits of the American Left and a practice also employed by Jesus Christ, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Archbishop Oscar Romero and any number of others, yet in HUAC's rendering it was just one more sinister part of a vast criminal conspiracy. 
 
There was a fair amount of interest in the People's Party, the Connecticut chapter of the Progressive Party, which was formed in 1948 when former Vice-President Henry Wallace ran for President on its ticket. Locally, Gilden and several others ran for office on the People's Party ticket, thought it was defunct by 1956. Others like long-time Bridgeport resident Josephine Willard had run for local office on the Communist Party ticket in the mid-1940's when the Party was regarded as less of a threat because of its all-out support of the Allied effort in the Second World War. 
 
The committee repeatedly asked questions about organizations and people linked to the Communist Party no matter how many times a witness declined to answer to both try and ensnare witnesses in a legal trap and because the repeated "taking of the fifth" fueled the perception that the witness was a criminal involved in illegal activity. For those subpoenaed, meanwhile, the option of testifying only about oneself had long ago been ruled out legally as an option. So, for example, a witness who stated that he or she was a Communist Party member was not only admitting, according to Supreme Court rulings (rulings that years later were overturned), participation in an illegal conspiracy, they opened themselves up to charges of contempt of Congress if they did not then answer all questions about others they knew to be CP members. This applied even in the case of several from Bridgeport who had left the CP years before. There were undoubtedly any number of others who declined to answer on Constitutional grounds even though they had never been Party members because they believed that the government had no right to investigate an individual's political beliefs, let alone prosecute them for holding them.  
  
Despite the fact that HUAC held in its hands the very real power to destroy careers, and sometimes lives, there were several moments of levity during the hearings. For example, Bridgeport resident Frank Peterson, a tool grinder at GE, introduced himself as "a retired millionaire." And in reply to queries about whether he received orders from or was under the discipline of any organization while employed at GE, Peterson replied that he "received orders all right. I received orders from the company to report there at 7 o'clock in the morning and work until 4 o'clock in the afternoon." GE was "the only organization that disciplined me" to "turn out the work" or else "out you go."[2]
 
Josephine Willard, who had previously been employed at GE and active in the union there for many years, was another who was subpoenaed. For the most part, her testimony followed the established pattern.[3] However, Willard, who was so concerned about her job that she declined to even state where she was employed at the time she was called (she had left GE in the early 1950's and was working elsewhere), had to face the fact that her photo appeared on the front page of the Bridgeport Post the day after her testimony. Such repeated publicity over a period of years often caused people's careers to be pushed back down just as they were recovering from earlier rounds of accusations. Willard, who later in life hosted a show about natural health on WPKN for many years, was so scarred by her experience during the red-hunting years that for the rest of her life she spoke about it with extreme reluctance and then only minimally.[4]
 
The hearings in Connecticut resulted in no arrests for subversive activity or evidence of any criminal conduct. It is likely, however, that some of those subpoenaed experienced difficulties in their families or at their jobs, as Willard apparently feared. And while no one from Connecticut took their own lives as a result of the pressures, as happened in a number of instances, it is likely some experienced at least short-term physical and mental health problems such as stress, elevated blood pressure, depression and possibly worse. At minimum, many of those from Bridgeport who were subpoenaed likely experienced over many years something akin to Willard: a desire to purge from memory the entire episode by a kind of forced forgetting which, of course, meant they were never able to do so.[5]
 
 
[Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author whose novel In Motion was recently published by Sunshine Publishing. He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.]
 
Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.
 
A version of this article was posted recently at the website of the Bridgeport History Center, Bridgeport Public Library.
 
June 9, 2016