Congressional Red-Hunters Set Their Sights on Bridgeport

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By Andy Piascik

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, 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 did so.

The majority of those who testified did so in response to a government subpoena – that is, under threat of arrest and imprisonment. As was the case around the country, information about Communist activities was culled from the work of HUAC staff, the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and information provided by one-time Communist Party members who had become government informants. Since HUAC knew the names of virtually every Communist Party member in the country, the hearings were held more to intimidate activists 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.[1] After the war, he had begun a freelance writing career in collaboration with his wife Katya. 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 based on their experiences in Bridgeport after World War II.

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 was asked numerous times about activities and associates related to the Communist Party, and each time he invoked the first and fifth amendments and declined to answer.

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.

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 had run for office on the Communist Party ticket.

The committee repeatedly asked questions related to the Communist Party no matter how many times a witness declined to answer because it 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.

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. 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, he 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]

Long-time Bridgeport resident and GE employee Josephine Willard was another who was subpoenaed. Willard had been active in the union at GE for many years, and her testimony followed the established pattern.[3]  However, Willard, who was so concerned about her employment that she declined to even state where she worked, 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 program on WPKN for many years, was so scarred by the experience 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]

[1] Bert David Gilden, testimony as recorded in the HUAC New Haven, CT hearings transcript;  available through the HATHI Trust:  https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951d03564350l;view=1up;seq=10

[2] Frank Peterson, testimony as record in the HUAC New Haven, CT, hearings transcript; available through the HATHI Trust:  https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924062247196;view=1up;seq=70

[3] Josephine Willard , testimony as recorded in the HUAC New Haven, CT, hearings transcript;  available through the HATHI Trust:  https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951d03564350l;view=1up;seq=144

[4] Oral History with Josephine Willard, Bridgeport Working:  Voices from the Twentieth Century, http://bridgeporthistory.org

[5] For additional perspective on G.E. employees involved in the HUAC hearings in New Haven and how their participation affected the union at G.E., visit the Bridgeport Working:  Voices from the Twentieth Century labor history exhibit online and read the oral history with GE employee Helen Mott-Mensch.

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About Author

Andy Piascik

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who writes for many publications and websites. He is the author of three books the most recent of which, the novel In Motion, was published earlier this year by Sunshine Publishing. He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

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