A letter published in the York Daily Record this week criticized us for not supporting Geno’s Steaks for posting a sign requiring English when ordering.
“The York Daily Record will never change,” he wrote. “You are still the same commie newspaper as your predecessor, The Gazette and Daily.”
It’s been a while since I’ve heard the “commie” claim levied against us. (Maybe people think it, but seldom say it.)
That label stuck to J.W. Gitt’s Gazette and Daily even though the FBI could not connect the Cold War publisher with the Communist Party. And his biographer says he resigned the Progressive Party because of Communist infiltration.
It was 10 years ago that I wrote about the lack of true evidence linking the leftist York County publisher and his newspaper with the Communist Party.
I’ll repeat it here:
York County Congressman Jimmy Lind probably winced partway through a letter from a constituent in July 1950.
“I am sick and tired of the pussy-footing that has gone on in York with the hotbed of local Communists maintained, led, and sponsored by Josiah W. Gitt … .” the letter said. …
The letter writer, a Republican businessman, asked Lind, a Democrat, to take a lead in stamping out communism in the York area and to make a campaign issue of The Gazette and Daily and J.W. Gitt, its leftist, contrarian owner.
“With over 30,000 subscribers, do you realize how many homes, how many children, how many impressionable adults dissatisfied with their jobs and upset over the trend of events, read this rotten Communistic rag and are conditioned in their thinking by its clever, diabolical slanting of the news?” the writer asked.
Lind no doubt felt conflicted. Less than two years before, Gitt and his Gazette had staunchly backed Lind’s successful congressional bid against five-term Republican incumbent Chester Gross.
That was the same election in which The Gazette and Daily, the Daily Record’s predecessor, supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for the U.S. presidency. Gitt’s newspaper was the only commercial daily in the United States to endorse Wallace over Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican Thomas E. Dewey.
But Lind was a veteran’s veteran, a soldier in both world wars.
Further, these were Cold War years, and the red scare was very real. Just days earlier, newspaper reports had told about the distribution of anti-atomic weapons literature in York.
A York Dispatch article headlined “Reds Are Spreading Propaganda in York” had pushed the letter writer into action.
Lind handled his constituent’s concerns by forwarding the letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
“You may be sure that this material is being made a matter of permanent record,” Hoover later wrote Lind.
The letter stands as the lead exhibit in J.W. Gitt’s 80-plus-page FBI file, obtained by the Daily Record under the Federal Freedom of Information Act. It was a file that would be updated, off and on, for the next 22 years.
“Nobody knows for sure just how many files are kept by the FBI,” The (Baltimore) Sun reported this past July. “Not even the FBI.”
The best estimates place the number of records at about 80 million organizations and individuals, living and dead. The FBI adds an estimated 800,000 names to its files every year, The Sun reported.
Basic background or security clearance checks of people considered for sensitive government office generate the most common type of records. Such files became the focal point of the White House’s bungle this past summer.
A second type of FBI file, according to The Sun, is opened during criminal investigations. This occurs when someone is a witness in an FBI case or when a person is a crime victim related to an FBI case.
The third type of file relates to national security. Files are created to probe terrorism and other activities considered a threat to the country.
“But in recent years, it hasn’t always been clear what constitutes a threat to national security,” The Sun reported.
The national security scene in the 1950s must have been foggy, as well. At least, FBI security investigators could not link J.W. Gitt to any communistic groups.
Before the letter writer flagged Lind about Gitt, the FBI was already aware of the veteran newspaperman. A memo dated Sept. 6, 1950, relates that Gitt was connected with an unknown 1949 event.
The event is unknown because the FBI blacked out information in the memo and in many other documents in Gitt’s file, to protect the identity of informants and to obscure other sensitive material. In some cases, entire documents were omitted.
The event that attracted FBI scrutiny could have been Gitt’s chairmanship of the Progressive Party in Pennsylvania. It was known that communists were gaining influence among state and national Progressives.
The Progressive Party was a political faction that advocated, among other things, a more conciliatory policy toward the Soviet Union.
The FBI also could have investigated a curious incident at Gitt’s home in Augusta, Ga., in September 1948. Gitt’s primary residence was in the Hanover area, but Gitt, a ranking amateur golfer, maintained a second home near Southern golf courses.
The Gazette and Daily reported that a mob of 200 to 300 people, reportedly led by the Ku Klux Klan, abducted and mistreated five Progressive party workers.
A party spokesman said the mob kicked in a window and door at Gitt’s home and forced four women and a man at gunpoint into waiting automobiles.
The man was badly beaten and the women “slapped around” before they were released outside Augusta. The political workers were at Gitt’s home to obtain signatures in a petition to place Henry Wallace on the Georgia ballot in the November election. Gitt was not involved in the incident.
The Progressives called upon the FBI “to protect civil rights and the lives of our people.”
Gitt’s FBI file focuses on two sets of documents.
The first is a lengthy memo and attachments from 1955 that recap Gitt’s public life for the previous eight years.
It’s not clear what prompted the memo. Perhaps the FBI was finally responding to Lind’s correspondence. Perhaps it was an outgrowth of U.S. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s inquisition of communists in American government and public life.
The memo combined newspaper accounts and observations from security informants to tell about Gitt’s activities with such organizations as the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, Progressive Citizens of America and the Progressive Party. All were suspected of being communist-controlled or communist-front organizations.
A typical entry reads like this: “On 6/3/47, SA (SA stands for special agent, but the operative’s name was blacked out) attended a meeting sponsored by the York County Council of American-Soviet Friendship held at the William Penn High School Annex, York, Pa. SA (blacked out) observes that the meeting was chaired by Josiah W. Gitt.”
The memo ended by stating that the case was closed because the FBI could not link Gitt with Communist Party membership or activities.
The file did not remain inactive for long.
The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities became interested in Gitt and his newspaper. This generated a second series of documents.
In assigning the case to the FBI’s Philadelphia office, a bureau memorandum stated in 1961: “This paper has been anti-Bureau for several years and has published many editorials critical of the FBI. Allegations have been received that the paper consistently criticizes the United States government.”
Thus started regular FBI checks on Gitt. The reports would typically establish that Gitt still owned the newspaper. Copies of Gazette and Daily articles often were attached to the reports.
Sometimes the FBI made “pretext” calls to the newspaper office to check on Gitt’s status with the newspaper but did not make contact with the veteran newspaperman in person because an interview “could lead to possible embarrassment of the Bureau.”
On at least one occasion, the FBI checked with the York Police Department to determine if Gitt had ever been arrested. The bureau pulled an empty bucket out of that well.
Invariably, the bureau’s check-in reports contained a notation such as: “Confidential informants who are familiar with CP (Communist Party) and/or CP front group activity in the Philadelphia and Hanover-York, Pa., areas advised during July 1964 they had no knowledge of any current CP and/or CP front group activity on the part of the subject.”
Judging from news reports, FBI files often contain juicy information on the personal lives of those under investigation.
The Gitt file, at least, contains little of such personal dirt. It gets a bit up close with occasional references about Gitt’s wealth. (Gitt came from a prominent Hanover family, and he married into a well-heeled York County family.)
As an outspoken critic of U.S. Cold War policy, Gitt would not have been surprised to learn that the FBI was checking on him. The Gazette and Daily regularly railed for world peace and civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War, business monopolies, international cartels and nuclear testing.
Indeed, he might have published the contents of the documents, if they would have come across his desk.
Gitt often faced the charge that he was a communist. Some people continue to stick the York Daily Record with that label 23 years after Gitt’s death.
Mary Allienne Hamilton, a scholar of Gitt’s thought and life, said that Gitt resigned from the Progressives because he feared communist domination of that party.
In an article appearing in Journalism Monographs, Hamilton included part of a letter from Gitt to a Progressive Party ward organizer in Philadelphia:
“… I am still very much upset that I found it necessary to sever myself from the party which I did only after I mulled the matter over in my mind for many months and had come to the conclusion that there was no longer any outside chance that it could be free of communist domination… .”
Gitt’s FBI file corroborates that Gitt did not collude with the Communists.
The 1955 memo, for example, exonerates Gitt from any Communistic connection: “No information has been received by the Philadelphia Division to indicate that GITT has ever been a member of or closely associated with the Communistic Party.”
The FBI ended its Gitt watch in 1972 after the octogenarian newspaper owner sold his newspaper’s assets and retired its name.
However one feels about FBI surveillance of people critical of the U.S. government, the bureau did Gitt’s legacy a service by disconnecting him from the communists.
The businessman who wrote Congressman Lind said Gitt’s resignation from the Progressive Party “doesn’t fool me” concerning the newspaperman’s ongoing links with communists.
He helped bring Gitt to the FBI’s attention. The FBI, in turn, failed to link Gitt to the communists.
As it turns out, the letter writer was fooled, indeed.