Facing Down The Communist Menace

More than 6 decades ago, the McCarthy witch hunt — highlighted in the current film “Trumbo” — affected all Americans. Area residents like Fred Hellerman — who sang with Pete Seeger in the Weavers — saw their careers torpedoed, in a frightening, country-wide rush to judgment.

TrumboIt took the courage of men like Kirk Douglas and Howard Fast — both with Westport and Weston connections — to break the blacklist. Douglas surreptitiously hired screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt Fast’s novel “Spartacus,” a major step toward helping restore many writers’ good names.

A couple of years before McCarthy, Westport faced its own charges of communism. But officials here reacted in a very different way.

According to Westporter-Herald newspaper accounts unearthed by alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor, in early April 1947 Fred Hollister wrote a long story in Inklings, the Staples High School newspaper. It described a new organization: American Youth for Democracy.

David Hollister, as a 1947 Staples High School senior: class vice president, Yale applicant, alleged communist.

David Hollister, as a 1947 Staples High School senior: class vice president, Yale applicant, alleged communist.

Hollister — a senior — was awaiting word on admission to Yale. He was vice president of his class, editor of the new literary magazine Soundings, and a member of the Norwalk chapter of AYD. That group — an “interracial teen-age club” — offered “a program for economic security and opportunity, education, housing, health, farm youth, recreation, juvenile delinquency, veterans, civil liberties, and peace,” the Westporter-Herald reported.

The AYD wanted to build “more and more inter-racial clubs in our country, clubs where young Negro and white people, by working, playing and fighting for the same things together, learn through actual experience that there are no ‘superior’ and no ‘inferior’ races.”

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called it “part of the Communist party.”

A front-page story in the local paper said that “school officials, P-T.A. officers, School Study Council members and parents of high school students are all considering ways and means to check the infiltration of what the U.S. Chamber ofo Commerce has called subversive ideas fostered by the AYD.”

A poster of the "radical" American Youth for Democracy.

A poster of the “radical” American Youth for Democracy.

Superintendent of Schools Gerhardt Rast conducted an investigation into the “publication of the AYD propoganda.” He “emphatically” cleared Inklings’ faculty advisor, social studies teacher Eli Berton, of “any blame.” Rast said that Berton had no idea what the AYD was. However, the superintendent said that he would ask the Board of Education to take action to “prevent its growth in the school.”

“The article’s listing of the organization’s aims could be that of any liberal organization, except for an emphasis on federal aid for various projects,” the Westporter-Herald noted.

An editorial took a patronizing tone. High school is a time “when youngsters look up on the world and worry about its imperfections. They are dissatisfied with the picture of war, famine, hatred and intolerance. Naturally they dream of making the world over, fashioning it to be without sin or greed.”

That’s not the way the world works, the paper continued. But perhaps Hollister should be thanked, because by “its careless publicity (the AYD) has ruined its chances for successful proselytizing in the high school  here.”

The editorial concluded: “Fellow traveler, whither now?”

Eli Berton was a long-time, and very well-respected, Staples High School social studies teacher.

Eli Berton was a long-time, and very well-respected, Staples High School social studies teacher.

In the days that followed, the American Legion asked the Board of Ed to place more importance on the teaching of American history in Westport schools.

The board discussed the matter, but refused to remove either Hollister or Berton from Inklings. 

The superintendent took a similar stand. In fact, he said, “We do teach the Bill of Rights to our students….How can we reconcile action denying David Hollister the right to publish any further articles with what they students know about Article I?…I don’t believe such action would be wise or consistent.”

And so the communist menace in Westport was dealt with: intelligently, graciously, and with no inflammatory rhetoric.

12 responses to “Facing Down The Communist Menace

  1. mary schmerker

    Thank you Dan. This is another example of Staples and the education we received in Westport. We were encouraged to think and be open minded.
    Mr. Burton! Mr. Burton was my homeroom teacher. The picture used in this article is the same one used in the 1958 Stapleite to dedicate the yearbook to him. I have been going through old family mementos and recently found a program from the Fifty -first Anniversary Commencement Exercises of Staples High school, class of 1938. Mr. Burton was on the staff then. A wonderful memory to start the week. .

  2. Peter Barlow

    Interesting story! I know all about that. Staples 1947 was my class. David Hollister was my best friend in school. One correction: he didn’t go to Yale, he graduated from Harvard.

    • Thanks for the update. The Westporter-Herald story said David was waiting for admission to Yale, but did not mention Harvard. Maybe he didn’t get in, and/or Harvard was his Plan B?!

  3. An excellent article , Dan.
    The new movie Trumbo does a fine job of evoking the hysteria of the era.
    ADW Staples,1956

  4. Dan, nice story, but a little research would have revealed that the AYD was in fact a branch of the Communist Party USA, its former name being the Young Communist League. As far as Trumbo was concerned, yes he was good for fighting the Hollywood blacklist, and yes, he was bad for being a member of the Communist party, supporting Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, and ignoring the mountains of evidence that Stalinist Russia murdered millions. Simple minds Hollywood way only notice the first yes; not the second.

    • I seem to recall that Stalin was our ally throughout WW 2 and was sometimes referred to in the the press as “Uncle Joe.”

      • So…?

        • Ok I should be more specific in responding to you: our wartime alliance with Stalin during WWII was a necessity under the circumstances, and did not in any way imply approval of the Soviet system — while membership in the Communist Party served as a ringing endorsement of that system.

          Furthermore, Mr. Trumbo and fellow U.S. Party members supported the USSR’s pact with Nazi Germany for nearly its nearly two years of existence ; in Trumbo’s case, that meant advocating against aid to Britain, purportedly based on his pacifist beliefs, which he disavowed once Hitler invaded Russia.

          Lest you view Stalin’s alliance with Hitler as itself a necessity under the circumstances, the USSR took advantage of the pact to occupy the eastern half of Poland, murdering tens of thousands of Poles in the process. Most infamously, the Soviets killed an estimated 22,000 Polish leaders, including academics, business owners and priests, in the Katyn forest.

          • Trumbo was not a member of the Communist party at the time of the pact with Hitler. He joined in 1943 when Stalin was our ally and left just after the start of the cold war. He was a member of leftist organizations both before and after the war, But so were half my neighbors in the Brooklyn of my childhood — and you know they were good and decent people with a concern for social justice.

            There is no excusing the witch hunts and I’m glad that my former teacher Berton proved to be a mensch.

            ADW Staples 1956

            • Yep, Lindbergh was a good and decent man too, and quite an American hero, but…

            • The “witch hunts” started in 1938 with the establishment of the HUAC. The HUAC was renamed eventually and went out of existence some time around 1975. The HUAC investigate pretty much anyone it felt was un American. While Tail Gunner Joe did his worst in the Senate, the House had a long head start on him.

              David is correct. The American left defended Stalin as he killed millions of kulaks, and invaded Poland along with Hitler.

  5. Thank you, Dan. Informative.