York, Pa., publishing legend J.W. Gitt vocal about nuclear power
Cartoonist Walt Partymiller reflected J.W. Gitt’s views throughout the Cold War. Also of interest: Reflecting on J.W. Gitt’s Gazette and Daily in York, Pa.
From 1915-1970, J.W. Gitt was a small-town newspaper editor with elite friends — Albert Einstein, Henry Wallace and Linus Pauling, for starters.
He gained the international spotlight in 1948, when his newspaper endorsed Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for U.S. president.
The Gazette and Daily was the only commercial daily in the United States to endorse Wallace. The former U.S. veep also gained a nod from the Communist Daily Worker… .
Mary A. Hamilton worked for Gitt during the 1960s and has become the foremost expert on the internationally known owner of The Gazette and Daily.
The York Sunday News ran an excerpt from the former St. Bonaventure University journalism professor’s book “Rising from the Wilderness: J.W. Gitt and His Legendary Newspaper – The Gazette & Daily of York, Pennsylvania.”
As an introduction to the piece stated, Hamilton offers a historical perspective on Gitt’s Cold War efforts to educate the public on issues associated with the atomic age. This is particularly germane as America confronts Iran’s aspiration to become a nuclear power.
Less than a week after the worst accident in our nation’s nuclear power industry – Three Mile Island, March 28, 1979 – a special exhibit quietly opened in Hanover, 25 miles southwest of the disaster site.
The display of letters, editorials and political cartoons at Hanover Public Library commemorated the birth centenary of the most famous scientist in the field of nuclear fission, Albert Einstein. It also honored a native son, Josiah William Gitt, whose 95th birthday would have coincided with “TMI.”
For half a century, Gitt had published The Gazette and Daily newspaper in the county seat of York.
Visitors to the exhibit in the town Gitt called “home” his entire 89 years could read a correspondence of 18 months duration, from mid-1946 through 1947, between the small city publisher and the world-renowned physicist.
Their letters discussed the feasibility of organizing a committee in York, similar to others across the country, to launch an educational campaign about atomic energy. Local groups would confer with the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in Princeton, chaired by Einstein and with a membership drawn from scientists worried about the destructive powers unleashed on the world after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Few members of the press assumed more seriously their obligation to participate in the educational campaign than did J.W. Gitt. He sought advice from the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists about bringing speakers to York as well as permission to reprint articles in his newspaper.
He wanted his readers and all Yorkers to understand the issues arising out of the new atomic age. His efforts did not go unnoticed, at least not in Princeton.
“We all appreciate the steady attention this work receives in the columns of your newspaper,” Einstein wrote to Gitt in 1947.
In letters to others, he described the York newspaper publisher as “my friend Mr. J.W. Gitt.” Three decades later, those letters would be on display in the publisher’s hometown.
York countians did not flock to the library exhibit in Hanover, however. Instead, they probably attended a new Hollywood film that seemed more emblematic of the fear they felt at the time.
“The China Syndrome” told the story of a television reporter and her cameraman who witness an accident while on a publicity tour of a nuclear power plant. Moviegoers gasped loudly when a physicist, after viewing film shot in secret, explains that a meltdown would “send out clouds of radioactivity rendering an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”
Two weeks before the accident at Three Mile Island, the York Daily Record had run a series of articles by Jim Hill about the potential dangers of a nuclear power plant, stressing the risks in living near one. Letters published about the series after the accident included one from “Elizabeth (Mrs. J.W.) Gitt, Hanover,” who wrote:
“I want to congratulate you on the excellent nuclear accident news coverage of your paper two weeks before the catastrophe happened at Three Mile nuclear power plant. If only Met Ed would have paid attention to the warning, or any agency whose responsibility is citizen safety. Now nobody believes what the authorities say because they have not told the truth so far.”
Readers of that letter who remembered J.W. Gitt might have thought that his widow, then age 88, had become his voice. Not all readers would have considered that a compliment, however. For instance, the York Daily Record also had printed quite an opposite letter about the series one week earlier.
A Red Lion minister wrote: “The way you are distorting the issues about this needed source of energy reminds me of the old Gazette & Daily, run by the Gitts. I feel that the Gitts were the most biased, pinko propagandists that there ever was.”
The Gitts were used to being called “communists” – especially J.W. as publisher of a newspaper whose editorials, and often news stories, generally questioned the decisions of those in authority, whether the national government in Washington or local York officials.
If the pastor from Red Lion, and others of his political persuasion, had viewed the exhibit at Hanover Public Library, they would not likely have accepted as praise the quote at the beginning:
“According to Carey McWilliams, editor of the ‘The Nation,’ ‘Jess Gitt was the embodiment of the native American radical tradition.'”
Gitt himself would have taken that statement to be the highest praise anyone could give him. He often said he was proud of being called a “radical” because that meant simply “returning to the root – the root of Jeffersonian democracy.” Education was the key, he believed: “A man or woman who has knowledge and is honest won’t be anything but a liberal – a person who puts human rights above property rights. . . . Education, knowledge, and the milk of human kindness – they’re the hope.”
To that end, Gitt published The Gazette and Daily as his educational forum. Condemned by those who equated “radical” with “communist,” Gitt also received praise from many others besides his contemporaries in the liberal press. In a book about the Cold War following World War II, historian Richard J. Walton described Gitt as “unique,” and noted, “The York Gazette [was] probably the only daily paper in the United States that consistently opposed postwar American foreign policy.”
Walton presented his assessment of the paper’s owner: “If ever American journalism had a hero it was he, but, alas, his brave newspaper was published in a small Pennsylvania city and not Washington or one of the metropolitan centers. Literally, and sadly, a voice in the wilderness.”
In common parlance, “voice in the wilderness” usually carries negative connotations, even a sense of despair. Hence Walton’s image is that of Gitt and his newspaper as a voice crying in vain. However, the phrase actually is the corruption of a verse from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. The original biblical verse reads:
“There is a voice that cries: Prepare a road for the Lord through the Wilderness, Clear a highway across the desert for our god.”
That passage evokes a positive image of a voice preparing for the return of the Jews from exile back to their homeland. It is not a single voice crying in the wilderness, where no one will heed, but rather a public cry of triumph and hope.
Toward the end of his life, J.W. Gitt despaired that his newspaper might not have had any effect for good. But for the half-century that he published “The Gazette and Daily,” he operated with the hope that what he believed would triumph.
In both his professional and personal life, Gitt promoted positive goals by insisting on independence of thought and action. Viewed through the lens of the mainstream media, J.W. Gitt and The Gazette and Daily might be seen as “a voice in the wilderness,” yet not as one calling in a vacuum, but rather as a leader marshaling Americans toward the creation of a just and peaceful world.
His life tells the story of a man who did indeed “rise from the wilderness” to create a legendary newspaper.