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The Brave Open Letter Graham Greene Wrote Defending Charlie Chaplin from McCarthy

Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

At 63, the man who made buffoons of dictators is threatened with the dictatorial McCarran Act. When Charlie Chaplin tries to pass the Statue of Liberty, he will be held at Ellis Island until he convinces the Attorney General that he is pure. His is the burden of proof. Accused of non-conformism and contempt “for the high state of womenhood,” Chaplin is lumped with Costello as an “unsavory character.” McGranery, whom we do not consider fit to polish Chaplin’s beloved shoes, has all but pre-judged the case. Chaplin’s re-entry permit implies absence of cause to deport him. Threatening him once he has left is dishonorable and the world knows it, as Graham Greene testifies below.

Dear Mr. Chapin:

I hope you will forgive an open letter: otherwise I would have added to that great pyramid of friendly letters that must be awaiting you in London. This is a letter of welcome not only to the screen’s finest artist (the only man who writes, directs and acts his own pictures and even composes their music), but to one of the greatest liberals of our day.

Your films have always been compassionate toward the weak and the underprivileged; they have always punctured the bully. To our pain and astonishment you paid the United States the highest compliment in your power by settling within her borders, and now we feel pain but not astonishment at the response—not from the American people in general, one is sure, but from those authorities who seem to take their orders from such men as McCarthy.

When Russia was invaded you spoke out in her defense at a public meeting in San Francisco at the request of your President; it was not the occasion for saving clauses and double meanings, and your words were as plain as Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s. You even had the impudence, they say, to call your audience your comrades. That is their main accusation against you. I wonder what McCarthy was doing in those days?

Remembering the days of Titus Oates and the terror in England, I would like to think that the Catholics of the United States, a powerful body, would give you their sympathy and support. Certainly one Catholic weekly in America is unlikely to be silent—I mean the Commonweal. But Cardinal Spellman? And the Hierarchy? I cannot help remembering an American flag that leant against a pulpit in an American Catholic Church not far from your home, and I remember too that McCarthy is a Catholic. Have Catholics in the United States not yet suffered enough to stand firmly against this campaign of uncharity?

When you welcomed me the other day in your home, I suggested that Charlie should make one more appearance on the screen. In this would-be story Charlie lies neglected and forgotten in a New York attic. Suddenly he is summoned from obscurity to answer for his past before the Un-American Activities Committee at Washington—for that dubious occasion in a boxing ring, on the ice-skating rink, for mistaking that Senator’s bald head for a rice pudding, for all the hidden significance of the dance with the bread rolls. Solemnly the members of the Committee watch Charlie’s early pictures and take their damaging notes.

You laughed the suggestion away, and indeed I had thought of no climax. The Attorney-General of the United States has supplied that. For at the close of the hearing Charlie could surely admit to being in truth un-American and produce the passport of another country, a country which, lying rather closer to danger, is free from the ugly manifestations of fear.

The other day a set of Hollywood figures, some of them rather outmoded (Mr. Louis B. Mayer and Mr. Adolf Menjou were among the names) set up a fund to support McCarthy’s fight in Wisconsin—a form of Danegeld. Now Hollywood uses English stories and English actors, and I would like to see my fellow-countrymen refusing to sell a story or to appear in a film sponsored by any organization that includes these friends of the witch-hunter. Our action would be an expression of opinion only; it would not condemn them to the unemployment and slow starvation to which McCarthy has condemned some of their colleagues. They will say it is no business of ours. But the disgrace of any ally is our disgrace, and in attacking you the witch-hunters have emphasized that this is no national matter. Intolerance in any country wounds freedom throughout the world.

Yours with admiration,

Graham Greene

London, England