The Tramp. The Great Dictator. One of the great iconic actors in cinematic history. Charlie Chaplin.
He is known to have been prevented from returning to the United States by J. Edgar Hoover in 1953 when he went to London for the premiere of his film Limelight in London. Now, tens of thousands of files from MI5 have been released to the UK National Archives and they reveal that Nobel laureates were among the tens of thousands of people the agency monitored for alleged “communist sympathies” during the McCarthy Era. One of the files released is a file on Charlie Chaplin, who the FBI asked MI5 to monitor to “help get him banned from the US.”
The Guardian‘s Richard Norton-Taylor reports the FBI, which had “more than 2,000 pages on Chaplin,” wanted the MI5 to inform the agency on any meetings he might have with “highly placed persons” in London. They wanted MI5 to report any links he might have to the Communist Party in the UK. And, the agency “wanted MI5 to find out where Chaplin was born and pursue suggestions that his real name was Israel Thornstein.”
A search was conducted. Chaplin’s name had never been Israel Thornstein, MI5 concluded.
MI5 searched for records of his birth. None were found. “It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned,” an MI5 report found.
Ultimately, MI5 could not find any evidence to support tracking and investigating him:
The newly released file shows that while communist sympathies were the determining factor for the FBI, for MI5 the issue was whether Chaplin ever presented a security risk. And in its view, it makes clear, he was not.
“We have no trace in our records of this man, nor are we satisfied that there are any reliable grounds for regarding him as a security risk,” Sir Percy Sillitoe, then head of MI5, told the chief police commissioner in South Africa, where Chaplin was planning a visit.
MI5 suggested his name had been exploited in the interests of communism as “one of the victims of McCarthyism”.
His file stated, “It may be that Chaplin is a communist sympathiser but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a ‘progressive’, or radical.”
That did not stop J. Edgar Hoover from maintaining he was a “Hollywood parlour Bolshevik.” He had to live in Switzerland, when Hoover would not let him enter the country. And, he said then, “I am a victim of lies and vicious propaganda.”
This is just one story of a profoundly entertaining human being, who was persecuted for his possible political beliefs. He is one of tens of thousands of people.
In the increasingly Orwellian world that we live in where the US prosecutes a seemingly perpetual “war on terror,” the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security (which thankfully was not around during the McCarthy Era) can prevent anyone from entering or returning to the US by simply slapping the bogus charge on a person that they may have links to a terrorist or be “sympathetic” to “terrorism;” for example, Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, who was barred from entering the US in 2004 for two years thereafter.
Chaplin is regarded as someone who brought a lot of joy to Americans post-WWI, during the Depression and during World War II. His films are classic, some of them with very clear political overtones. In many ways, they are bold films, like The Great Dictator—a remarkable movie that presented the rise of Adolf Hitler and the persecution of the Jews by Nazis in a satiric light but carried an important message against nationalism.
If the following scene comes from the genius of a communist sympathizer, well then, entertainment needs more communist sympathizers today.