Culture  /  Book Review

The War on Charlie Chaplin

He was one of the world’s most celebrated and beloved stars. Then his adopted country turned against him.

Like most writers who have looked into the matter, Eyman concludes that Chaplin was not a Communist. That is, he was never a member of the American Communist Party. This did not mean that he was anti-Communist. He simply did not believe in groups or political parties, and he never joined any. That was why, as he repeatedly said, he did not become an American citizen. His politics were non-ideological. They were the politics of peace and understanding, help for the little man, international coöperation—in other words, then as now, pretty much the politics of Hollywood. Not caring one way or the other about Communism as an ideology, Chaplin couldn’t see why the United States was unwilling to open a second front to support an ally and end an evil. If the Communists were fighting Hitler, he was for the Communists.

Chaplin’s “I feel pretty pro-Communist” remarks could have been taken as a profession of New Deal liberalism, ineptly expressed. But the columnists descended. Westbrook Pegler charged that Chaplin, “after years of sly pretending, when an open profession of his political faith would have hurt his business, now that he has all the money he needs and has lost his way with the public, has frankly allied himself with the pro-communist actors and writers of the theatre and the movies. . . . I would like to know why Charlie Chaplin has been allowed to stay in the United States about forty years without becoming a citizen.” This would be the right-wing line on Chaplin for the next ten years.

Chaplin might have survived the assault. His views, after all, were not substantially different from the views of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who had encouraged Chaplin to make “The Great Dictator”). Two of Chaplin’s sons enlisted and saw combat in the Second World War. Chaplin loved America; he had no reason not to. He just hated nationalism. He thought it was irrational and divisive, and he chose to be a man of no country and therefore of all countries. Like the cinema. The problem was that “all countries” does not have a press.