Graham Greene's (Catholic) hopes for Charlie Chaplin

In marking one hundred years of publication, the New Republic is featuring a number of its most memorable articles and this week has uncovered what it calls one of “the wackiest things” in its archives: A 1952 open letter from Graham Greene to Charlie Chaplin, penned three weeks after Chaplin’s return to England amid allegations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI of communism and the revocation of his visa by the attorney general. Greene expressed hope that at least one group in the U.S., and perhaps a certain publication now celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, might publicly stand with Chaplin:

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? 

(The) Commonweal seems not to have come through with quite the vocal backing Greene might have anticipated, though some years later it did comment on Chaplin’s plight. This from the editors in 1958, in a piece on the Soviet “campaign of vilification” against Boris Pasternak after the publication of Dr. Zhivago:

There are some observers of the American scene…  who are as dismayed and disapproving as anyone else over this latest example of Communist brutality but who seize upon it to remind Americans of their own failings in the area of tolerance for unpopular views. It has been suggested that America's treatment of Charlie Chaplin or, even more, of artists and writers who suffered from professional "blacklisting," is much like the Soviet treatment of dissenter Boris Pasternak….

The case of Charlie Chaplin seems … inapplicable. Most of the criticism of Mr. Chaplin is wholly unofficial; and, if his critics have sometimes taken the tone or the assumptions of the critics of Pasternak, they are in the minority. (It might also be noted that Mr. Chaplin's strictures on conditions in America lack the reasonableness and the weight of evidence that Boris Pasternak brings forth.) And if Mr. Chaplin has suffered economically for his unpopular views, it is because he has flouted public opinion--a freedom which must always be paid for--not because of any campaign to seek vengeance.

Which isn’t to say that the magazine was not critical of McCarthy, or that the Catholics of the United States in whom Greene placed his faith were as a whole particularly supportive of the senator—a fact noted in 1953 by the same New Republic, which after conducting a poll “estimated that McCarthyism was not representative of Catholic thought,” according to Rodger Van Allen in The Commonweal and American Catholicism. And though a January 1954 Gallup Poll “showed 58 percent of American Catholics favorable to the senator,” that number dropped to 46 percent by April, during the Army-McCarthy hearings. As for the hierarchy, and Cardinal Spellman specifically, Greene was probably right to be pessimistic about their support.

Spellman in 1953 cited McCarthy for “making America aware of the dangers of Communism” and, several months later in Brussels, said Europeans were “unduly alarmed over McCarthyism.” Meanwhile, in the midst of all of this, McCarthy accused Commonweal of “doing a tremendous disservice to the Catholic church and a great service to the Communist party.” The editors, Van Allen notes, responded that they were “’indebted to Senator McCarthy for one thing: He has again demonstrated, more effectively than we could ever hope to do, the level of his “crusade.”’”

Greene’s 1952 letter in the New Republic is interesting and worth reading, but we have a Graham Greene story of our own, maybe not quite as “wacky,” that we’re highlighting in celebration of our ninetieth anniversary: It’s called “The Hint of an Explanation,” and it appeared in 1949; you can find it here. And you can find eighty-nine more stories from our archives on our “90 for the 90th” page—articles, essays, poems, and more, all of which are free during our fall open house. Opening up the site is one more way we’re celebrating our ninetieth year in publication. If you haven’t done so already, take the opportunity now to register online—free—for access to everything on the Commonweal site. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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