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31 August, 2023

ON 17 SEPTEMBER 1952, the comedian Charles Chaplin and his wife, Oona, set sail for England to promote his latest film, Limelight. Before their departure, Chaplin, who had been a resident of the United States since 1912, said that he would “probably be away for six months.” However, two days later, the US attorney general, James P McGranery, announced that he was rescinding Chaplin’s re-entry permit, which would require him to submit to an interview with the Immigration and Nationalization Service before he was allowed to return.

McGranery said he had done so because Chaplin “has been publicly charged with being a member of the Communist Party, with grave moral charges”—a reference to various cases of sexual misconduct, including paedophilia—“and with making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation had been gathering information on Chaplin since the 1920s and, in 1948, added him to a list of “alien communists” who were to be detained during a national emergency. Although the FBI could not find concrete evidence of any links between Chaplin and the Communist Party USA or the Soviet Union, it cooperated with the INS in the agency’s attempts to deport him.

Chaplin’s alleged communist sympathies—largely based on his films’ critique of capitalist society, his appreciation for Soviet efforts during the Second World War and his refusal to disavow communist friends—made him a prominent target of the post-war Red Scare. The House Un-American Activities Committee issued him a subpoena, and the American Legion boycotted his films. As an independent producer, Chaplin was immune to the Hollywood blacklist, but years of relentless criticism in the media, often using information provided by the FBI, turned public opinion against him. In April 1953, he announced that he would not be returning to the United States.