Politics, Society

Graham Greene and McCarthyism

In 1952 the British Catholic novelist Graham Greene attempted to visit the United States to meet with his American publisher, among other things. Greene had visited the US multiple times before and had even put a play on in Boston (an adaptation of his The Heart of the Matter, it was a disaster). He applied for a visa from Saigon, where he was working at the time, and was refused. He was refused because, for 6 weeks in the 1920s, he had been a member of the Communist Party of Britain, “as a prank.” (Throughout his life, Greene was fond of playing pranks – often cruel ones – on complete strangers.) I believe this story is relevant to the current immigration situation in the US.

After much public consternation over how a Catholic writer could also be a Communist, Greene was granted a visa. However, he was granted a visa for only a few weeks. The vice consul in Saigon, not thinking that Greene would be granted anything less than a year, issued Greene a visa for a year, according to policy at the time. Realizing his mistake, the vice consul went personally to Greene’s hotel room to fix the visa. (Imagine that happening for a Muslim writer today.) Greene was allowed to enter the US and flew to LA.

In LA, he found what he described as a state of terror. A week or so later in New York, he gave an interview about it:

Mr. Greene arrived in New York about 2PM yesterday and a few hours later when he granted an interview in his room at the Hotel Algonquin, immediately expressed concern over what he said is happening to American freedom because of the country’s growing fear of Communism.

He considered his own case rather comical, he remarked, because he had been a Roman Catholic since 1926, and is no friend of the Communists. But he doesn’t consider the anti-Communists’ policy in America with its pattern of ‘smearing and besmirching’ very funny.

‘I’m speaking this way because I like America and Americans… This land of freedom. People came here not to win television sets or refrigerators but to gain freedom from the house spies, the informers, the military regimes.’ He added sadly, ‘But there are a lot of informers going around here now.’

The comments got a lot of publicity given the climate at the time.

An editorial in the New York Times agreed with Green and spoke of the puerility to which ‘our immigration laws have been allowed to sink.’ ‘We never were really worried about. Mr. Green, whose transgression apparently was that he belonged to the Communist party for about a month some twenty years ago, prior to his conversion to the Catholic fate.’ People like Senator McCarran attempted to create a ‘kind of intellectual cordon sanitaire about the United States – an attempt which has seriously damaged our reputation as a liberal democracy abroad and has encouraged the forces of reaction, parochialism and xenophobia at home.’ It pointed out that rigid barriers set up by its immigration laws played into the hands of its enemies: ‘What hope have we…to hold out to defectors from the Communist regimes, what inducement are we able to offer the former Communists who are among the most effective enemies of Communism, when we automatically slam our doors in their very faces?’

Not too long after Greene left the United States to return to England, Charlie Chaplin sailed for France. After Chaplin departed, the INS stated that Chaplin – a British citizen – would be detained if he set foot in the United States again. Chaplin’s crime: to have given a speech during WWII, at the behest of the President, wherein he used the word “comrades.” Greene heard about the threat and wrote an open letter to Chaplin in the British press. A little while later it was published in the states. The italicized part was added to the letter when it was reprinted:

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 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 womanhood.’ Chaplin is lumped with Costello as an ‘unsavory character’…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.

[Chaplin’s] films have always been compassionate towards the weak and underprivileged; they have always punctured the bully. To our pain and astonishment you paid the United States the highest compliment in your power by setting within her borders, and now we feel pain…at the response…from those authorities who seem to take their orders from such men as McCarthy…

They will say it is no business of ours. But the disgrace of the an 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.

Greene’s letter in defense of Chaplin provoked far more outrage than his own comments about the McCarran Act and US immigration policy.

Dear M.r Green,
You have earned the gratitude of the American people by refusing a visa to the United States. You will please us still further in the future by not even applying for one. There are enough of the home grown variety of ex-Communists and fellow travellers here already. No need for any ‘furriners.’ May I suggest instead that you turn your talents to securing a visa to Russia where you will be welcomed with open arms. I anticipate much less trouble for you there. We beseech you please do not on any account honor us with your presence in this country. It is enough to have to live in the same world with you.

Unfortunately, my womanly intuition tells me that if you have not already landed here you will all too soon come to these shores – your half-baked statements to the contrary. No truer words were ever writ than ‘A man is known by the company he keeps’ to which may be added also by the periodicals he contributes to.

Sincerely L. Ettinger

PS If this is a publicity gag then I feel sorry for you to have to sink so low. Won’t you make 150,000,000 Americans happy and stay on your side of the ocean?

This person seems completely unaware of Greene’s work or anything else about him, as far as I can tell. (And I am nearly 2/3rds of the way through a 1500+ page biography of Greene, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea.) But this next letter is something else entirely:

In our sympathy for the underdog it’s easy to forget he sometimes is indeed a dog. A mad dog who calculatingly clothes his treachery with the loose fitting robe of liberalism…forfeits the respect due an honest straightforward enemy…

Despite his conviction on the charge of fathering the child of a young actress never included among his numerous waives, Chaplin’s present troubles are political…the moral reptile of today is free to slink about pretty much as he please, to chain-marry wives…to write, direct and act in his own movies and even compose his own music…The American is proud of his citizenship…He…holds…the right of a nation to deny its hospitality to the criminal, to the diseased, the anarchist, the world revolutionist…

Nothing but the certainty of a refusal has prevented his applying long ago for American citizenship: the threat of deportation has been like a vulture, patient but always alert, at his shoulder for many years…I’ll agree Charlie Chaplin is an artist of great merit…I do not concede a man possessing his Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist theories the right to remain out of prison or to stay alive; my love for the music of Prokofieff and Khachaturian will not unsteady these hands on the bombsight when the time comes.

“I like Russian composers but that won’t stop me from attempting to destroy their civilization.”

Though I find both these letters rather shocking and hysterical they are nothing compared to the views expressed towards Muslims attempting to enter the US (and sometimes towards Muslims already in the United States). In both cases we find both a willful ignorance of the details of the offenders’ actual beliefs and the most holier-than-thou self-righteousness; the kind of self-righteousness that prides itself on its common sense, man on the street disrespect for learning more about a situation; the kind of self-righteousness that is so very American. L. Ettinger seems to have read Greene’s letter in defence of Chaplin, but has not bothered to learn anything about Greene himself. The latter author is at least aware that the Russians still make music that is civilized but seems to know as much about Chaplin’s personal beliefs as Ettinger knows about Greene’s. How is it that we are moved to write such letters about people we don’t know and have never met? They the 1950s equivalent of anti-Muslim comments on a YouTube channel where the commenter can’t even spell Quran properly.

There is nothing new under the sun.

All quotes from The Life of Graham Green Volume Two: 1939-1955 by Norman Sherry. Jonathan Cape: London, 1994. Pp 442-6.

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