Recently released intelligence reports have shined light on how U.S. officials secretly demanded investigations of Charlie Chaplin — portraying him as a dangerous radical. The English intelligence officials at MI5 found no support for our paranoia about Chaplin as a dangerous communist. They also failed to show where Chaplin was born. What they did find did not please U.S. officials.
Chaplin always claimed to have been born in London in 1889. However, there was no birth certificate that could be found. American intelligence officials believed that he was a Russian Jew named Israel Thornstein. Others suggested that he was born in Fontainebleau, near Paris.
While Chaplin claimed to have been born on April 16 1889 in East Street, Walworth, south London, MI5 concluded: “It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned.”
However, the British foreign office found no record of a birth in France of Chaplin. In the world’s most true and understated statement, one detective wrote: “It is curious that we can find no record of Chaplin’s birth, but I scarcely think that this is of any security significance.”
The latest evidence on the question came from a letter found a locked drawer that suggested that Chaplin was born on a gypsy camp in Smethwick, near Birmingham. The letter suggests that Chaplin was the son of a gypsy queen.
The records show a far more balanced and mature attitude by the British in dealing with Chaplin and other political activists. In the midst of the McCarthy period, U.S. officials wanted proof that Chaplin was a communist activist. While MI5 found that he gave money to communist causes, they found no dangerous activities.
MI5 simply noted that Washington’s claims of communist links “do not impress us.” They found no evidence of “a security risk.” Nevertheless, the U.S. officials hounded Chaplin out of the country and denied him re-entry. The U.S. also succeeded in blocking Chaplin’s knighthood for twenty years.
The files should be an embarrassment for all Americans. Conversely, the British can take some pride in the professional and detached analysis for its intelligence officials who concluded “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.”