While it's common knowledge that Walt Disney did his bit for the American war effort in WWII, few people know just how much the House of Mouse did for the troops, all while paying for animations, insignia and gas masks out of their own pocket.
Although there were definitely commercial interests for Walt when it came to restoring peace in Europe (the company was highly reliant on cinema goers in the continent), Disney's wartime reputation has been largely forgotten, but multiple war historians are determined to inform a new generation about how Disney was driven by patriotism and love of his country above all else.
Walt Disney's Wartime Motivations
When America started to take part in WWI, Walt Disney was too young to serve in the army, while his brothers Ray and Roy were drafted to the army and the navy respectively.
Walt attempted to join numerous army units, but was repeatedly turned down because of his age, and by the end of the war, after a stint training as a Red Cross army driver before being struck down with influenza, Disney felt like he had failed by not contributing. He later wrote that:
I’ve never seen a sicker looking bunch than we were. Everybody else was celebrating the end of the war, but all we knew was that we’d missed out on something big.
Although he was eventually shipped over to France after the war to help with casualties and rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure, Walt never satisfied his patriotic urges and he saw WWII as his chance to do something that mattered.
The kids who had grown up watching his entertainment were in their late teens and early twenties and fighting the war. Disney felt indebted to these soldier who had helped him found his business in the '30s and he was determined to support them too.
Within 6 months of America joining WWII, the Disney Company was declared as a war plant with its film making capacity fully given over to the allied forces and the characters fully enlisted in the war effort.
Of course, there was also a financial incentive for Disney to throw himself into the war effort, due to the fact that profits took a giant fall after war broke out in Europe, but the brave new opportunity of making propaganda films for profit never seemed to be Walt's primary objective.
Although Disney remained preoccupied with his wholesome image and refused to use the term 'propaganda' due to its connections to war, the studio was remarkably effective at producing 'psychological productions.'
The way the familiar characters captured public attention and promoted engagement was so popular that various home front initiatives scrambled to get the Disney treatment, as you can see from the examples below.
The Thrifty Pig (1941)
One of Disney's first forays into propaganda was for Canada in this movie to promote buying war bonds in order to help the government fund defenses for the home front.
Out of the Frying Pan Into the Firing Line (1942)
The Führer's Face (1943)
Of course, the most famous Disney movie was the Oscar winning, and often misunderstood movie The Führer's Face. Pictures of Donald Duck in a Nazi uniform often pop up on the internet as proof that Walt was somehow a supporter of the German leader, but the origins of this cartoon couldn't be further from this.
The movie shows Donald Duck being driven insane by the ritualistic control of a Nazi munitions factory and serves as a warning of how life could be under the Führer before he wakes up from the nightmare, proud to be a citizen of the United States, as you can see in the movie below:
The Führer's Face reportedly put Walt Disney on Hitler's personal hit list, but he also showed a surprising amount of compassion to the German people by explaining how they were indoctrinated from innocent children in a system that was out of their control in the short film below.
Education For Death (1943)
Changing the Tactics of War
Although most people have heard of or even seen the propaganda movies above before, it is less common knowledge just how much Disney indirectly changed the tactics of war with his educational videos for troops, as I will explain through the videos below:
Stop That Tank (1942)
Stop that Tank is a revolutionary film in so many ways. The educational movie, which contains approximately 3 minutes of animation and 18 minutes of instructions for troops, helped to transform the way that troops were taught about the tools of war in large groups.
Along with helping large numbers of troops to visualize what it would be like on the battle field through the medium of animation for the first time, it also showed cross sections of weapons in action, allowing soldiers to see how they worked, which had never been done before.
Victory Through Airpower (1943)
Often seen as Walt Disney's most personal project, the 1 hour long Victory Through Airpower promoted the then revolutionary idea that airpower was essential to win the war.
Unfortunately, the government saw it as anti-Navy so Walt Disney funded the entire project out of the company purse because he strongly believed that strategic bombing was the was essential to saving civilian life.
Mickey and Morale
A Disney historian once interviewed a former commander of a bombardment squadron named Dan Showdean, who gave a very personal insight into how a simple insignia had the power to boost morale significantly. Snowdean explained:
"We were designated a brand new unit, we had no insignia. Well, my executive officer wrote to Disney and by Golly, Disney came up with Timothy Mouse on the wings of a B24 tossing a bomb. We were so darned proud of that, we went to Omaha and had 500 of those made up on leather pouches. We passed them around to each of the men and the officers. It was such a morale boost to have a nice insignia like that."
These insignia that Dan speaks of fondly were given free of charge to the troops and more than 12,000 designs were handed out to various squadrons by the end of the war. Each insignia cost Disney $25 or over $450,000 in today's terms.
Although it was highly ineffective at containing children's terror, Disney also designed the Mickey Mouse gas mask as an attempt to help children stay calm during air raid alerts. Major Robert D. Walk explained that:
"The mask was designed so children would carry it and wear it as part of a game. This would reduce the fear associated with wearing a gas mask and hopefully, improve their wear time and, hence, survivability."
Although chemical welfare was never used in the United States, thousands of these masks were made out of the Disney company purse to try and keep children safe and comforted.
Despite Disney's efforts during the war, his reputation was tarnished due to some misunderstandings from the government about how much animation cost to produce, which left Walt being branded as a war profiteer by many.
In response to these accusations, Walt Disney issued a statement that read:
"If you could see my spine, you would see red white and blue.”
Although his passion was undeniable, Disney never regained the place of esteem he once held in the public eye when it came to the war effort, despite the facts that allegations against him appear to be unfounded according to multiple war historians.
If you found this article interesting, please comment and share it and I will write a second installment that covers these allegations in greater detail!
(Source: BBC Radio 4)