When World War II rewrote the script for Americans’ daily lives, beloved cartoon characters were cast in new roles, too. Donald Duck (then Disney’s biggest star) donned khakis as a United States Army recruit, while Minnie Mouse recycled leftover bacon grease to make explosives. Uncle Sam deployed the whole Disney crew, reassigning its members from pratfalls to pitching war bonds and victory gardens in animated movies.
The majority of the Walt Disney Company’s military training films and educational shorts adopted an uplifting approach to patriotism. But others—in line with the fearful, racially charged wartime climate—stereotyped or demonized the enemy. Despite the fact that World War II saved the studio from financial ruin, Disney has long been reluctant to revisit its wartime history. (Though a spokesperson initially offered an interview with a Disney archivist, the company ultimately declined to comment.) Since its founding in 1923, the studio has meticulously guarded its family image both at home and abroad, including in Japan and Germany—countries that were once America’s enemies.
“It’s not a story the company tells,” says Kirsten Komoroske, executive director of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The world of Disney is seen as “an upbeat place to take refuge,” she adds. “A feel-good place. War isn’t a popular topic.”
Nevertheless, this little-known chapter in entertainment history unfolds in a new exhibition, “The Walt Disney Studios and World War II,” on view through February at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The traveling show, which debuted at the Walt Disney Family Museum last year, features 550 photos, drawings, prints and video clips that demonstrate how Disney artists turned their energies from fantasy fare to propaganda. Additional venues are still to be announced. (The San Francisco museum, established by Walt Disney’s late daughter Diane Disney Miller and her son Walter Miller, is a separate entity from the Walt Disney Company, but the two collaborated closely on the exhibition, with the entertainment conglomerate providing many of the artifacts on view.)
According to Komoroske, the show represents Disney’s “first exhibition on World War II.” Cash-strapped and ready to capitalize on the nation’s patriotic zeal, the studio turned its attention to propaganda, alternatively educating, entertaining and indoctrinating audiences.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ushered in a singular era for both Disney and the U.S. at large. The Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California, was converted into a military base almost overnight. A phone call from Washington, D.C. ordered the company to make room for 500 personnel from an anti-aircraft unit. About 700 showed up, with vehicles, communications, camouflage and three million rounds of ammunition in tow. Disney also signed a $90,000 Navy contract, agreeing to make 20 training films on topics like how to spot enemy planes. The home of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs soon saw uniformed soldiers marching down the studio’s Dopey Drive; by 1943, upward of 90 percent of Disney’s work was related to the war effort.
Despite viewing himself as a patriot—he’d volunteered as a driver for the Red Cross ambulance corps during World War I—company co-founder Walt initially voiced misgivings about politicizing his product. As Wallace Deuel, a member of the wartime Coordinator’s Office, told a Treasury Department official, “Disney is fearful of being labeled as a propagandist in the public mind, with consequent damage to his reputation as a whimsical, non-political artist.” Still, the mogul—who expressed few overtly political views at this stage of his life, though he later became active in conservative Republican politics—made peace with orders to put his studio on a wartime footing, commenting in an audio clip played in the show that “it was kind of exciting.”
Pragmatic as well as patriotic motives fueled Walt’s eventual wartime zeal. Though popular today, Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942) all logged early box office losses upon their release. In Europe, the war had closed movie theaters, shrinking global markets. At home, Dumbo missed being named Time’s 1941 “Mammal of the Year”—a play on the magazine’s “Person of the Year” franchise—after the Pearl Harbor attack bumped him off the cover in favor of General Douglas MacArthur. If war posed a business problem for Disney, then converting to wartime production was the solution.
To support the war effort, Disney designed emblems for the military, produced propaganda films and lent its iconic characters’ likenesses to different government agencies, among other activities. The studio provided training films and educational shorts at cost, with Walt saying, “I don’t like this profit during war … when people are out there giving up their lives.”
Free of charge, the company’s artists also created over 1,200 insignia for different military units, including the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and the famed “Flying Tigers.” Disney-designed “nose art” featuring characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck adorned aircraft fuselages.
“The insignia were extremely effective for Disney as a morale booster,” says Bethanee Bemis, a scholar at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History whose research focuses on Disney’s impact on American culture. “[They were] a reminder of home [that soldiers] got to carry into battle.”
Disney also pitched in to raise funds for the war. In 1943, the company granted the Treasury Department permission to feature 22 characters, among them Donald Duck, Bambi and the seven dwarfs, on the borders of bond certificates made for children.
Though Disney only formally joined the cause after Pearl Harbor, executives had embraced defense-related projects before the attack, correctly sensing that military contracts could keep studio lights on and artists working. The pivot from whimsy to nuts and bolts was showcased in utilitarian titles like Four Methods of Flush Riveting, a 1942 mechanical training film made for Lockheed Martin.
As military personnel established operations in Burbank, Disney production surged tenfold from an average of 30,000 feet of film per year to 300,000. Some offerings catered directly to soldiers, covering such topics as Why We Fight and Tuning Transmitters. Others appealed to a broader audience: In the animated propaganda film Victory Through Air Power, for example, the company promoted the strategic advantages of long-range bombers. Disney taught science and civics lessons, too. The Grain That Built a Hemisphere—the first in a series of five films centered on agriculture—touted the importance of corn, while a radio in The New Spirit informed Donald Duck that real patriots pay timely “taxes to beat the Axis.
Mobilizing soldiers bound for combat and engaging civilians on the home front also led Disney to paint the enemy as immoral or even inhuman, most prominently in short films like Der Fuehrer’s Face, a 1943 cartoon starring Donald Duck; Commando Duck, which finds Donald facing down caricatured Japanese snipers in the Pacific; and Reason and Emotion, which argues that Hitler destroyed Germans’ reason by appealing to the emotions of fear, pride and hate.
“It’s the quickest way to play to people’s base emotions: the us-versus-them mentality,” says Bemis. “It’s an instinct that if you’re going to fight someone, you have to dehumanize them, because otherwise, how could you stand what you have to do?”
Der Fuehrer’s Face is a centerpiece of the exhibition and connects many of its messages. Stuck in a nightmare, Donald is forced to toil in a German arms factory and repeatedly salute fascist leaders. Creature comforts are few and far between: Awakened by a swastika-laden alarm clock, Donald sneaks a cup of coffee, gnaws on a rock-hard slice of bread, and savors a sniff of bacon-and-egg scented perfume. A marching band featuring Axis musicians with exaggerated facial features provides the backdrop to his disastrous day, chanting such lines as, “Heil, heil! Right in der Fuehrer’s face!”
Driven to exhaustion, the hapless duck hallucinates that the bombshells he’s assembling morph into snakes and musical instruments before finally waking up in his own bed. Clad in stars-and-stripes pajamas, Donald hugs his model Statue of Liberty and not-so-subtly summarizes the short’s overall message, declaring, “Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America.” The film—heavily influenced by Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), which satirized totalitarianism and tyrants—went on to win the 1943 Oscar for Best Short Subject (Cartoon). According to contemporary newspaper reports, the public lauded the short as “Walt Disney’s funniest creation,” a “morale-builder” and “one of those pictures in which everybody working on it took the greatest pleasure in their [contributions] to its production.”
To wartime white audiences, the animated short sold a patriotic message about the freedoms of American life—but it also epitomized the racist stereotyping of the time. Adolf Hitler appears as a shrieking buffoon. Benito Mussolini is a jowly thug, while Emperor Hirohito has yellow skin, buck teeth and slanted eyes. Historian Brian Niiya, editor of the online Densho Encyclopedia, which chronicles Japanese American experiences during World War II, explains why the Axis dictators are depicted in different styles.
“I was struck by the fact that the Hitler character looks somewhat realistic, while the Hirohito character doesn’t even look human,” Niiya says. “You see this in much of the imagery of [the] ‘Japanese’ in this time period, where they are sometimes even explicitly made into animals. Similarly, the white band members at least look human, while the ‘Japanese’ character ... barely does.”
He adds, “These types of portrayals contribute to the general sense that Japanese [people] were all the same and less than human.”
As Bemis says, “If we were to see these short films on Disney+, [they] would come with a warning” akin to the online advisories cautioning viewers about politically incorrect content in classic Disney films like Peter Pan and The Aristocats.
Indeed, a similar notice appears at the exhibition’s entry:
Negative stereotypes of people and cultures, as well as other offensive imagery, were used as part of the United States’ propaganda efforts during World War II. We acknowledge its harmful impact and hope to encourage mindful discussion about misrepresentation and negative stereotypes, and use these lessons from the past to create a more inclusive future.
Disney wasn’t alone in its use of racist imagery: In his 1942 political cartoon “Waiting for the Signal From Home,” for instance, Dr. Seuss conjured up nonexistent sabotage plots, drawing Japanese Americans lining up to collect TNT for an attack on California. Fearmongering and distortion were key elements of propagandists’ toolkits.
An aspect of World War II left undiscussed in the exhibition is the Holocaust. However grimly the Nazis are portrayed, the slaughter of six million Jews is not referenced in either film or print materials produced by Disney during the conflict.
Bemis, who deems the gap in Disney’s coverage of the Holocaust “fascinating,” says, “My gut reaction is that they were working at the beginning of the war when it wasn’t as well known.” Though U.S. newspapers published reports of concentration camps and the Final Solution as early as November 1942, those outside of the Jewish American community didn’t engage with the information on a wide scale. Disney’s January 1943 film Education for Death reflected this gap in awareness, depicting the Nazis’ indoctrination of children—Aryan ancestry was required, and Jewish names like “Isaac” and “Rebecca” were “verboten,” the film declared—while failing to report the Holocaust’s murderous ends. The short is not included in the exhibition.
During World War II, anti-Semitism was widespread in the U.S., with political leaders like President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who himself espoused anti-Semitic views) delaying decisive action on the Holocaust to avoid accusations of pandering to Jewish interests. Though Walt’s image has long been dogged by rumors of anti-Semitism, Jewish employees at the studio and biographers alike have refuted these claims. “I saw no evidence [in my research], other than casual anti-Semitism that virtually every gentile at that time would have, that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite,” said biographer Neal Gabler during a 2015 panel.
Discussing Der Fuehrer’s Face upon its release, columnist Helen Zigmond wrote, “It is filled with clever digs and subtle comedy every foot of the reel. Yet—as thoughts of the millions of Jews, Russians, Greeks, tortured, mutilated, starved go through one’s mind—it isn’t comical. The laugh sticks in one’s throat. Brilliant animating cannot make the Nazis funny!”
A more positive aspect of Disney’s wartime legacy is the company’s promotion of its women employees. Long relegated to secretarial roles and positions in the Ink and Paint Department, where they colored in male artists’ designs, the women of the studio—among them animators Ruthie Tompson and Virginia Fleener—enjoyed a breakout moment during the war, when the draft enabled them to step in as artists. After the conflict ended, notes the exhibition catalog, women were “integrated into all aspects” of the studio’s work.
The exhibition also acknowledges the many Japanese American artists who worked on classic Disney features like Fantasia and Dumbo. Animators Chris Ishii, James Tanaka and Tom Okamoto, all of whom worked for Disney prior to Pearl Harbor, were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them U.S. citizens, incarcerated under President Franklin Roosevelt’s February 1942 Executive Order 9066.
“It would be interesting to know more about their WWII experiences at Disney—in particular what happened between December 7 and their forced removal,” says Niiya, “but I don't know that that’s ever been recorded. ... Many Nisei,” or children of Japanese immigrants, “did go on to work at Disney after the war.”
Pioneering Disney illustrator Gyo Fujikawa unites the threads of gender and race in Disney’s wartime story. (She is represented in the exhibition by photographs and text recounting her close relationship with Walt.) One of the rare women recognized as a studio artist at the time, Fujikawa escaped incarceration because she’d been transferred to Disney’s merchandise unit in New York, away from the West Coast where Executive Order 9066 was enforced, in 1941.
When Walt visited the New York office, he reportedly asked her, “How are you doing? I’ve been worried about you.” Fujikawa confided that people questioning her nationality had prompted her to blur her Japanese heritage, claiming she was part Chinese or Korean. “Why do you have to do that? …You’re an American citizen,” Walt allegedly said. “Next time anybody asks you that, just tell them it’s none of their business.”
Aside from Walt’s solicitude for Fujikawa’s welfare and his efforts to have Disney artists—whom he referred to as “my boys”—deferred from the draft, the exhibition doesn’t disclose whether he actively opposed the roundup of Japanese American artists. “He didn’t support the roundup,” says museum spokesperson Caroline Quinn. Whether he fought it, she adds, “We just don’t know.”
World War II revitalized Disney, offering a much-needed source of business at a time of great turmoil for both the studio and the nation at large. While previous accounts of the company’s wartime years have tended to emphasize the patriotic, morale-boosting content produced by its animators, the more politically charged shorts are worth revisiting, too, says Komoroske.
“Some of the caricatures are sensitive,” she explains. “I understand it. But it’s an important chapter that needs to be told.”
“The Walt Disney Studios and World War II” is on view at the Museum of Flight in Seattle through February 5, 2023.