Donald Joins the Allies
How Did the Walt Disney Company Affect the World War II War Effort?
By Rebecca Pottash 2008/2009


World War II home front initiatives proved to be almost if not as important as military actions overseas in winning the war. Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam famously beckoned for Americans to do their part and help their nation win the war. In 1943, some more famous character joined the bunch, as Walt Disney Studios joined the war effort, creating military insignias and animated shorts to rally the country to support the war effort6. Commissioned by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr.3 , and later by various parts of the military, Disney proceeded to create over 83 films5 for both the American public and American soldiers. From that point forward, Donald Duck was no longer a just child's favorite duck with a hat.

Table to Contents:



Artwork:


At the start of the war in 1939, the US government commissioned Walt Disney to create a Navy crest1 . The boxing wasp was the first of 1200 designs made by Disney studios between 1939 and 19456. Commissioned by Navy Lieutenant E.S. Caldwell, Disney created a mosquito insignia for new “mosquito boats.” These were so popular that they eventually adorned all US torpedo boats, and requests came in from all areas of the armed forces asking Disney to create more insignias1 .
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Over the course of the war, Disney put his entire 5 person art team5 to work creating 1200 insignia to boost the morale and spirit of the troops5 without ever costing the military money7 . Disney was not afraid to portray the enemy in extremely derogatory ways, which may have also aided American military morale to destroy the axis savages.
The cartoons also extended to the general American public to advertise and rally support. Of course, the US government had many other propaganda campaigns going for victory bonds, contribution, and preservation for the war, but Disney character put a familiar and fun spin on war propaganda, pulling more people in to the aid of their nation. Especially because Walt Disney had driven an ambulance in the war for a time, he understood the importance of high soldier morale5 .



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The picture above at the right, from Victory Magazine, shows a Disney villain as a Nazi, threatening Lincoln, a symbol of American democracy. Lincoln and Donald, though, save the day. All of the above show America's favorite characters doing the "patriotic" thing. Many other campaigns of the time portrayed the same messages, but these spoke directly to Americans.
farming.png Even beyond poster and advertisements, Disney had their main character on record books for agricultural donations in an attempt to, once again, make these donations more appealing to American citizens.








Films:

In 1942, congress passed the victory tax, levying voluntary income taxes on Americans in order to fund the war effort. Secretary of Treasury Morgenthau called on Walt Disney to create a short film encouraging voluntary payment of taxes. At this point, government advertising was much more difficult because televisions were not yet household items. Rather, almost all Americans went to the movies on a regular basis, so a short before movies was the best way to reach American audiences. In six weeks, Disney studios created The New Spirit, the first in a series of Donald Duck cartoons encouraging enthusiasm for the war effort. Donald, a popular Disney character of the time, is shown eager to pay his “taxes to beat the axis.” Later, the Sprit of ’43 was produced with the same purpose3 .

The Spirit of '43


This one even played on Americans’ fears, saying that every dollar spent rather than paid to the government was a dollar that would help the axis. Patriotism required payment of the income tax; those opposed to the tax might as well be the enemy. It's title, too, played on American patriotism (and racism).
Over time, Disney war shorts covered a wide area. More were made to rally Americans to making voluntary sacrifices for their country, others propagandized Nazis:

Food Will Win the War


The "ruthless axis hoards" do not stand a chance against our nation if we mobilize our resources. In this dark time, the "light of hope" is American agriculture.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line


This short film showed Americans that their small contribution would make a huge difference in winning the war. The government at the time needed the American public to be very active at the home front, for patriotism and high production were essential to superiority over the axis.

The New Spirit


As mentioned above, this short sought to get Americans excited about the income tax, ready to help their nation jump into the war. Taxes are, according to Donald, the way to "beat the axis."
Aside from shorts to convince Americans to help the war effort, Disney studios also created films renouncing the axis to breed hatred for the enemy in the Unites States.

Der Fuehrer's Face


One of the most well known of Disney's propaganda films, Der Fuehrer's Face does not directly rally Americans to a specific cause, but simply condemns the Nazis in a comical way. It shows the horrors of Nazi life, and brilliantly juxtaposes the glory of Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty to the grim rationing and constant surveillance of the axis armies. In 1943, Der Fuehrer's Face was awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Film3 . Clearly, it penetrated audiences.

Education for Death:


Grimmer than many other war shorts, Education For Death also assails the Nazis, but not comically. Here, a little boy is trained how to be a Nazi, how to hate and kill. It shows that the entire country is under Hitler's thumb. In addition, Disney's racism comes in again, showing an obese, dumb "Germany" being "saved" by Hitler. The dismal images in this film certainly further stigmatized the enemy, though, of course, America was still largely blind to the Holocaust. Horrifying and Shocking, this short certainly aroused its viewers against the violent, killer Germans portrayed here.

In addition to mainstream propaganda films, Disney studios also created over 90,000 feet of training films for the US defense forces, again bringing a familiar and spirited flair to lonely soldiers (not to mention free). Besides the navigation and training films, Disney and director Frank Capra produced a series of "Why We Fight" films, also intended to boost soldier morale, reminding them of their noble cause6 .

After a cartoon rallying the soldiers to want to learn how to use a weapon that could destroy Hitler, Disney is in the perfect position to train the troops. Because the army did not have to pay for these videos, they were extremely helpful, for money that would be spent on training could be put to other causes within the war.

Disney certainly sought to change the minds of wary Americans, telling Hollywood Citizen News that “we want to make this a nation of airmen, mentally.”5 To this end, he set off making Victory Through Air Power. While this film was not highly successful with the general public, Winston Churchill was so enthralled that he showed the film to President Roosevelt. By 1947, the Unites States had created an independent air force. The studio lost $400,000 in its production, but it did help convince FDR of the importance and feasibility of air power5 .


Effect:

By the end of the war, 400,000 feet of film, 68 hours worth, had been produced by over 90% of Disney Studios employees. Work on other projects effectively ground to a halt, and the studio was afforded US army protection, which was not given to any other studio7 .
The Treasury Department estimates that 60 million Americans saw The New Spirit, yielding 37% increase in submission to the income tax according to the gallup poll. After 8 million submissions before 1941 and 16 million in 1942, the number jumped to 35 million in 1943, the year Disney released the New Spirit. 15% of taxpayers payed an income tax in 1939, while by the end of the war, this number had risen to a whopping 80% according to tax historian John Witte3 .
The studio did experience a blow when they submitted a bill for The New Spirit to the Treasury Department which was not paid due to lack of funds. Newspaper coverage of the request and rejection set the country in a brief uproar against Disney. However, for the remainder of the war, everything Disney did came at no price to the US government3 . Theses shorts are, as we have seen, incredibly important to the war effort both overseas and at home, so not having to expend extra funds was a huge relief on the war budget, which also allowed them more funds directly towards winning the war. Walt Disney certainly lost much money in these ventures ($80,000 for The New Spirit and $400,000 for Victory Through Air Power alone) and he saw some of these as failures, but they nevertheless affected those who saw them4 .
Another testimony to the wide reach of the these films is the nomination of The New Spirit for an Academy Award, in addition to Der Fuehrer's Face's win7 .
Overall, these Disney shorts, training films, insignias and poster boosted morale all across the board. Citizens were rallied to help the war effort by characters already popular and trusted. The same held true for soldiers. It also cost the nation nothing, but did much good. By today's standards, much of Disney's propaganda is extremely racist. However, because of their extreme message, they were able to be more effective in breeding pride for the superiority of the allied powers over the axis, thereby making more people willing and wanting to support the allies.




Works Cited
  1. "Disney Goes to War." :: www.skylighters.org -- The Official Web Site of the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, Inc. ::. 26 May 2009 <http://www.skylighters.org/disney/>.
  2. "Disney Shorts - Education for Death." The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts. 24 May 2009 <http://www.disneyshorts.org/years/1943/educationfordeath.html>.
  3. "Donald Duck Tax." Freedom Club USA. 23 May 2009 <http://www.freedomclubusa.com/donald_duck_tax>.
  4. Joiner, Stephen. "Oldies and Oddities: The Disney War Plan." Air & Space Magazine 1 July 2009: 1-2. Air & Space. Smithsonian. 23 May 2009 <http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/Oldies-and-Oddities-The-Disney-War-Plan.html?c=y&page=2>.
  5. [#four]]"Military Aircraft Nose Art." Through our Parents Eyes. 23 May 2009 <http://parentseyes.arizona.edu/militarynoseart/ww2-3.htm>.
  6. "The New Pictures." Time 9 Feb. 1942: 1-2. Time. 16 May 2009 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,777597,00.html>.
  7. "Walt Disney Goes to War." The United States Army Homepage. 23 May 2009 <http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/04/19/19340-walt-disney-goes-to-war/>.