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Walt Disney's Wartime Animation

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Wartime Animation:
Warner Brothers | Walt Disney

Throughout the Second World War an average of almost 85 million Americans visited the cinema each week, with a cartoon usually accompanying the films and newsreel. The most famous animation studio in the world, the Walt Disney Company, produced some of these animated short films. The Second World War would be a unique period for the studio. At no other time would characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy be seen attacking enemy airfields or sinking ships.

For the war's duration, the Walt Disney Studio was classified as a 'Strategic Defense Industry', with every employee fingerprinted and forced to wear an identity badge.

Disney's Output

The early 1940s, before America joined the Second World War1, was a very difficult time for the Walt Disney Company. Having lost a fortune due to the financial failure of Fantasia (1940) and desperate for cash, Disney needed a way to recoup their losses quickly, yet 1941 was to prove even more disastrous. For much of that year Disney's staff were on strike, bringing the studio close to ruin. When the strike ended, Disney had lost almost half of its animators and Warner Brothers had overtaken it as the most prolific animation studio of entertainment short films. They were employing many former Disney staff.

While the studio's bank prevented any more spending on feature film production, by early 1942 Disney turned to making government-sponsored films as a means of making enough money to keep going. In 1943, 94% of Disney's output would be government-sponsored shorts rather than the Mickey Mouse and other character animations it had previously released for a paying audience. The amount of animated footage increased from 30,000 feet of film per year to 300,000, so that in June 1943 the studio made as much animation as it had in the whole of 1941.

The character of Mickey Mouse would be all but forgotten for the war years, with Donald Duck becoming the public face of Disney for the Forties.

Yet one feature film had been made in 1941 despite the strike –  Dumbo. Even in this film about a flying elephant, the influence of the war, and Disney's own beliefs about it, are felt. This can be seen in the spoof newspaper headline glimpsed at the end of the film, in which Jumbo Junior had patriotically inspired a new type of aircraft, the Dumbomber. Shortly after Dumbo was released, America had suffered an air attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941.

The Eve of the War

A year before Pearl Harbor, Walt Disney had met with service representatives about the possibility of the Walt Disney Company making training films for the government, offering his services to the Association of Motion Picture Producers Defense Committee in November 1940. In April 1941 he wooed government officials and representatives of the defence industries with an animated instructional film entitled Four Methods of Flush Riveting, produced for the neighbouring Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, showing how animation could be used for training purposes. One of those who saw it was John Grierson, Film Commissioner of Canada, who hired him to make six films. These were to be on flush riveting, instructions on using an anti-tank rifle in Stop That Tank, which included a humorous introduction, and four shorts to promote the sale of Canadian War Bonds.

The Name's Bond, Canadian War Bond

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf
The Union Jack's still waving
We'll be safe from the Big Bad Wolf
If you lend your savings.

As this work was to be made at a very low fixed rate, it was important to make it as cheaply as possible. Existing cartoons were re-used and altered in a way that promoted the sale of Canadian War Bonds. These bonds were a way for the Canadian government to raise money quickly on the promise that for every $4 invested in the bonds, after the war the government would pay $5 back.

Have you ever wondered what the dwarfs from Snow White do with all the jewels they dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in a mine the whole day through for? Well, Seven Wise Dwarfs informs us that they take them straight to a Canadian Post Office in order to buy Canadian War Bonds. All except Dopey, who ends up in the bank instead; fortunately, Canadian War Bonds could be purchased in banks too. Although the beginning shows the same footage as seen in the mine sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, luring the viewer in with the strangely addictive 'Heigh-Ho' song, as the dwarfs leave the mine to head to the Post Office, the song lyrics change with all the dwarfs, even Grumpy, informing us that they'll 'do their part with all their heart' and other patriotic slogans.

Another changed classic animation is The Thrifty Pig, based on the earlier huge Disney hit The Three Little Pigs. This re-uses the earlier animated cartoon, but the Big Bad Wolf2 is now wearing a Nazi uniform. After destroying the homes made from straw and sticks, the Wolf now tries to destroy the house made out of bricks – but the bricks are secretly Canadian War Bonds, which defeat the Big Bad Wolf. The house stands firm with the Union Flag flying proudly overhead.

The other films made to encourage the purchase of War Bonds included Donald's Decision and All Together Now, both re-using earlier footage. All Together Now stars Geppetto and Pinocchio, the seven dwarfs, Goofy and even a rare appearance during the 1940s of Mickey Mouse, taken from The Band Concert (1935). Donald's Decision shows Donald's angel telling him to buy war bonds at the Post Office, where the Union Jack flies overhead, while his devil, secretly a Nazi, wants him to waste his money. This re-used footage from earlier cartoons Donald's Better Self (1938) and Self Control (1938).

These shorts were later released in America when the US entered the war. There would be eight bond drives in the US before the war ended, and were responsible for selling over 50 million dollars'-worth of bonds in both North American countries during the war.

US Government Films

Only the tip of the iceberg of Disney's animated features, the Entertainment (containing propaganda) and Education shorts were seen by the public. Most of the animations made during this period were Government-sponsored training films.

Disney spent most of the war making training films for various branches of the US Government. For instance, the Bureau of Aeronautics hired Disney to make films for US Navy Pilots on such topics as The Occluded Front, Thunderstorms and The Warm Front, teaching pilots how to fly in any weather conditions. Most of these Government films were for the war effort; many of them were highly classified and had a limited audience. A film entitled Aircraft Wood Repair was highly restricted as it trained viewers on how to use wood glue, while Theory of the C1 Autopilot dealt with a more complex military secret. Other training films taught the all-important difference between friend and foe, such as The Three Point System of Identifying US Cruisers to ensure pilots did not bomb friendly forces, while Wings Engines Fuselage Tail described the basics of aircraft recognition.

These films were created using 'limited animation' methods, which lowered the quality, but made them easier, quicker and cheaper to make. For the duration of the war, Disney rush-produced more animation than ever before. However, as most of these animations were on such thrilling subjects as aircraft recognition, meteorology, aircraft carrier landing signals and other classified subjects, most have never been commercially released. To demonstrate the cost-cutting necessary, for each foot of film made, Disney received between $4 and $12 from the government. Disney's own costs for commercial animation had been as high as $250 per foot. As almost a third of Disney's staff joined the armed forces, the studio became an extra-stressful environment for the remaining animators.

Disney also provided animation for the Why We Fight series. American politicians had over the previous decade been determined to avoid any forthcoming conflicts. This series explained to mystified Americans why the nation had undertaken a U-turn and was now at war with Germany, when it was Japan, and not Germany, which had launched the Pearl Harbor attack.

Counter a Tax

One of the most famous animated films Disney made in this period was The New Spirit. In December 1941 the US Treasury Department ordered Disney to make an animated film within two months that would encourage US citizens to pay their taxes quickly. The sooner the government had tax money, the quicker it could spend it on vital war supplies. Incorporating the catchy slogan 'Taxes to beat the Axis', the film featured Donald Duck wishing to do anything to help his country, and being told that the most vital thing he could do was to pay his taxes quickly. The US Treasury had initially disapproved of the use of Donald, but Disney was adamant, claiming that for the Disney studio to give the Treasury Department Donald Duck was like MGM giving them Clark Gable.

In order to meet their tightest deadline ever, 20 members of staff worked 18 hours a day, even sleeping in the animation studio to maximise their available time. After it was made, 32 million Americans in 12,000 cinemas saw the film, and taxes flowed into the treasury coffers. The US Treasury then rewarded Disney by refusing to pay the total amount it had cost to make the film (including the expense of creating enough prints to view in 12,000 cinemas nation-wide), instead paying only $40,000. Disney lost $56,000 in helping to make the Treasury rich. When they asked him to repeat his success and make a film the following year, entitled The Spirit of 43, Disney responded with a much less elaborate affair. Similar to Donald's Decision, Donald meets a Thrifty and Spendthrift version of himself, except that the Spendthrift looks like Hitler. Fortunately, by Donald paying his taxes promptly, the Spendthrift is defeated.


Most of Disney's wartime entertainment shorts mentioning the war revolved around army life within the USA. In The Camp Mascot (1943), Pluto fights a goat in order to become an army camp mascot, as he believes that will lead to a life of pampering and plenty. Later that year in Private Pluto, Pluto is assigned guard duty on a coastal fortification, only to encounter chipmunks Chip 'n' Dale, who are using the colossal weapons as nutcrackers. This was the first appearance of Chip 'n' Dale, later to become among the most popular Disney characters. Pluto is also put on guard duty in Dog Watch (1945), and again is bested by a rodent.

Only four of Disney's 19 commercial cartoons made in 1942 had been war-related, three of which, as we shall see, featured Donald Duck peeling potatoes. By 1943, 11 of Disney's 13 commercial shorts were about the war3, as Disney had adopted a plan for wartime production. This was an all-time high; by 1944, again only four of Disney's 12 animated films were war-related. That was because animated shorts released in cinemas can take several months to craft and make; Walt Disney was reluctant to commission the making of more war-themed animations in early 1944 when it was widely felt that the war would soon be over.

Donald Duck Drafted

Through the war years, Donald Duck personified Disney. He starred in a cycle of films which can be seen as telling a continuous story of his wartime experiences, most of which seem to be being based in an army training camp. The first in the saga, Donald Gets Drafted, shows Donald called up and wishing to join the USAAF on the basis that the Air Corps posters show girls loving the uniform. Unfortunately his training Sergeant is Pegleg Pete, and through his clumsy incompetence, he soon ends up peeling potatoes. The next instalment, The Vanishing Private, has Donald ordered to camouflage the training camp's gun using invisible paint. Finally in Sky Trooper, Pete lets Donald go up in a plane, only for Donald to be scared of heights. Fall Out Fall In shows Donald marching through wind, rain, snow and heat and, when finally arriving at camp, struggling to get a good night's sleep. He doesn't sleep a wink either in The Old Army Game, having spent the night AWOL4 on the town, before being discovered by Pete. In all these shorts, the army's purpose is presented as peeling potatoes, with the only 'enemy' Donald encounters being Pete, or, more often, his own incompetence.

An unusual war short and not part of this sequence is Home Defense. This shows Front Admiral Donald commanding his own listening post and coastal defence artillery, aided by Huey, Louie and Dewey. In this, Donald allows his imagination to run away from him and believes that a bee is an enemy invasion.

Despite being drafted in 1942, the only time that Donald fights the enemy is in Commando Duck (1944), and even then he doesn't notice. Donald is parachuted into Japanese territory, with the aim of destroying an airfield. Although he is shot at, he assumes the bullets whizzing by his head are mosquitoes. Unfortunately the snipers are painful 1940s Japanese stereotypes, with the round glasses and buck-teeth used in caricatures of the time, inspired by Hirohito. The snipers say phrases such as 'Japanese custom say always shooting a man in the back, please', a mocking attitude commonly used following the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor. Through luck, rather than any plan on Donald's part, the airfield is destroyed. The audience witnesses the destruction of enemy aircraft and buildings, but though Japanese soldiers are mocked, at no point do we see any come to harm.

Home Front

Donald was not the only Disney character used during the war. Although Mickey Mouse was noticeably absent, his girlfriend Minnie represented the women of America in two shorts made in the 1940s. In First Aider (1944), Minnie volunteers to be a nurse, practising first aid at home. Minnie also does her patriotic duty of saving kitchen fat and cooking grease in Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line. This was made for the government's Conservation Division to encourage housewives to save fat, which contains glycerin and can be used to make explosives. A picture seen in the background of this animation shows Mickey Mouse wearing an American army uniform, implying that he is on the front line.

Shorts were also made to address concerns about shortages. Victory Vehicles was a humorous comment on the rationed rubber and petrol shortages, which affected the amount of driving being done. This concludes with Goofy deducing that the Pogo Stick is the perfect replacement for the car. Food Will Win the War was made to quell the rumours that America faced imminent food shortages.


Disney fully crossed the line into propaganda when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau promised to fund an adaptation of a story entitled Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi. With Disney's finances in an unhealthy state, they were not in any position to turn this work down. This purported to tell the true story of how German children were brainwashed and indoctrinated from an early age to follow the orders that inevitably led to their deaths. Based on the book by Gregor Zimer, it begins with a humorous corrupted Nazi fairytale, in which German children are told that Adolf Hitler is Prince Charming rescuing the Valkyrie-like sleeping beauty5 of a personified Germany from the wicked witch of Democracy. The Nazi Higher Education involves burning books such as the Bible and the works of Einstein, and soon the people of Germany do not realise that they have been blinkered, muffled, shackled and ultimately sacrificed.

Soon after, Disney adapted a book entitled War Politics and Emotion into a short Reason and Emotion, which demonstrated how Hitler was able to manipulate the German people by appealing to and influencing their emotions using Fear, Sympathy, Pride and Hate while overriding their reason. A home-front message is delivered, that it is dangerous to believe rumours and spread panic; instead it is important to live a life controlled by Reason, while upholding only noble emotions.

The 1943 adaptation of Chicken Little is another wartime parable about the danger of rumour. The evil Foxy Loxy, who plots to eat all the chickens in the farm, quoting from Mein Kampf and spreading panic and rumour, easily manipulates the birds before bringing down their destruction.

Perhaps the most famous Disney propaganda piece is Donald in Nutzi Land, better known after its catchy theme tune6Der Fuehrer's Face. In this, Donald Duck is a German factory worker living in a small Hitler-shaped hut. He is forced to work hard under impossibly stressful conditions with no food, drinking a coffee made from one re-used bean. As time progresses, he is treated as a mechanised cog, rewarded with the illusion of a fake holiday, before the oppressive system causes his breakdown. The underlying message, about the importance of Liberty and how it should not be taken for granted, helped the film win a 'best short' Oscar in 19437.

In all four of these, the most propaganda-prone shorts of the Second World War, the people of Germany are portrayed as being the victims of Hitler and Nazism, rather than perpetrators.

Racist Propaganda

During the Second World War, racial stereotypes were common. Walt Disney had used them before in animation, such as in The Three Little Pigs, yet the vast majority of their wartime animations avoided this demonisation of America's Axis enemies. Though Hitler was seen as the very personification of evil, the Germans were presented as brainwashed and misguided. Other than Mussolini, the Italians were largely forgotten.

Stereotyping of Germans does occur in such films as Education for Death. The Germans in that film are all presented as strong, masculine, machine-like marching soldiers devoid of independence. In Food Will Win the War, the German U-Boats' menace is emphasised through their skull faces. Perhaps the closest ridiculing is seen in Reason and Emotion, in which a German citizen's Emotion is portrayed as being a barbaric caveman.

Disney followed other animation studios in producing animations containing Japanese racial stereotyping. American animators wanted revenge for the unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbor, and the war's continuing high death toll. As America and Japan were at war and Japanese audiences were unlikely to view American cartoons, Hollywood lost no profit by portraying the Japanese in an at best strongly stereotyped and more often racist fashion. Though most animation studios stopped this trend by 1943, Disney's most offensive anti-Japanese animations were released in early 1944: Commando Duck and How to be a Sailor. In the latter, Goofy is a sailor throughout the ages. By the time of the Second World War, he accidentally launches himself, rather than a torpedo, at Japanese naval vessels, all of which are portrayed as having buck teeth and glasses.

Southern Charm

In 1941, the studio began working for the Co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs, designed to strengthen ties between the United States and Latin America. The studio was to be paid $150,000 to make short films about South America to be shown there, in order to counteract the Axis propaganda the countries were being exposed to. By early 1942, instead of a series of short animated films, the idea had developed into a plan to combine these into full-length animated features. These were Saludos Amigos (meaning 'Hello Friends'), and The Three Caballeros ('The Three Gentlemen'). Made for the South American market and with Europe still at war, it made financial sense to strengthen ties with these available customers. Both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were made cheaply and garnered a modest profit.

Education for Life

Ten shorts about health and agriculture were made for the Co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs from July 1942. These films included The Winged Scourge, in which the Seven Dwarfs combat the malaria-carrying Anopheles Mosquito by spraying oil on water to kill mosquito larvae, as well as using the arsenic-based Paris Green pesticide throughout their house, and burying rubbish in their garden. Later health films were part of the 'Health for the Americas' series, and included titles such as Cleanliness brings Health, The Unseen Enemy and Planning for Good Eating. These emphasised the importance of keeping clean, not using cornfields as latrines, preventing the spreading of germs and eating a balanced diet.

Victory Through Air Power

I thought here was a message that might do some real good.
– Walt Disney

Disney hated being dictated to, and was frustrated that his prized studio, with its hand-picked, talented staff who had trained night and day to reach an artistic pinnacle, were being used to churn out quick and nasty animation. Disney, not one to rest on his laurels, longed for a challenge. He felt that if the war meant that he had to make propaganda, he would choose which propaganda he made, and do something influential and important that would change the course of the war. Determined to make a difference, he adapted for animation a controversial book by Major Alexander P de Seversky, inventor of the automated bombsight. This argued that in a modern war, the army and navy were irrelevant and only land-based long-range bomber aircraft capable of carrying heavy payloads and dropping them with precision on the enemy's vital nerve-centres would affect the outcome of the war.

The film was effectively animated, with filmed introductions of Alexander P de Seversky himself. It foretells the introduction of the heavy bomber aircraft, which de Seversky predicts would be able to attack Japanese and German targets8. The prediction that the superfortress aircraft would swiftly end the war proved naïve. When introduced, the superfortress blanket-bombed Tokyo. The night of the heaviest bombing there on 9 March, 1945, saw 334 superfortresses destroying much of the city, killing over 83,000 people and severely wounding over 41,000, a greater death toll than the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Despite this, the war carried on regardless until August, when it was the atomic bomb, not the heavy bomber, which ended the war. Like most Disney films of the 1940s it was a financial failure, but was at least seen by both Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt.

Gremlins Defeated

Between July 1942 and April 1943, Walt Disney worked on developing a story by Roald Dahl, then a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, entitled Gremlin Lore. Gremlins were fictional creatures who loved causing aircraft to malfunction, and were invented by RAF pilots in the 1920s. Disney had been sent the unpublished story by Sidney Bernstein, head of the British Information Service, on condition that the British Air Ministry had final script approval, with royalties to be divided with the RAF Benevolent Fund. Sadly the project stalled when the gremlins' appearance could not be agreed upon, and it was unclear whether Disney could own the copyright to the characters.

In December 1943, Disney wrote to Dahl, saying: 'The gremlins will not be made as a feature because of the feeling on the distributor's part that the public has become tired of so many war films'.


In June 1939, Aviation Cadet Burt Stanley wrote a letter to Disney that said:

During the last World War various aviation squadrons had their own insignia... today we don't have clever ones, the kind needed to kick up our morale and give us a feeling of personal pride on our outfit. Why don't you design us a suitable insignia?

Disney therefore assigned an artist, Henry 'Hank' Porter, to design an insignia for USS Wasp. Soon other army, navy and airforce squadrons requested their own, and shortly a small team of artists were at work designing insignia for all arms of the military, as well as home service and Government bodies. Initially the designs were all unique and did not include any known Disney characters, to prevent the accusation that the US Government were advertising Disney products. This was relaxed to allow characters who had made one-off appearances to be used, so the Stork in Dumbo stopped delivering babies and began delivering bombs, until finally even Donald Duck was used in insignias, not only in America but even for their allies, appearing as a logo for HMS Illustrious.

Recurring Themes and Images

One technique Disney animations often used to great effect was to have a humorous opening, before becoming more serious. In this way, the audience is drawn in, enjoying the humour before the more serious message is introduced. This technique was employed in Victory Through Air Power and its 'History of Flight' introduction, Reason and Emotion and Der Fuehrer's Face.

Hating Hitler

Hitler appears in a comical fashion in Stop That Tank!, as a tank commander attacking a Canadian city, before being riddled by bullets from hidden anti-tank rifles. There is a lengthy sequence in Education for Death in which Hitler, dressed as Prince Charming, is mockingly seen seducing the slumbering, drunken Germany. Caricatures of Hirohito and Mussolini appear in Der Fuehrer's Face. In Food Will Win the War, Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini appear as skittles that are bowled over.

V For Beethoven's Victory

One of the most common motifs used is the use of the letter V. Standing for 'V for Victory', this symbol appears in many Disney cartoons, usually accompanied by the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. The Roman Numeral for 5 is 'V', and the Morse code for 'V' is '...–' which perfectly fits the first four notes of the 5th Symphony, da da da dum9. First adopted for this use by the BBC, this practice soon spread worldwide. It is notably used in the Canadian war bonds animations, and The Spirit of '43 ends with a swastika broken up, replaced by a 'V' sign and '...–'-shaped little pieces with the musical accompaniment.

Illustration courtesy of Archive.org

1The Second World War began on 1 September, 1939, although related conflicts had begun earlier, such as Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. America did not enter the war until after the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December, 1941.2In the original 1933 cartoon, the wolf briefly disguised himself as a stereotyped Jewish peddler, a scene soon deleted.3One of the other two, Pluto and the Armadillo, was originally conceived as being part of The Three Caballeros.4Absent Without Official Leave.5Germany is quite possibly inebriated, as she is seen quaffing beer-steins.6Composer Oliver Wallace reportedly wrote the song in under an hour.7In 1984, when Donald Duck celebrated his 50th Birthday, his Academy Award-winning performance in Der Fuehrer's Face was avoided, to prevent Donald appearing racist.8The German targets that de Seversky mentions that only his heavy bomber could destroy are the dams which would instead be destroyed by the 'Dambusters raid' in Avro Lancasters, utilising the revolutionary bouncing bomb.9If Beethoven's 5th Symphony has stirred something in you, why not mention what's been said to your aunt? (In most versions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Ford tries to persuade the Vogon guard not to throw them out of the airlock by appealing to his sense of wonderment at exploring a wider world he knew nothing of, using 'Da da da dum' from Beethoven's 5th as an example. In response, the Vogon decides to throw Arthur and Ford out of an airlock anyway, with the words: 'I'll mention what you said to my aunt'.)

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