Who’s That Marching Off to Boot Camp?

LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 13, 2016 -- During World War II, many a movie or newsreel started with Donald Duck donning a uniform to pilot a plane or Goofy marching off to boot camp. At a time when patriotism in America was the fuel that kept the Allies in motion, Walt Disney Studios seemed to be in the driver’s seat.

Indeed, behind the scenes, Disney’s participation in the war effort may have been vital to winning the war. 

Andrew Kelly ’17, a history major from Rancho Cucamonga, California, used his Summer Undergraduate Research Institute project to explore Walt Disney Studios’ role in World War II propaganda in the United States.  Kelly’s hometown is just an hour northeast of Anaheim, home of Disneyland park, so he grew up around Disney, visiting the park and even watching his father and sister act as cast members. 

It seemed natural to combine his interest in military history with his childhood friend Mickey in a project that will eventually become his honors thesis.

“From a historian’s perspective, a lot of people have written broadly about propaganda during World War II and identified the fact that Disney has done … [projects] to aid those efforts,” said Maj. Houston Johnson, Kelly’s faculty adviser.  “But to my knowledge there haven’t been any in-depth studies, and I think Andrew has turned up really interesting material that I certainly wasn’t aware of.”

It was in 1942 that Disney Studios made its first moves from entertainment to education. That year, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau asked Disney to make a short film about the importance of paying income taxes to benefit the war effort. The resulting film, “The New Spirit,” featured Donald Duck demonstrating how to fill out his tax form. 

The feature was so successful in educating and encouraging general audiences to pay their taxes that the following year Disney made “The Spirit of ’43,” another Donald Duck short animation declaring that Americans must pay their “taxes to defeat the Axis!” 

This early success inspired the Navy to ask Disney to go even further into educational animation by creating training films.  Using a mix of live action and animation, the short films showed sailors various navigation tactics.  Soon the Army and the Army Air Force were asking for training films as well.

Though the training films did not feature characters like Donald Duck, Disney was still busy creating mascots, designing insignia found on military vehicles, such as that of the Flying Tigers airplanes and the Navy’s “mosquito” fleet of patrol torpedo boats.

“I think that’s the really fascinating part: they really had their hands in everything, from just entertainment, to subtle propaganda, to training films, and educating a new generation of soldiers,” said Kelly.

The films caught the attention of Gen. George C. Marshall, Class of 1901, who commissioned a film series, “Why We Fight,” by director Frank Capra.  The series’ live action propaganda films encouraged soldiers and civilians to support the war. The animation, mostly maps showing the two fronts, was drawn by Disney artists.

“Today it would be the equivalent of the government hiring J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg to officially produce anti-ISIS videos,” explained Johnson.

Much of the propaganda was designed to demean the enemy forces. An animation by Disney titled “Education for Death – The Making of a Nazi” tells the story of a young German boy, Hans, who is taught from an early age to disregard the value of human life.

This is a case, Kelly noted, of government agencies working closely with a large corporation to influence the general public.  “I think it’s an interesting question of how ethical it is,” said Kelly.

And that is one of the questions he will explore in his honors thesis. Meanwhile, as part of his summer project, Kelly explored the World War II exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and he has been in touch with Disney’s Animation Research Library in Burbank, California.

Kelly will graduate next year and commission into the Navy as an ensign in surface warfare. He hopes one day to enter Navy intelligence.

- Kelly Nye




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