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Disney and the Cold War

From major government policies and social and gender politics, to media, shopping, and family time, Cold War tensions heavily influenced almost every aspect of life in the United States from the 1950s through the early 1990s. The immense fear of Soviet power and Communism frequently lead to extreme and fervently held political views and eventually, those ideas began to affect the thoughts and actions of everyday people and leaders in politics and business alike. In fact, even actions such as looking at an ad for a popular product like soda, watching a movie or TV show, or simply getting dressed or going to work, were usually shaped by elements of Cold War ideology. This impact is readily apparent when examining one of the largest entertainment businesses of the time, the Walt Disney Company.

Since the inception of the Walt Disney Company in 1923 through present day, millions of children and adults have enjoyed the firm’s creations including films, television shows, theme parks, and more. Several of the studio’s most popular productions were made during the Cold War. Throughout this time, Walt and his business participated greatly in the creation and perpetuation of Cold War culture. As a result, the Walt Disney Company is a prime example of the inextricable link between pop culture and politics during the Cold War. The connection started at the top with Walt Disney himself and subsequently spread throughout the company and the works it produced including movies, Disneyland, and television shows.

Often, the public likes to think of Walt Disney as a wonderful person who simply created several of their favorite childhood movies and memories. In many eyes, both the man and his company are very positive and innocent figures that evoke nothing but happy emotions. Conversely, many authors and scholars have looked into Walt’s political beliefs, often concluding that he was a man of extremely strong political opinions, sometimes suggesting that he used his business to promote his personal beliefs. But despite the fact that so many of the company’s most important creations were executed during the Cold War, and despite the seemingly undisputed idea that popular culture and the Cold War were deeply linked, nobody has fully interrogated the extent to which the Cold War informed Walt and his corporation’s activities. This may sound like conspiracy, speculation, and far-fetched conclusions at first. But upon considering evidence of Walt’s politics from sources such as scholarly journals and FBI files, it becomes clear that these connections are quite legitimate and substantial.

Because Walt’s father had rather socialist views, Walt started out as a populist who was very anti-elitist, but his views quickly changed in the year 1941.1 Regardless of the fact that Disney employees were generally well paid and working conditions were considered great, they tried to form a labor organization. Walt was firmly against this given the fact that his company was already a very employee-friendly place, and he refused to negotiate or meet the workers’ demands, leading to a labor strike. The studio tried hard to end the strike and Walt angrily condemned it, calling the strike leaders communists and even going as far as to take out an ad in Variety to state this.2 As the years went on, Walt’s distaste for communism had grown so much that he became one of the founding members of The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which investigated how the entertainment industry was manipulated by communism.3 By 1947, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities saying that the strike at his studio was a result of, “a Communist group trying to take over my artists.”4

Walt’s anti-communist beliefs are further demonstrated by his involvement with the FBI and New York Times article “Disney Link To the F.B.I. And Hoover Is Disclosed” discusses the details of this relationship, which were recently revealed in 1993 with the release of his FBI file. These documents reveal that he gave the FBI names of several people in Hollywood that he believed to be Communists and allowed the director, J. Edgar Hoover, to review and make small changes to his scripts. They also show that Disney was made a “full special Agent in Charge Contact” in 1954. In exchange, Disney was able to film in the Bureau’s Washington DC offices.5

The influence of these anti-communist views, FBI ties, and Cold War culture is readily apparent across nearly all of the company’s creations but perhaps the first place it was seen is in film. A number of scholars have recently suggested that Disney’s movies have several fundamental problems. For example, Steven Watts, in his 1995 article “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” asserts that “Many of Disney’s postwar movies also legislated a kind of cultural Marshall Plan. They nourished a genial cultural imperialism that magically overran the rest of the globe with the values, expectations, and goods of a prosperous middle-class United States.”6 In other words, Watts argues that most of the studio’s postwar films portrayed idealistic United States Cold War values and served to spread those values around the world in a friendly way. In addition, it is important to note that this friendly spreading of U.S. values was exceptionally effective because of the studio’s particular audience. Children are especially receptive to new ideas and the company’s unique position as one of their main sources of entertainment throughout their formative years allowed Disney’s messages, especially those related to the Cold War, to be that much more influential. Various movies such as Cinderella (1951) or Swiss Family Robinson (1960) demonstrated these Cold War ideas by depicting everything from the problems with strong, powerful women and the docile, domestic ways in which a woman should act, to the importance of working together and having a strong family, and these values continued to show up in Disney films for years to come.7

Even after Walt died, his legacy of fiercely objecting to and condemning communism and promoting Cold War culture is seen in movies for the rest of the Cold War. Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan, the authors of Deconstructing Disney, for example, wrote an entire book arguing of all the anti-communist and anti-feminist messages prevalent in several Disney movies. In chapter one, they discuss The Little Mermaid (1989), saying, “At a very superficial level the plot, as extrapolated from Hans Christian Andersen, involves two ideologically opposed kingdoms separated by a supposedly impenetrable barrier.”8  Here, the authors make their first reference to the Cold War, implying that the plot resembles the division between communism and capitalism, going on to argue, “From the start this has been a story about a deprived dissident’s desire for the amenities of the West.”9 They then add to the argument when writing about Ariel, the mermaid protagonist, singing about her desire to join the human world in, “Part of Your World,” stating, “Ariel’s song conflates taking a stand against patriarchy with being part of the democratic West (the human world) and the Thatcher/Reaganite mentality of standing on one’s own two feet.”10 In other words, they are saying that this song, a major scene of the movie, can be viewed as being about standing up against communism by participating in pro-democratic activities and values. Overall, in making these comments the authors argue that the politics of the time the film was created heavily influenced the way the movie was produced, and they continue to do this several times with various other Disney movies. Watts also agrees with them further when he concludes, “In the post-World War II world, Disney’s populism was channeled into a full-fledged defense of the ‘American Way of Life,’” further demonstrating effect of the Cold War on Disney’s films. 11

But the extent of Disney’s ties to the Cold War goes further than film alone. Watts emphasizes this, observing, “If Disney’s postwar movies presented vignettes of the American Way of Life, Disneyland erected a monument to it.”12 Walt’s idea to create Disneyland was born out of his distaste for existing amusement parks such as Coney Island, which were grungy and solely focused on activities for children. He desired a place where families would enjoy the fun together. One day, as he was looking at his children playing in the Snow White cottage in his backyard, he realized that his business could build a place that would promote togetherness and the nuclear family in a far superior way.13 The very idea of the park in and of itself was around promoting Cold War values.

From there, the connection between the park and the Cold War only grew deeper. While Frontierland, Main Street USA, and Tomorrowland, discrete areas of the theme park, romanticized the country’s past, present, and future respectively, individual attractions that were added later, such as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (1964), served to encourage patriotism and cast United States history in a positive light.14 In fact, FBI files show that with the park being so ideologically aligned with the government’s anti-Communist and pro-United States motives, Walt, “volunteered representatives of [the FBI] complete access to the facilities of Disneyland for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes.”15 Although all of the bureau’s activity there is not known, it is safe to say that the FBI made plenty of use of this new privilege. Overall, these conclusions discussed by Watts, Marling, and Mitgang, add weight to the argument that even the Disney theme park had a serious relationship with the Cold War. But perhaps an even better example of this link between Disneyland and Cold War culture was not in the park itself, but in the television show that was created to draw excitement around its opening.

Disneyland was a television series that began airing in 1954 just prior to the opening of Disney’s first theme park. The show featured Walt as the host and each week it discussed a new and usually educational topic for children using animations and experts from a given field. But, both because it was so popular and also to continue creating excitement about the park, the show continued long after the Disneyland theme park was opened. Although one could surely find Cold War influence within many episodes of the program, one particular installment was born directly out of the Cold War, created to serve government interests. In 1957, ABC aired season 3, episode 14 of the show entitled “Our Friend, the Atom.” This special uses an analogy of a genie and his magical powers to teach children about the power of an atom and then continues on to explain what an atom is, from the history of its discovery to the many great ways the atom can be used. While it does go on to talk about the destructive powers of nuclear energy, it concludes that we as a country should make sure it remains our friend so that its powers will not be used against us.16

At first glance, many would probably reject my contention that Disney acts as a puppet for the government in this episode, countering that this could have simply been an educational talk about a current event. But upon further examination, Disney’s potential innocence is completely wiped away. Not only was the release date in 1957, just after President Eisenhower, creator of the Atoms for Peace program, was reelected, but the episode was also made with the assistance of the US Navy. Knowing this makes it much easier to see the clear bias in the way the script discusses this new technology so positively.

Despite the fact that no single piece has been written solely about the ways the Cold War influenced Walt Disney and his company, the notion that the influence was there is hinted at throughout several sources including books, journals, and newspapers. Upon examining these works together as well as Disney’s original productions during the time, the affiliation between Walt and the FBI and government during the Cold War becomes blatant, explicit in everything the company produced from film, to Disneyland, to television. Although this discussion of Disney and its ties to the Cold War may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial in terms of today’s concern over the ways that different sources of media and popular culture influence young people and the biases those sources might have. The Walt Disney Company is a perfect example of the importance of looking past the surface and initial interpretations of mass media, and examining the political and social context that could influence companies and their work.

 

  1. Steven Watts, “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” The Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 1, (June 1995): 99–105.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Walt Disney, quoted in Stephen Watts, “Walt Disney ,” 104.
  5. Herbert Mitgang, “Disney Link to the F.B.I. And Hoover Is Disclosed,” The New York Times, May 1993.
  6. Stephen Watts, “Walt Disney,” 107.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan, Deconstructing Disney (Pluto Press, 2006), 22.
  9. Ibid., 23.
  10. Ibid., 25-26.
  11. Stephen Watts, “Walt Disney,” 105-106.
  12. Ibid., 108.
  13. Karal Ann Marling, “Disneyland, 1955: Just Take the Santa Ana Freeway to the American Dream,” American Art, vol. 5, no. 1/2, (1991): 168–175.
  14. Brian McHale, “1955, Disneyland: ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ and the Fiction of Cold War Culture,” The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 126–136.
  15. Herbert Mitgang, “Disney Link to the F.B.I. And Hoover Is Disclosed.”
  16. Ward Kimball, “Our Friend the Atom,” Disneyland, created by Walt Disney, performance by Heinz Haber, season 3, episode 14, ABC, January 23, 1957.