The politics of Walt Disney have always been a contentious and complicated issue. He rarely spoke publicly on his politics, and so rumours have persisted - that he was a racist, an anti-semite and a Nazi sympathiser. Because Walt was so private in his opinions, it’s almost impossible to piece together an accurate understanding of what kind of man he really was, but in his 2006 biography 'Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination', biographer Neil Gabler attempts to construct some kind of picture of Walt’s political life. In this episode, we look to Gabler’s biography to find answers to these uncomfortable rumours, where they came from and which speak true to the man he was.
This is in no way a definitive statement on Walt’s politics. Some information is easily verified, but Walt was a man of contradictions, and nowhere is this clearer than in his politics. What is clear though is that his testimony for HUAC may be one of his most revealing moments, one where years of missteps, mistakes and frustrations finally came to a head.
In 1906, the Disneys moved from Chicago, Illinois to the rural community of Marceline, Missouri, where Elias bought around 45-acres of land to set up a farm. He and Flora had been concerned about the rising level of street violence in Chicago, and Marceline was also closer to Elias’ younger brother Robert. While his older brothers didn’t take to Marceline, Walt was enchanted by the town, and his memories of those years would inform many both his films and his designs for Disneyland.
Elias was not a natural farmer, and struggled to make the new enterprise work. As a way of finding meaning in his hardship, he formed a chapter of the American Society of Equity in Mareline in 1909, a farmer’s union whose aim was to give farmers more control over their crops, regulating supply and setting prices. There was a healthy membership, but Elias’ enthusiasm for the cause had many in Marceline label him a radical. He was also a supporter of Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and had begun to refer to himself as a Socialist. There are stories of him bringing strange people back to the farm to discuss Socialism, and he was a subscriber to the journal Appeal to Reason. It’s unclear though whether these were genuine political beliefs, or Elias seeking someone to blame for his hardships.
After falling ill with typhoid fever and pneumonia, Elias sold the farm and moved the family to Kansas City, Missouri. Soon after, his politics appear to have shifted again, with Elias becoming a Republican. It was in Kansas City that ten year-old Walt began to garner attention for his drawings, displaying them in shop windows while working the newspaper route Elias had purchased. While he never prevented Walt from pursuing his interest in the arts, Elias never encouraged it, dismissing it as a waste of time.
For much of Walt’s early childhood, his father had been an active Socilalist, but in later years, he would recall another story his father would often tell him, where while working on a construction site (possibly the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893) he had been attacked by a group of union organisers. Walt would recall this story in 1941 when unionism caused havoc at Walt Disney Productions.
Walt’s politics shifted from Democrat to Republican with the presidential election in 1940, and yet he still remained reticent to actively participate in politics. "... a long time ago I found that I knew nothing whatsoever about this game of politics," he wrote to Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie in August 1940, "and since then I’ve preferred to keep silent about the entire matter rather than see my name attached to any statement that was not my own." In fact, his political beliefs were so wildly inconsistent, such as expressing support for the Soviet Union, that the FBI opened a file on him.
With the strike in 1941, Walt could no longer ignore political discourse at the studio. The strike was a morally debilitating moment for Walt, who had been comfortable in the belief that all of his employees idolised him, and like many of the studio heads in Hollywood at the time, he believed that communism was the driving force behind the rise in unionism.
He also had an antagonistic relationship with strike leader Herbert K. Sorrell. During negotiations, Walt claimed that Sorrell had threatened to "make a dust bowl out of your plant", and launch a smear campaign against him. Though Sorrell never explicitly told Walt that he was a communist, Walt became convinced that this was the source of Sorrell’s political power.
During the Good Neighbor films and the Second World War, Walt distinguished himself as an American patriot, albeit to a point. Even in his testimony for HUAC, he expressed reservations about propaganda. "During the war we thought it was a different thing," he said in his testimony. "It was the first time we ever allowed anything like that to go in the films. We watch so that nothing gets into the films that would be harmful in any way to any group or any country. We have large audiences of children and different groups, and we try to keep them as free from anything that would offend anybody as possible. We work hard to see that nothing of that sort creeps in." Towards the end of the war though, Walt was offered an opportunity to turn his misgivings around communism into decisive action.
In October 1943, screenwriter James Kevin McGuiness, along with other like-minded colleagues in the film industry, decided to establish their own investigation into communist activities in Hollywood. This group of conservatives were determined to protect the film industry from communist or fascist influence.
On the night of the 4th of February 1944, Walt was invited by screenwriter Robert Hughes to attend a meeting of the organisation, now called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, or the MPA. Around 200 members of the film community were in attendance, and by the end of the meeting, Walt was elected Co-Vice President. Shortly after, they issued a Statement of Principles:
Believing in these things, we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of communism, fascism, and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life; groups that have forfeited their right to exist in this country of ours, because they seek to achieve their change by means other than the vested procedure of the ballot and to deny the right of the majority opinion of the people to rule.
In our special field of motion pictures, we resent the growing impression that this industry is made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots. We believe that we represent the vast majority of the people who serve this great medium of expression. But unfortunately it has been an unorganized majority. This has been almost inevitable. The very love of freedom, of the rights of the individual, make this great majority reluctant to organize. But now we must, or we shall meanly lose "the last, best hope on earth.
As Americans, we have no new plan to offer. We want no new plan, we want only to defend against its enemies that which is our priceless heritage; that freedom which has given man, in this country, the fullest life and the richest expression the world has ever known; that system which, in the present emergency, has fathered an effort that, more than any other single factor, will make possible the winning of this war.
As members of the motion-picture industry, we must face and accept an especial responsibility. Motion pictures are inescapably one of the world's greatest forces for influencing public thought and opinion, both at home and abroad. In this fact lies solemn obligation. We refuse to permit the effort of Communist, Fascist, and other totalitarian-minded groups to pervert this powerful medium into an instrument for the dissemination of un-American ideas and beliefs. We pledge ourselves to fight, with every means at our organized command, any effort of any group or individual, to divert the loyalty of the screen from the free America that give it birth. And to dedicate our work, in the fullest possible measure, to the presentation of the American scene, its standards and its freedoms, its beliefs and its ideals, as we know them and believe in them.
The response from the rest of Hollywood to the MPA was far from positive. Many saw it as a cover for a discriminatory conservative agenda. "The public pronouncements of the more active members of the MPA," wrote screenwriter and playwright Elmer Rice in 1944, "are modeled strictly along orthodox Red-bating and witch-hunting lines... and one need not look far below the surface to discover that the organisation and its leading spirits are deeply tinged with isolationism and anti-unionism and off-the-record, of course - with strong overtones of anti-Semitism and Jim Crowism."
Walt’s friends and colleagues were baffled by Walt’s involvement with the MPA. Producer Walter Wanger, one of Walt’s few close friends, encouraged him to cut ties with the MPA. He had become concerned about Walt’s political rhetoric after Walt had sent him an article by red-bating communist George Sokolsky. "The minute you become a producer of the Solosky theme in your films," wrote Wanger to Walt in 1944, "I am afraid you will never make a 'Snow White', a 'Dumbo', a 'Saludos Amigos', a 'Bambi', a 'Pinocchio'. These pictures are full of faith, decency ideals and charm. You had better look in the mirror and not be impressed by the rabble rousers." Even opposing political bodies weren’t sure what to make of Walt. In their condemnation of the MPA, the Los Angeles Communist Party exempted Walt from their attacks, citing his work in South America.
One group that particularly irritated Walt was United Pictures of America (UPA), which had been formed by Zack Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow in the wake of the Disney strike. Many laid-off Disney staff members had joined UPA, including Art Babbitt, and Walt began to refer to them as "those damn communists down the river". There had also been another round of strikes across Hollywood following the war, often driven by Sorrell, and this only fanned the flames of mistrust and frustration in Walt.
Walt Disney has never been, up until this point, really concerned about social issues, and to present the black body, in the South, the way he wanted to, through a folktale, which was going to rely very heavily on stereotype, he was going to need to vet that from some sources.
'Song of the South' is a tricky and complicated subject, one that has been extensively covered before, such as in Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast 'You Must Remember This', and for the most part, is not important to the story of Walt Disney feature animation. The reactions to the film though do connect with Walt’s motivations during his testimony to HUAC.
Despite his affections for the stories, Walt anticipated that there may be issues with Song of the South. The screenplay had initially been written by Dalton Reymond, but Walt became concerned about his "white Southern slant" and use of many derogatory terms. He had asked African American writer Clarence Muse to consult with Reymond, but Muse quit when Reymond rejected his suggestion to depict the African American characters as dignified human beings rather than Southern stereotypes.
Rather than hiring an African American writer though, Walt handed the screenplay over to Jewish liberal Maurice Rapf. He also sent the screenplay to prominent members of the African American community for comments and suggestions, including secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Walter White, who declined due to scheduling reasons. The problem though was that, after decades of being the master storyteller at the studio, Walt was still inclined to go with his own gut, and for the most part ignored the feedback he had received.
'Song of the South' premiered on the 12th of November 1946. In the lead-up to release, the black press had begun to express concern about the film, especially when it became clear that very little consultation had occurred between Disney and the African American community. As the film was opening in theatres, Walter White issued a statement to newspapers across the country:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in ‘Song of the South’ remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, ‘Song of the South’ unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master–slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.
There was serious concern that the film was perpetuating the myth of the happy slave and the kind plantation owner before and during the Civil War, and while the studio insisted that the film was set after the war, the film itself never makes that clear. The Hays Office had even asked the studio to include a title card at the beginning establishing the year in which the film was set, but no such card was included.
'Song of the South' was criticised in the press and by members of Congress, and a number of screenings were picketed by protesters. Walt became convinced though that these criticisms were not legitimate responses to the film, but further communist attacks. He had many of the black newspapers checked for communist connections, and became convinced that this was another step in the continued communist attacks against him that had started with the strike in 1941. The following year, he would finally have the opportunity to act on his suspicions.
On the afternoon of the 24th of October 1947, Walt appeared before the committee in the House Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.. During his testimony, Walt was asked about the work the studio had done, particularly whether any of their films had been distributed in Russia, and the studio’s propaganda work during the war, before investigator H.A. Smith asked if he knew of any communists employed at the studio. Walt spoke about the strike, his discussions with Sorrell and his suspicions that he was a communist, though when pressed further on this, he admitted that he had no proof. "If he isn't a communist," he said, "he sure should be one."
During his testimony, Walt asserted that his staff, his "boys", had been taken advantage of by Sorrell, and that he had been the victim of communist-led attacks that Sorrell had orchestrated. When asked if there were any other members of the strike he believed to be communists, Walt named UPA co-founder David Hilberman. "I looked into his record," he said, "and I found that, No. 1, that he had no religion and, No. 2, that he had considerable time at the Moscow Art Theater studying art direction or something." He also cited a number of publications that had launched attacks on him as possible communist organisations.
At the end of his testimony, Walt was asked:
DISNEY: Well, I don't believe it is a political party. I believe it is an un-American thing. The thing that I resent the most is that they are able to get into these unions, take them over, and represent to the world that a group of people that are in my plant, that I know are good, 100 percent Americans, are trapped by this group, and they are represented to the world as supporting all of those ideologies, and it is not so, and I feel that they really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of communism. That is my sincere feeling on it.
SMITH: Do you feel that there is a threat of communism in the motion-picture industry?
DISNEY: Yes, there is, and there are many reasons why they would like to take it.
over or get in and control it, or disrupt it, but I don't think they have gotten very far, and I think the industry is made up of good Americans, just like in my plant, good, solid Americans. My boys have been fighting it longer than I have. They are trying to get out from under it and they will in time if we can just show them up.
SMITH: There are presently pending before this committee two bills relative to outlawing the Communist Party. What thoughts have you as to whether or not those bills should be passed?
DISNEY: Well, I don't know as I qualify to speak on that. I feel if the thing can be proven un-American that it ought to be outlawed. I think in some way it should be done without interfering with the rights of the people. I think that will be done. I have that faith. Without interfering, I mean, with the good, American rights that we all have now, and we want to preserve.
SMITH: Have you any suggestions to offer as to how the industry can be helped in fighting this menace?
DISNEY: Well, I think there is a good start toward it. I know that I have been handicapped out there in fighting it, because they have been hiding behind this labor setup, they get themselves closely tied up in the labor thing, so that if you try to get rid of them they make a labor case out of it. We must keep the American labor unions clean. We have got to fight for them.
In the surviving footage of the testimony, Walt looks nervous and agitated, constantly rubbing his hands and hunched over the table. Even when being thanked for his testimony by Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, who called Walt, “as a creator of entertainment, probably... one of the greatest examples in the profession”, he seems thoroughly uncomfortable. His voice though is calm, determined and full of conviction. He may have stepped into an arena in which he felt inadequate, but he was determined to say his piece.
In 1947, novelist Ayn Rand wrote a pamphlet for the MPA, Screen Guide for Americans. In it, she said:
The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories — thus making people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication.
The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas — which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense.
That November, a number of prominent studio heads met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York to discuss the best course of action for dealing with the communist threat in Hollywood. Many of them were of Jewish descent, and feared that any further action from HUAC or the MPA could fuel the building anti-semitism. It was decided to institute a blacklist of artists who could no longer be employed at the studios because of suspected communist ties and sympathies. Hundreds of artists across the many professions which kept Hollywood running would lose their jobs overnight, and would not be able to work anywhere else in their field. It was a catastrophe for the US film industry, resulting in many great artists, such as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, being forced to leave the country, and forcing others, such as Dalton Trumbo, to work under pseudonyms.
Walt Disney was not in attendance at that meeting, but instead sent New York publicity chief William Levy in his place. When plans for the blacklist were announced, Walt expressed support for it and promised to enforce it at the studio.
Concerns around anti-semitism at Walt Disney Productions had existed long before 1947. In the original release of the wildly popular 'Three Little Pigs' in 1933, the wolf visits the last house dressed as a Jewish peddler in a garish, horrid stereotype. These kinds of stereotypes were common at the time, but there were already serious discussions around how damaging they could be. Following the release of the film, Rabbi J. X. Cohen, director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote to Walt expressing his anger and concern over the use of the stereotype in the short, especially in light of the rumblings they were hearing from Germany. He called the scene "vile, revolting and unnecessary as to constitute a direct affront to the Jews", and suggested that the moment be removed. Roy Disney replied to the letter, dismissing the concerns and likening the moment to Jewish comedians in vaudeville and film. It wasn’t until 1948 that the scene was finally changed.
However, despite evidence of both Walt and Roy using anti-semitic slurs during the 1920s and 30s, neither this, nor 'Three Little Pigs', is strong enough evidence to confirm that Walt Disney was anti-semitic. None of his employees, including those who didn’t like him, ever accused him of direct anti-semitism. Walt was a supporter of a number of Jewish organisations and donated to a number of Jewish charities. What Walt was guilty of was using offensive slurs without thinking of their impact on those around him, but instances of this don’t seem to have been consistent enough to constitute genuine anti-semitic attitudes.
Another rumour that has persisted is that Walt was a Nazi sympathiser. This rumour seems to have originated from animator Art Babbitt. Later in his life, Babbitt claimed to have seen Walt and Disney lawyer Gunther Lessing at a meeting for Nazi sympathisers that Babbitt was attending out of curiosity. Outside of Babbitt’s claim though, no evidence has ever been found to support this.
Also used as evidence to support the rumour is the visit to the studio from Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl on the 8th of December 1938. Riefenstahl, director of 'Triumph of the Will' (1935) and 'Olympia' (1938), was visiting Los Angeles, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League had called for studios to boycott her visit. Despite this, an invitation was extended to Rifenstahl to visit the Burbank studios. The exact details of the visit are unclear, though Walt later disavowed the visit and claimed to not have known of her importance in the Nazi Party. All accounts agree that Walt became uncomfortable with her presence at the studio and ended the visit early.
With the Good Neighbor films and the propaganda films during the war, Walt made his stance on Nazism very clear, but combined with the rumours of his anti-semitism and racism, the legend of Walt Disney as a Nazi sympathiser have persisted. According to biographer Neil Gabler, Walt does not appear to be guilty of any of these things. What he was guilty of is far more complex and indicative of America in the early half of the 20th century.
Walt was determined never to be seen as a political figure, and did not think himself informed or intelligent enough to be so. He may have been a Republican for the rest of his life, but this did not always dictate his decision making, and Lillian Disney was herself a Democrat. If you look for a consistent political thread through the films made in his lifetime, it’s impossible to find one. They are wildly inconsistent, at times promoting tradition values, while engaging in radical ideas on class, race and gender in others.
What Walt Disney was guilty of, perhaps even more than of knowingly or unknowingly interacting with people of questionable views, and what is woven through all of his work, is insensitivity and ignorance. He did not understand the stereotypes and tropes he was engaging with, and often did not attempt to educate himself on them. The stereotypes in the early shorts and the Silly Symphonies reflect those widely used at the time, and as such he was never forced to interrogate their history, their use and their damaging effect. Even when he was conscious of the issues, as he had been with Song of the South where he believed he was making a positive contribution to the discourse around race in America, he did so without full understanding of the complexity and weight of doing so, even though help and advice had been offered to him. Walt Disney was not a racist. Walt Disney was ignorant, which may be lacking in malice, but is still a blight on his legacy.
None of this is definitive. Neil Gabler constructed his extraordinary biography after the most extensive access any biographer has had to the Disney Archives, and what he found suggests insensitivity and ignorance rather than actual racism. There will always be gaps in the story though. Despite being one of the most public figures of the last century, we’ll never know everything about Walt Disney, never have a complete picture of him. He was a fiercely private man who protected his personal life behind a public persona. If Gabler’s portrait of him moves away from the idea of a racist and an anti-semite, it instead presents him as a deeply complex man, with contradictions, flaws and failures mixed into the inspiration, imagination and generosity - one that fits with the image of the uncomfortable, agitated but deeply certain man who testified before the House Committee for Un-American Activities on the 24th of October 1947.
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- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler, 2006
- Wikipedia on Walt Disney, Elias Disney, House Un-American Activities Committee, Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and Song of the South
- American Experience: Walt Disney, dir. Sarah Colt, PBS, 2015
- CNN Interactive Archives: Cold War Episode 6