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Walt Disney and the Communist Threat

Walt Disney and the Communist Threat

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After World War II, America became deeply concerned about protecting itself from the "Red Menace." The Cold War created an era of paranoia that the Communists would attack with atomic weapons at any minute and bury us all.

Many may be aware of the activities of Senator Joe McCarthy and his witch hunting methods of accusing people of possibly being a Communist. There were also the publicized hearings trying to find Communist sympathizers in the film industry who were supposedly influencing the messages that American films were presenting. However, few people know that the animation industry itself was also a target and that many animators lost their livelihood because of supposed Communist sympathies. Labelling a person a Communist was enough to get that person fired and blacklisted for years in the entertainment industry.

Walt Disney was called before House Committee on Un-American Activities as a "friendly witness" which meant not only was he vehemently against Communism but that he was willing to "name names" of people publicly whom he believed might have Communist leanings.

To call Walt Disney politically naive would be an understatement. As early as 1931, a Nazi newspaper condemned Mickey Mouse as "the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal ... Down with Mickey Mouse!" Adolf Hitler repeatedly denounced Mickey Mouse and in 1937 tried to ban Mickey completely from the cinemas in Germany. Walt's response in OVERLAND MONTHLY was to state that "Mr. A. Hitler, the nazi old thing, says that Mickey's silly. Imagine that! Well, Mickey's going to save Mr. A. Hitler from drowning or something some day ... then won't Mr. A. Hitler be ashamed ..." At best, Walt might have been worried about Hitler's effect on foreign market distribution of his animated product but certainly wasn't politically astute enough to determine how Hitler's political agenda had any impact on the American way of life.

As a young man Walt really had no political connections despite his support of Franklin Roosevelt. At best, he might politically be considered a "populist" rather than a Democrat or a Republican. As he grew older, Walt became a highly conservative Republican often bullying his animation staff to make campaign contributions to Republican politicians running for office. One animator told me that in the Sixties, Walt's golf cart pargo that he used to get around the backlot of the Disney Studio had a big bumper sticker that read: "Vote for Goldwater!" When Walt gave a speech and mentioned that he had some minor traffic tickets for illegal left turns and the officer warned him to only make right turns in the future, Walt smiled and said that would be an easy request because "I lean that way anyway." Many believe it was the infamous Disney strike of 1941 that turned Walt away from some of his earlier liberal beliefs and more towards a harder conservative viewpoint.

During the Disney studio in 1941, Walt took out an ad in VARIETY, the industry trade paper, on July 2, 1941 to proclaim: "I am positively convinced that communistic agitation, leadership and activities have brought about this strike." Animator Ward Kimball (who didn't go out on the strike but stayed inside the Disney Studio as part of management) told me that Walt calling the strikers "Communists" was typical "Walt overkill." It was an easy way of discrediting somebody. Walt's reasoning was that anybody who was against what he wanted to do HAD to be a Communist because Walt was such a staunch American.

Basically, Walt felt betrayed by his "boys" and decided that the only reason for that betrayal must have been outside influences like Communist instigators. Walt was also known to hold a grudge for a long time and when the opportunity presented itself six years after the strike, Walt, who was still hurt by what he had gone through with the strike, lashed out at those who he felt had destroyed a Golden Age in Disney Animation.

As you read Walt Disney's testimony for the HUAC, let's put some of the cast of characters whom Walt mentions into better perspective:

Herbert Sorrell was definitely hated by Walt but there is no reason to believe he was a Communist. Other friendly witnesses failed to identify Sorrell as a Communist even though they had plenty of opportunity to do so. Sorrell was the leader and negotiator for the Screen Cartoonists Guild and was known for playing tough. There is evidence that Walt didn't care for Sorrell personally as well as professionally.

William Pomerance was hired by the union after the strike and had nothing to do with it.

David Hilberman was hardly the "the big leader" behind the strike. Art Babbitt deserves that honor. His active participation caused Walt to hate him with an intensity that resulted in Babbitt's accomplishments at the Studio being minimized or wiped completely off the record. It was Babbit's initial firing that was the spark for the strike. Eventually, Babbit was reinstated and fired three more times by Walt. Hilberman's job during the strike was to study labor law at a local library and to hold one meeting at his house where people signed cards saying they wanted the Screen Cartoonists Guild to represent them. Hilberman was only one of several people who gathered the cards. Hilberman's stint with a Russian theater company was a sad and lonely time where he was homesick and didn't spend much time there and when he joined the Disney Studio the publicity department considered his training in Russia an artistic plus. However, that brief stint in Russia was enough to cast a shadow over his loyalties.

Disney's testimony hurt several people, in particular David Hilberman. After the strike, Hilberman left the studio and helped found UPA and later his own animation studio, TEMPO, with William Pomerance which produced animation for television commercials. In 1954, THE NEW COUNTERATTACK an anti-communist newsletter dug up Walt's testimony and gave the material to Walter Winchell who printed it in his newspaper column and within one day all advertising agencies withdrew their work from TEMPO and the company was destroyed. Literally, Walt's testimony destroyed Hilberman and Pomerance as they were blacklisted in RED CHANNELS, a listing of unacceptable people to be employed.

Walt had very strong anti-Communist beliefs. An associate remembers that even in the mid-Fifties, Walt was complaining about the Communist influence in the motion picture industry. Walt was the founder and vice-president in 1944 of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA). "The MPA was organized to combat a rising tide of communism, fascism, and kindred beliefs that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this American way of life." In 1947, the same year of Walt's testimony, the MPA published a guide for producers that listed some of the "subtle Communistic touches" to avoid in motion picture scripts. Among its recommendations:

1. Don't smear the free enterprise system.

2. Don't smear industrialists.

3. Don't smear wealth. "It is the proper wish of every decent American to stand on his own feet, earn his own living, and be as good at it as he can."

4. Don't smear the profit motive.

5. Don't smear success.

6. Don't glorify failure.

7. Don't glorify depravity. "Go easy on stories about murderers, perverts and all the rest of that sordid stuff."

8. Don't deify "the common man." "The common man is one of the worst slogans of communism and too many of us have fallen for it without thinking. Don't ever use any line about the common man or the little people. It's not the American idea to be either common or little."

It is important to remember during this time the quote from Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who suffered severely from the blacklisting and the Communist witch hunts: "When you look back at that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."

The truly sad thing is that the Los Angeles Police Department had already infiltrated the Communist Party (a legitimate, legal political party by the way) starting in 1928 and from 1936-1945 two undercover LAPD officers were the party's membership directors so the House Committee did have access to the Communist Party's membership lists and other files and had no need to gather names and information by the public hearings except to create public spectacles that served the re-election interests of the committee and its members.

For historical purposes, the next installment of this column is a copy of Walt's testimony to HUAC. This is one of the few documents from this time period that shows an unedited presentation by Walt himself without help from the publicity or legal department which may help us understand how he thought and how he expressed himself. In later years, most historians believe that the real villain of the Disney strike was the head of the Disney studio legal department, Gunther Lessing, who may have given Walt misleading and "selective" advice about unions and how to handle them.

A page one headline in the October 25, 1947 NEW YORK TIMES announced that "Disney Denounces Communists." The article also noted that the principal witness of the day's hearings, Walt Disney, failed to fill the hall with spectators as friendly witness Ronald Reagan had the previous day.

During his testimony, Walt "mis-spoke" himself, confusing the League of Women Voters with another group called the League of Women Shoppers, a leftist group who had been sending letters to the Disney Studio supporting the Guild and berating Walt Disney during the Strike. This slip resulted in Walt being made fun of in several editorials (like Fred Othman's column in the October 25, 1947 edition of the Washington News among others) so Walt fired off a telegram to the HUAC and at the October 28, 1947 meeting, the following from Walt Disney was read into the official record:

MR. STRIPLING: Mr. Chairman, before we call the first witness, I would like to read into the record a telegram which was received yesterday from Walt Disney, who has previously testified. It says:

Some confusion has arisen over my testimony regarding the League of Women Voters. My testimony referred to the year 1941, at which time several women represented themselves as being from the League of Women Voters. I want you to know that I had no intention of criticizing the League of Women Voters as of now. Please see that this is read to the committee on Monday and that it is added to my testimony. Walt Disney.

I ask that that be made part of the record.

THE CHAIRMAN: Without objection, so ordered.

But even that was not enough to quell Walt's slip of the tongue and so probably with the help of the Disney Studio legal staff, the following letter was sent to J. Parnell Thomas, the Chairman of HUAC on November 3, 1947 from Walt Disney:

Gentlemen: I am taking the liberty of referring you to my testimony before your committee in Washington, D.C., on October 24, 1947, in the course of which and in answer to a question by your chairman, I stated substantially that when Mr. Sorrell "Pulled the strike", the first people to smear me and put me on the unfair list were certain organizations among which was The League of Women Voters.

Since returning to my office in Burbank, Calif., I have had an opportunity to carefully review my files pertaining to this subject matter. I can now definitely state that while testifying as above I was confused by a similarity of names between two women's organizations. I regret that I named The League of Women voters when I intended to name the League of Women Shoppers.

Therefore I trust your committee will find it consistent to make requisite amendment to the record with respect to my testimony so as to erase any implication that The League of Women Voters had at any time intervened or taken any action with regard to the matters about which I was being interrogated.

For the information of the committee I am enclosing herewith photostatic copies of letters received from various units of the League of Women Shoppers which are self-explanatory.

Respectfully submitted, Walter E. Disney

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