Once Upon a Time in World War II: Walt Disney & Hollywood Propaganda

In a surprising turn of events during the Second World War, Walt Disney himself and his crew turned animation into a weapon of war.

Aug 16, 2023By Marianne Plasse, BA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art History

walt disney wwii propaganda cartoons


In 1941, who was afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? And why did Donald Duck have nightmares about Nazis? While the Walt Disney Company is nowadays most well-known for its animated feature films, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Encanto, its revolutionary first steps in developing animation as a medium began in the world of comedic cartoons. These short animated films, intended as light-hearted and fun, found all their significance in the promotion of American culture and values during the Second World War. Walt Disney himself and his crew worked in tandem with the United States Army to help in the war effort and fight the Axis Powers through animation.


One Man with a Dream… and a Mouse

walt disney mickey mouse dolls photography
Walt & Mickey Dolls from Disney Photo Archives, circa 1932, via Disney Fine Art


Born on December 5th, 1901, Walter Elias Disney was the son of Elias and Flora Call Disney. As a child, Walt Disney followed his family from Chicago to an idyllic farm in Marceline, Missouri, and eventually to Kansas City. In the latter, the young Disney found his love for vaudeville and movies, which went hand in hand with his interest in art.


In 1917, Walt Disney was enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before enlisting in the army during the First World War. Sent back home following the armistice, Disney tried to work in a commercial art studio and a film advertisement company until he, dissatisfied, moved to Hollywood with his brother Roy in 1923.


While Walt Disney tried to kick start his publicity studio Laugh-o-Gram with his brother Roy, success was hard to come by. Disney lost the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his most successful character to date, to Universal and had to scramble to find a replacement. A mouse named Mortimer was born, and with some encouragement from his wife, Lillian, Walt Disney renamed him Mickey. With the 1928 release of Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon synchronized with sound thus began the first successful years for Walt Disney.

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Technological advancements during the 1930s, such as the arrival of Technicolor, allowed the studio to release its first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. While Snow White won an honorary Academy Award, Walt Disney’s upcoming films Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Dumbo lacked financial success. So, during the Second World War, Walt Disney turned back to animated short films in the form of war propaganda.


Why did Walt Disney Create Propaganda Cartoons?

walt disney animation building photography
Walt & Animation Building from Disney Photo Archives, 1940, via Disney Fine Art


Before the United States entered the war, Walt Disney was already creating war propaganda at a time of financial struggles for his company. Five films (See Further Reading, Van Riper, 2011, p. 15) were commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada. With a lack of budget, these short films were made as cheaply as possible by reusing frames from original cartoons. Still, these were a boon for the Canadian agency, which hoped to encourage the public to buy bonds and refrain from traditional economic spending.


On December 8th, 1941, the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, everything changed for Walt Disney’s involvement in the war. A phone call with Lieutenant Cottle from the United States Navy Bureau of Supply and Accounts ensured the negotiations of twenty animated short films (See Further Reading, Gregory, 2019, p. 54) for the war effort.


The United States Army also requisitioned half of Walt Disney Studios’ lot in Burbank, California, for the war effort. Physical space was allocated for the troops, and the animators and artists employed by Walt Disney himself worked tirelessly to include iconic characters such as Donald Duck in the war effort. The United States Army also requested military training shorts and propaganda films; over one thousand military insignia showcasing Disney characters were created for the troops.


Walt Disney Studios followed the sentiment that flooded Hollywood at the time. Patriotic movies promoted the war effort. Factory workers, the enlisting process, and soldiers on the front lines were shown on screen through comedic cartoons to boost morale not only with the American troops but also with those who remained at home.


The Three Little Pigs & the Big Bad Nazi Wolf

three little pigs poster
The Three Little Pigs, 1947, via Heritage Auctions


In the 1933 short film The Three Little Pigs, three pig brothers move in next door to one another. The Three Little Pigs was a national hit. Its song “Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became an anthem of the Great Depression, and it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1934.


Renamed The Thrifty Pig in 1941, this film was remastered for the National Film Board of Canada. This time, the Big Bad Wolf was paraded in Nazi regalia, and the third pig built his house out of war bonds. The aesthetic of Walt Disney’s propaganda films, too, blending in comedy with the heaviness of the Second World War, was fully formed here.


According to Krista Leigh Richmond, one of propaganda’s tactics is to mobilize hatred against the enemy (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 6). By associating the swastika with the Big Bad Wolf, Disney personifies the looming Nazi threat in The Three Little Pigs, creating an easy association for the public  (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 29). This creature is a dangerous wolf, and the word “bad” is in his name.


Another aspect of the film’s appeal to propaganda refers to the Canadian economy during the war effort (See Further Reading, Van Riper, 2011, p. 17). Bonds were necessary to change the public’s views on spending. The no-nonsense pig building his house out of war bonds shows how the economy must be built on a strong foundation to ensure victory against the Nazis. This was the short film’s way of boosting morale: to show that the Canadian public’s preparedness was worth it and that the Big Bad Wolf would be beaten eventually.


How Donald Duck became the Poster Child of World War II

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Donald Duck title card art, circa 1942, via The Walt Disney Family Museum


Among Walt Disney’s most beloved characters, the one who will interest us today is Donald Duck. Having made his debut in the film The Wise Little Hen, he was an irritable character and lacked discipline. Because of these imperfections, Donald Duck was even more beloved than Mickey Mouse (See Further Reading, Shale, 1976, p. XI) and was primed to become the face of war propaganda.


More three-dimensional than Mickey Mouse, who mellowed out from his prankster persona in Steamboat Willie, Donald Duck was insubordinate. Short-tempered, selfish, and with some violent tendencies; he needed to learn discipline from the military. Even with all his faults, Donald Duck was also resilient and good-hearted. It was his fighting spirit (See Further Reading, Shale, 1976, p. XI), too, that made him the poster child of American soldiers.


During the War, Donald Duck appeared on over two hundred and sixteen logos for soldier patches and was a fan favorite throughout these uncertain years. Aircraft nose art and pins were, among other memorabilia, also dedicated to this cartoon character. Donald Duck’s wartime efforts were also represented on the silver screen in the few following classic animated shorts: Der Fuehrer’s Face, Donald gets Drafted, and Commando Duck. 


When Donald Duck Laughed in Der Fuehrer’s Face

der fuehrers face poster
Der Fuehrer’s Face, 1943, via Heritage Auctions


Released in 1943, Der Fuehrer’s Face starred Donald Duck suffering from a nightmare. He becomes the citizen of an absurdist “Nutzi land” controlled by the Axis Powers and salutes Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito every morning before breakfast. In the short film, Donald Duck, held at bayonet-point and driven mad by his tireless work in a Nazi munitions factory, wakes up in bed in his red, white, and blue-striped pajamas. With a sigh of relief, Donald Duck kisses and hugs a figurine of the Statue of Liberty, elated that the United States is still free.


According to Krista Leigh Richmond, another propaganda tactic to boost morale is to show what is best about the United States and what is worst about Nazi Germany (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 58). Disney’s short film exemplifies this perfectly. Through Donald Duck’s terrified character, Der Fuehrer’s Face strives to show that Americans – and their values – are lucky that the Axis Powers don’t control the world… yet.


Another tactic used by propaganda is to allow the public to identify democracy and what stands against it (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 25). If the Second World War takes a turn for the worse, Disney’s short film warns emotionally and dramatically to the public that American democracy is in danger and needs to be protected. A nightmarish descent into Nazi hell and the loss of American values, represented by the Statue of Liberty, is Walt Disney’s warning for the years to come. The fate of America as a society is at stake.


Donald Duck Drafted into the War

donald duck gets drafted poster
Donald Duck gets Drafted, 1942, via The Movie Database


Released in 1942, Donald gets Drafted shows Donald Duck enlisting into the United States Army, tempted by the allure of glory and women in propaganda posters. After passing the health examination tests (in which his palmate feet, colorblindness, and insufficient hearing aren’t taken into consideration), he is sent to boot camp training. There, discipline will be instilled into him when he’s put on potato duty.


Another tactic of propaganda is to boost morale through clarification, education, and entertainment (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 24). Donald gets Drafted uses this tactic by familiarizing the public with the enlistment process. In the short film, Donald Duck goes through each step that awaited soldiers when joining the army, from signing the enlistment papers to the boot camp. In this way, Donald Duck was the face of young Americans who wanted to fight on the front lines.


Cartoon comedy was also a tool of entertainment propaganda. (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 29). Just as the enlistment process was condensed, the military’s values were summarized within the film’s minutes of runtime. Through the use of propaganda posters within the short film’s narrative, real or imagined and even in a comedic tone, Donald gets Drafted shows that while glory and pretty women may have attracted soldiers to join the army, it was the militaristic discipline that would win the War.


Donald Duck on the Front Lines

commando duck poster
Commando Duck, 1944, via The Poster Database


Released in 1944, Commando Duck featured the Pacific theater. In this short film, Japanese caricatures shoot at Donald Duck, depicted as an enlisted Army soldier parachuting from an airplane into Japanese-occupied territory (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 19). Following orders, Donald Duck destroys a Japanese base through accidental cartoon hijinks. Only the skeletal remains of birds and planes remain. Donald Duck notes that while the enemy wasn’t wiped out, it was washed out instead.


Anti-Japanese propaganda was heavily racialized: Japanese people and their land were exoticized and placed within a primeval jungle. Disney’s short film fits this tone. It focused on the fears of American soldiers catapulted into foreign, “exotic” territory and asked to kill the enemy as swiftly and as efficiently as possible (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 10).


According to Krista Leigh Richmond, one last tactic of propaganda is to inspire values such as loyalty, conviction, and courage (See Further Reading, Richmond, 2003, p. 25). Commando Duck uses this tactic, too. Its message served as a reminder that even though he’s scared, Donald Duck is courageous enough to dive into enemy territory and complete his mission. If even clumsy Donald Duck could follow orders and succeed, then it could be believed that the average American soldier could succeed, too.


After the War: Donald Duck, US Army Veteran

donald duck 50th birthday print
50 Jahre Donald Duck, 1984, via Heritage Auctions


What is truly fascinating about Walt Disney’s efforts in war propaganda culminates after the end of the Second World War. Of course, Donald Duck was an animated character and therefore was never on the front lines himself. Yet, during his 50th birthday celebration in 1984, he was decorated as an honorary member of the US Marine Corps. Donald Duck was also given the rank of Sergeant E-5 for his service during World War II.


walt disney animated characters photography
Walt & Animated Characters from Disney Photo Archives, 1939, via Disney Fine Art


Even decades after the end of the war, Donald Duck remains a fan favorite. Beloved because of his flaws, not despite them, he is one of Walt Disney’s most iconic characters to this day. He had come a long way from his introduction in the short film The Wise Little Hen, where he made his first appearance in 1934. Fifty years later, after having nightmarish dreams of “Nutzi land” and serving in the US Army during the Second World War, Donald Duck was thanked for his efforts as an agent of war propaganda.


To Conclude, What Linked Walt Disney & World War II Propaganda?

walt disney statue disney world photography
The Walt Disney Statue in Disney World, 2020, via Pexels


In the end, what role did Walt Disney play in creating propaganda during the Second World War? Walt Disney and his crew worked tirelessly throughout the War to engage the American public in matters abroad with their animated short films. A new version of The Three Little Pigs, as well as the Donald Duck shorts Der Fuehrer’s Face, Donald Duck gets Drafted, and Commando Duck, were propaganda machines meant to show the public a clear, idealized vision of the war front, and what could happen if the United States lost.


Ever since the introduction of Mickey Mouse in 1928, Walt Disney’s animated films have breathed life into a new medium. And ever since the end of the Second World War, the Walt Disney Company has also become a cornerstone of American culture.


Further Reading:


Bowdoin Van Riper, A. Learning from Mickey, Donald and Walt: essays on Disney’s edutainment films, Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2011. Accessible online: https://books.google.ca/booksid=k1BDUjmppucC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false


Gregory, J (2019). DRAFTING DISNEY FOR VICTORY: ANIMATION, PROPAGANDA, AND POLITICAL RESISTANCE, 1941-1942, Master’s Thesis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Accessible online: https://ninercommons.charlotte.edu/islandora/object/


Leigh Richmond, K (2003). “The beginning of a beautiful friendship”: World War II propaganda in feature films from 1939-1943, Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Accessible online: https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6693&context=utk_gradthes


Shale, R A (1976). DONALD DUCK JOINS UP: THE WALT DISNEY STUDIO DURING WORLD WAR II, P.h.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Accessible online: https://www.proquest.com/openview/99fa78c5003a7d50d75cff824b38d99b/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

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By Marianne PlasseBA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art HistoryMarianne completed her bachelor's degree in History as well as an undergraduate certificate in Art History at the University of Montreal along with an undergraduate certificate in Proofreading at Laval University. Her areas of interest are the Mediterranean world during ancient times, European History from the fifteenth through to the twentieth centuries, and North American History from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. I have a soft spot for Greek mythology, Impressionist painting, Charlie Chaplin comedies, and comic book movies.