At War with Donald Duck

During the Second World War, Walt Disney became closely associated with the American propaganda effort. One character in particular would feature in more than his fair share of these films, Donald Duck.

The late 1930s were a relatively successful period for Disney. In 1937 it had released its first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The early years of the Second World War, however, did have an effect on the studio. While it still was producing films, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940), it was increasingly reliant on the domestic American market. The entry of the United States into the conflict changed all this. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor,  Disney began taking commissions from various branches of the United States government and military to produce propaganda features. Its studio in Burbank was even requisitioned by the United States army and part of it was turned into an anti-aircraft battery to help with the defence of Los Angeles.

Disney’s Burbank Studio c.1940 (Walt Disney Archives)

Instead of opting to use Mickey Mouse in their wartime propaganda, the studio chose to use Donald Duck. Having made his cinematic debut in 1934, it was felt that Donald’s short-temper and angry persona was perfect for the role of confronting fascism. A series of six short films was produced for the US Army, which charted Donald’s fictional military career began with Donald Gets Drafted (1942). These films chronicled his training right through to his eventual deployment to the Pacific theatre in Commando Duck (1944). While these films were intended to display Donald as a good patriot and encourage American citizens to sign up for military service, they also tell us how the United States was thinking about their enemies. The Japanese troops which Donald Duck fights in Commando Duck (the only wartime depiction of a Disney character engaged in direct combat) are portrayed as inept soldiers and their appearance informed by racist stereotypes that were common in Allied anti-Japanese propaganda.

Theatrical Release Posters of the six film series produced for the US Army (Pinterest)

Arguably the most famous propaganda film that Disney produced during the war was the  Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943). In this film, Donald has a nightmare in which he is a forced labourer in Nazi Germany. The film highlighted the brutality of the Nazi state, emphasising to the American people that it was an evil that needed to be defeated.

Theatrical Release Poster for Der Fuehrer’s Face (IMDB)

While the focus has been on American propaganda, it is worth stating that the first government to approach Disney for their services was the Canadian government. A series of four short films were in production before Pearl Harbor, two of which featured Donald Duck. Donald’s Decision and All Together were both released in January 1942, encouraging Canadians to purchase war bonds and support the Canadian and Commonwealth war effort.

On the American home front, the US Treasury commissioned Disney to create short educational films for a similar purpose. The New Spirit (1942) and its sequel The Spirt of ’43 (1943) feature Donald paying his income tax, here displayed as a patriotic act. In The Spirit of ’43 Donald’s tax contributions pay for a whole range of military equipment, from submarines, to anti-aircraft guns, as well as tanks and planes. The audience are told that they should pay their taxes “to bury the Axis.”

Donald Duck was also used in American diplomacy.  Under the direction of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), a branch of the US government founded by President Roosevelt in 1941, Disney produced a series of films intended to improve United States relations with Latin America as part of the ‘Good Neighbor’ policy. Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1945) feature Donald Duck touring South America. In The Three Caballeros, Donald is accompanied by a Brazilian parrot, José, and a Mexican rooster, Panchito. The nationality of these two birds was chosen deliberately as Brazil and Mexico were the only South American nations to commit combat troops to the Allied armies in the Second World War. A Brazilian Expeditionary Force fought in Italy and a Mexican fighter squadron was involved in the liberation of the Philippines. By producing films for the Latin American market, it also allowed Disney to relieve some of the economic pressure it was under as the war had drastically lowered its international revenue.

Donald (L), Panchito (C), and José (R) from The Three Caballeros (Walt Disney Archives)

Whether he was promoting patriotic acts on the home front, actively fighting the enemy, or encouraging other nations to join the Allied cause, Donald Duck played a central role in United States wartime propaganda. By the time hostilities ceased in August 1945, Donald had appeared in no less than fourteen propaganda features. All this just goes to show that even cartoon characters can be mobilised in a total war.

By Liam Redfern

Liam received his master’s degree in history from the University of Essex in 2018 and returned at the start of this year to begin a PhD. His research interests include twentieth-century British foreign policy in Asia and the global aspects of the Second World War. He is also interested in local histories of the war in his home county of Suffolk, having grown up with stories from veterans of the Burma theatre and worked on a heritage project that promoted the legacy of the 8th USAAF in East Anglia.