“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy— the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressing Congress and the American people on Dec. 8, 1941.
More than 65 years after President Roosevelt’s timeless announcement, it is easy for us to regard America’s entry into World War II as inevitable. But before Roosevelt spoke those words, the average American would have defined himself as determinedly isolationist. If World War I had taught Americans anything, it was that intervention overseas was a waste of lives and resources. The conflict looming in Europe throughout the 1930s was a problem, but not one he saw as his to solve.
All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, it became apparent that the United States’ role in the war was to be an active one, and the national state of denial was crushed. America needed a massive propaganda effort to get a rattled public to move to support intervention as quickly as possible, and every branch of media would have to be involved—including the redheaded stepchild of the film industry: the animated cartoon.
Golden age of animation
Animated film has been around as long as film itself, although few of the earliest examples remain in the historical record. Cartoons of the silent era never had the attention or respect live-action movies enjoyed, and when watching one it isn’t hard to see why: to bring the field to maturity required a very steep learning curve, which took almost the whole of the silent era to traverse.
By the 1930s, however, the animation studios were beginning to feel their oats and make some noise. Walt Disney was already established, having debuted Mickey Mouse in 1928 and won his first Academy Award in 1932. His studio would continue to break artistic and technological ground in the field for the rest of the decade, culminating in the historic premiere of the feature-length Snow White in 1937.
But Disney was only the first of the legendary cartoon creators. In a period (mid-1930s to mid-1940s) so prolific that it is widely acknowledged as animation’s Golden Age, several studios which had spent the ’20s gathering steam suddenly found their feet and began to hit winners. Some remain household names: Popeye and Betty Boop from the Fleischer studios and the Looney Tunes from the Schlesinger Studios (distributed by Warner Brothers).
As an art and an industry, animation was entering its period of greatest eloquence just when the U.S. government needed it most. After Pearl Harbor, the film industry went to war in the most literal way—by joining the Army. Hundreds of thousands of untrained civilians were in uniform almost before they knew what was happening, and bringing these new soldiers to combat readiness would require a miracle of re-education on—well, on a Hollywood scale. The bad news for the military’s visual training effort was that at the beginning of World War II, its methods, technology, and attitudes hadn’t advanced too far from those of World War I. The good news was that it had all the resources of Hollywood at its disposal to bring its techniques up to speed.
Toons go to war
The First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force (FMPU) was organized in 1942 by Warner Brothers’ Jack Warner, who received a commission as lieutenant colonel for the purpose. The unit would eventually take over the Hal Roach studios in Culver City, Calif. Some of the
famous names on duty at Fort Roach included Capts. Ronald Reagan and William Holden, and Sgts. Alan Ladd, George Montgomery, and Lee J. Cobb.
Maj. Rudolf Ising, who had created the first Looney Tunes in the early 1930s, was in charge of the animation unit. Cartoon animation as a training tool had been a reality since World War I; Max Fleischer (of Popeye fame) made training films at Fort Sill for the duration. The animated short subject was briefer, simpler, and more entertaining than a lecture or live-action film, and was hence more reliably able to hold the attention of armed services trainees.
The FMPU’s animators produced more material than any Hollywood studio in the same period. Some of it was highly detailed with the strong plot and characterization that we associate with the civilian cartoon; some was more basic, showing lines progressing on a map or simply animated diagrams.
As far as military discipline went, the animation unit was a disgrace; order, cleanliness, and respect for hierarchy formed no part of its work ethic. But the animators weren’t there to look good. They were there to make highly technical information sufficiently entertaining to keep a serviceman’s attention, and sufficiently simple to stick in his mind long enough to perhaps save his life. And unlike the civilian audience, military personnel wouldn’t necessarily be receptive: weary, cynical, and with an ironclad resistance to condescension, the serviceman would listen to only someone speaking his own language.
The FMPU cartoons responded with slang, irreverence, humor, and an occasional bit of titillation. Subjects ranged from gunnery to flying to reconnaissance. The effect on preparedness was direct and measurable, reducing training time by quickly imparting concepts that can only be shown, not told. Their vernacular style made them ideal vehicles for attitude adjustment as well—no official reprimands were able to stop the dangerous aerial prank known as flat-hatting—military pilots flying close to the ground to harass civilians—but a FMPU cartoon poking fun at the practice had an immediate effect.
But even the prolific FMPU couldn’t fill the military’s gaping need for animated films. Many studios had government contracts, producing war cartoons in addition to their normal civilian output. But the Disney studio, alone among them, was occupied—literally. Only hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army commandeered part of the studio for coastal defense purposes, and a strange military atmosphere prevailed in which Disney employees wearing ID badges went about their business among men bearing guns.
In addition, Walt Disney threw the overwhelming majority of the studio’s resources into producing animation for the war effort; in fiscal year 1942-43, 95 percent of the studio’s output of film stock was for the military. Of its features now regarded as classics, only one—Bambi—debuted while America was at war, and much of the work on that was done before Pearl Harbor.
Feature-length cartoons were always a passion for Disney, and Victory Through Air Power was his wartime contribution to the genre. Based on the like-titled book by Maj. Alexander P. de Seversky, the film extols the superiority of long-range air bombing over the more traditional forms of warfare. Reviews were mixed and the movie lost money, but de Seversky was right—bombing and air warfare would prove to be among the crucial building blocks of the eventual Allied victory.
The most famous characters of the Golden Age are still household names for the most part: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye. They all joined the war effort. But Warner Brothers sent a new star to war for the edification and enjoyment of America’s servicemen—Private Snafu, who appeared in 26 short films for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine between 1943 and 1945.
Snafu’s creators include the great names of Warner Brothers history: Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Carl Stalling, Mel Blanc. Another member of the team was Theodor Geisel, who contributed to Snafu’s stories and animation, and who was already famous in his own right as Dr. Seuss. Together, they created a legendarily bad soldier, the worst soldier in the Army, who made all the mistakes so that his audience wouldn’t have to.
Propaganda on the home front
If cartoons proved to be an effective way to communicate to the armed forces, they were no less effective when used on the home front. Early military setbacks in the Pacific caused an understandable anxiety, which was exacerbated by the necessary behavior modification in civilians’ lives. The task of the entertainment industry was to bolster national unity, create confidence, and harden resolve against the enemy.
One of the cheapest ways (in every sense) to accomplish the latter was through blatant racism. A hallmark of propaganda in any war is that it demonizes the enemy, and the fact that one of the enemies was Asian made it easier than ever to establish “otherness.” The simplistic jibes of racism fit easily into the three- to seven-minute comedy format, and troglodytic Germans traipsed with simian Japanese through the war machine’s animated output. Titles like “Tokio Jokio,” “Scrap the Japs,” and “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” speak for themselves.
Some more direct propaganda assaults took this lower-rent demonization to a more complex level, and could be very solemn indeed. Disney’s “Education for Death” is probably the benchmark for biggest cartoon downer of the war years, with its dark projection of Nazi youth indoctrination. It makes vague reference to the euthanasia of the unfit, but the actual Holocaust was too serious a subject to be addressed in most shorts. Terrytoons and Warner Brothers each released a cartoon about mice in concentration camps run by sadistic cats, but otherwise the topic remained in the background.
Having established the enemy with broad sweeping gestures, getting civilians through the lifestyle changes required by war required a more homely touch. The humorous potential of rationing was not lost on cartoon creators, and even cartoons that were not directly topical would often drop jokes on the subject in passing. Bond pitches were so ubiquitous as to become another running gag for awhile, with parodies of posters appearing in the background of otherwise unrelated cartoons. Donald Duck paid his taxes, Bugs Bunny sold bonds, Andy Panda planted a victory garden, and civilian morale stayed high through everyday hardships that might otherwise be irredeemably aggravating.
The content of cartoons made for civilian consumption was shaped not just by war, but by the demographic shifts that the war had caused. One example was in the aforementioned racism: Pearl Harbor combined with the reports of the Bataan Death March made savage caricatures of the Japanese dubiously topical; however, the United States’ internment of Japanese citizens also made it easier for creators to give racism free rein without fear that it would rebound on their box-office.
(The industry’s shift in attention and subject matter toward Latin American audiences was more directly imposed. The film industry as a whole had been turning its sights southward ever since the war began closing off access to audiences in Europe. In addition, Axis propaganda in the region sparked concern in the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which made outreach a priority and sent Walt Disney on a goodwill tour of Latin America the summer before Pearl Harbor. His feature-length collection Saludos Amigos was the result of his time there, and was released to great enthusiasm in South America in 1942.)
As it moved into its final year, the war had become a way of life for Americans both civilian and military. The news was generally good, with Allied victories in Europe and the Pacific, and rationing and bond-buying were so firmly entrenched in habit that nobody needed to be reminded of them. So while the film output of the FMPU for the military remained high, the number of war-related films and cartoons for civilian consumption plummeted; people wanted entertainment again, and Hollywood gave it to them.
Victory was declared in Europe on May 8, 1945, with the Japanese surrender following on Sept. 2. The First Motion Picture Unit did not survive past the end of the war, and its output of films and cartoons was destroyed almost in total. Some of the cartoons contracted from studios are still in existence, including the Private Snafu cartoons, but otherwise the historical record of the war years contains only the cartoons made for civilian release.
Today, we are accustomed to the idea of education through animated cartoons, particularly for the very young. But in the 20th century’s defining conflict, a raffish crew of wisecracking caricatures used this simple tool to convert the untapped energy, innovation, and diligence of the American masses into the power to save the world.
Kathy Monahan wrote about the Dewey Decimal Classification system in the July/August 2007 issue of the magazine. Art courtesy of David Lesjak from toonsatwar.blogspot.com.