What if I told you that World War II might have ended differently had it not been for a cartoon?
When Walt Disney first made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of his primary concerns was whether or not people would invest emotionally in a cartoon, and the sheer level of dedication to detail at every level of production was astounding. His results paid off when the film was released in 1937. But just a handful of years later, the world was a very different place.
The circumstances for release of this film were extremely limited. The advent of World War II cut the European distribution market completely, resulting in almost half of Disney’s finances being cut. With the American entry into the war, Disney was determined to do his part and dedicated his studio to the task of wartime propaganda and training cartoons as of December 8, 1941. This service didn’t seem to him like they were enough. Looking to turn the tide of the war, Disney felt he’d found the means to do exactly that following his reading of a book called Victory Through Air Power, written by Alexander P. de Seversky and published in 1942. Equipped with the right message at the right time and the means to get this message viewed by government officials and the general public, Disney set to work — and set aside his usual critical standards — to rush de Seversky’s theories into the right hands.
De Seversky was a Russian aviator and inventor during World War I, where he served with distinction, and continued to fly even after losing a leg. He emigrated to the United States following the October Revolution that tore his homeland apart. In 1918, he served with the American Signal Corps as a test pilot, and then after the Armistice, he served as assistant to General Billy Mitchell. Mitchell is best known for being America’s leading air power advocate and father of the United States Air Force, whose advice in regard to bomber power was strongly ignored during and after the war until his death in 1936. De Seversky picked up Mitchell’s banner, promoting the advanced understanding that land and naval forces were powerless under the developing technologies of the aircraft.
De Seversky’s book outlined the basic doctrines of how aircraft could be used to carve paths for these forces, or could be used to stop supply lines and manufacturing at the source through the use of strategic bombing. It seems like common sense today, but those tactics came from somewhere. In 1942 when de Seversky’s book was published, the German Luftwaffe was already being deployed specifically to target and break through ground defenses, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor further illustrated these theories. De Seversky argued that an air force dedicated to air-to-air combat would challenge and prevent these superior tactics. The German and Japanese war machines would spend their resources dedicating simply to replenish while American forces could use that time to build dedicated bombers that could do what the Axis forces could not.
This was the message Disney would promote. Rushing his picture into production, Disney utilized not only the animation that had made him famous, but also filmed live action sequences with de Seversky himself explaining his theories.
Using the (up to that point) 40-year history of aviation as a backdrop for how air strategy developed, the film outlined everything in no uncertain terms and explained that these tactics were inevitable and up for grabs to whichever military utilized it first. As of now, America had the upper hand and could rush to meet the challenge before the Axis powers could be mobilized to do so.
Disney ran a $1.2 million wartime deficit that he could not pay back until 1945. His usual distributor RKO felt there would be limited profit in a film like this, but determined to get the film screened, Disney turned to United Artists for distribution. On July 11, 1943, The New York Times ran a half-page on the film, using images and captions to promote the film in such a way that it marks the first time skilled use of such media was done so for the service of political argument.
Major de Seversky and Walt Disney know what they are talking about, for I suspect that an awful lot of people who see Victory Through Air Power are going to think they do… I had the feeling I was sold something under pretty high pressure, which I don’t enjoy, and I am staggered at the ease with which such self-confidence, on matters of such importance, can be blared all over the nation, without cross-questioning.
— James Agee, film critic
Ultimately it was Winston Churchill who convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt to view the picture when Disney sent a print of it to the Quebec Conference they were attending. The film changed the president’s way of thinking and the general tact of the American offensive as a result. Though the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive was already underway by June 1943, Roosevelt recognized the film as an extraordinary way of teaching both the public and the military, and as superior to every other documentary film of the time.
While some tactics proposed in the film have since been derided as impractical, history has ultimately shown this film to be largely accurate. As a result of one sequence in the film, the British developed a rocket bomb that saw brief usage during the war, nicknamed the Disney bomb. After releases in 1943 and 1944, the film was not shown in its entirety again for another 60 years, being deemed offensive to the German and Japanese peoples as wartime propaganda. Even so, Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, who starred in other such films of the era, became immensely popular in those countries after the war and remain so to this day.
As much as I’m fascinated by Disney and by animation in general, I see this film as something different. I’ve seen all manner of wartime propaganda films over the years from both Disney and Warner Brothers, but this one is one I’d only heard about until now. Having finally seen it for myself, and knowing what I know about the uncertainties of the wartime climate when it was released, it’s really quite thought-provoking to consider how influential this film might have been to winning the war through hearts and minds. Sometimes it’s hard to know for certain where fact leaves off and legend picks up, but it’s fun to consider the implications. For an armchair historian like me, it’s simply one of those things I needed to see for myself to really wrap my head around all the things I’d ever heard about it over the years.
I realize that some of you would probably like to see this wartime curiosity for yourselves. Here you go:
Though an obvious product of its time and place, Victory Through Air Power provides a fascinating look at aviation history and wartime strategy precisely because of its niche in the propaganda machine. It also serves to highlight the differences in Disney’s usual high standards and something of this caliber that was rushed into production, which is interesting to me from a technical aspect. “Faulty” though it is, it’s still quite astounding what the animators pulled off in so short a time. In the end, it may be hyperbole to think Disney’s contribution turned the tide of the war given all points of consideration, but it certainly helped in that regard in more ways than one.
And just because I’m always conscious of film music, it should be noted that Edward H. Plumb, Paul J. Smith and Oliver Wallace were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to be able to hunt down the soundtrack album for this one.