By the time the House Un-American Activities Committee called its first witnesses, it had already compiled a list of potential Communist subversives with the help of files from the F.B.I. Walt Disney came to be personally involved in the investigations when HUAC called him to testify (on a voluntary basis) on October 24th.
Disney, along with others like Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand and Gary Cooper, were collectively known as “the friendly witnesses,” so called because of their willingness to cooperate rather enthusiastically with the committee and whose loyalty and “Americanism is not questioned.” Most were also members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the Conservative red-baiting organization that some have suggested actually helped compile the original list of Communist Party members in Hollywood that HUAC used for its investigations.
Disney's testimony before HUAC quickly revealed his bitterness to the 1941 cartoonists strike at his studios as well as his attitudes towards Communism. After an introductory spate of biographical questions, the lead investigator H. A. Smith asks Disney about his wartime propaganda shorts: “From those pictures that you made, have you any opinion as to whether or not the films can be used effectively to disseminate propaganda?” Disney replied that he thought they did. Of course, this question was not a random or insignificant one but rather had a clear purpose: it tried to establish for the public record Disney's credibility and knowledge on such matters as propaganda, which would serve to bolster and legitimate Disney's subsequent testimony regarding Communist influence in Hollywood. Disney continued, explaining how he felt his films were successful: “Well, on the one for the Treasury on taxes, it was to let the people know that taxes were important in the war effort. As they explained to me, they had 13,000,000 new taxpayers...” Disney did go on to assure the committee though that his studio no longer employs propaganda.
Afterwards, the questioning from Smith and Disney's testimony dealt with the heart of the matter.
• Smith: Do you have any people in your studio at the present time that
• you believe are Communist or Fascist, employed there?
• Disney: No; at the present time I feel that everybody in my studio is
• one-hundred-percent American.
• Smith: Have you had at any time, in your opinion, in the past, have you
• at any time in the past had any Communists employed at your studio?
• Disney: Yes; in the past I had some people that I definitely feel were
• Smith: As a matter of fact, Mr. Disney, you experienced a strike at your
• studio, did you not?
• Disney: Yes.
• Smith: And is it your opinion that that strike was instituted by members
• of the Communist Party to serve their purposes?
• Disney: Well, it proved itself so with time, and I definitely feel it was
• a Communist group trying to take over my artists and they did take
• them over.
• CHAIRMAN (Parnell Thomas): Do you say they did take them over?
Beyond the simplified and whitewashed accounts of the 1941 strike, Disney's testimony is quiet revelatory on another account: Disney equated Communism (and Fascism) with the antithesis of everything that was American. In other words, being a Communist or a “fellow traveler” was inherently seditious and anti-American. The testimony also reveals the extent to which much of the anti-communism of Disney (and of many others) was based on faulty assumptions and varied according to personal whims.
Disney identified Herb Sorrell as the individual that was the at the heart of the strike and described an encounter he had with Sorrell in his office. According to Disney's version of events, Sorrell was threatening in the encounter: "I have all of the tools of the trade sharpened," and apparently Sorrell continued to say “that [Disney] couldn't stand the ridicule or the smear of a strike...I will smear you and I will make a dust bowl out of your plant.” And to this, again according to his own testimony, Disney responded: “I told him that it was a matter of principle with me...that I couldn't go on working with my boys feeling that I had sold them down the river.” This account of the encounter, whether historically accurate or not, demonstrates Disney's fundamentally paternalistic attitude towards his employees. But more importantly, it shows Uncle Walt's perception of his idealized self and therefore the idealized person: a man that is bound by duty to protect those under his care; a man whose ideals never wavered under external pressure, no matter how strong.
The fundamentally trivial nature upon which much of the American anti-communism in the post-war era was based is also demonstrated vividly by Disney's response to a question by chairman Thomas: “The first people to smear me...were all of the Commie front organizations. I can't remember them all, they change so often, but one that is clear in my mind is the League of Women Shoppers, The People's World, The Daily Worker, and the PM magazine in New York.” The next day, Disney sent a telegram besieging the Committee chairman to strike from the official record the reference (he had made the day earlier) to the League of Women Shoppers. In fact, it was not a Communist front organization as he claimed. Disney went on to further identify supposed Communists that had worked at his studios. David Hilberman was a Communist “because he had no religion” and had spent time at the “Moscow Art Theater.” Maurice Howard was a Communist and so was William Pomerance too; but then again, “no one has any way of proving those things.”
What is interesting to note about Disney's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in general is the language he uses and the imagery that is evoked as a result; the themes of his testimony could have very easily been borrowed from one of Disney's many movie scripts. The workers at the studios were “good, solid Americans.” They were “my boys” just defending “their American rights.” While the accused Communists were often described very differently: “they” were un-American and we are told that we must “fight them,” otherwise, “it” will interfere with the rights of the people. In other words, a language of anonymity was used to great emotional effect, evoking imagery of a David and Goliath struggle, where Disney was the David and the amorphous but omnipresent Communist enemy was the Goliath. “I know that I have been handicapped out there in fighting it,” Disney testified. But in the end, how could he lose?
This imagery of Good against Evil was present and took center stage in Disney's movies throughout his career in animation. The first animated cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack to be released begins to deal with similar themes. Steamboat Willie, released in 1929, opens with the lovable and jovial Mickey Mouse steering his ship when to the viewer's surprise, the large and threatening Captain Pete makes his entry (signaled by an abrupt change in the tone of music) and forcefully removes Mickey from the steer. As the animated short progresses, Mickey must also deal with a loud-mouthed but enviably-positioned parrot who mocks the Mouse's misfortunes endlessly.
In the end, Mickey “teaches” the parrot a lesson but never is able to deal with the Captain. Presumably, this is an attempt by Disney at portraying the “David” but also reminding the audience that a level of authority must always exist and be respected. In his latter career, Disney's movies would be more uncompromising in their representations of the “Davidian” battle that must be waged. In the 1961 release of One Hundred and One dalmatians, the antagonist Creulla De Vil kidnaps a group of lovable Dalmatians in order to be used as fur only to have her plans ruined by the dogs.