Saturday, August 25, 2007

Walt Disney and the HUAC Investigations

Disney’s Involvement in the House Un-American Activities Committee

Walt Disney's involvement in HUAC, hearings set up in 1947 to investigate charges that Hollywood was infiltrated by Communists, has its direct roots in 1941 when cartoonists working at the Disney studios and organized by the Screen Cartoonists Guild went on strike for better wages and working conditions.

Disney, described as “a benign dictator” by some and a tyrant by others, never forgot this experience. The problems for Disney started on May 28 in 1941 when the Screen cartoonists Guild, after having had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board previously, went on strike. The strike, with many bitter moments, ended only with the intervention of the Federal government on September 15th of the same year. Of course, the Disney corporations labor unrest is not an isolated incident and can viewed in the larger context of increased radicalization and politicization of union activity caused in part by the 1930's Depression. But Disney's problems had largely internal roots. Simply put, Disney's own paternalism and the uneven treatment he showed towards his employees led to discontent within the studios.

Disney saw the strike, as was to be expected, in a different light. For example, in a letter to Disney shareholders in 1941, Disney discussed the strike under a brief Labor Relations section. He writes: “For the first time in its history the company was, during 1941, beset by labor troubles. [While] a majority of our employees stayed at work...activities on the part of sympathetic unions [made] it impossible to deliver and exhibit our work.” And he continues: “Repeated efforts by the company to effect a settlement were unavailing.” In other words Disney sought to portray the strikers as a an unreasonable minority who had repeatedly neglected generous offers from Disney. At other times, Disney portrayed the strikers as Communist dupes. According to Art Babbitt, a leading Disney animator and organizer of the strike, Walt Disney “was an America firster [who] saw a Communist behind every tree, every bush.” But by that time, with the hindsight of history, it was clear that the Communist Party had been partially discredited in Hollywood after the coming to light of the secret Nazi-Soviet pact, which served to realign many left-leaning sentiments away from the Communist fold.

Disney's willingness to testify before HUAC in 1947 and therefore firmly align himself with the anti-communist tide of the time, also revealed a certain bias that had other indirect roots which could be traced back to his youth and his early career in animation.

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