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Disney and the FBI

The powerful influence of the Cold War pervaded…the Disney Studio in the 1950s.[1] It was a time of fear and suspicion,…loyalty oaths and anti-communism crusaders.[2] J. Edgar Hoover,…[who had] provided a spoken prologue to Spy Smasher (1942),[3]…[was] eager to pursue his red-hunting expeditions…[by] cultivat[ing] many figures in Hollywood. In 1954, according to a memo in Disney’s FBI file, the entertainer offered the agency "complete access to the facilities to Disneyland for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes."[4]

The head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation a Disney fan? To be sure. But Hoover was more. He was reportedly Disney's boss. Disney had been among the earliest and most forceful of the film community’s anti-communists,[5]…us[ing] the Red Scare[6] — the witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R., Wis.)[7][i] — to break the cartoonists union, a collaborator in what became the Hollywood Blacklist.[8]

Nationally, the purge began in Hollywood, when the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] staged its assault on the film industry.[ii]… The hearings were a circus, with throngs of giggling women mobbing "friendly" witnesses, such as Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor and Walt Disney, who testified that Communists at his studio were trying to use Mickey Mouse to spread Communist propaganda.[9] In his testimony,…Disney discusse[d] the effect that he believe[d] communists…had on his employees, who had recently unionized and gone on strike:[10]…"It was a Communist group trying to take over my artists and they did take them over" [House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, 80th Congress, 1st session (Washington, 1947), 282. Disney testified on 24 Oct 1947].[11]

"Unfriendly" witnesses and those who opposed the hearings, such as John Huston, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, were vilified. The Hollywood Ten, a group of artists who refused on principle to say whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party, were jailed for contempt of Congress. They would emerge to find their careers ruined, because, to butter up the committee, Hollywood’s film bosses had declared them "blacklisted."[12]

The blacklist made all too literal the cliché about the authorless anonymity of the average Hollywood film. After the first HUAC hearing (in 1947) and particularly after the first trials (in 1951) a number of film-makers were forced to work anonymously.[13]

For its part, the FBI approved Disney as a "SAC contact," a largely honorary designation given to friendly community leaders who were willing to talk with the agency's special agent in charge for their region [Walt Disney's FBI file: see document 94-4-4667-2 (16 Dec 1954) for information on Disney's designation as an SAC contact].[14]

"People come up to me and say, 'How dare you say those terrible things about Uncle Walt?' " says [cartoonist and producer Bill] Melendez.… "But he was a real rat. He sold out."[15] From October, 1940, [Disney] had been a loyal and dedicated domestic spy for [Hoover’s] FBI [Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince (New York: Carol Publ., 1993), p. 169].[16]

Hoover sent Disney a formal letter of congratulations in 1956 after he received the Milestone Award from the Screen Producers Guild, and Disney replied with a note of thanks. There was little additional contact until 1961, when the agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office presented Disney with a copy of Hoover's book, Masters of Deceit [Disney’s file: see 94-4-4667-6 (9 Nov 1956) and 54-4-4667-7 (26 Nov 1954) for Hoover and Disney’s exchange of letters on the Milestone Award].[17]

Masters of Deceit was not written by Edgar, nor was it his idea. The book grew out of a suggestion by Assistant Director William Sullivan, was written by four or five Bureau agents assigned to the job and was "polished up" by Fern Stukenbroeker, an agent with a Ph.D. who worked in Crime Records.[18] Masters of Deceit was published in 1958 by Henry Holt, a publishing firm owned by Clinton Murchison, the Texas oilman who put Hoover and Tolson up each summer at his hotel in La Jolla, [California]. Even though the book was written on government time by government employees, Hoover and his associates split the money among themselves.… The book's actual writers made nothing, which certainly bothered their boss, William C. Sullivan, who later said, "We used to joke at the bureau, 'Masters of Deceit, written by the Master of Deceit who never even read it.' "[19]

The filmmaker posted a brief letter of appreciation to Hoover, in which he expressed his "appreciation as a citizen for what you have done and the fight which you are continually waging for the protection of our way of life."… But Disney’s sympathy for Hoover’s anticommunism did not keep the FBI from circulating in-house memos casting a suspicious eye on his attendance at…gatherings hosted by leftist groups under surveillance in the 1940s [Disney’s file: see 62-60527-25 (26 July 1951), 62-68527-42803 (May 10, 1955), and 62-102561-58 (14 Dec 1956) for the FBI's concern about Disney's attendance at leftist gatherings in the 1940s]. Nor did it keep Disney from satirizing the agency as bureaucratic bunglers in his films That Darn Cat and Moon Pilot in the 1960s [Walt Disney’s FBI file: see documents 94-4-4667-3 (16 March 1956), 94-4667-13 (17 April 1957), and 94-4-4667-20 (22 Oct 1957) on the FBI’s annoyance with That Darn Cat and Moon Pilot].[20]

For the FBI, surveillance meant targeting an individual and then keeping tabs on his/her activities. In the process of collecting this information, however, the FBI also gathered intelligence on everyone who came into contact with the surveillance suspect [John T. Elliff, "The Scope and Basis of FBI Data Collection," in Stephen Gillers and Pat Watters, eds., Investigating the FBI (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1973), p. 258].[21]

Justice may be blind, but she has very sophisticated listening devices.[22][iii] Having the feeling that you’re "being watched" is very common among cartoon characters![23][iv] In the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance,…[but] the government’s ears are bigger than ever.[24] You can’t even have a conversation without wondering who’s listening:[25] you never know who might be watching.[26] BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.[27] Big Brother…doesn’t just come in the form of a totalitarian state, it also comes with a smiley face.… When politics is cloaked in the image of innocence, there is more at stake than simple deception.[28]

Hoover authorized the promiscuous use of wiretaps around the country.[29] Since Hoover ran the FBI like his own private fiefdom within the executive branch, operationally the director was accountable to no one in the chain of command but himself.[30] However, whenever he had to give testimony in front of Congress, he would have all but one — the tap on the Communist Party headquarters — turned off for the day so he could truthfully testify that the FBI was doing no illegal wiretapping.[31]

[i] Today “McCarthyism” is a word in the dictionary: “the use of indiscriminate, often unfounded accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods.”
— Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), p. 178.

[ii] The committee was not a court of law, but a government body with its own set of rules. Members were not required to show a witness the evidence against him, or to prove that their accusations were grounded in fact.
— Karl F. Cohen, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1997), p. 166.

[iii] In 1985,…American officials belatedly discovered tens of thousands of microscopic listening devices embedded in [the] concrete walls…[of] the chancery building of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
— Alessandra Stanley (The New York Times), "Embassy's walls with ears to be rebuilt," The Seattle Times, 4 May 1997, 15(18), p. A5.

[iv] ’Toons, however, have the ability to conjure up “doppelgängers,” temporary, mentally protected doubles that do their most dangerous stunts.
— David Koenig, Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (Irvine, CA: Bonaventure Press, 1997), p. 179.


[1] Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997), p. 303.

[2] Susan Gilmore, "The Cold War and Albert Canwell," The Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer, 2 Aug 1998, 16(31), Pacific Magazine, p. 12.

[3] Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System : A History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 185.

[4] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 349.

[5] Perucci Ferraiuolo, Disney and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Magic Kingdom (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon Books, 1996), p. 65.

[6] Ted Johnson, "Little union unity on subject of Commies," Variety, 9-15 Sep 1996, 364(6), p. 124.

[7] Jay Robert Nash, Citizen Hoover: A Critical Study of the Life and Times of J. Edgar Hoover and His FBI (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1972), p. 89.

[8] Johnson, Subject of Commies, p. 124.

[9] Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), p. 161.

[10] Testimony of Walter E. Disney before HUAC (24 Oct 1947), at http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst203/documents/disney.html.

[11] Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 308.

[12] Summers, Official and Confidential, p. 161.

[13] Paul Kerr, “My Name Is Joseph H. Lewis,” in Screen, July/Oct 1983, 24:4/5, in Janet Staiger, ed., The Studio System (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 70.

[14] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 349.

[15] Johnson, Subject of Commies, p. 124.

[16] Ferraiuolo, Disney and the Bible, p. 65.

[17] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 349.

[18] Summers, Official and Confidential, p. 186.

[19] Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: Free Press, 1987), p. 344.

[20] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 349.

[21] Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (Oxford: Roundhouse Publ., 1993), p. 153.

[22] Edgar Argo, in Funny Times, in Quotable Quotes®, Reader’s Digest, Oct 1994, 145(870), p. 31.

[23] Tom Wilson, “Ziggy,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 9 July 1998, p. C6.

[24] Richard Willing, "Drug war fuels boom in use of wiretaps," USA Today, 8 May 1998, 16(167), p. 3A.

[25] Morton Rhue, The Wave (New York: Laurel Leaf Books, 1981), p. 124.

[26] Jennifer Mateyaschuk, "We know where you are, and who you’re talking to," Information Week, 27 July 1998, 693, p. 14.

[27] George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), 1984 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949, 1992), p. 3.

[28] Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publ., Inc., 1999), pp. 68, 124.

[29] Jack Mingo, The Juicy Parts: Things Your History Teacher Never Told You About the 20th Century's Most Famous People (New York: Perigee, 1996), p. 222.

[30] Gerald D. McKnight, The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People's Campaign (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), p. 135.

[31] Mingo, Juicy Parts, p. 222.

See also

Freedom of Information Act files on Walt Disney
Walt's Youth
Disney Strike of 1941
Disney War Propaganda
Disney Sweatshops
Disney Pedophiles
Disney, Hoover and Reno
Why We Hate Disney news group
misc. keywords: