One of the towering figures of the 20th century, Walt Disney did not just influence the world of cinema but also had a seminal impact on the public imagination of America. Known for his sentimental populism, which underlined most of his works and contributed to the shaping of his image as an enterprising entrepreneur and innovator, Disney’s legacy has been passed onto the next century.
Aside from all of these things, Walt Disney was also a formidable political actor whose activities jeopardised the lives and livelihoods of many people whose beliefs happened to differ from his own. Starting from 1940 and right up till his death, Disney was a spy for the FBI who actively supplied intel about his own workers to the Bureau and wrecked the movements orchestrated by labour unions by labelling them as “communist agitators.”
The reports detailing Disney’s exchanges with the FBI are available on the Bureau’s website itself, having been released to the public due to the Freedom of Information Act. According to these reports, Disney actively expressed his admiration for the insidious machinations of the FBI and even let FBI director J. Edgar Hoover make creative decisions about some of the projects.
What did Disney get in exchange for his co-operation? Well, apart from the obvious political advantages and protection, Disney was allowed to film in the Bureau’s headquarters. Disney’s intel was so valuable that he was made ‘Special Agent in Charge Contact’ by the FBI in 1954, signifying that Disney was an individual who was capable of providing resources to the FBI and taking care of PR issues as well.
It is important to remember that the political climate of that era was especially volatile, with the endless propagation of the Red Scare and the pernicious attitudes installed by Senator McCarthy. However, Disney was too shrewd to succumb to the folly of patriotism. He used these prevalent political attitudes to his advantage and made sure that the services he rendered to the sinister organisation that is the FBI helped his own business.
Disney once said: “Once a man has tasted freedom he will never be content to be a slave. That is why I believe that this frightfulness we see everywhere today is only temporary. Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life. All men will want to be free and share our way of life. There must be so much that I should have said, but haven’t. What I will say now is just what most of us are probably thinking every day. I thank God and America for the right to live and raise my family under the flag of tolerance, democracy and freedom.”
This was the face Disney showed to the public but in the context of labour unions and his political alliances, the filmmaking pioneer appears to have been an autocratic tyrant. In July of 1941, the animators at Disney went on a strike to protest unfair working conditions and Walt Disney immediately utilised the opportunity to run an advertisement in Variety where he said: “I am positively convinced that Communistic agitation, leadership, and activities have brought about this strike.”
Later, when Disney testified before the farce that was the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he named several animators who were involved in the strike as communists and subversives. Therefore, it is clear that Disney was ready to utilise his connections to achieve his goals. The FBI also played a role in the establishment of Disneyland which was used by the Bureau for their own operations.
The released document says: “Mr. Disney has recently established a business association with the American Broadcasting Company-Paramount Theatres Inc. for the production of a series of television shows, which for the most part are scheduled to be filmed at Disneyland, a multi-million dollar amusement park being established under Mr. Disney’s direction in the vicinity of Anaheim, Calif. Mr. Disney has volunteered representatives of this office complete access to the facilities of Disneyland for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes.”
Disney wasn’t the only spy in Hollywood by any means, with other notable examples like Ronald Reagan routinely supplying information to the FBI about colleagues who harboured communist sympathies. This issue is symptomatic of a systemic problem where artistic freedom and the freedom of expression (which Americans claim to love dearly) are insidiously squashed by silent censorship and political persecution.