The Testimony of Walter E. Disney Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (24 October 1947)

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Originally a special committee of the House of Representatives under the leadership of Texas Democrat Martin Dies, Jr., the House Un-American Activities Committee was established in 1938 to investigate and impede the infiltration of Axis propaganda in the United States. By the mid-1940s, however, with much of the country in the grip of a Red Scare, HUAC had become a standing committee with much of its focus centered on the investigation of Union leaders, New Deal liberals, and leftist intellectuals. Inevitably, the committee trained its eye on Hollywood and the entertainment industry, where it discovered insinuations of Communist activity even in the animation studios of Walter Elias Disney, producer of Snow White, Dumbo, and other well-known children's films. But not all witnesses were as forthcoming as Disney. In 1947, the committee accused ten directors and screenwriters of having Communist affiliations. When called to testify, however, the so-called Hollywood Ten, the director Edward Dmytryk and the writer Ring Lardner, Jr. among them, refused to comply, thus incurring contempt of Congress charges, jail time, and perhaps worst of all, the addition of their names to a growing catalog of "blacklisted" artists. Both civil libertarians and ordinary citizens protested the committee's strong-arm tactics as well as its frequent presumption of a suspect's guilt. Nevertheless, HUAC continued its activities throughout the 1940s and 1950s and would become a model for the permanent investigations subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee headed by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Renamed the House Internal Security Committee in 1969, HUAC was at last abolished in 1975.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Anticommunism ; Blacklisting ; Cold War ; House Committee on Un-American Activities ; McCarthyism .

[robert e.] stripling [chief investigator]: Mr. Disney, will you state your full name and present address, please?

walter disney: Walter E. Disney, Los Angeles, California.

res: When and where were you born, Mr. Disney?

wd: Chicago, Illinois, December 5, 1901.

res: December 5, 1901?

wd: Yes, sir.

res: What is your occupation?

wd: Well, I am a producer of motion-picture cartoons.

res: Mr. Chairman, the interrogation of Mr. Disney will be done by Mr. Smith.

the chairman [j. parnell thomas]: Mr. Smith.

[h. a.] smith: Mr. Disney, how long have you been in that business?

wd: Since 1920.

has: You have been in Hollywood during this time?

wd: I have been in Hollywood since 1923.

has: At the present time you own and operate the Walt Disney Studio at Burbank, California?

wd: Well, I am one of the owners. Part owner.

has: How many people are employed there, approximately?

wd: At the present time about 600.

has: And what is the approximate largest number of employees you have had in the studio?

wd: Well, close to 1,400 at times.

has: Will you tell us a little about the nature of this particular studio, the type of pictures you make, and approximately how many per year?

wd: Well, mainly cartoon films. We make about twenty short subjects, and about two features a year.

has: Will you talk just a little louder, Mr. Disney?

wd: Yes, sir.

has: How many, did you say?

wd: About twenty short subject cartoons and about two features per year.

has: Where are these films distributed?

wd: All over the world.

has: In all countries of the world?

wd: Well, except the Russian countries.

has: Why aren't they distributed in Russia, Mr. Disney?

wd: Well, we can't do business with them.

has: What do you mean by that?

wd: Oh, well, we have sold them some films a good many years ago. They bought the Three Little Pigs [1933] and used it through Russia. And they looked at a lot of our pictures, and I think they ran a lot of them in Russia, but then turned them back to us and said they didn't want them, they didn't suit their purposes.

has: Is the dialogue in these films translated into the various foreign languages?

wd: Yes. On one film we did ten foreign versions. That was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

has: Have you ever made any pictures in your studio that contained propaganda and that were propaganda films?

wd: Well, during the war we did. We made quite a few working with different government agencies. We did one for the Treasury on taxes and I did four anti-Hitler films. And I did one on my own for air power.

has: From those pictures that you made, have you any opinion as to whether or not the films can be used effectively to disseminate propaganda?

wd: Yes, I think they proved that.

has: How do you arrive at that conclusion?

wd: 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, people who had never paid taxes, and they explained that it would be impossible to prosecute all those that were delinquent and they wanted to put this story before those people so they would get their taxes in early. I made the film, and after the film had its run the Gallup poll organization polled the public and the findings were that twenty-nine percent of the people admitted that had influenced them in getting their taxes in early and giving them a picture of what taxes will do.

has: Aside from those pictures you made during the war, have you made any other pictures, or do you permit pictures to be made at your studio containing propaganda?

wd: No; we never have. During the war we thought it was a different thing. It was the first time we ever allowed anything like that to go in the films. We watch so that nothing gets into the films that would be harmful in any way to any group or any country. We have large audiences of children and different groups, and we try to keep them as free from anything that would offend anybody as possible. We work hard to see that nothing of that sort creeps in.

has: Do you have any people in your studio at the present time that you believe are Communist or Fascist, employed there?

wd: No; at the present time I feel that everybody in my studio is one-hundred-percent American.

has: 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?

wd: Yes; in the past I had some people that I definitely feel were Communists.

has: As a matter of fact, Mr. Disney, you experienced a strike at your studio, did you not?

wd: Yes.

has: And is it your opinion that that strike was instituted by members of the Communist Party to serve their purposes?

wd: 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: Do you say they did take them over?

wd: They did take them over.

has: Will you explain that to the committee, please?

wd: It came to my attention when a delegation of my boys, my artists, came to me and told me that Mr. Herbert Sorrell

has: Is that Herbert K. Sorrell?

wd: Herbert K. Sorrell, was trying to take them over. I explained to them that it was none of my concern, that I had been cautioned to not even talk with any of my boys on labor. They said it was not a matter of labor, it was just a matter of them not wanting to go with Sorrell, and they had heard that I was going to sign with Sorrell, and they said that they wanted an election to prove that Sorrell didn't have the majority, and I said that I had a right to demand an election. So when Sorrell came, I demanded an election. Sorrell wanted me to sign on a bunch of cards that he had there that he claimed were the majority, but the other side had claimed the same thing. I told Mr. Sorrell that there is only one way for me to go and that was an election and that is what the law had set up, the National Labor Relations Board was for that purpose. He laughed at me and he said that he would use the Labor Board as it suited his purposes and that he had been sucker enough to go for that Labor Board ballot and he had lost some election—I can't remember the name of the place—by one vote. He said it took him two years to get it back. He said he would strike, that that was his weapon. He said, "I have all of the tools of the trade sharpened," that I couldn't stand the ridicule or the smear of a strike. 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 to him on his say-so, and he laughed at me and told me I was naive and foolish. He said, you can't stand this strike, I will smear you, and I will make a dust bowl out of your plant.

chairman: What was that?

wd: He said he would make a dust bowl out of my plant if he chose to. I told him I would have to go that way, sorry, that he might be able to do all that, but I would have to stand on that. The result was that he struck. I believed at that time that Mr. Sorrell was a Communist because of all the things that I had heard and having seen his name appearing on a number of Commie front things. When he pulled the strike, the first people to smear me and put me on the unfair list 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. They smeared me. Nobody came near to find out what the true facts of the thing were. And I even went through the same smear in South America, through some Commie periodicals in South America, and generally throughout the world all of the Commie groups began smear campaigns against me and my pictures.

john mcdowell: In what fashion was that smear, Mr. Disney, what type of smear?

wd: Well, they distorted everything, they lied; there was no way you could ever counteract anything that they did; they formed picket lines in front of the theaters, and, well, they called my plant a sweatshop, and that is not true, and anybody in Hollywood would prove it otherwise. They claimed things that were not true at all and there was no way you could fight it back. It was not a labor problem at all because—I mean, I have never had labor trouble, and I think that would be backed up by anybody in Hollywood.

has: As a matter of fact, you have how many unions operating in your plant?

chairman: Excuse me just a minute. I would like to ask a question.

has: Pardon me.

chairman: In other words, Mr. Disney, Communists out there smeared you because you wouldn't knuckle under?

wd: I wouldn't go along with their way of operating. I insisted on it going through the National Labor Relations Board. And he told me outright that he used them as it suited his purposes.

chairman: Supposing you had given in to him, then what would have been the outcome?

wd: Well, I would never have given in to him, because it was a matter of principle with me, and I fight for principles. My boys have been there, have grown up in the business with me, and I didn't feel like I could sign them over to anybody. They were vulnerable at that time. They were not organized. It is a new industry.

chairman: Go ahead, Mr. Smith.

has: How many labor unions, approximately, do you have operating in your studios at the present time?

wd: Well, we operate with around thirty-five—I think we have contacts with thirty.

has: At the time of this strike you didn't have any grievances or labor troubles whatsoever in your plant?

wd: No. The only real grievance was between Sorrell and the boys within my plant, they demanding an election, and they never got it.

has: Do you recall having had any conversations with Mr. Sorrell relative to Communism?

wd: Yes, I do.

has: Will you relate that conversation?

wd: Well, I didn't pull my punches on how I felt. He evidently heard that I had called them all a bunch of Communists—and I believe they are. At the meeting he leaned over and he said, "You think I am a Communist, don't you," and I told him that all I knew was what I heard and what I had seen, and he laughed and said, "Well, I used their money to finance my strike of 1937," and he said that he had gotten the money through the personal check of some actor, but he didn't name the actor. I didn't go into it any further. I just listened.

has: Can you name any other individuals that were active at the time of the strike that you believe in your opinion are Communists?

wd: Well, I feel that there is one artist in my plant, that came in there, he came in about 1938, and he sort of stayed in the background, he wasn't too active, but he was the real brains of this, and I believe he is a Communist. His name is David Hilberman.

has: How is it spelled?

wd: H-i-l-b-e-r-m-a-n, I believe. I looked into his record and I found that, number 1, that he had no religion and, number 2, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theatre studying art direction, or something.

has: Any others, Mr. Disney?

wd: Well, I think Sorrell is sure tied up with them. If he isn't a Communist, he sure should be one.

has: Do you remember the name of William Pomerance, did he have anything to do with it?

wd: Yes, sir. He came in later. Sorrell put him in charge as business manager of cartoonists and later he went to the Screen Actors as their business agent, and in turn he put in another man by the name of Maurice Howard, the present business agent. And they are all tied up with the same outfit.

has: What is your opinion of Mr. Pomerance and Mr. Howard as to whether or not they are or are not Communists?

wd: In my opinion they are Communists. No one has any way of proving those things.

has: Were you able to produce during the strike?

wd: Yes, I did, because there was a very few, very small majority that was on the outside, and all the other unions ignored all the lines because of the setup of the thing.

has: What is your personal opinion of the Communist Party, Mr. Disney, as to whether or not it is a political party?

wd: Well, I don't believe it is a political party. I believe it is an un-American thing. The thing that I resent the most is that they are able to get into these unions, take them over, and represent to the world that a group of people that are in my plant, that I know are good, one-hundred-percent Americans, are trapped by this group, and they are represented to the world as supporting all of those ideologies, and it is not so, and I feel that they really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of communism. That is my sincere feeling on it.

has: Do you feel that there is a threat of Communism in the motion-picture industry?

wd: Yes, there is, and there are many reasons why they would like to take it over or get in and control it, or disrupt it, but I don't think they have gotten very far, and I think the industry is made up of good Americans, just like in my plant, good, solid Americans. My boys have been fighting it longer than I have. They are trying to get out from under it and they will in time if we can just show them up.

has: There are presently pending before this committee two bills relative to outlawing the Communist Party. What thoughts have you as to whether or not those bills should be passed?

wd: Well, I don't know as I qualify to speak on that. I feel if the thing can be proven un-American that it ought to be outlawed. I think in some way it should be done without interfering with the rights of the people. I think that will be done. I have that faith. Without interfering, I mean, with the good, American rights that we all have now, and we want to preserve.

has: Have you any suggestions to offer as to how the industry can be helped in fighting this menace?

wd: Well, I think there is a good start toward it. I know that I have been handicapped out there in fighting it, because they have been hiding behind this labor setup, they get themselves closely tied up in the labor thing, so that if you try to get rid of them they make a labor case out of it. We must keep the American labor unions clean. We have got to fight for them.

has: That is all of the questions I have, Mr. Chairman.

chairman: Mr. Vail.

r. b. vail: No questions.

chairman: Mr. McDowell.

j. mcdowell: No questions.

wd: Sir?

jm: I have no questions. You have been a good witness.

wd: Thank you.

chairman: Mr. Disney, you are the fourth producer we have had as a witness, and each one of those four producers said, generally speaking, the same thing, and that is that the Communists have made inroads, have attempted inroads. I just want to point that out because there seems to be a very strong unanimity among the producers that have testified before us. In addition to producers, we have had actors and writers testify to the same. There is no doubt but what the movies are probably the greatest medium for entertainment in the United States and in the world. I think you, as a creator of entertainment, probably are one of the greatest examples in the profession. I want to congratulate you on the form of entertainment which you have given the American people and given the world and congratulate you for taking time out to come here and testify before this committee. He has been very helpful. Do you have any more questions, Mr. Stripling?

has: I am sure he does not have any more, Mr. Chairman.

res: No; I have no more questions.

chairman: Thank you very much, Mr. Disney.

SOURCE: "Testimony of Walter E. Disney, Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities," House of Representatives, 80th Congress, First Session (Friday, 24 October 1947).

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The Testimony of Walter E. Disney Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (24 October 1947)

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