In the autumn of 1918, a young man from Marceline, Mo., sat sketching in France while waiting to be sent home. He was 17, on the cusp of adulthood, and had little idea what he wanted to do with his life, beyond buying a raft and floating aimlessly down the Mississippi “like Huckleberry Finn.” The man had signed up for the Red Cross after being rejected by the Army on medical grounds, but arrived in Paris after the armistice was signed and the action was over. He was intensely disappointed, writing home that he’d “missed out on something big.”
Just over 73 years later, a few miles outside of Paris, workers finished building a city that bore the young man’s name. It was called EuroDisney, and it was a tribute to America standing in the very heart of Europe’s most selfâ€‘obsessed and antiâ€‘American nation. Although he never lived to see it, Walter Elias Disney had got his “something big” in Europe at last.
EuroDisney, renamed Disneyland Paris in 1994, opened 20 years ago this April. It was an immediate flop and was derided, as many of Disney’s projects have been in their early stages, as “folly.” In its first year, attendance was half of its predicted level, and the park lost 300 million francs. Even Disney’s biggest apologists were hard pressed to conclude anything but that it was a failure. More hostile observers in France complained about everything from the park’s perceived cultural imperialism to its dress code, which supposedly trampled on the “individual liberty” of union members. Le Figaro publicly hoped that “rebels would set fire to Disneyland,” and Parisian theater producer Ariane Mnouchkine infamously labeled the park a “cultural Chernobyl.” Ultimately, the French concluded, it was all just so American. It was all so Disney.
The 20th anniversary of this landmark in cultural history leads one to ask: Who was this man, whose works are American enough to so disturb the French, and whose most famous creation — Mickey Mouse — is used throughout the world as a contemptuous shorthand for all that is wrong with the world’s remaining superpower? The answer is that he was something of a paradox: a conservative with a deep streak of utopianism.
Avuncular, affable, Walt Disney is the allâ€‘American boy, and his is the classic ragsâ€‘toâ€‘riches story — beginning with his youth in the small Missouri town of Marceline and ending with his death in Hollywood as the president and eponym of an entertainment empire. Disney was a Republican, and a fierce antiâ€‘Communist, like his friends Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan. He happily testified before the House Unâ€‘American Activities Committee, took on the Screen Actors Guild, and helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He rejected the freewheeling style of Warner Brothers’ edgy “Looney Tunes” series, preferring instead to keep “the highest moral and spiritual standards” in his work. One unfortunate employee discovered just how deeply traditional Disney was when he was fired on his first day, having made a crude joke about an animated pornographic film while (unknowingly) sitting next to Walt’s brother Roy. On the surface, Uncle Walt, as he came to be known, was as American as apple pie.
And yet, his obsessive quest for control and for perfection rendered him that most unconservative of things — a utopian. Disney’s career was a procession of increasingly grand projects that he sought to bend wholly to his will. Broadly speaking, writers and artists make good liberals because the problems they face in their line of work can generally be overcome with the stroke of a pen. Hollywood types control the lights, the camera, and the action, and they can write their own endings, adjusting the parameters of their worlds without having to surrender themselves to the external realities that afflict men of science, finance, and war. John Lennon, thus, could sing “Imagine” with gay abandon, as if he were merely imagining changing the chords to his song. The real world, however, does not work like this, a fact with which Disney struggled to come to terms for his whole life.
Illustrative of his unrealistic worldview was his dismissive attitude toward his brother Roy, the Disney company’s CFO, who was often peremptorily told to “find the money” for his brother’s projects, regardless of how unrealistic they were. In Disney’s world, money could be made from ink and paint; his brother had no such luxury. Both onscreen and in his amusement parks, Walt Disney lived in the world of Thomas Paine: He started the world all over again. It is no accident that to get to Florida’s sprawling Magic Kingdom, guests must cross a lake in a boat. In doing so, they are leaving the old world behind and starting anew. Whatever this is — at the very least it is wonderful, inspired theater — it is not conservative. George Will’s complaint that Paine’s maxim was “the least conservative sentiment conceivable” goes for Disney, too. “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park,” Disney wrote in a memo.
Disney’s utopian inclination was not limited to his films and his amusement parks; he had designs on society, too. Although it ended up as an innocuous, if diverting, part of Florida’s Walt Disney World complex, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — EPCOT — was initially designed as a blueprint for the real world, and it was only Disney’s death in 1966 that put the plans on hold. (Disney spent the majority of his time on his deathbed working on the idea, and had already bought land in Florida twice the size of Manhattan for the purpose.) Were a liberal to speak of a planned community in the way that Walt Disney did, conservatives would pick up pitchforks and run for the hills. (Even the name would put up our backs.)
There is no hiding from the facts: EPCOT was Disney’s attempt to address his own worries about his children’s future and to rebuild the world in his own image. Why, he wondered aloud, could he build a place such as Disneyland to be free of crime, pollution, and disorganization, but not enjoy such things in real American cities? His simple conclusion was that Disneyland was better planned — and so would EPCOT be. He would export the precision of his animation and of Disneyland to America’s streets, and bring back the simplicity of his childhood. Everyone living there would have to be employed — even if of retirement age — and nobody would own his own property. The tone was unavoidably collectivist: “Everyone living in EPCOT,” Disney wrote, “will have the responsibility to maintain this living blueprint of the future.” Robert Moses, a controversial city planner who remodeled much of New York, and Disney’s collaborator at the 1964–65 World’s Fair, was thrilled, predicting that the “overwhelming” idea would provide the “first accident free, noise free, pollution free city center in America.”
The instinct to control was strong in Walt Disney, as was his belief that he could usher in a “new tomorrow.” But it is important to look at what he chose to place in his artificial world. A famous story is instructive here: Disney was conducting a spot check of Disneyland in California when he saw a cast member in a cowboy outfit walking through the futuristic Tomorrowland. Disney decided at that moment that Disneyland was too small, and the idea for Florida’s gargantuan Walt Disney World was born. The story is about perfectionism, but it is also about, well, an American cowboy walking through an American land that is dedicated to American exploration of the future. In its various iterations, Disneyland is filled with celebrations of America: the frontier; Hollywood; Mark Twain’s riverboat; Tom Sawyer’s island; the Carousel of Progress; the Hall of Presidents; and, above all, Main Street U.S.A.
Most artists from Middle America reject their upbringing and move abroad or to the coasts. Walt Disney did the opposite. With Disneyland, he brought Middle America to the coasts, and to Tokyo and Paris and Hong Kong for good measure. (The Shanghai Disney Resort is scheduled to open in 2015.) However much success he had, Disney never lost his love for Marceline, his “laughing place.” At the creative sessions for films and the planning meetings for Disneyland, he would reminisce about his childhood constantly. “Marceline was the most important part of Walt’s life,” his wife, Lillian, claimed. The smallâ€‘town community in which he spent his key formative years remained, for him, the ideal. Like Norman Rockwell, he was a popular advocate for an America disappeared, and he preserved it in celluloid and plastic for posterity.
In EPCOT, too: The futuristic world of which Disney dreamed — although far more prescriptive than any downâ€‘theâ€‘line conservative would enjoy — would not be populated by government bureaucrats and run along statist lines, but be a place in which American ingenuity and business could thrive. Disney looked to companies such as General Motors and General Electric to come up with solutions to problems, and relied heavily on his handâ€‘picked team of creatives — his “Imagineers.” It was these people he was referring to when he claimed that “EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are emerging from the forefront of American industry.” Moreover, Disney was so concerned that the government would get involved that he petitioned the Florida legislature for full control over the land he had bought, and made it clear that he did not want them involved in his project, nor did he want to have to seek planning permission for his urban experiment.
He may have been a reactionary futurist — he could fairly be criticized for loving both the past and the future more than the present — but he never once succumbed to the notion that the government knew best. Nor did he think that it was possible for mankind to arrive at a finished version of a perfect world. “EPCOT,” he contended, would be “a community of tomorrow that will never be complete.” It is a sublime example of his split personality that, while Disney was planning a master community in which the inhabitants would be studied to facilitate constant improvement, he was vocally (and financially) supporting the 1964 presidential candidacy of archâ€‘libertarian Barry Goldwater.
But how did an apolitical illustrator, whose sole desire as a young man was to float passively down the Mississippi, become both so political and such a staunch advocate of America’s past and future? The key to understanding this lies with the unionism of the 1930s and the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
In the early days of the Disney studio, before the wild, unprecedented success of 1937’s Snow White, Disney’s employees were few and he knew each of them by name, often stopping at desks to chat and share jokes or stories. But as the studio grew, he drew back. He treated his employees extremely well, paying them much more than any other studio in the industry and building them a comfortable, stateâ€‘ofâ€‘theâ€‘art facility in Burbank (at the height of the Great Depression, no less); but his operation was ramshackle, and remuneration, bonuses, and opportunities within the studio were widely perceived to be randomly allocated. It was somewhat understandable that the world’s first major animation studio — the studio that invented the genre and its techniques — would not be a hive of managerial predictability. But this patchwork quilt of processes, and the influx of new, less loyal talent, created a sizeable number of employees who were upset at one thing or another, and that played straight into the hands of the predatory unions.
In 1937, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) became the first union to target Disney. IATSE was a deeply unpleasant outfit, closely associated with Al Capone in Chicago and headed up by thugs who were quick to resort to violence. Its attempt to unionize Disney was rebuffed, but in 1940, the Screen Cartoonists Guild was ready to move in for the kill. Its boss, Herbert Sorrell, who was described as a “tough leftâ€‘winger” by contemporaries (read, “Communist”), claimed that he had collection cards from a majority of employees and requested that Disney recognize the union. Disney was livid and refused outright. He and Roy, he said, had “no use for any unions,” having grown up listening to their father tell of having been physically beaten by a union member. Walt threatened to “close down this studio” before he would allow it to be unionized.
In response, Sorrell promised to “squeeze Disney’s balls ’til he screams” and “crush [him] to a dustbowl.” A standoff ensued, and Disney, under intense pressure, offered to put the dispute to a vote of the NLRB. Sorrell refused. Matters came to a head when Disney fired (proâ€‘union) animator Art Babbit, whom he furiously called a “Bolshevik” and accused of trying to destroy his studio from within; Sorrell immediately called a strike. After almost five weeks, during which time production on the film Dumbo came to a standstill, Nelson Rockefeller, head of the State Department’s Latin American Affairs office, called Disney and suggested that he go to South America as a goodwill ambassador in order to allow passions at the studio to cool.
While he was away, a federal mediator from the NLRB came in to arbitrate between the SCG and the Disney studio. It found in favor of the SCG on every single issue. Upon his return, Disney reduced the number of his employees to the point at which he felt that he had purged the “chipâ€‘onâ€‘theâ€‘shoulder boys and the worldâ€‘owesâ€‘meâ€‘aâ€‘living lads,” but he was nonetheless forced to reinstate Babbit and other agitators at the instruction of a labor court. Disney was heartbroken by the saga. Previously, his studio had been described by a former employee as “one big happy family”; now he didn’t know whom he could trust, and he felt his generosity had been thrown in his face. Moreover, he didn’t understand how a union could be allowed in his studio without his permission and how the government could force his hand.
Overnight, Disney turned rightward. A man who had never had time for politics became a leading antiâ€‘Communist and a staunch conservative. From the outbreak of World War II until his early death in 1967, Disney — who had voted for FDR in 1936 — worked ostentatiously for Republican candidates, including Thomas Dewey, whom he endorsed and made a speech for in 1944; Eisenhower, for whom he cut a television advertisement in 1952; and Ronald Reagan, whom he energetically supported during the 1966 California gubernatorial campaign. In 1947, he told the House Unâ€‘American Activities Committee that Communists had infiltrated his studio and successfully tried “to take over my artists,” that the NLRB was in bed with the unions, and that there was a serious threat of Communism in the motionâ€‘picture industry.
As with many iconic figures, rumors about Walt Disney abound. The two most popular are that he was cryogenically frozen upon his death, and that he was an antiâ€‘Semite. The first charge is harmless, a perhaps inevitable product of his image as an innovator and dreamer about the future. But the second is not. Disney himself must take some of the responsibility for his poor posthumous reputation, even if it is just the consequence of negligence. His lack of interest in the world around him — except in how it related to his studio — led him to make mistakes that cost him dearly: He invited the innovative Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood in 1938, ostensibly without thinking about how it might look; and he stayed too long at the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, after it had been hijacked by Birchite cranks (he eventually left). Further, his horror over the unionization of his studio brought him into conflict with many Jews, toward whom he was extremely rude.
But the antiâ€‘Semitism rumor is basically false. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the Jews were singled out for special disdain, or that their being Jewish invited his opprobrium. Neil Gabler, the first of Disney’s biographers to gain access to his archives, found very little evidence of antiâ€‘Semitism, and noted that, on the contrary, Disney employed Jews without prejudice throughout his career, was named Man of the Year by the Beverly Hills chapter of B’nai B’rith, and was generous to a range of Jewish charities. But critics who hated the America that Disney celebrated — and took exception, especially, to his antiâ€‘unionism, McCarthyism, and close relationship with Ronald Reagan — have willfully repeated the slur.
Why does any of this matter today? The simple answer is that even now, among both his admirers and his critics — and rightly or wrongly — Disney is seen as America distilled. His movies are the favorites of children worldwide, and his amusement parks welcome hundreds of millions of visitors each year. Back in April 1992, as EuroDisney prepared to open, the French complained that “American culture” had come to France once again. It is important for us to know which America is on offer; America is a big country, after all, and there is much in it that is less than desirable. We can be thankful that Walt Disney, by and large, set forth a conception of America that Americans can be proud of: He took the best of Marceline and preserved it in aspic, as part of an America that is not just historyâ€‘minded but also forwardâ€‘looking. And although Disney could veer into an unconservative utopianism, his fundamental creed remained, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” And there is no more American sentiment than that.