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Disney's Atomic Fleet

Mark Langer relates Walt Disney's role inmaking the atom our friend through his relationships with major Americanarms manufacturers, the U.S. government and the production, Our FriendThe Atom.

Walt Disney with the Richard Nixon family at the 1959 opening of the atomic submarine ride at Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Mark Langer.

In 1959, the largest "atomic" submarine fleet in the world was owned by Walt Disney. While I'm not proposing that a bad day in the Magic Kingdom might have resulted in nuclear Armageddon, the Disney fleet is an historical fact that stems from the cooperation among Disney's business empire, major American arms manufacturers and the U.S. government.

Disney had long established relationships with the federal government dating back to the early 1940s. In a sense, Walt Disney went to war before America did, producing war shorts on contract for the National Film Board of Canada and military production films for Lockheed Aircraft. Days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Walt Disney was in Washington meeting with top government officials. The result of these meetings was The New Spirit(1942), an animated film made to encourage citizens to pay "taxes to smash the Axis." This began a close relationship between Disney and the U.S. government in the production of films for propaganda, training, and educational purposes. These films not only served the needs of the government in wartime, they added over two and a half million dollars to the Disney studio's coffers in the first year of the war alone.

Getting Through the Slump

In 1941, Disney was asked to go on a goodwill tour of Latin and South America by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. The U.S. government was concerned about Axis influence in this part of the world, while Disney and the motion picture industry were interested in developing new markets for their product since the war had cut off traditional export areas in Europe and Asia. Patriotism and good business were intermeshed by the complimentary interests of government and the film industry.

With the end of the war, came a slump in the animation industry. Rising costs of production made animated film, always a marginal enterprise, even more so. Disney sought to strengthen his company's financial position through diversification. Walt Disney Productions already had developed reciprocal ventures with other companies that dated back to the early 1930s, when Disney licensed his characters to corporations like the Lionel Train Company and the Ingersoll Watch Company (now Timex) to produce Mickey Mouse handcars and watches. Mickey Mouse comic strips and a lucrative contract with the Western Printing and Lithographing Company (publishers of the Little Golden Books) were other major sources of income.

Building on this, Disney first moved into live-action films which were more cheaply produced than their animated counterparts. On Christmas Day of 1950, the first Disney television program was aired -- One Hour In Wonderland -- which was a promotion for the upcoming animated theatrical feature Alice In Wonderland (1951). The special reached twenty million viewers, which was a phenomenal number for early television. This not only pleased the sponsor, Coca-Cola, but made a deep impression on Disney executives. At the time, Walt's brother Roy Disney remarked that One Hour In Wonderland "leads us to believe that television can be a most powerful selling aid for us, as well as a source of revenue. It will probably be on this premise that we enter television when we do."

When Disney did enter television, it was part of a move that further diversified Disney's business interests. Disney agreed to produce the "Disneyland" television series for ABC, if the network's parent company would join Disney and Western Publishing as the major investors in the new Disneyland theme park. The television show, amusement park, publishing interests, and movies would all promote each other in a synergistic relationship. By establishing interlocking business relationships with allied companies, Disney was able to create interlocking systems of promotion among different media.

Our Friend The Atom was produced by Disney in cooperation with the U.S. Navy and General Dynamics, builders of the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus. Photo courtesy of Mark Langer.

Atoms for Peace!

The Disneyland amusement park and the "Disneyland" television program were enormously successful, catapulting Disney out of financial difficulty and turning the company into a media giant. This success was noticed by the government in a critical time for American public relations, both internally and internationally. After WWII, the use of atomic energy for defense figured large in the United States government's plans. However, these plans faced growing opposition both from the scientific community and the public in the wake of the American experience in the Korean war and a series of mishaps related to atomic testing.

In order to counter opposition to the military use of atomic weaponry, the Eisenhower administration began a public relations effort called "Atoms for Peace," in which positive propaganda would be developed to promote the use of atomic energy. In a letter to President Eisenhower on December 20, 1955, Acting Director of the United States Information Agency Abbott Washburn reported on his bureau's efforts. Wrote Washburn, "We have also had favorable preliminary conferences with Walt Disney (whose overseas audience surpasses all others) on an `Atoms for Peace' cartoon." (Disney would go on to animate television commercials for Eisenhower's 1957 re-election campaign.)

Our Friend The Atom

Disney was the ideal venue for the government's propaganda effort. Not only did Disney have a long-standing track record of creating government propaganda, but, as Time magazine reported in 1954, almost one billion people worldwide had seen at least one Disney film. After all, Disney was a leader not only in the film industry, but in publishing, television and the amusement park business.

Our Friend The Atom (January 23, 1957), the "Atoms for Peace" cartoon to which Washburn referred, was produced by Disney in cooperation with the U.S. Navy and General Dynamics, builders of the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus. As a "Tomorrowland" segment of the Disneyland television show, Our Friend The Atom relates the history of atomic energy, beginning with a clip from the earlier film 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which erroneously maintains that author Jules Verne predicted the use of atomic energy. The film then progresses to an animated fairy tale of a fisherman who finds a bronze bottle in his net. Opening the flask, the fisherman is confronted by a genie, who explains that after centuries of confinement, he has resolved to kill whomever opens the bottle. The fisherman feigns surprise that so large a being could fit into the bottle. The genie returns to the vessel to prove that it can be done, and the wily fisherman corks the bottle up. Finally, the genie relents and promises to grant the fisherman his wishes if the bottle is uncorked. Says the narrator, "The story of the atom is like this fable, come true through science. For centuries we have been casting our nets into the sea of the great unknown in search of knowledge. Finally, we found a vessel and, like the one in the fable, it contains the genie."

In a combination of live-action and animation, Our Friend The Atom moves from this fairy tale premise to an international history of atomic energy that culminates in American control of the technology. To soothe public apprehension, atomic energy is explained in terms of common household items. An atomic reactor, the viewer is told, is just like a big furnace. An atomic chain reaction is likened to what happens when a stray ping-pong ball is thrown at a mass of mousetraps with ping-pong balls set on each one. The narrator relates that an atomic explosion might be like the angry genie, but with the nuclear reactor and the magic power to transmute ordinary materials into radioactive tools in science and medicine, "Here lies our chance to make the atomic genie our friend." The film ends with the prediction that "clean" nuclear reactors will replace grimy coal and oil power plants. Radiation will be used to produce better crops and livestock. People will zoom from place to place in atomic cars, trains, boats and planes. "Then, the atom will become truly our friend."

Heinz Haber, narrator of Our Friend the Atom, with the mousetraps that illustrate nuclear fission. Photo courtesy of Mark Langer.

One Step Further

Our Friend The Atom, both as a telefilm and a companion book printed in several languages by Western Publishing, was an enormous success. This was followed by the further cooperation of General Dynamics, the U.S. government, and Disney in the development of a new US $2,500,000 ride at Disneyland, composed of eight air-conditioned "atomic" submarines. The "Tomorrowland" section of Disney's Magic Kingdom now had the largest fleet of "atomic" submarines in the world. On June 14, 1959, in front of millions of ABC television viewers, Vice-President Richard Nixon and family joined Rear Admiral Charles C. Kirkpatrick of the U.S. Navy and Walt Disney in the maiden voyage of the Disney submarine fleet. A highlight of the ride was a cruise past a graveyard of sunken ships. One indication of how successfully this ride propagandized the American atomic arms program came from a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, who enthused that "all these things were turned, by Disney magic and with Disney color, to sheer fun, as though the real purpose of technological achievement, after all, was human happiness." Although Our Friend The Atom and the "atomic" submarine ride at Disneyland were not to be the only examples of cold-war propaganda carried out by Disney, they were in many ways representative of an ongoing network of connections between sections of Disney's Magic Kingdom, the broadcasting networks, the publishing industry, defense contractors, and the state. Mark Langer teaches film at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and a programmer of animation retrospectives.