Oldies and Oddities: The Disney War Plan
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
CRADLE OF AVIATION MUSEUM
The telegram landed on the desk of a Manhattan publicist in May 1942.
AM ANXIOUS CONTACT MAJOR ALEXANDER DE SEVERSKY BY TELEPHONE AND MAIL. WILL YOU ENDEAVOR GET THIS INFORMATION TO ME EARLIEST POSSIBLE MOMENT. DEFINITELY ELIMINATE MY NAME FROM ALL INQUIRIES.
The name definitely eliminated was Walt Disney, who wished to speak with the proponent of long-range saturation bombing.
“There is just one target: the whole country,” Alexander de Seversky wrote in Victory Through Air Power. A Russian World War I ace with a wooden leg, Seversky emigrated to the United States and reinvented himself as an aircraft designer and military critic. His 1942 best seller slammed War Department orthodoxy and advocated crushing enemy nations with massive assaults by "interhemispheric superbombers.” Dismissing land and sea offensives as old-school, Seversky urged diversion of resources from the Army and Navy to create an all-powerful air force.
An enthusiast for all things aeronautic and a military hard-liner, Disney proposed to Seversky a film version of his book, with the Russian himself spreading the gospel. “We want to make this a nation of airmen, mentally,” Disney told Hollywood Citizen News in early August 1942.
Stung by Seversky’s book, the Combined Chiefs of Staff marginalized the writer as a self-serving showboater. But they were daunted by Disney’s incandescent genius—and pop icon status—and feared his film adaptation, which Disney had pitched to the War Department in hope of attaining government financing. Emissaries dispatched to “manage” the mogul were not reassured: To an admiral worried that Victory’s aero-centric doctrine might jeopardize the Navy’s battleship program, Disney remarked, “Gee, you don’t really believe in battleships, do you?”
With his American wife and the family cocker spaniel, Vodka, Seversky settled in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The aristocratic Russian went Hollywood casual, insisting everyone call him “Sasha,” his boyhood nickname. His Old World accent struck Disney as too opaque for Americans. A crash course in elocution, plus adjustments to the squeaky wooden leg driving soundmen crazy, and he was camera-ready.
Working alongside Disney artists, Seversky sketched roughs of his superbomber: 268-foot wingspan, six 3,000-horsepower pusher-prop engines, 120,000-pound payload. Its 6,000-mile range conveniently spanned an Alaska-Japan round trip. A dreamplane, point men for the Combined Chiefs scoffed. “There is nothing in this picture that isn’t an engineering reality,” Disney argued. In fact, the bomber shared DNA with the Douglas XB-19, a big-bomber testbed that flew in 1941, and anticipated the behemoth Consolidated B-36, still on the drawing board.
Fresh from Bambi, Disney cartoonists fast-tracked Victory Through Air Power. The 65-minute feature blends animation with live-action scenes. After a slapstick aviation flashback, the mood shifts as Seversky appears with moving maps and an enormous globe. Stylized cartoons in combat-emotive themes depict Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor—per Seversky, consequences of “the earthbound mind.” He expounds chapter and verse on his illustrated creed of air superiority. In the apocalyptic climax, Alaska-based animated superbombers wreak Disneyesque destruction on Tokyo.
The film was released to mediocre box office, middling reviews, and some relief in Washington: Disney cut Seversky’s strident Navy-bashing, belittling of aircraft manufacturers, and snarky remarks about beloved Army Air Forces General Hap Arnold.
Disney fan Winston Churchill arranged a screening for Franklin Roosevelt at the 1943 Quebec Conference. By then, victory through conventional strategy appeared within reach. But one of the film’s driving themes, an independent air force, became reality in 1947.
Victory Through Air Power lost over $400,000, and Disney, in his authorized biography, called his involvement “a stupid thing to do.” But he believed in aviation, he added. “And for no other reason than that, I did it.”
Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in Southern California.