What’s Propaganda, Doc?
A Study of Propaganda in US World War II Cartoons

Think for a moment about cartoons.  Most likely the first image to come to mind is of a child’s program, perhaps with rabbits, ducks or mice being chased, getting bonked on the head and getting into mischief.  Far from the mind is the thought that cartoons could be used as propaganda, designed and calculated to make you think a certain way or to do certain things.  However, in the United States between 1939 and 1946 this was exactly the case for cartoon studios like Warner Brothers, Paramount, Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Disney Studios.  In Warner Brothers cartoons alone, there were an astonishing 2,148 occurrences of propaganda symbols in 194 cartoons.[1] These cartoon studios portrayed America’s World War II enemies in an exceptionally negative manner, relying frequently on ethnic stereotypes.  This paper will analyze the cartoons made during this period with wartime references and examine which types of propaganda were used.  Even though many of these cartoons used heavy stereotyping, offensive images and situations, it will be argued that they were, in fact, an effective use of propaganda and were well received by the American public.

Before America’s involvement in World War II, public opinion on the wars overseas was mixed.  Many Americans had close ties to communities in Europe; friends, families or other loved ones they had left behind as they moved to the States.  The Great War was not too far off and “as a direct result of their unsatisfactory experiences with the outcome of World War I, and led by their politicians, the American people turned inward during the period 1920 to 1941.”[2]  In addition, the Great Depression was still affecting the American society.

The American government, as Steven Casey explains in Cautious Crusade, saw the war in Europe and Asia as something that the United States could not easily avoid, and the U.S. leaders knew that the Axis countries were the ones that needed to be stopped.[3]  It is one thing to have the United States leaders understand this, but quite another to explain this rationale to the American public.  What U.S. leaders needed was a propaganda campaign to convince the American public that involvement in the war was in America’s best interest.  Pearl Harbor marked the end of debate for many, but the use of propaganda in the media, specifically in cartoons, helped to drive home the message that the United States could not easily avoid another large-scale war, and started to condition the American public on what it needed to do.  The U.S. government commissioned the formation of training cartoons for the troops and a small amount of civilian cartoons, but the studios took it upon themselves to produce a large number of wartime cartoons on their own as their part in the war effort.

“Propaganda is the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”[4]  In the following cartoons, the propaganda can be placed in two main categories: negative and positive.  The positive propaganda shows the Allied-based characters as clean, clever, trusting to a fault and smart.  In addition, they end up on top at the end of the cartoon.  These cartoons praise civilian efforts that support the war, such as recycling scrap metal and buying war bonds.  The negative propaganda shows characters as stupid, ugly, dim-witted, drooling, beast-like forms that inevitably lose out to the good guys.  Negative propaganda can be as obvious as a swastika or as subtle as a sly use of words.  All these propagandistic messages were used to accomplish positive social ends for the U.S., as in campaigns to suggest Americans buy war bonds, but they are also used to ridicule the enemy forces and leaders, as hearing a toilet flush when a Japanese battleship was sunk.  Often, the cartoon characters were drafted into the war effort as a way to sell war bonds, aid with conservation and rationing, to lampoon the enemy and to keep morale high.

The use of slogans was a very popular propaganda technique used during World War II.  The United States government created slogans that no American would be against, and everybody would be for.[5]  Slogans like “Put out those lights!” referred to the need to turn off lights in the evening, as to not make cities easy bombing targets for the Axis planes or ships that were feared to be surveying the U.S.  “Is this trip really necessary?” was a slogan used to conserve gas.  Even the playing of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was used to represent the letter V in Morse code (da da da daaa) for the slogan “V for Victory.”  All these slogans were commonly used in cartoons as simple reminders of the war effort.  An example of this was seen in the Warner Bros. cartoon Tale of Two Kitties.  This cartoon had multiple war references besides the use of slogans.  The cats, modeled after Abbott & Costello, were after Tweety Bird because they were both starving.  They came up with idea after idea to snatch the bird.  In between these ideas, air raid warden helmets were worn as protection, the slogan “Put out those lights!”[6] was screamed and Victory Gardens were tended.

Victory Gardens were a means to help with food production and to help ease the demands of rationing.  The public was encouraged to plant a little garden in their yard and grow their own vegetables so there was less need to buy them at the grocery store.  The name suggests that in doing so, it would help bring victory for the Allies.

Rationing was another topic used many times in cartoons during this period.  Animation Historian Michael Shull said that rationing shown in cartoons made  “fun of something that really annoyed most Americas” and helped to deflate “that anger in a very palatable way.”[7]  In the cartoon Falling Hare, the subject matter was war related and about the existence of gremlins, however, the punch line was based on gas rationing cards. “You know how it is with these A Cards,[8] explained Bugs Bunny as the plane he was flying stopped just a foot away from crashing due to lack of gas.  A Cards were what most of the general American population had for gas ration cards, which allowed a maximum gas allowance of three gallons a week.

Rationing was also one of the war related jokes used in Coal Black and de Sebben DwarfsCoal Black was a Warner Bros. take-off of Disney’s popular animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it used an all black-faced animated cast and heavy stereotyping of the black population, including some strong sexual references for the day.  (This racial stereotyping is important, as later in this paper this Black stereotyping will be seen in contrast with how the Japanese were treated in cartoons.)  The role of the Witch was played by the “Mean Old Queen,”[9] and she was described as “as rich as she is mean.  She has everything!”[10]  To prove that point, the screen showed diamonds, gold, and then panned to show a stock load of rubber tires and bags upon bags of coffee and sugar.  All these items were heavily rationed, and so she must indeed have been crooked and rich to acquire and hoard so many of these things from the black market.

If you were rich, or even in possession of a little extra cash, the government was asking for it in the form of war bonds.  Buying war bonds was a theme repeated in many cartoons.  Selling war bonds and stamps were seen as more democratic than levying additional payroll taxes because it allowed everyone - including children - to participate and get involved.  The U.S. government tried to make it easy to buy bonds, including a step-by-step process of buying war stamps.  These stamps were conveniently available everywhere, even at movie theaters, for as little as five cents.  Once a person bought enough stamps to equal at least $18.75, people could trade them in for a bond.

One of the most well known cartoons pitching war bonds was Warner Bros. Leon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunny, which was also known as Any Bonds Today.  Bugs was dressed as a revolutionary soldier playing his carrot like a flute as he marched in front of Archibald McNeal Willard's painting, Spirit of '76.  Bugs sang the popular war song, Any Bonds Today that was about how virtuous, patriotic and easy it was to buy war bonds and war stamps, using lyrics like, “Bonds of Freedom” and “Here comes the freedom man.”[11]  Soon, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig join him, and they dance in front of a backdrop of battleships, airplanes and heavy artillery, showing the public what their bonds bought for the war.

Walt Disney Studios’ The Spirit of ’43 covered another topic on how the American government wanted its citizens to use their money, but in this instance it concerned paying income taxes.  At this time, American workers needed to save part of their wages each payday to make paying their income taxes easier, as automatic tax withholdings were not yet in place.  This was especially important during wartime, as this money was in great demand to prevent inflation.

The cartoon started with Donald Duck walking away from his bank after just cashing in his paycheck.  He noticed his pocket had a hole burning where this hard earned money was stored.  This idle money burning a hole in his pocket created a struggle within Donald, to either save for the upcoming income tax due date, or spend it on some booze, some women and some wild living.  Donald had this monetary struggle materialize between Thrifty Donald, seen as kind and wise Uncle Scrooge dressed in white, and Spend Thrifty Donald, appearing young and dressed in a red zoot suit, swinging a clock on a chain.  Later in the picture, Spend Thrifty Donald even grew devil horns to better represent to the audience his way was the wrong way.

These two Donalds pull the main Donald back and forth between spending his wages on booze in a bar (complete with a swastika swing door) or saving some money for income taxes.  It was a decision to “Spend for the Axis” or “Save for Taxes.”[12]  Spend Thrifty Donald nearly won, with his conniving, selfish argument that it was Donald’s money, he worked hard for it, and he should be able to spend it on things that made him feel better.  However, Thrifty Donald invites Donald on a mystic trip and showed him what the U.S. government did with his tax money; building guns, ships, airplanes to “beat to earth the evil destroyer of freedom and peace” and to “blast the aggressors from the seas.”[13]  In the end, the phrase “Taxes to beat the Axis”[14] was repeated many times, and Donald gladly did his part to save his wages and pay his taxes on time. 

Not only did the U.S. government need money, but it also needed scrap metal.  Recycling scrap metal was of vital importance during the war as metal was scarce because of all the ships, airplanes and ammunition that were constructed.  To help illustrate this, Warner Bros. produced Scrap Happy Daffy, which put Daffy Duck in charge of the buildup and protection of a scrap metal plant in the U.S.  The cartoon started with Daffy singing a song, “We’re in to win”[15] as he walked, ran and jumped around the metal yard wearing his air raid helmet.  He then proceeded to list household items that could be recycled with a furor and pace so systematic the animators smartly decided to show pictures on a chalkboard at the same time.

“Tires, canes, water mains, skates, plates, furnace grates, pitching forks,
"rubber corks, sacks, racks, railroad tracks, poles, holes, telephone poles, …
"Rubber bands, birdcage stands, metal ships, pillow slips,
"locks, socks, grandpa clocks.”[16]


Because of the size of the metal heap Daffy had accumulated and the benefits it was producing for the Allies, Hitler himself took notice and understood how much it hurt the Nazi war effort.  He went into a rage, barking and snarling that Germany must destroy that scrap heap.  This order was quickly passed down the chain of command until a submarine was deployed that shot a torpedo into Daffy’s scrap metal yard.  The torpedo opened, and a goat with a swastika necklace popped out and quickly started to eat all the scrap metal.  Daffy, who was guarding the yard, quickly discovered the intruder. 

After trading little tricks and bonks on the head with each other, the goat scored a near decisive blow that knocked Daffy out.  In this dream state, Daffy admitted that he was finished.  Yet just as he lost hope, the clouds parted and he was presented with the great patriotic ducks of America’s past that fought to make America great.  Daffy saw ducks that looked like Abraham Lincoln and anonymous American patriots and pioneers who fought to expand the United States.  They cheered him on, shouting, “Americans don’t give up!”[17]  With renewed strength of body and spirit, Daffy awakened in the garb of Superman and not only stopped the goat, but the submarine that sent it as well.  The last picture was of the metal scrap heap, with the German submarine at the very top with the goat and submarine commanders crying.

The audience was shown numerous bits of propaganda about the importance of recycling in this cartoon.  Daffy was a civilian doing his part for the war and the song he sung was not about recycling scrap metal but rather about winning the war, drawing an unstated reference that winning relies on recycling.  In fact, recycling scrap metal was so important in this cartoon that Hitler himself personally ordered its destruction to help his cause.  When Daffy was unconscious, all his visions were of great past American patriots.  They did not say, “Americans don’t stop recycling,” but rather, “Americans don’t give up.”[18]  In essence, the patriots were talking to the audience through Daffy, telling them not to give up on recycling even if it seems rough or unimportant.

Another target for cartoonists was draft dodgers.  The cartoon See’n Red, White ‘n Blue, starring Popeye the Sailorman and Bluto by Paramount, was an attack on those who supported the war cause until they were called for duty. The moral of this cartoon was no matter what excuses you have, you cannot escape the call to duty, as it comes from both from your country and from your conscience.

The cartoon started with Bluto hammering horseshoes on a mule when he received a message from the U.S. government explaining he needed to report to his local draft board.  Bluto headed to the draft board, staffed by Popeye, to talk his way out of joining the armed services.  He used excuses: he was ill; he was blind, he had broken arms and legs.  Each time Popeye tricked him into showing that he was actually very healthy. 

If he could not fake being injured, Bluto decided he would go out and actually injure himself.  Bluto went out in the city street and walked right in front of an oncoming car and caused an accident.  When the medics arrived, they took the rare and rationed rubber wheels of the damaged car and left an uninjured Bluto on the road.

Popeye, who had been calm and quiet up to this point, tried to convince Bluto not to hurt himself and it soon developed into a fight.  Bluto threw Popeye into a building, which turned out to be a secret Axis spy base, disguised to look like an Orphanage, staffed by spies who masqueraded as orphaned boys.  Popeye, an orphan himself, started to talk to these little boys, but they attacked and overwhelmed him.  Bluto was witness to this attack, and in a fit of patriotism that rose from his soul, finally joined the fight.  Together, Popeye and Bluto not only defeated the Axis spies, but also sent an Uncle Sam-clad lightning punch that knocked out both Hirohito and Hitler.  The call to duty was so strong it could even bring a rivalry as deep-seated as Popeye and Bluto’s together to defeat a common enemy.  The cartoon ends with Bluto asking Popeye how to spell his own name as he signed up for duty.

Another positive theme prevalent in many cartoons was that Americans needed to be watchful of Axis sympathizers in their communities.  One such tale was Fifth-Column Mouse, by Warner Bros.  The main point of this cartoon was to beware of smooth talking, snake oil salesman-like promises of the Axis and to be aware of sympathizers in your own community.

The first scene shows mice playing and having fun inside a warm house.  Peering through a window on a cold, winter night was a cat.  The cat managed to capture one mouse and spoke to him in a “sly voice, at once menacing and sickeningly sweet.”[19]  The cat made a deal with this mouse.  If the mouse could convince the other mice to let the cat live in the house, the cat would live in peace and would protect them from the “ones who really wanted to hurt them.”[20]  During this speech, the cat took on the characteristics of a cartoon Japanese personality, and therefore an Axis representative, by grinning a big, toothy smile, his eyes became slanted and he was given a Japanese accent for only a moment.  The mouse agreed and became the fifth-column mouse, a collaborator.

 At a rally called to make decisions about the cat, the fifth-column mouse convinced the other mice to obey the cat for their own protection, at one point saying “Oh no, don’t be naughty mice - appease him,”[21] paraphrasing England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain 1938 after the Munich Conference concerning Hitler.

The cat and the mice signed a truce that made the mice miserable slaves to the cat.  One day the cat decided he wanted to eat one of the mice he said he would protect.  This was the last straw for the mice and they held another rally to rid the house of the cat.  The mice, using their ingenuity and war bonds, built a large mechanical dog.  While inside their creation, the mice chased the cat out of the house for good with ease.  They all celebrated and the fifth-column mouse got a pie square in his face.

Cartoon studios did not stop at the home front.  Some of their most biting work was done to ridicule the Axis, their leaders and even their population.  The character used the most by cartoon studios in this negative manner was Hitler.  Hitler, the grand leader of Germany’s New World Order, was shown in many degrading forms: as a raving dog, a smelly skunk, a devious devil, a colossal stinker, an intrusive Big Brother, the Big Bad Wolf, a murderous madman, and as a blabbering, slobbery public speaker with bad body odor and holes in his shoes. 

A favorite trait cartoonists liked to target and ridicule was Hitler’s public speaking ability, as seen in Russian Rhapsody by Warner Bros.  Hitler’s character was drawn ludicrously - squealing, jumping around, spitting and pounding his fists -a possessed madman rattling nonsense phrases.[22]  Hitler’s speech on bombing Moscow went like this:

“Stoopnagle Hamburger mit der Frankfurter und der Sauuuuuerbraten!  Mit der zoot suit! 
"Mit der what’s cooking Doc? Mit sauerkraut from der delicatessen!! Mit liverwurst and
"der Chattanooga choo choo!!!  Ye will bombin der Moscow, bombin Stalin, bombin
"dat Irish general Tim O’Shenko!”[23]

 To make Hitler seem more stupid than he was drawn, he mistook Russian Marshall Tirnosheriko as Irish General Tim O’Shenko.  To make him appear even more outrageous, he pronounced the word “reich” with an overly extreme emphasis on the “ch,” making him drool heavily, while leaning way over the podium, squinting his tiny, madman eyes. 

Another way animators targeted Hitler was to compare him to well-known characters the American public had already developed strong negative feelings for since childhood.  This was accomplished by using recognized fairy tales, such as the Three Little Pigs.  This familiar story was set to World War II in MGM’s Blitz Wolf.  The familiar villain of The Big Bad Wolf was Hitler himself, and to make that point perfectly clear, a note was displayed before the cartoon started which said, “The Wolf in this photoplay is NOT fictitious.  Any similarities between this wolf and that (*!!*-._%) jerk Hitler is purely intentional!”[24]  It was one thing to assume the audience would get the reference, but this erased all doubt.

 The Hitler wolf did all the things the wolf in the Three Little Pigs story did: Threatened the pigs, destroyed their houses by huffing and puffing and then finally tried to eat them.  In addition, this wolf was ruthless when he destroyed and burnt their yards, was indignant and laughed in the pigs faces when they brought up the treaty they signed, and had a callous disregard for anything except his own success.  Just like in the story, the third little pig, named Sergeant Pork, prepared for Hitler’s lies and deceits by investing his money in a “secret weapon”[25] which were revealed as war bonds.  This tough and insightful pig was not only able to save himself and his brothers, but also send Hitler packing back to Germany in disgrace with his tail between his legs.  The picture ends with the tradition “The End,” with, “of Hitler”[26] thrown in for one final kick.

Along with Hitler, his top aides were mocked in many cartoons.  Herinanri Goering, appearing opposite Bugs Bunny in Herr Meets Hare, was drawn making his face similar to a pig.  He was also drawn fat, stuffed into a Bavarian outfit with cap, suspenders, shorts and knee socks with three medals on his chest.[27]  After a brief confrontation with Bugs, Goering discovered that his medals he received from Hitler were in reality just cheap tin that bent under the stress of Bugs’ bite.  Goering used foul language in German gibberish to insult Hitler.  These weak medals insinuated that the German Army was cheap and could not afford real gold or other precious metals to decorate even their top soldiers.  The end revealed that Goering was no better at catching Bugs than Elmer Fudd was.  One of the top leaders of Germany was revealed as an easily fooled, easily distracted, short-tempered fat man with grand ideas of this own intelligence.

These cartoons made light of Hitler and his staff, but there were also a number of cartoons that addressed what it was like to live in Germany under the rule of the Nazis.  Life in Nazi Germany was shown as harsh, cold and with never a moment’s peace while always under the watchful, prying eye of the government.  An example of this was seen in Walt Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face.  This cartoon paints a very dim, depressing view of life of the average citizen in Nazi Germany.  Their houses, their land, their rations, their work environment were all depicted as minimalist, with no room for joy or the ability to voice opinions without possible repercussions at gunpoint.  Work was not a choice, but something the Nazi government commands you to do or face dire consequences.  Overtime was a virtue.  Vacations were not a time for family fun and togetherness, but rather a time to build up the mind and body for the Fuehrer. 

Der Fuehrer’s Face, starring Donald Duck, started with a marching band that played the title song in a marching, polka style.  This song scorned Hitler and, with a tongue-in-check tone, sang about how wonderful it was to be a Nazi.  Some of the musicians were even drawn as caricatures of famous Axis leaders, like Goering playing the flute, Mussolini playing the drums, Hirohito on the saxophone.  The song became a national hit for Spike Jones & His City Slickers.  Here is a sample of the lyrics:

“Are we not the supermen?
Aryan pure supermen
Ja we ist der supermen
Super-duper supermen.

“Ist this Nutzi land not good?
Would you leave it if you could?
Ja this Nutzi land is good!
Vee would leave it if we could

“We bring the world to order
Heil Hitler's new world order
Everyone of foreign race will love der Fuehrer's face
When we bring to der world disorder

“When der Fuehrer says, "We ist der master race
We HEIL! HEIL! Right in der Fuehrer's face
Not to love Der Fuehrer is a great disgrace
So we HEIL! HEIL! Right in der Fuehrer's face!”[28]


As the band plodded around town, the town was displayed in the background.  Swastikas made up the trees, the wings of a windmill, the fences, the telephone poles and even the clouds in the sky.  Once inside Donald’s house, more swastika wallpaper, a swastika alarm clock, a swastika shirt and even a swastika cap were shown. This was an obvious hint that people in Germany could not escape the influences of the Nazi Party.

Donald was sleeping as the marching band stomped outside, and this music made Donald heil in his sleep.  His swastika alarm clock woke him up and his swastika cuckoo clock (with the cuckoo dressed as a little Hitler) chimed in.  Donald attempted to go back to sleep, but was pushed out of bed by an unseen soldier’s rifle and bayonet.  Donald's mornings always started by officially saluting the pictures of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini on his wall.  Afterwards, he tried to sneak back to bed, but the unseen solder threw a bucket of water at him.  He changed into his Nazi uniform, including an armband and a hat displaying more swastikas.  This scene introduced the unseen soldier who was on near constant watch of everything Donald did, and made sure he behaved like a good Nazi. 

At breakfast, Donald cleverly and secretly opened a hidden safe from behind the portrait of Hitler, and with loving care removed a large can of coffee.  He removed a single coffee bean tied to a string, which he proceeded to dunk once in a cup of water.  Coffee was one of the strictly rationed items during wartime.   In the United States, people were allowed one pound of coffee every five weeks.  In this notion of Germany, having possession of a single bean was a cause for secrecy and greed, which made coffee rations in America look plentiful by comparison.  To give his poor, empty stomach something to work on, Donald removed a big loaf of heavy bread.  It was so tough he needed a saw to cut off a piece, and while chewing, it seemed Donald was eating rocks. This scene demonstrated how well-off people in America were in regards to German rationing. 

While eating his stone-hard bread, the anonymous soldier made another appearance thrusting a copy of Mein Kampf in front of Donald and ordered him to “Expand the mind.”[29]  Expanding the mind wasn’t given too much time, as the entire marching band entered Donald’s little house and dragged him to work.  Throughout the scenes in Donald’s home, there was always somebody watching his every move, implying that the freedom of choice, freedom of speech and other basic freedoms Americans were promised in the U.S. Constitution were nonexistent in Nazi Germany.

Donald was taken at gunpoint to his job located in a large, black factory belching smoke.  At this ammunition plant, Donald worked forty-eight hours a day for the glory of the Fuehrer.[30]  His job consisted of delicately screwing on the top of the ammunition shells on a conveyer belt, and to heil the pictures of Hitler whenever presented with a portrait.  Donald was under tremendous pressure while working: screwing the heads on an endless array of shells, speakers blaring constant reminders of how great and giving Hitler was and the consistent heiling of Hitler’s picture at every occasion.  At one point, Donald was so frustrated he finally muttered some blasphemous words below his breath. He was immediately surrounded by a battalion of anonymous soldiers with rifles who demanded he restate of his love and devotion to Hitler.  A nervous Donald weakly admitted defeat, and wisely raised his hand and heiled Hitler again.  These scenes show a continuation of the lack of freedom that was seen at Donald’s house, only this time with the added pressures of the delicate work of screwing ammunition tops on shells.

During the monotonous workday, Donald received a “paid vacation”[31] given to him by the so-called generosity of the Fuehrer.  A large canvas dropped behind his work area with a tacky mountain scene painted on it.  While on this vacation, an anonymous voice reminded Donald that he should use this time to build up the body in order to work harder for the Fuehrer.  With a bit of cartoon magic, Donald’s jumping jacks transformed him into a living swastika.  Even on vacation, the Nazi ideals were ever present, infecting the German population.  Vacation lasted about thirty seconds before the kindness of the Fuehrer rewarded Donald again, but in this instance with overtime.

Working overtime was the final straw that drove Donald insane, Disney style.  The nightmare sequence displayed shells, pictures of Donald as Hitler, Hitler as a shell, Donald as a shell, all as the marching band music blared frantically.  After finally being crushed between shells and blown to little bitty Donalds, he awoke and found himself in a big, comfortable bed wearing pajamas with stars and stripes decorating them.  A dazed Donald jolted up and almost started his Nazi morning heiling sequence until he spotted a miniature of the Statue of Liberty, which he preceded to kiss and then proclaim his love for America.  The final scene shows the angry face of Hitler, with a tomato pegging him right on his nose, and the residue spelled out "The End."[32]

Clearly, these are not positive images of the Third Reich and of the New World Order.  Daily life in Nazi Germany was displayed as being horrific, in which the average citizen is unable to do what they want, when they want.  The anonymous soldier is an unswerving threat, ready to pull the trigger when one steps an inch out of line.  The German work place was no better, having the constant reminders of how great Hitler was, how lucky they should have felt to work for Hitler, and how unimportant the workers general health and safety were.  Everything in this cartoon was drawn to depict the totalitarian Nazi regime, to strip away the individual’s spirit of choice[33] and to show by comparison how comfortable the people in America actually had it.

Turning from the European front to the Pacific front, we see many similarities in the kinds of propaganda shown in cartoons.  The Japanese leaders were ridiculed, though not as frequently as the German or Italian leaders.  The cartoons depicting the Japanese culture were very different from the cartoons created to mock the Germans and Italians.  These cartoons showed the entire Japanese civilization as backwards, primitive and comical, with nearly every Japanese citizen drawn with prominent buckteeth, thick black glasses, bowlegged, and short.

“The latter Germans were enemies and among them were vicious and sadistic individuals, but there was little attempt to indict the German nation, except in so far as it had been perverted by the ideology of Nazism.  By contrast, the images of hatred that boiled to the surface during the war against Japan have a virulence which leaves no scope for discrimination.  With the Germans we shared a common humanity - there was always room for the concept of ‘the good German’ - but the Japanese might almost have been a different form of life.”[34] 

An example of this was seen in Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.  This cartoon used extensive stereotyping of the entire Japanese culture in an incredibly degrading manner, and has been called “the most sadistic and unsettling of all the war cartoons.”[35]

The beginning showed Bugs Bunny lost “somewhere in the Pacific,”[36] but he comes across a beautiful island paradise.  Upon his arrival to shore, he could not believe what he had found.  Bugs proclaimed, “What a beauteous Garden of Eden… a veritable Shangri-La of flagrant beauty…  A lustrous pearl of the Pacific…  So peaceful...  So quiet…”[37] This peace and quiet was abruptly broken as explosions were heard and seen in the skies.  Bugs ran and jumped for safety in a big pile of hay.

As the explosions ceased, Bugs popped his head up from the top of the stack, and looked around to see if all was clear.  Suddenly, a pair of bow-legged bare feet with ragged pants appeared from below and lifted the haystack off the ground, making the comic appearance that these legs belong to Bugs.  Arms soon followed, and then a head popped up right next to Bug’s face.  The face was that of an unnamed Japanese soldier, complete with black-rimmed glasses and buckteeth.  This unnamed Japanese soldier was not happy to see Bugs Bunny.  The soldier, in a fury of unending Japanese-sounding words, pulled a machete and attacked Bugs with a ruthless rush of energy.  The introduction of this Japanese soldier displayed the main distinctiveness used in many wartime cartoons when illustrating the Japanese.  The soldier was drawn short, wearing glasses with black frames, extensive buckteeth, distorted bowlegs, wearing scraps of clothes and his speech was nonstop, nonsensical ranting.  Stereotypes like these “are formed by making the individual stand for the general,”[38] and the animators heightened this by keeping this soldier anonymous.

Bugs Bunny took to the sky in a warplane, and the soldier took off right behind him.  A rope tied on one end to a tree and the other on to the soldier’s plane, quickly stopped his attack.  As the soldier parachuted down from his wrecked plane, Bugs flew by and gave him a handful of recyclable metal saying, “Here’s some scrap iron for Japan, Moto!”[39]  (This quote used two different references.  Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States sold scrap metal to Japan, and then the name “Moto” was a popular fictional U.S. movie character who was a Japanese intelligence agent played by Peter Lorre.)  The weight from Bugs’ gift of scrap metal made the Japanese soldier fall to the ground with a loud thud, and the incessant, high-pitched Japanese chatter had finally ceased.

In the next scene, Bugs was painting a Japanese war flag on a tree, as pilots did on their warplanes as a trophy if they shot down an enemy plane.  He walked away, admiring his trophy, and ran right into a tremendously large sumo wrestler.  They grappled, and Bugs was quickly tied up in knots.  Seeing he was no match for this wrestler, Bugs went to an old stand by of dressing in drag, but with a twist.  This time, he dressed like a Japanese geisha girl, complete with raised shoes, fan, black wig and large eyelashes.  Bugs mumbled little, sweet Japanese-like phrases which turned the Sumo wrestler into a bashful fool.  As he leaned over to get a kiss, Bugs smacked him on the head with a large mallet.  The appearance of these two Oriental clichés “further elaborates the markedly comedic tone in the depiction of the Japanese threat.  Through the inclusion of these two relatively harmless civilian character types, the wartime foe is established as both humorous and easily beaten.” [40]  This helps illustrate how the “process of fragmentation and reconfiguration of familiar elements creates a contemporaneous Japanese enemy.”[41] 

Again, Bugs’ victory was short lived.  He looked out at the sea and saw a fleet of Japanese war ships coming onto the island.  “Japs!  Hundreds of them!  This calls for strategy,”[42] Bugs said to himself.  To combat the entire Japanese fleet, Bugs used the disguise of the “Good Rumor”[43] Ice Cream Man and handed each Japanese soldier an ice cream bar that concealed a grenade.  All the Japanese soldiers ran to the truck, so eager to receive the ice cream bars that they pushed and shoved each other to be first in line, which made them appear like starving animals finally getting fed.  As they fought to be the first in line, Bugs spewed forth an onslaught of racial insults, ”Here you are!  Here’s yours, bowlegs!  Here’s one for you, monkey-face!  Here you are, slant-eyes!”[44]  The unsuspecting troops all run off to devour their treats and, of course, explosions abound.

The next scene began with Bugs back where he started keeping track of his trophies, but this time all the trees had numerous flags on them.  He also returned to saying how peaceful and quiet the island became now that the Japanese were gone, and how he cannot stand quiet!  He looked off the island again, but this time saw American ships off the coast.  Bugs cheered for the American troops, and waited anxiously to be rescued.  That was, until he noticed a lady rabbit on the island.  Instead of being rescued, the true American-blooded male Bugs Bunny chased after the dame to end the picture.

The propaganda content used in this cartoon is extensive and cruel, but it was not alone in its description of the Japanese.  In You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap, Popeye takes on an entire Japanese warship staffed with soldiers that were drawn and portrayed similarly to those in Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.  In Blitz Wolf, the first little pig hung a sign outside his door saying, “No Dogs Allowed,” but the word “Dog” was crossed out and “Japs” was written in its place.[45]  Another example was seen in Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.  The Mean Old Queen hired “Murder, Inc.”[46] to kidnap Coal Black, and on their car was a list of their services and prices: “We rub out anyone: $1.00 - Midgets: 1/2 Price - Japs: Free.”[47]  The Japanese were seen as being less than human, and D.J. Enright, quoted by Ian Littlewood, said this was the “central premise of wartime propaganda: to be other than human, to be unlike us, is to become a beast.”[48]  The studios portrayed the Japanese as monsters to dehumanize them, and therefore to make it look like our troops were not killing other humans, but mad, beastlike creatures.

It is also important to recognize that ethnic stereotyping in cartoons did not start with the Japanese.  “Ethnic stereotypes were very much the order of the day.”[49]  Before World War II, the Black population was the main target of this stereotyping.  Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs was just one of these cartoons, but the already mentioned Leon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunny and The Spirit of ’43 are other cartoons in which stereotypical views of Blacks can be found.  The difference between the Black representation and the Japanese representation was the intensity of the assaults.  The Japanese attacks were much more venomous and hateful because of the state of war between the United States and Japan. 

It is difficult to measure the impact these cartoons had on the American public.  “Postwar studies dealing exclusively with the Warner Brothers cartoons released during the war are scarce.  None have undertaken a formal approach to describe the overall content.”[50]  Combat Cinematographer Norm Hatch said that the cartoons “were always greatly liked by everybody.  They were sometimes very brutal, very sexist, very racist, in many ways, but that was the way of the times.”[51]  Although cartoons made during this period used serious ethnic stereotyping along side other offensive images and situations in regarding the Axis countries, the sheer number of these cartoons and the popularity they gained hints that they were not only greatly liked, but even celebrated.  Disney’s Der Fuehrer's Face was so well accepted it won an Academy Award in 1943 for Short Subject (Cartoon), and the title song paved the way for subsequent successes by Spike Jones.

Another sign that these cartoons were effective is that similar cartoons are being produced to this day.  Comedy Central’s popular cartoon South Park frequently features Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a bad guy, who made his first appearance as Satan’s lover in the movie, South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut in 1999.  Even Nazi Germany and Hitler are still used today, as seen in a recent television movie called Savage Time on Cartoon Network featuring the Justice League.

Cartoons like these have been a tool for political and social change for years.  They reach the masses in ways that no other form can, as anything can happen in a cartoon.  Instead of hearing or reading that the Japanese had a “marked resemblance to monkeys,”[52] this description becomes a reality in cartoons by making all the Japanese soldiers need to use their arms and hands to propel them forward to run more quickly.[53]  In a comparable fashion, instead of trusting that the audience would interpret Hitler had similarities to the Big Bad Wolf, in cartoons Hitler was actually drawn as the Big Bad Wolf.  The cartoon medium does not need to rely on the intelligence of the audience to catch a point.  When a cartoonist draws a caricature “one can find its most extreme manifestations since no human body is required to mediate the message.”[54]  The propaganda used in cartoons during this time needs to be viewed with the specific historical context in mind, for without this context “such symbolic manipulation can later appear to be gross distortions of reality, racist, naïve and essentially silly.”[55]

World War II was considered a very popular war.  Thanks to increased media coverage, the American public recognized the bad guys and knew who the leaders of those countries were.  These cartoons and favorite cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, offered their audiences the chance to laugh and vent their anger at these Axis leaders by drawing them in a negative manner and making them look like fools.  With this in mind, it is understandable that American men and women working for the cartoon studios sought to brighten the days of the troops overseas, and the people at home, by implementing these familiar cartoon figures into films as propaganda and for comic relief.  Perhaps film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said it best:

“...If we couldn’t blitz Adolf Hitler and Mussolini out of existence, well,
at least we could laugh at their expense.  Make them look ridiculous,
which the animators found very easy to do.  And if (the cartoons) seem broad
or heavy handed at times, remember, most American moviegoers
had a big stake in this war: loved ones and friends fighting overseas. It must have
helped to be able to tweak the nose of the bad guys now and then.”[56]



Primary Sources:

Blitz Wolf.  Produced by Fred Quimby.  Directed by Tex Avery.  9:49 min. Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, 1942.  Film

Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Isadore 'Friz' Freleng.  8:10 min. Warner Brothers, 1944.  Film

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.  Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Robert Clampett. 7:30 min.  Warner Brothers, 1942.  Film

Der Fuehrer’s Face.  Produced by Walt Disney.  Directed by Jack Kinney.  7:49 min.  Walt Disney Studios, 1943.  Film

Falling Hare.  Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Robert Clampett.  8:50 min.  Warner Brothers, 1943.  Film

Fifth Column Mouse.  Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 7:09 min. Warner Brothers, 1943, Film

Herr meets Hare.  Produced by Edward Selzer.  Directed by Isadore 'Friz' Freleng.  7:12 min.  Warner Brothers, 1945. Film

Leon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunny.  Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Robert Clampett.  1:20 min.  Warner Brothers, 1942.  Film

Russian Rhapsody.  Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Robert Clampett. 7:00 min.  Warner Brothers, 1944.  Film

Scrap Happy Daffy.  Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Frank Tashlin.  6:46 min.  Warner Brothers, 1942.  Film

Seein’ Red, White, ‘n’ Blue.  Directed by Dan Gordon.  6:30 min.  Paramount Studios, 1943.  Film

Spirit of ’43. The,  Produced by Walt Disney.  Directed by Jack King.  5:48 min. Walt Disney, 1943.  Film 

Tale of Two Kitties, Produced by Leon Schlesinger.  Directed by Robert Clampett. 8:00 min., Warner Brothers, 1942. Film

Secondary Sources:

Bernardi, Daniel, ed.  Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness, Creatures of Good and Evil by Karla Rae Fuller.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Cartoons Go to War.  Produced and Directed by Sharon K. Baker.  50 Min.  A&E Entertainment, 1995. Videocassette

Maltin, Leonard.  Bugs and Daffy: The Wartime Cartoons.  Written and narrated by Leonard Maltin.  80 min. Turner Entertainment Company, 1989.  Videocassette

Casey, Steven.  Cautious Crusade.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001

Chomsky, Noam.  Media Control – The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.  New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997

Jowett, Garth and Victoria O’Donell.  Propaganda and Persuasion, 2 ed.  Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992

Littlewood, Ian.  The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths.  London: Secker & Warburg, 1996

Machowski, James Stanley.  “An Analysis of the Propaganda Content of Warner Brothers Cartoons Released Between 1939 and 1946.”  University of Minnesota, 1981

Sandler, Kevin S., ed.  Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation.  New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998

Walt Disney Company.  Donald Duck, 50 Years of Happy Frustration.  Tucson, HP Books, 1984



[1] James Stanley Machowski, “An Analysis of the Propaganda Content of Warner Brothers Cartoons Released Between 1939 and 1946” (University of Minnesota, 1981), 32.

[2] Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donell, Propaganda and Persuasion, 2d ed.  (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992), 177.

[3] Steven Casey, Cautious Crusade, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[4] Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donell, Propaganda and Persuasion, 2d ed.  (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992), 4.

[5] Noam Chomsky, Media Control - The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), 20-21.

[6] Tale of Two Kitties, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Robert Clampett, 8:00 minutes, Warner Bros., 1942, Film

[7] Cartoons Go to War, prod. and dir. Sharon K. Baker, 50 min., A&E Entertainment, 1995, Videocassette

[8] Falling Hare, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Robert Clampett, 8:50 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[9] Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Robert Clampett, 7:30 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[10] Ibid

[11] Leon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunny, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Robert Clampett, 2:56 min., Warner Bros., 1942, Film.

[12] The Spirit of ’43, prod. Walt Disney, dir. Jack King, 5:48 min., Walt Disney, 1943, Film.

[13] The Spirit of ’43, prod. Walt Disney, dir. Jack King, 5:48 min., Walt Disney Studios, 1943, Film.

[14] Ibid

[15] Scrap Happy Daffy, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Frank Tashlin, 8:00 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[16] Ibid

[17] Scrap Happy Daffy, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Frank Tashlin, 8:00 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[18] Scrap Happy Daffy, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Frank Tashlin, 8:00 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[19] James Stanley Machowski, “An Analysis of the Propaganda Content of Warner Brothers Cartoons Released Between 1939 and 1946” (University of Minnesota, 1981), 83.

[20] Fifth-Column Mouse, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 7:09 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[21] Fifth-Column Mouse, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 7:09 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[22] James Stanley Machowski, “An Analysis of the Propaganda Content of Warner Brothers Cartoons Released Between 1939 and 1946” (University of Minnesota, 1981), 90

[23] Russian Rhapsody, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Robert Clampett, 7:00 min., Warner Bros., 1944, Film.

[24] Blitz Wolf, prod. Fred Quimby, dir. Tex Avery, 9:49 min., MGM, 1942, Film.

[25] Blitz Wolf, prod. Fred Quimby, dir. Tex Avery, 9:49 min., MGM, 1942, Film.

[26] Ibid

[27] James Stanley Machowski, “An Analysis of the Propaganda Content of Warner Brothers Cartoons Released Between 1939 and 1946” (University of Minnesota, 1981), 95.

[28] Der Fuehrer's Face, prod. Walt Disney, dir. Jack Kinney, 7:49 min., Walt Disney Studios, 1943, Film.

[29] Der Fuehrer's Face, prod. Walt Disney, dir. Jack Kinney, 7:49 min., Walt Disney Studios, 1943, Film.

[30] Ibid

[31] Der Fuehrer's Face, prod. Walt Disney, dir. Jack Kinney, 7:49 min., Walt Disney Studios, 1943, Film.

[32] Der Fuehrer's Face, prod. Walt Disney, dir. Jack Kinney, 7:49 min., Walt Disney Studios, 1943, Film.

[33] Walt Disney Company, Donald Duck, 50 Years of Happy Frustration (Tucson: HP Books, 1984), 31.

[34] Ian Littlewood, The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996), 13

[35] Kevin S. Sandler, ed., Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 12.

[36] Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 8:10 min., Warner Bros., 1944, Film.

[37] Ibid

[38] Littlewood, Ian, The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths, (London, Secker & Warburg, 1996), p. 170

[39] Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 8:10 minutes, Warner Bros., 1944, Film

[40] Daniel Bernardi, ed., Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness by Karla Rae Fuller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 286.

[41] Daniel Bernardi, ed., Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness by Karla Rae Fuller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 298.

[42] Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 8:10 min., Warner Bros., 1944, Film.

[43] Ibid

[44] Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 8:10 min., Warner Bros., 1944, Film.

[45] Blitz Wolf, prod. Fred Quimby, dir. Tex Avery, 9:49 min., MGM, 1942, Film.

[46] Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Robert Clampett, 7:30 min., Warner Bros., 1943, Film.

[47] Ibid

[48] Ian Littlewood, The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996), 14.

[49] Bugs and Daffy: The Wartime Cartoons, Written and narrated by Leonard Maltin, 80 min., Turner Entertainment Co., 1989, Videocassette

[50] James Stanley Machowski, “An Analysis of the Propaganda Content of Warner Brothers Cartoons Released Between 1939 and 1946” (University of Minnesota, 1981), 15

[51] Cartoons Go to War, prod. and dir. Sharon K. Baker, 50 min., A&E Entertainment, 1995, Videocassette

[52] Ian Littlewood, The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996), 13.

[53] Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, prod. Leon Schlesinger, dir. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng, 8:10 min., Warner Bros., 1944, Film.

[54] Daniel Bernardi, ed., Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness by Karla Rae Fuller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 284

[55] Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donell, Propaganda and Persuasion, 2d ed (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992), 157

[56] Bugs and Daffy: The Wartime Cartoons, Written and narrated by Leonard Maltin, 80 min., Turner Entertainment Co., 1989, Videocassette