Animated Films Made During the Cold War Explain Why America is Exceptionally Exceptional

The CIA fought most of the Cold War on the cul­tur­al front, recruit­ing oper­a­tives and plac­ing agents in every pos­si­ble sphere of influ­ence, not only abroad but at home as well. As Fran­cis Ston­er Saun­ders’ book The Cul­tur­al Cold War: the CIA and the World of Arts and Let­ters details, the agency fund­ed intel­lec­tu­als across the polit­i­cal spec­trum as well as pro­duc­ers of radio, TV, and film. A well-financed pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign aimed at the Amer­i­can pub­lic attempt­ed to per­suade the pop­u­lace that their coun­try looked exact­ly like its lead­ers wished to see it, a well-run cap­i­tal­ist machine with equal oppor­tu­ni­ty for all. In addi­tion to the agency’s var­i­ous for­ays into jazz and mod­ern art, the CIA also helped finance and con­sult­ed on the pro­duc­tion of ani­mat­ed films, like the 1954 adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm we recent­ly fea­tured. We’ve also post­ed on oth­er ani­mat­ed pro­pa­gan­da films made by gov­ern­ment agen­cies, such as A is for Atom, a PR film for nuclear ener­gy, and Duck and Cov­er, a short sug­gest­ing that clean­li­ness may help cit­i­zens sur­vive a nuclear war.

Today we bring you three short ani­ma­tions fund­ed and com­mis­sioned by pri­vate inter­ests. These films were made for Arkansas’ Hard­ing Col­lege (now Hard­ing Uni­ver­si­ty) and financed by long­time Gen­er­al Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan. The name prob­a­bly sounds famil­iar. Today the Alfred P. Sloan Foun­da­tion gen­er­ous­ly sup­ports pub­lic radio and tele­vi­sion, as well as med­ical research and oth­er altru­is­tic projects. In the post-war years, Sloan, wide­ly con­sid­ered “the father of the mod­ern cor­po­ra­tion,” writes Karl Cohen in a two-part essay for Ani­ma­tion World Net­work, sup­pos­ed­ly took a shine to the boot­strap­ping pres­i­dent of Hard­ing, George S. Ben­son, a Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ary and cru­sad­ing anti-Com­mu­nist who used his posi­tion to pro­mote God, fam­i­ly, and coun­try. Accord­ing to Cohen, Sloan donat­ed sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars to Hard­ing as fund­ing for “edu­ca­tion­al anti-Com­mu­nist, pro-free enter­prise sys­tem films.” Con­tract­ed by the col­lege, pro­duc­er John Suther­land, for­mer Dis­ney writer, made nine films in all. As you’ll see in the title card that opens each short, these were osten­si­bly made “to cre­ate a deep­er under­stand­ing of what has made Amer­i­ca the finest place in the world to live.” At the top, watch 1949’s “Why Play Leap Frog?” and just above, see anoth­er of the Hard­ing films, “Meet King Joe,” also from 1949.

Just above, watch a third of the Hard­ing pro­pa­gan­da films, “Make Mine Free­dom,” from 1948. Each of these films, call­ing them­selves “Fun and Facts about Amer­i­ca,” present sim­plis­tic patri­ot­ic sto­ries with an author­i­ta­tive nar­ra­tor who patient­ly explains the ins and outs of Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism. “Why Play Leapfrog?” tells the sto­ry of Joe, a dis­grun­tled doll-fac­to­ry work­er who learns some impor­tant lessons about the sup­ply chain, wages, and prices. He also learns that he’d bet­ter work hard­er to increase his pro­duc­tiv­i­ty (and coop­er­ate with man­age­ment) if he wants to keep up with the ris­ing cost of liv­ing. “Meet King Joe” intro­duces us to the “king of the work­ers of the world,” so called because he can buy more stuff than the poor schlubs in oth­er coun­tries. Joe, “no smarter” and “no stronger than work­ers in oth­er lands” has such advan­tages only because of, you guessed it, the won­ders of cap­i­tal­ism. “Make Mine Free­dom” reminds view­ers of their Con­sti­tu­tion­al rights before intro­duc­ing us to a snake oil char­la­tan sell­ing “ism,” a Com­mie-like ton­ic, to a group of U.S. labor disputants—if only they’ll sign over their rights and prop­er­ty. The assem­bled crowd jumps at the chance, but then along comes John Q. Pub­lic, who won’t give up his free­dom for “some import­ed dou­ble-talk.”

You can read much more about the rela­tion­ship between Sloan and Ben­son and the oth­er films Suther­land pro­duced with Sloan’s mon­ey, in Cohen’s essay, which also includes infor­ma­tion on Cold War ani­mat­ed pro­pa­gan­da films made by Warn­er Broth­ers and Dis­ney.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mal Farm: Watch the Ani­mat­ed Adap­ta­tion of Orwell’s Nov­el Fund­ed by the CIA (1954)

A is for Atom: Vin­tage PR Film for Nuclear Ener­gy

How a Clean, Tidy Home Can Help You Sur­vive the Atom­ic Bomb: A Cold War Film from 1954

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • John says:

    Pro­pa­gan­da films, yes, but might not hurt some peo­ple to watch these again. Check out the 1:19 mark of “Make Mine Free­dom”.

    Even back in the hard­core days of McCarthy’s Amer­i­ca, some­things were at least pro­pa­gan­dized as holy.

  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    And now the cor­po­rate world tri­umphs, not by mak­ing films about itself, but by suc­ceed­ing in being the cen­tral fact of our lives for which lit­er­a­ture and film have found no image.

  • Ab says:

    You can call this pro­pa­gan­da but it at least the first video “Leap Frog” is most­ly a basic edu­ca­tion most of the US adult pop­u­la­tion real­ly needs. Ok, is it a lit­tle over the top with the coop­er­a­tion of labor and man­age­ment to get pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gains? Sure

    But the basic idea of costs and that the only way for labor to get a real income increase comes from pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gains is some­thing most adults in the US don’t get. I am will­ing to bet if you took a sur­vey of US adults they have no idea how small the embed­ded prof­it is in any giv­en price of a good. Like­wise they will have no idea how much of the price is made up of the accu­mu­lat­ed labor costs.

    More impor­tant­ly as a per­son who has been a super­vi­sor who has had to tell peo­ple what their rais­es year after year they have no clue what it takes to get them a raise. I work in a pro­fes­sion­al ser­vice indus­try with busi­ness majors as employ­ees and many of them seem unable to under­stand.

    The con­ver­sa­tion goes the same. Employ­ee: Why aren’t our rais­es larg­er? Me: You draft the bills for your clients are we rais­ing prices by 3–5% like you would to see your raise? Employ­ee: No Me: So can the com­pa­ny’s labor costs go up faster then rev­enue growth for every long? Employ­ee: No

    What is amaz­ing the employ­ees that com­plain the most and get this the least are the ones that resist our try­ing to train them on new soft­ware that will allow them to ser­vice more clients. If per­son can take on 1 or 2 new clients because of soft­ware upgrades then our gross rev­enue per employ­ee can go up enough to offer bet­ter rais­es.

    It is amaz­ing how few employ­ees don’t see that fact. This video explains that basic real­i­ty and more adults in this coun­try need to know this.

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