In A Nutshell
The Spirit of 43 was a propaganda film Walt Disney made for the US government to persuade Americans to pay income taxes. The film was a phenomenal success and greatly increased the number of Americans willing to pay income taxes to this day. The Congress, however, refused to pay for production of the film.
The Whole Bushel
These days we think of corporations and the US government as being so intertwined that it’s a cliche to say that politicians are practically owned by business interests. So this story illustrates especially well just how much times have changed. In the era of conglomerates getting more welfare and tax cuts than the lower classes, who would have thought the government would stiff a famous business behemoth like Walt Disney?
In 1942, the income tax was still a relatively new idea and many households didn’t pay it until a 1942 “Victory Tax” added most of the rest of the population to the bracket. To help fund America’s recent entry into World War II, the US Treasury Department appealed to Walt Disney to create a propaganda film to persuade people it was right to sacrifice a portion of their incomes for “our fighting men.” The resulting short starred Donald Duck and was entitled The New Spirit.
The film is about Donald receiving his paycheck and groaning at the prospect of giving $13 of his $2,500 paycheck to the tax man (a rate of 0.0052 percent—sounds rough!). He is visited by a spectral elderly duck who changes his mind and gives him enough enthusiasm that Donald proclaims “Taxes beat the Axis!” (With his Scottish accent, whiskers, and age, some have claimed that this character is the first appearance of tycoon character Scrooge McDuck.)
Despite its heavy-handed treatment of a subject that usually wouldn’t be considered very cinematic (how many times have you been entertained watching someone fill out their tax returns?) the short was praised by such publications as the New York Times and received an academy award nomination. It was such a massive hit that a Gallup poll indicated that 37 percent of the 26 million people who saw it were persuaded to pay their taxes. That meant millions of dollars for the war effort drummed up by Disney.
Disney then sent the Treasury Department a bill for about half of the movie’s production costs. A larger amount of money had been lost due to the film using up many of the movie bookings that otherwise would have gone to paid screenings. When the Treasury Department asked Congress to appropriate that money, the result was public outrage. “Not one buck for Donald Duck!” as one congressman put it. Disney was flooded with negative mail for apparently not being quite generous enough in his service to his country.
So, having insulted his efforts and turned the public against him for a time, the next year the Treasury Department had the nerve to request another movie from Disney promoting income taxes again. Disney acquiesced and a second short was made called The Spirit of 43. The series went a long way toward normalizing the idea of the public paying income taxes and was financed by a bit of forced donation.
Show Me The Proof
Donald Duck: The New Spirit
Donald Duck: The Spirit of ’43
Larry’s Toon Institute: Donald Duck Pays His Taxes
Baseball Goes to War, by William B. Mead
LIFE: February 16, 1942