Even though the characters and culture he created have become global (and in many ways a sovereign entity all their own), Walt Disney was a uniquely American creation. We have often heard about Walt’s love of country, and his sense of pride in the United States of America—and throughout his career he displayed his deeply-felt patriotism over and over again in very public ways. On this Independence Day, it is our privilege to share with you some rare and illuminating thoughts from Walt Disney, American.
The Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge was established in 1949 to honor patriotism and good citizenship. Former President Dwight David Eisenhower served as the Foundation’s chairman from its founding until his death in 1969.
On February 22, 1963, at a special ceremony in Palm Springs, California, Eisenhower presented Walt Disney with the Foundation’s highest award: the George Washington Medal of Honor. (Other recipients include Chief Justice William Rehnquist, astronaut and senator John Glenn, Jr., former President Herbert Hoover, and actor John Wayne.)
The award recognized Walt as “Ambassador of Freedom for the United States.” In his introduction, General Eisenhower explained, “Ladies and gentlemen, the basic purpose of Freedoms Foundation is sustaining the ideals and principles upon which America has been founded and has prospered and have passed them on to our children. In the pursuit of this purpose, Freedoms Foundation has constantly sought…to recognize the abilities of certain men who have been effective in our whole population in this kind of work. Four men previously have been honored by Freedoms Foundation. Mr. Disney is the fifth. He and Freedoms Foundation recognize that our system of government is based upon three great truths that all of us need to remember, and certainly all of us need to be reminded about from time to time. One of his great functions has been to remind our people about the value and sacredness of these values and these factors in our nation’s system.”
Eisenhower continued, “I believe it is one of the great functions of Mr. Disney and his organization to spread these truths. Through the field of entertainment he does it indirectly and therefore effectively. …It is my privilege, before I present to him the medal and the plaque that goes along with this award of the George Washington [medal]…to read what is on it:
“Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge honors Walt Disney, Ambassador of Freedom for the United States of America. For his educational wisdom and patriotic dedication in advancing the concept of freedom under God; for his unfailing professional devotion to the things which matter most, human dignity and personal responsibility; for masterful creative leadership in communicating the hopes and aspirations of our free society to the far corners of the planet.”
To great applause, Eisenhower presented the award to Walt. When the applause died down, Walt spoke.
“Mr. President…General Eisenhower…or, I mean, Mr. Eisenhower…It’s kind of hard to express my feelings about this. This is one of those moments when I feel…entirely inadequate. It’s something that sort of makes you feel rather humble. But I want the Board of the Freedoms Foundation and everyone connected with this to know that I sincerely appreciate this tribute. And in expressing this appreciation, I think I should make a little confession. And that is that personally, I don’t understand why the heck it was given to me. I’ve just been going along doing what sort of comes naturally to me. I might say, I’ve been selfishly indulging myself as an American…as a United States citizen…enjoying all privileges that one has as a citizen, and it’s only times like this that you sort of wake up to the fact that…what it really means to be a citizen.
“And it sort of brings to back to mind my father who…he was an alien…and in the 70s my grandfather, who was from Kansas…out about where you come from, General. Of course, he…being a Canadian, he had to purchase land…he couldn’t homestead. So he did. He took out his naturalization papers. My father was about 18, 19 then, and all the years after that my father felt that he was a naturalized citizen by an act of Congress whereas the minor children are automatically naturalized. And he lived a life of a good American. He was a very good American. He was one that never failed to vote, although, frankly, he never voted on the right side. He was a blind Democrat. He was a dead socialist. But he was one that I learned a lot from, and a lot of his words have stuck with me.
“Like he told me…he said, ‘Walter, the welfare of the nation is dependent upon the welfare of the individual.’ And he fought for a lot of social reforms. Later on in life I was just sort of kidding with him one day and I said, ‘Dad, how does it feel to have voted for at least 50 years and never voted for anybody that won?’ And he said, ‘Well, Walter,’ he said, ‘I have won.’ He said, ‘We have won.’ He said, ‘These things don’t always come about directly but…every plank in the platform that is a dead socialist has been [absorbed] into the platform of both of the major parties…so we have won.’
“…Those words were very encouraging to me at that time. Also, about that time my dad’s vote was challenged. Somebody challenged his vote and on a technicality he found himself an alien. After fifty years, I think, of voting. But he was goin’ on eighty and my mother, who was—her family, in Massachusetts, they rolled logs to Fort Ticonderoga…they were early pioneers in Ohio—my mother became an alien. She had the sense of humor; she just said, ‘Well, after all these years I’ve been married to a Canuck.’ But my dad was very upset about it and he was goin’ on eighty years old. And he was determined to die a citizen of the United States. And I kidded with him. I said, ‘Dad…you couldn’t be much closer to a citizen than be…a Canadian is about as close to bein’ a citizen of the United States as you can get. Now why do you want to go to all this trouble?’ He said, ‘I want to die a citizen.’ He said, ‘This country’s been good to me. It’s been good to my family.’ He said, ‘I believe in it. I believe in it.’
“So, by gosh, he went through the routine. My mother went with him. I don’t know what they do—you have to learn to recite the Constitution…upside down, backwards… He was all prepared and he went to court and the judge recognized the name and things and he called him into his chambers and he said, ‘I want to apologize.’ He said, ‘This should never have happened, Mr. Disney.’ He said, ‘You won’t have to go through this routine,’ and he said, ‘I will vouch for you.’
“But to me…it made an impression on me. Why did he want to fight so hard to be a citizen? And we’re born into it. We’ve sort of grown up and take it all for granted.
“But that was one little thing that I never forgot. Of course, it probably meant more to me than it does to anybody out here listening to me. But he was a great American, too. And so for my father, and for the wonderful group of people that I’ve had working with me all of these years…well, the most important part of me, and for myself…I want to express my extreme thanks and appreciation.
“And actually, if you could see close in my eyes, the American flag is waving in both of them, and up my spine is growing this red, white and blue stripe. I’m very proud and very honored. Thank you.”
Paula Sigman Lowery prepared this article for publication. She is an historian, author, and former archivist for The Walt Disney Company. She was one of the founders of Disney Character Voices, and founding director of the Walt Disney Collectors Society. She was part of the core team that developed the story and content for The Walt Disney Family Museum, where she continues to serve as a Consulting Historian.