Up through December 1941, almost all TIME covers had featured a close-cropped, solemn portrait of a man. That month, however, editors prepared something quite different: a cartoon elephant.
Two months earlier, Disney released Dumbo in theaters, hoping to recoup their losses following the financial failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio and a contentious animators’ strike. Although the film was just 64 minutes long and made on a comparatively shoestring budget, audiences and critics alike loved the tale of the circus animal. “It is probably Disney’s best all-round picture to date,” the TIME review read.
TIME editors, hoping to release an uplifting issue for the Christmas season, commissioned artists from The Walt Disney Studios to draw a black-and-white portrait of the elephant for the cover. The accompanying story was scheduled to run on December 29 and would anoint Dumbo the “Mammal-of-the-Year.”
But on December 7, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack propelled the United States into World War II and sent TIME editors scrambling to rewrite their December 15 issue. “Pearl Harbor was well timed, from Time’s point of view, “ Manfred Gottfried, the magazine’s managing editor, said in a later interview with Robert T. Elson. “We had thirty-six hours in which to remake the magazine.”
Editors created a new section of the magazine, entitled “The U.S. At War,” and dove fully into covering the war efforts; the next two covers would display the American and Japanese military leaders Husband E. Kimmel and Isoroku Yamamoto. Dumbo was deemed too frivolous for the moment and was replaced by General Douglas MacArthur.
But TIME still ran a 1,400-word story in that issue on the resilient little elephant, exploring his creation inside the Disney studio and framing him as a welcome distraction and source of comfort for a country at war: “Among all the grim and foreboding visages of A.D. 1941, his guileless, homely face is the face of a true man of good will.”