The United States was trying to squash Nazi sympathy in South America in 1940. A new government agency, Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, was created to garner goodwill.
The agency asked filmmakers to put Latin American themes into movies to help gain sympathy. They even asked prominent people to visit South America and talk about being friendly with the U.S.
Walt Disney was a no-brainer for the assignment. However, he was unsure if he wanted to participate since he did not like doing meet and greets. But, he could not pass up an opportunity to do some research.
Going to South America gave Disney the opportunity to get new ideas and a new audience, especially since the war closed off the entire European market. So Disney hand-selected a group to go with him and signed his contract in August of 1941.
Disney and his 17 companions landed in Rio de Janeiro on August 17, 1941. Most goodwill ambassadors came bearing gifts and ready to shake hands, but that was not Disney's style.
Instead Disney focused on the movie making aspect of the trip. In a later interview Disney said, "I set up a shop. Never went near the embassy. Didn’t go around the usual haunts of the goodwill people. I went right in.”
While in Brazil, Disney and his artists studied the Brazilian Parrot, which translated into Jose Carioca, a character who debuted in the 1942 movie Saludos Amigos. Disney's group, El Grupo, then went to Argentina, but his limited knowledge of Spanish was not getting him far.
However, he made the school children smile by standing on his head. While he was on the goodwill trip, Disney's father passed away and the animator strike ended, but he continued.
Disney met with a variety of people from artists and filmmakers to government officials, radio hosts, and reporters. Of course, he was always a favorite of the local children who desperately wanted to meet the man behind the magic.
The man who was hesitant to participate, proved to be the most useful CIAA ambassador. After going to Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, the group sailed home on October 4.
The 1944 movie, The Three Caballeros, also was a product of Disney's trip to South America. Overall, the successful film helped create the exact international relationship the CIAA wanted.