Released by MGM in December 1939, the story is a simple one. On Christmas Eve, old Grampa Squirrel pays a visit to his grandchildren and tells the tale of how the species once known as man exterminated itself after years of endless war.
The scenes of war are straight out of the visions of the World War I battlefield, and the image of the last two remaining soldiers simultaneously killing each other is among the most chilling ever depicted in an animated cartoon.
With mankind wiped out, only the animals are left to pick up the pieces of a world destroyed. They gather in the bombed-out ruins of a cathedral. On a book left on a lectern appear the words "Thou Shalt Not Kill."
"Sounds like a mighty good book of rules," says the Wise Old Owl as he flips through the pages, "but I guess them men didn't pay much attention to it." But the owl keeps flipping the pages, and these other words appear, "Ye Shall Rebuild From The Old Wastes." The animals then turn the debris of the battlefield into a new village and live happily and peacefully ever after.
This cartoon was not only nominated for an Academy Award, it was the only cartoon ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Harman made this nine-minute cartoon as World War II began. Few realized the mass slaughter of soldiers and civilians alike that just getting under way. The atom bomb was still a theory. Supersonic bombers and ballistic missiles were still on the drawing board. The idea that the human race could exterminate itself in a matter of an hour or two was just a fantasy.
Now, nearly 70 years after this cartoon was made, the dark nightmare of humanity bringing on its own extinction through war draws closer and closer. And we are no closer to peace on earth in December 2006 than we were in December 1939.
"We must love one another or die," wrote W.H. Auden in that fateful year, 1939. Can we? Will we?