Toggle left Slidebar
View Account View Account

'Dr. Seuss Went to War'

by Dr Richard H. Minear

In the United States Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991), the best selling American author of all time, is a household name. Recite the first half of a Seussian line today, and someone nearby will supply the rest. Many of his books have been turned into videos (animations he himself worked on). How the Grinch Stole Christmas became the disastrous Hollywood production, The Grinch, starring Jim Carrey; a Broadway musical, Seussical, also died of asphyxiation. The whimsy that is a Seuss staple dies easy, especially when producers throw money at it.

But Dr. Seuss doesn’t travel well. He is well-known in Australia but less so in Great Britain (and hardly at all in the non-English speaking world). To gain some idea of Dr. Seuss’s popularity, those in Britain today might think Harry Potter. Better, think Beatrix Potter some time ago. She is more to the point because her balance of pictures and text more nearly approximates that of Dr. Seuss. But where the prim and proper Beatrix Potter introduced children to big words ("with alacrity," for example), the zany Dr. Seuss kept his vocabulary simple—single syllables in the two wildly successful books The Cat in the Hat and One Fish, Two Fish , both of which he wrote explicitly for beginning readers. His long words he made up: Big Boy Boomeroo, Yazzmatazz, Beezle-Nut.

Aficionados knew that Dr. Seuss had been part of Frank Capra’s team that produced the Why We Fight propaganda movies of 1943-45. But even fans didn’t know that between 1941 and 1943 he had drawn political cartoons--some 400 in all--for PM, a left-wing small-circulation newspaper in New York City. But he had: cartoons of Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin and a stereotyped Japanese. He also drew England as a tree being pecked down by a woodpecker with the face of Hitler (5/11/41), as the recipient of U. S. aid, as a lion (who with the American eagle is disdainful of a child-like Japan with a slingshot, 11/12/41), as John Bull tied on a rope-climbing team with Russia and Uncle Sam (3/11/42), and as colonial overlord of India (3/31/42, 4/2/42).

The best of Dr. Seuss’s editorial cartoons, I think, rival those of Low, the greatest cartoonist of those years. Among his best I put cartoons of a headless Hitler (3/19/42, 4/3/42) and of Mussolini (12/22/41, playing off the civilian aid effort, Bundles for Britain). Among his worst are the racist depictions of Japan—a "Jap" stereotype created out of whole cloth, resembling neither Tojo nor the emperor. One cartoon (1/13/42) pilloried a pacifist preacher who stated, "The unhappy people of Japan are our brothers." Readers wrote in to complain, and Dr. Seuss lashed back:

In response to the letters defending John Haynes Holmes…sure, I believe in love, brotherhood and a cooing white pigeon on every man’s roof. I even think it’s nice to have pacifists and strawberry festivals…in between wars. But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: "Brothers!" It is a rather flabby battlecry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.

--Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss’s "Jap" represented Japanese Americans, too: in the week before the Roosevelt administration ordered 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast rounded up, Dr. Seuss drew a cartoon depicting them all as saboteurs. This lapse into gross racism stood in sharp contrast to his cartoons assailing anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism, cartoons that put him and his newspaper well ahead of the curve. Most of his output was less controversial, falling into the category of morale-building, urging everyone to pitch in, produce more, buy war bonds, and not complain.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, and the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and Washington’s Pentagon, many people wonder what sort of cartooning Dr. Seuss would do were he alive today. Which Dr. Seuss? If the Dr. Seuss of 1941-43, there would be racial stereotyping of Arabs and Americans of Arab descent. If the Dr. Seuss of his later years, there would be little cause for concern. The later Dr. Seuss was an environmentalist. He called for Richard M. Nixon’s departure from office in 1974. He was a skeptic about the Cold War as well as the nuclear deterrent (Butter Battle Book, 1981). Shortly before his death in 1991, he answered a question from his future biographers—whether he still had any message for his readers--in writing:

'Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, "You can do better than this." The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U. S. A. would be: "We can…and we’ve got to…do better than this."'

Then he crossed out "the kids of," so the message is for "the U. S. A." Were this Dr. Seuss drawing political cartoons about September 11, they would be great cartoons.