To most Americans who grew up with Dr. Seuss’ oddly, endearingly drawn critters and facile rhymes (“And then he ran out. / And, then, fast as a fox, / The Cat in the Hat / Came back in with a box”), the report that Dr. Seuss was, as Art Spiegelman puts it, “a feisty political cartoonist who exhorted America to do battle with Hitler” may come as a surprise. I didn’t grow up in the United States, having arrived here when I was 26, but it didn’t take me long to acquire a certain image of Dr. Seuss.
In fact, I first learned about Dr. Seuss’ wartime roles only recently. In a footnote to his multifaceted account of the U.S. Occupation of Japan, “Embracing Defeat” (The New Press, 1999), John Dower referred to the War Department’s “uncompromisingly harsh” propaganda film, “Your Job in Germany,” noting that its script was written by “Theodor Geisel (later to become famous as the author of the ‘Dr. Seuss’ children’s books).”
The film emphasized, Dower said, that “virtually every German . . . had supported the Nazis; and every German — especially the young — was a potential source of future revanchism.” Uncompromisingly harsh indeed, immediately bringing to mind the more recent view propounded by the Harvard teacher Daniel Goldhagen that all Germans were “Hitler’s willing executioners.” (For Geisel, it was German “revanchism,” rather than the Holocaust, because when he scripted “Your Job in Germany,” the scale of the mass murder wasn’t widely known.)
The film’s counterpart, “Our Job in Japan,” also had Geisel as the scriptwriter but was much milder, Dower went on to add, because they were made at different times: “Your Job in Germany” shortly after Germany’s defeat, “Our Job in Japan” half a year after Japan’s. Geisel’s script for another film on Japan, titled “Design for Death,” which wasn’t released, was “harsh.” And so on.
Almost on the heels of this startling bit of information, “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” was published as if to make the picture whole. A substantial selection of cartoons that Theodor Seuss Geisel drew, from 1941 to early 1943, the book gives a full account of Geisel’s political views and illuminates domestic American political milieu of the day. The collection also amply shows that the signature “Dr. Seuss” drawing style was established early on.
For those Americans advocating frontal battle with fascism, Theodor Geisel among them, isolationists were the No. 1 domestic enemies. So, Geisel’s cartoon on Dec. 8, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, simply shows WAR exploding and an ostrich bearing the logo ISOLATIONISM being blasted away. The caption reads: “He Never Knew What Hit Him.” Most cartoons in 1941 target isolationism when they aren’t directed at Hitler or fascism.
At the forefront of the isolationists was Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, who professed admiration for Hitler. So he was Geisel’s target during 1941, second only to Hitler in importance. So was the America First movement, which has recently resurfaced as a slogan in Patrick Buchanan’s presidential bid. The demagogic Catholic priest Charles Coughlin — with his own radio show the Rush Limbaugh of the day — also came under Geisel’s attack, at times depicted as Hitler’s agent.
Geisel attacked with equal vigor discrimination against blacks and Jews. A cartoon, dated June 26, 1942, with the caption, “The Old Run-Around,” shows a factory named “U.S. War Industries” with its gate saying “Negro Job-Hunters Enter Here” as a maze. As the book’s compiler, Richard Minear, reminds us, “During the 1930s, there were on average more than 10 lynchings per year. . . . The U.S. military was still segregated, as were schools and major league baseball. In 1943, riots paralyzed northern cities when black workers joined assembly lines that had been all-white.”
How about Japan?
By today’s standards, Geisel’s depictions of Japanese show him to be prejudiced against them. A cartoon dated Feb. 13, 1942, presents a horde of slant-eyed, grinning, identical-looking men on the West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington), lined up each to receive a box called TNT at a depot marked “Honorable 5th Column.” As Minear notes, this was days before President Roosevelt signed an executive order incarcerating citizens of Japanese extraction.
Another, dated Dec. 10, 1941 (two days after Pearl Harbor), shows “JAP ALLEY” swarming with slant-eyed, grinning cats, with Uncle Sam — an eagle in a top hat — grabbing one of them by the neck with one hand, a stick with a nail with the other, and saying, “Maybe only alley cats, but Jeepers! a hell of a lot of ‘em!” These cartoons apparently have the notion of the Yellow Peril behind them.
“How could so antiracist and progressive a man as Dr. Seuss . . . indulge in such knee-jerk racism?” Minear asks. The answer: “a blind spot of the wartime New York left,” which didn’t think anything of “this stark example of mainstream American racism against Asians in America.”
Even with the Japanese, however, Geisel drew strong criticism when he related them to a cherished American or Christian notion. In a “war monument” series, he did one drawing referring to a remark apparently made by the Unitarian clergyman John Haynes Holmes (1879-1946): “The unhappy people of Japan are our brothers.” The cartoon, dated Jan. 13, 1942, showed the statue of Holmes, with his right hand on the shoulder of a man representing Gen. and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, obviously tickled by the thought that an American said something nice about his compatriots. He holds a severed head in his hand.
Minear tells us this cartoon provoked many angry letters. One said: “Beyond the sheer bad taste is something deeper. That is, the implied rejection of the basic Christian principle of the universal brotherhood of man.” Another: “If the Japanese people are not ‘our brothers,’ what are they to us? Our ‘mortal enemies’?”
Geisel responded: ” . . . 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!’ . . . 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.”
Theodor Seuss Geisel drew all the cartoons assembled here for PM, “a leftwing daily newspaper published in New York.” In January 1943 he “had a commission in the army to work with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps unit.” After that, though he went on to write scripts for war propaganda films, he didn’t do a single political cartoon.
Richard Minear is a historian known for perceptive accounts of Japan in the aftermath of its defeat in World War II. His comments on each cartoon tell the reader what was at issue. He also describes in some detail two of the three propaganda films on Japan that involved Geisel, “Our Job in Japan” and “Design for Death.” A third was “Know Your Enemy: Japan.”