Using pen and ink, he skewered bigots and Nazis.
Before he put a cat in a hat, let Horton hear a Who or made Sam-I-Am literature’s most persistent pusher of green eggs and ham, Dr. Seuss was at war.
Many are familiar with the environmentalist message in “The Lorax,” but Seuss’ political cartoons for left-leaning New York City newspaper PM from 1941–1943 reveal how directly he was willing to challenge the evils of his time. Using pen and ink, he made enemies of bigots, Nazis and myopic American attitudes toward war and foreign policy. These cartoons blaze a path for activists and artists today.
Ol’ Theodor Geisel took a detour from his nascent career as a children’s author to become PM’s chief editorial cartoonist. “I had no great causes or interest in social issues until Hitler,” he said, according to Todd Peterson’s “Theodor Seuss Geisel: Author and Illustrator.” Hitler’s rise galvanized Seuss to draw dozens of vitriolic depictions of the evils that threatened the world in the early 1940s, from genocidal dictators to the popular apathy that allowed their power to grow.
Seussian creatures and hybrid animals fill these images, but instead of encouraging us to try new foods or learn basic rhymes, they are direct, damning allegories for racism, anti-Semitism and what happens when the most powerful country in the world turns a deaf ear to the suffering of the less fortunate.
Seuss unleashed his most savage critiques on the American people and the “America First” movement that opposed US intervention in World War II and thought it would be a good idea to appease Hitler.
President Trump revived the phrase “America First” in a speech he made on foreign policy last year. Call it lazy to compare Trump to Hitler if you must, but if he is Hitler (and he is), then we should respond like Dr. Seuss by using the tools at our desks to do our work without compromise and for as many eyes as possible.
But Seuss’ PM cartoons are not without a serious problem?—?his racist-ass portrayal of the Japanese as buck-toothed and squinty-eyed. He attacked European fascists by drawing their leaders, Hitler and Mussolini. For the Japanese, though?—?rather than caricature leaders like Emperor Hirohito or General Tojo?—?Seuss resorted to a generalized stereotype. It’s a major flaw in a body of work that otherwise attacks prejudice ruthlessly.
PM readers wrote letters to the editor rebuking Seuss’ dehumanizing drawings of the Japanese, according to Richard H. Minear’s book, “Dr. Seuss Goes to War.” But Seuss was entrenched in his own post-Pearl Harbor myopia, and he responded:
“Sure, I believe in love, brotherhood and a cooing white pigeon on every man’s roof… 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!’… If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs … We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.”
To his credit, the good Dr. confronted this prejudice a decade later. He visited Japan in 1953 to study the effects of WWII on Japanese children, and “Horton Hears a Who!” came from that research. With its message of “A person’s a person, no matter how small” and its dedication to Doshisha University dean Mitsugi Nakamura?—?who Seuss called a “great friend”?—?“Horton Hears a Who!” showed Seuss correcting himself through his art, the most powerful way he knew how.
Even in his imperfections, Dr. Seuss provides us with a model of how to act like moral citizens of the world. His political cartoons say: Challenge the status quo. His later work says: Challenge yourself.
All images by Dr. Seuss/ Special Collection & Archives, UC San Diego Library.