Dr. Seuss Goes to War Against the Nazis
If you’ve grown up reading comics and weren’t alive during the 1930s, then deciding to fight Nazis at every opportunity probably seems like the most natural thing in the world to you. But it wasn’t always so readily agreed upon. Before the United States entered the second World War, some groups in the U.S. were arguing that it was none of our business. They thought the war wasn’t going to reach our shores and Adolf Hitler couldn’t be such a bad guy. I mean, come on, all the Germans seemed to like him, didn’t they?
Thankfully the public eventually came to agree that maybe we should get up and do something about the aggressive military regimes spouting racist propaganda. And part of the path to get there involved the press encouraging the U.S. to take action. Theodor Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Seuss, was one such advocate for the United States entering the war.
Through his political cartoons for the magazine “PM,” Seuss found a pulpit for his opinions on the Axis Powers and U.S. isolationism. That’s right, Dr. Seuss was all about fighting Nazis before fighting Nazis was cool. And in “Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War,” the followup to “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” released this week by The New Press and compiled by Andrè Schiffin, readers can see many previously uncollected political cartoons by Seuss that appeared in “PM” from 1941 to early 1943.
Above are two examples from before the U.S. entered the war. The visual style’s instantly familiar, but there are other pieces to be seen that bear an even more striking resemblance to Seuss’ later works. Below you can see a cartoon by Seuss criticizing Charles Lindbergh and others who voiced support for the Nazis. Compare it to the cover art for Seuss’ later book “The Sneetches and Other Stories.”
And take a look at another early piece from Seuss, this time calling out some sectors of U.S. industry for not producing materials to support the war effort quickly enough. The turtle stacking motif here would seem to be an early version of his later “Yertle the Turtle.”
Unfortunately, editorial cartooning is not a nuanced medium. The message “The governments of Germany and Japan are led by terrible people, and their propaganda efforts have led to great support from their respective general populations, and although there are some citizens of Germany and Japan who strongly disagree with the policies of their leaders they lack the power or the opportunity to make any real change from within, leaving a military campaign our only regrettable option at this point” is pretty much impossibly to convey in a single panel. I didn’t even really do such a great job of it in that run-on sentence, either, though, so I guess it’s tough all around.
But the simplification of a complex situation into an image can produce jarring results even with the best of intentions. And for the sake of historical accuracy it has to be pointed out that Seuss didn’t always have the best of intentions. In the case of Japanese-Americans, Seuss is on record as being in favor of moving them into internment camps to prevent them from hampering the U.S. war effort. His belief in the danger they posed is seen in the cartoon below:
It is comforting to note that even at the time “PM” received mail from readers disagreeing with Seuss’ stance on the issue. On the other hand, you can’t really go wrong when it comes to showing Adolf Hitler in a bad light. And even at a time when Seuss was still living in a world where one of the worst human beings to ever have lived was at the height of his power, he couldn’t resist tapping into the fact that the guy’s kind of funny looking. As evidence, here’s a very Seussian rhino-Hitler to go along with a baby Hitler:
In January 1943, Seuss left his life as a civilian to make a more direct contribution to the war effort. This cartoon featuring a sad Mussolini appeared in “PM” on December 31, 1942 and was one of the last he’d do for the magazine before signing up for the armed forces:
“Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War” continues presenting “PM”‘s coverage of World War II up to its end through other political cartoonists employed by the magazine. As for Seuss himself, he went to work in the Animation Department of the United States Military’s First Motion Picture Unit. One of the projects he worked on with the animators at Warner Brothers was a series of educational training films for the U.S. Army. Take a look and see if the rhyme scheme of this one feels a little familiar:
There are many more political cartoons by Seuss to be found in “Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War,” along with works by over a dozen others including Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, “New Yorker” cartoonist Saul Steinberg and Polish artist Arthur Szyk. As a collection, it’s an interesting journey providing snapshots in history from times when U.S. involvement in the war was no foregone conclusion and later moments when victory was no guarantee.
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