Dr. Seuss is known for his children’s books that promote kindness, sharing, and exploration– but before that, he did something quite a bit different.
We love Dr. Seuss for his delightful children’s books. Many of us at Gemr grew up learning to read with his famous stories. But, what if we told you that was not where our favorite whimsical writer began? In fact, that his original subjects were far more adult, and far less wonderous. You see, it turns out that Dr. Seuss was a political cartoonist during WWII with strong opinions about the war. His cartoons tried to push America out of an isolationist view and into the conflict to save millions of lives. It’s all well and good to discuss the impact and intensity of his cartoons, but to really understand his point of view you need some context (and we want to give it to you).
During WWII there were two sects of people. Some people wanted to go to war and join the world in stopping Hitler and his genocidal conquering. Others believed America should keep its nose out of Europe’s business, and focus on “America First” (those last two words feel a little familiar, don’t they?).
Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Suess Geisel, was a man who could not stand by and do nothing. So he did the one thing he knew how to do: he drew. He drew comics condemning patriots who chose to ignore Hitler, hoping instead that he would just go away. He drew comics which insisted that Americans bought more bonds so they could support the war effort. He drew cartoons that shamed Americans for ignoring the cries for help from foreign refugees. He drew, and drew, and drew, and his comics were impassioned with his strong beliefs.
Geisel brandished his pen at the war industry for refusing to use African American labor — remember, this was the 40’s, and segregation was still in full swing — even though there was plenty of work to be done and not enough hands to do it. Reportedly, the above comic was one of his favorite he ever penned.
Most of his political comics were drawn for PM, a liberal newspaper in New York, and the Army Signal Corps. Many of them he felt strongly about despite the commission to draw them. He believed sincerely in liberty, freedom, and equality, and he thought “America First” Americans were in short supply of a spine.
It is unfortunate to say, and we are sad to inform you readers, but Dr. Seuss made mistakes in his youth (as many of us do — treasured authors are not immune to the ignorance of youth). Like many Americans, he harbored some very terrible, racist views about the Japanese people. While many of his cartoons targeted Hitler directly, he also targeted the Japanese people, not their leader, in others. The cartoon included above is hard to read, yes, but it’s important to know that even Dr. Seuss is not infallible. It’s important to learn and understand. It is also important to remember that people change. His Biographers say he regretted these racist cartoons in his later years, though he never did directly apologize.
However, we think that he made his apology with his pen. He spent the rest of his life authoring books for children to teach them to make the world better than it had been. He wrote The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who to teach children the dangers of racism and isolationism. He crafted The Lorax to remind children that they need to protect the environment over corporate greed. He wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas to show children that material gifts aren’t everything. Then he penned Yertle the Turtle to teach children the danger of authoritarian leaders (and fascism). And he wrote The Butter Battle Book to help children understand the problems, and futility, in an arms race.
These books helped to inform children of things he found to be failings within himself and his generation. We think that his books have done just that, and have helped generations (and more to come) to escape the cycle of hate and ignorance. His work to ensure that every child could read was incredible. His goal to increase the tolerance, kindness, and understanding in everyone who reads his books was commendable. While we will never get a full apology for the racism he harbored in his early years (Geisel died in 2001), we understand that he learned from his actions and tried to make them right.
His political cartoons helped to rally the American people and were one of the many factors that helped sway Americans to support the rest of the world in stopping Hitler. While he was not always perfect, his work reminds us that people can change, that it’s important to stand up for the things you believe in, and that everyone makes mistakes. If you want to know more about Dr. Seuss’ political years, we recommend the PBS special, Political Dr. Seuss, or the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Gisele. These two sources have far more information than we could ever provide in a single article.
And always remember, just like Dr. Seuss, you too can change for the better. Remember to make a difference. Remember to treat others well. And Remember, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”