While Theodore Seuss Geisel is best remembered for more than 40 children’s books written and illustrated under his pen name, Dr. Seuss, he had a serious stint as a political cartoonist. Working for the New York newspaper PM, he took aim at Hitler, the Nazi Party and anti-Semitism.
Geisel, who was self-taught, started his career as a commercial artist. He wrote some of his children’s books before showing a politically-themed cartoon to a friend, who introduced him to the publisher of liberal and interventionist PM. There, he did more than 400 cartoons in 2 years, from 1941 to 1943.
Dr. Seuss’s cartoons covered his sentiments about the circumstances leading up to American participation in the wars in Europe and the Pacific and then World War II itself after the U.S. got directly involved in it. Later described as a “personable zealot” by his commanding officer in the U.S. Army, Dr. Seuss drew characters that were whimsical, yet threatening to show his strong feelings against Americans who were too afraid or too comfortable to go to war against injustice. He was intolerant of people such as Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald Nye, Burton Wheeler, Norman Thomas, Virginio Gayda, Hamilton Fish, the American Bund and America First.
Some of the cartoons are described in Dr. Seuss Goes to War by historian Richard H. Minear. One cartoon, “Spreading the Lovely Goebbel’s Stuff,” depicts a creature called “Lindbergh” shoveling out garbage from the “Nazi Anti-Semite Stink Wagon.” Another portrays a baby Hitler hefting a bottle of milk at his mother and shouting, “I reject milk from Holstein cows as Non-Aryan.” Yet another shows an American Nazi dragging Uncle Sam to get a “Great German Manicure” from an executioner wielding a large ax that says “Anti-Semitism.”
A cartoon called “The Isolationist” shows American isolationism endorsed by people such as Charles Lindbergh as a whale living on a mountain peak in the Alps. The caption reads, “Said a whale, ‘There is so much commotion, Such fights among fish in the ocean. I’m saving my scalp, Living high on an Alp … (Dear Lindy! He gave me the notion!) …’” Another cartoon illustrates a woman named “America First” reading a violent story from a book called Adolf the Wolf to her children. As she says, “and the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones… but those were foreign children and it really didn’t matter.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, said of Dr. Seuss, “These cartoons rail against isolationism, racism and anti-Semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period. These are virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and black press that decried the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism. Dr. Seuss said that he ‘had no great causes or interest in social issues until Hitler,’ and explained that ‘PM was against people who pushed other people around. I liked that.’ More of a humanist than an ideologue, one of those Groucho rather than Karl Marxists, Dr. Seuss made these drawings with the fire of honest indignation and anger that fuels all real political art. If they have a flaw, it’s an absolutely endearing one: they’re funny.”
At the same time as Geisel was drawing the political cartoons for PM, he drew posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. He joined the U.S. Army as a captain in 1943 and became the commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. He helped to produce the “Private Snafu” Army training series and the postwar Army training films “Our Job in Japan” and “Your Job in Germany.”
After World War II ended, Geisel resumed his work on Dr. Seuss books. While the motivation and the content were very different, the characters in the books clearly have their origins in the cartoons Geisel drew for PM.
ILENE SCHNEIDER IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.