Before he was famous, Dr. Seuss used his cartoon skills to skewer "America First" fascists.
Dr. Seuss: More relevant than ever!
His real name was Theodore Geisel, but his millions of fans will always remember him as Doctor Seuss. Over the course of his career he wrote and illustrated upwards of sixty books, many of which rank among the most beloved children's stories of all time. His work has sold over 600 million copies and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Countless children the world over have learned their ABCs, 1-2-3s, and dubious (but beloved) recipes with the help of his whimsical creations.
But Doctor Seuss has a lot more to teach us than just the alphabet. His often-overlooked early work as a political cartoonist, which he did well before the world was introduced to the Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham, is especially resonant in today's increasingly volatile political climate.
He first dipped his pen into politics as an Army captain, writing propaganda cartoons (like the hilarious Private SNAFU) and making documentary films. But as nationalist fascism threatened to conquer Europe, America was wrestling with hatred, bigotry, and isolationism at home. To Doctor Seuss, these ideologies were undermining the war effort against the Axis powers. He fought back with the only weapon in his arsenal, wielding his pen as a cartoonist for the left-leaning New York City daily newspaper PM, where he drew more than 400 cartoons lampooning the dictators in Europe as well as intolerant politics at home.
His record wasn't spotless, to be sure. Early in his career he drew racist advertisements, and during the war he repeatedly caricatured Japanese people with tired racist tropes, fanning the flames that would lead to internment. He came to regret his actions later in life according to Ron Lamothe, the filmmaker behind The Political Dr. Seuss, and he wrote his famous book Horton Hears a Who as a parable for the post-war occupation of Japan, dedicating it to a Japanese friend.
There's still a lot of good to be found in his work from the time. Reviewing the cartoons today, the first surprise is how relevant they are, over 70 years after they were created. You can't help but feel a bit of historical deja vu when you see Seuss's satire of the "America First" movement of the time, which advocated for the same intolerant policies made famous more recently by a certain cartoonish bloviator who, when you think about it, wouldn't be out of place as a Seussian villain. The cartoons pull no punches, directly associating the ideology with Nazism.
Even though Doctor Seuss turned from political cartoons to writing children's books after the war came to an end, he never stopped his fight for a kinder, more tolerant society. In his 1961 book The Sneetches and Other Stories, his pen is as sharp as ever, satirizing the stupidity of discrimination based on skin color with a parable about "Sneetches" who think they are superior to others because they have a star on their belly. By the end of the story, the Sneetches learn their lesson:
I'm quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
The question is, can we do the same? The Doctor who has taught us so much still has a lesson or two for us to learn. Hopefully we will prove to be as smart as the Sneetches.