February 1, 2017
Dr. Seuss vs “America First”
by Julia Fleischaker
It’s true that Donald Trump’s last executive order sounded like something out of a Dr. Seuss story (One Regulation, Two Regulation, Red Regulation, Blue Regulation). But Theodore Geisel, the man behind Dr. Seuss, would undoubtedly be less than pleased to have any association with the forty-fifth president of the United States.
Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic takes a look at Seuss’s history of political commentary, including his disdain for the first politician to wear the mantle of “America First.” Geisel was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM from 1941-1943, and in his career, he drew more than 400 editorial cartoons, many of them making fun of Charles Lindbergh, “America First,” isolationists, fascists, and Nazis.
As a collection, Geisel’s war cartoons target isolationism, anti-Semitism, and racism. They skewer Hitler, Mussolini, and a variety of American nationalists, including Charles Lindbergh and the Catholic priest and radio host Father Charles Coughlin, a fervent anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist. But they also deploy a fierce anti-authoritarianism and humanism that runs through all of Dr. Seuss’s books. Geisel’s political cartoons go a long way in demonstrating how the spirit of Seuss—zany, honest, brash, and brave—was born.
One blemish on his otherwise progressive career was his portrayal of the Japanese, particularly in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.
He depicted Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister and Supreme Military Leader of Japan, as an ugly stereotype, with squinting eyes and a sneering grin. In February 1942, he drew a long line of Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. collecting blocks of TNT from a kiosk labeled “Honorable 5th Column,” with one pointing a telescope across the ocean. The caption read, “Waiting for a signal from home.”
According to Geisel’s biographer, Richard H. Minear, the author spent the remainder of his career atoning for that casual racism, going so far as to edit certain lines; he “scanned his earlier books for racial stereotypes, and altered a reference to a ‘yellow-faced Chinaman who eats with sticks’ in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.”
In his famous children’s books, Geisel didn’t shy away from political themes.
The Lorax is an obvious parable about environmentalism. The Sneetches and Other Stories includes an absurd fable about strange yellow creatures, half of whom have stars on their bellies and discriminate against the other half, and vice versa. The Butter Battle Book seems particularly potent today, with its tales of the Yongs and the Zooks, who live on either side of a vast wall, and hate each other because of the different ways they eat their bread and butter. The two sides create increasingly inventive and destructive weapons to fire over the wall until both come up with a device called the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, which means mutually assured destruction should it ever be fired. The book ends with a standoff, with both sides waiting to see what the other does.
It’s shocking and distressing to see how many of the cartoons, some of which are collected here, could run virtually unedited in today’s newspapers. According to Gilbert, Geisel wanted his last words to be “We can and must do better than this!” Indeed, Dr. Seuss, we must.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.