Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist

Kurt Christopher - October 13, 2017

Dr. Seuss is a household name around the United States, and his iconic children’s books from the 1950s continue to be used in elementary and preschools around the country. What is not as well known, however, is that before he took on the persona of Dr. Seuss the beloved children’s author he was Theodor Geisel the World War II propagandist.

As the editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM between 1941 and 1943 he published cartoons aimed at mobilizing the American people to fight and win the Second World War, but his work from this period also reflected some of the darker sides of wartime American society. What follows are ten of his most distinctive cartoons of the era.

On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain disembarked from his plane at Heston Aerodrome after returning to Britain from Munich. Bearing an agreement signed by Adolf Hitler, he addressed the assembled crowd to ensure them that he had secured “peace for our time.” Ever since this statement has stood as the ultimate expression of the naivety of the policy of appeasement: the idea that an aggressive foreign power might be soothed by giving in to some of its demands.

At the heart of the drive for appeasement was the lurking trauma of the First World War. The horrors of the trenches had hardly faded in the intervening two decades, and the great powers of Europe had no desire to see their children reenact the carnage. Hitler, however, was able to take advantage of this reticence to return to war.

France had stood by when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. Chamberlain had flown to Munich to trade the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany in exchange for peace in September 1939, and no one intervened when the Wehrmacht rolled into the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
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In this cartoon, Geisel comments on the lunacy of the policy of appeasement. At the center stands a balding figure marked “The Appeaser,” who gazes amiably at a collection of sixteen toothy sea monsters clad with swastikas, one of which appears to be an early rendition of the Grinch. The caption, “one more lollypop, and then you all go home” may as well be the mantra of appeasement. The cartoon’s audience must surely see that the beasts have no intention of leaving until they have devoured every last lollypop and likely the appeaser himself, just as Hitler could not be satisfied by any concessions short of absolute submission.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
Dr. Seuss’s scathing criticism of the ideology behind the America First Committee, published October 1, 1941. dose.com

Throughout his work in 1941 Geisel was particularly critical of the America First Committee. Established in September 1940, America First aimed to preserve the isolationist stance of the United States and prevent it from entering the Second World War. The rhetoric utilized by America First carried hints of fascism and, at times, outright anti-Semitism, marking the organization’s sympathy for Nazi Germany. It also opposed American aid to Great Britain through the Lend-Lease program, instead advocating for preparing for the defense of the United States.

Geisel frequently singled out American aviator Charles Lindberg, who was a prominent front-man for America First, in his cartoons. On September 11, 1941 Lindberg had spoken to a crowd of America First supporters in Des Moines, in which he suggested that Germany was no threat to the United States and that a primary force pushing for war was the American Jewish community. He further suggested that war with Germany might serve the interests of American Jews, but not the nation as a whole. He even went so far as to repeat conspiracy theories regarding the influence of Jews in American media.

In this cartoon, published on October 1, 1941, Geisel steps back from his usual attacks on the person of Lindberg and instead satirizes the mentality of the organization as a whole. The cartoon features a bespectacled woman reading the story of “Adolf the Wolf” to two startled children. She recounts the grim fate of children that had fallen under Hitler’s control before adding, with a grin, “but those were Foreign Children and it really didn’t matter.”

The message that Geisel is trying to advance in this cartoon is that supporters of the America First Committee were well aware of the horrors of the war, but that they were simply indifferent to the suffering of anyone who was not American. Despite criticism of this kind America First would continue to be a powerful force in American politics until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It would not disband until December 11, 1941, the day that Germany declared war on the United States.

Read More: German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
Dr. Seuss’s June 25, 1941 portrayal of the Soviet Union as a bear resisting Hitler’s efforts to slaughter it. The Atlantic

By the early summer of 1941 the Nazi war machine appeared to be unstoppable. It sat astride Europe from France to the Balkans and Hitler was preparing to move to seize his prize, the objective of the war from the outset: the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, a force of nearly four million troops from Germany and its allies fell upon the Soviets in Operation Barbarossa, the campaign to destroy Stalin’s communist regime. Hitler, expecting an easy victory, had said of the Soviet Union that “you only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

On June 25, 1941, three days after the opening of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Geisel published this comic commenting on Hitler’s aspirations in the attack and its potential results. He chose the motif of Hitler the taxidermist to convey this message. This setting presents Hitler as a collector of trophies, who hauls in one country after the next so as to slaughter it, stuff it, and add it to his menagerie. Here Hitler seems to expect that Russia will be no different than the game that has come before it.

Closer inspection of Hitler’s trophy was reveals something about the way Geisel saw the war. France, with the large moose antlers, seems to be the biggest prize. Not only is it larger than the rest of the perplexed creatures, but it also enjoys a privileged central place at the top of Hitler’s wall. This is likely a reflection of the shock of the rapid collapse of France, a country that had borne the brunt of the fighting against the Germans in the First World War, in just six weeks during the course of the spring of 1940.

Also notable is the inclusion of countries subjugated by Germany before the beginning of the war, as well as two German allies. Austria, annexed into the Reich in 1938 following a popular plebiscite, is portrayed as simply one of many countries conquered by the Fuehrer rather than an accomplice. Likewise, German ally Romania is presented as a victim of Nazism. Only Italy appears decidedly out of place with the look of a cat run over by a car. Herr Hitler has elected to mount the cat all the same.

In contrast to the beheaded herbivores on the wall, Geisel chose to portray Russia in this cartoon as a bear marked with what appears to be a hammer and sickle. The bear has long been a symbol of the Russian nation. This bear, though, seems particularly eager to resist, digging his claws into the ground and eyeing a straining Hitler with the look of a beast that has spotted dinner. Geisel, no doubt, is suggesting that Hitler might have a bit of trouble dragging Russia to the chopping block. The good doctor, of course, was entirely correct.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
Dr. Seuss’s commentary on the final negotiations between the United States and Japan before war, published November 28, 1941. photobucket

While the convention in the West is to see the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 as the beginning of the Second World War, the war in Asia actually began much earlier with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In 1937 Japan redoubled its efforts in East Asia, pushing into China and capturing Shanghai and Nanking. Extreme violence perpetrated by the Japanese conquerors of Nanking subsequently turned much of the world against the expansionist Japanese regime, while on the ground resurgent nationalist Chinese forces managed to slow the Japanese advance.

During its early expansion, the Japanese military was highly dependent on oil imports, much of which came from the United States which was then the largest oil producer in the world. As a consequence of Japanese militarism and the atrocities associated with the war in China the United States, along with Britain and the Netherlands, issued restrictions on the sale of oil and steel to Japan in late 1940. To make up for this shortfall in oil imports, the Japanese military began planning a possible war with the United States so that it could seize the oil fields of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

Tensions between Japan and the United States heightened in the fall of 1941. After Japan occupied parts of Indochina in July of that year the U.S. had frozen Japanese assets, and in August it instituted a complete embargo of oil exports to Japan. The two powers made a final attempt to resolve their differences in November 1941, when Japan offered to abandon Indochina if the U.S. reopened the oil spigot. Secretary of State Cordell Hull responded on November 26 with a demand for the unconditional withdrawal of Japan from East Asia.

This cartoon, published on November 28, 1941 just over a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, is Geisel’s take on the final negotiations between the United States and Japan before the war began. He presents the negotiations as a Japanese maneuver to prepare for war with the United States. The brick demanded by the pie-wielding Japanese figure represents American oil, and the cartoon is suggesting that Japan wanted to use that oil to attack the United States itself. The cartoon further implies that Japan would attack the United States regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, but that if it was denied oil it will attack from a weakened position.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
A cartoon published by Dr. Seuss on February 13, 1942 that illustrates the racial anxiety that led to the creation of Japanese internment camps. openculture.com

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 finally brought the isolationist stance of the United States to an end. While the U.S. had been reticent to bring the fight to the Axis, following the attack on American soil the U.S. had no choice but to become involved in the war. In the wake of the Japanese surprise attack, some Americans harbored suspicions of people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. This anxiety, predicated on race, extended even to American citizens whose families had originated from Japan.

This cartoon, published on February 13, 1942, reflects Geisel’s embrace of the widespread fear of Japanese Americans. It shows throngs of presumably Japanese people lining up to receive explosives at a stand marked “Honorable 5th Column.” A lookout perched on the roof of the house gazes westward through a spyglass, awaiting the arrival of a Japanese invasion fleet. The imminence of such an invasion is further indicated by the two ships in the background steaming for the American West Coast. The cartoon is suggesting that Japanese Americans will sabotage American efforts to repel an invasion of the American west coast.

While on the surface Geisel’s cartoon seems to address security concerns, however misguided they may have been, it also reveals latent American racial attitudes. His depiction of the Japanese Americans lined up from Washington to Oregon entirely lacks any differentiation between character’s features, a departure from his previous work in which he excels at crafting interesting and unique characters. By drawing all of the Japanese American characters in this cartoon identically Geisel is advancing a message that they are uniformly dangerous and no different from the people who had attacked Pearl Harbor.

The sentiment that Geisel was tapping into in drawing this cartoon had wide support in the U.S. government. Just six days after the cartoon was published President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for the establishment of internment camps from Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Over 110,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom had been born in the United States and were thus citizens, would be confined to these camps for the duration of the war.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
A March 18, 1942 cartoon in which Dr. Seuss tries to demonstrate the wrongheadedness of Irish neutrality. Pinterest

Though it had long been a part of the United Kingdom, Ireland broke away from the United Kingdom in 1921 following the Anglo-Irish War. Ireland remained a nominal member of the British Commonwealth thereafter, but tensions between Ireland and the United Kingdom remained. Consequently, when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Ireland elected to remain neutral. While some Irish citizens would subsequently fight in the war in the British military, Ireland itself proved unwilling to follow its former imperial master into the fray.

Within Ireland itself, a significant minority of the population held sympathies for the Axis powers, and some hard-line former revolutionaries even advocated joining in the war on Germany’s side. The general consensus, however, was that the proper course for Ireland was to maintain neutrality. When, in June 1940, the British government offered to unify Northern Ireland with the rest of the island if the country entered the war Irish President Eamon de Valera rejected the offer, and Ireland prepared itself to repel an invasion – not knowing if that invasion would come from Germany or Britain.

While Ireland would maintain its neutrality as the war progressed, it did offer some assistance to the Allies. In a few cases, Ireland allowed British ships damaged in the Battle of the Atlantic to be repaired in Irish ports, and Allied aircraft were allowed to fly over a thin corridor of Irish airspace. The Irish intelligence service would also cooperate with American and British intelligence, and the Irish even contributed critical weather data for the D-Day landings at Normandy. Still, Ireland remained firm in its commitment not to engage directly in hostilities.

Geisel comments on the shortsightedness of Irish neutrality in this cartoon. In it Hitler approaches the island on a snake-laden submarine, promising that he will “bring snakes back to Ireland” – a reference to the legend that St. Patrick had driving the snake of Ireland into the sea in the fifth century. The message here is that Ireland was vulnerable to a Nazi invasion if British resistance crumbled, and that failing to support the British put Ireland itself at risk. The cartoon ran the day after St. Patrick’s Day in 1942 and seems to be intended for an Irish-American audience.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
Dr. Seuss’s commentary on racial discrimination in the American wartime workplace, published June 20, 1942. Pinterest

The United States was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into the Second World War. While the Great Depression had seen unprecedented unemployment in America, once the U.S. began to gear up for war this problem would quickly evaporate and be replaced with a new one. New factories to build the tanks, guns, and ships necessary to defeat the Axis would need workers, but many of the young white men who would otherwise have been employed in these factories were being drafted to fight.

Of course, the United States population was not just made up of young white men. Still, high-paying and high skilled manufacturing jobs had been barred to African Americans and women before the war. In anticipation of the coming war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had attempted to address this issue on June 25, 1941 in his Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in hiring workers from the defense industry on the basis of race. Despite the President’s order, many employers remained hesitant to hire African Americans at the beginning of the war.

Geisel published this cartoon on June 30, 1942, a full year after Executive Order 8802. In it, he is critical of the continuation of discriminatory hiring practices in the industry during a time of national crisis. The central figure of the cartoon, a top-hat-clad cigar-chomping capitalist labeled “War Industry,” plays an organ whose black keys have accumulated spider webs from disuse. Behind him, Uncle Sam looks on sternly while advising him that if he wants “real harmony,” or rather efficient production, he will need to use the “black keys.”

What is remarkable about this cartoon is that it shows that opposition to employing African Americans remained even after the intervention of the President and the outbreak of war with the Axis powers. It also shows that while Geisel had internalized some of the racially prejudicial ideas about Japanese Americans he did not support discrimination against African Americans. During the course of the war, American industry would increasingly accept African Americans into its ranks, helping to fuel the Great Migration of African Americans into northern cities.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
A racially-charged war bond poster produced by Dr. Seuss on August 6, 1942. blavity.com

Mobilizing the United States for war produced a constellation of financial problems. In order to equip and train the soldiers that would go off to fight against Germany and Japa, the U.S. government needed quite a bit of money. Expansion of war industry also returned the United States to full employment after the Great Depression, increasing the average American income. Wartime rationing, however, meant that this newly employed segment of the American population did not have as many opportunities to use their income to buy goods.

Because there was more money circulating amongst American workers but fewer goods to buy the supply of most goods fell far short of demand. As a consequence, there was a real threat that inflation might get out of hand. In order to solve this problem the United States government began selling war bonds to fund the war. Not only would this provide the government with the money it needed to fight, it would also remove excess cash from the U.S. economy and help to forestall inflation.

Geisel was a great advocate of buying war bonds, and he produced countless cartoons praising those who chose to invest in the U.S. war effort. While this cartoon is just one of many pushing war bonds, this one is unique in the way it presents the message. Of all of Geisel’s wartime cartoons, this one is perhaps the most tainted by anti-Japanese racism. The use of the word “Jap” in the cartoon’s header, a word which had taken on a derogatory character during the war, is the most obvious incarnation of this racism.

The racist character of the remainder of the cartoon is more subtle but also more significant. It depicts Japanese people as insects, vermin who should be exterminated. This kind of dehumanization of the enemy is typical of racially charged propaganda, and was also used by the Japanese in their presentation of Americans and by the Germans in discussing the fate of Europe’s Jews. The face of the fly in this cartoon bears all the typical characteristics of Geisel’s drawings of Japanese people. In nearly every case their eyes are not visible, they wear glasses, and they have an upturned nose, large teeth, and a mustache.

Dr. Seuss Propaganda: 9 Surprising World War II Propaganda Cartoons Drawn by the Famous Artist
A November 24, 1942 cartoon in which Dr. Seuss mocks Hitler following the encirclement of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. Pinterest

By mid-1942 three years of continuous warfare had taken a toll on the German military. Whereas the Wehrmacht had been capable of pushing into the Soviet Union along three fronts (north, center, and south) in June 1941, when the campaign season for 1942 arrived it was no longer capable of an effort on this scale. German military planners instead chose to focus their strength in the south of the Soviet Union, hoping to drive through Ukraine to the rich oil fields of the Caucasus Mountains.

The Germans initially met with a good deal of success in the 1942 summer campaign. So much so, in fact, that in July 1942 Hitler chose to split his force. Half would continue to push towards the oil fields of Baku, while the remainder received a new task: to take Stalingrad and thereby cut Soviet supply lines along the Volga river. The Soviets, though, chose to contest the attack on the city that bore their leader’s name, committing every available soldier to defend a thin strip of the city along the bank of the Volga in fierce house to house fighting.

With the initial assault halted, Soviet general Georgy Zhukov began to build up reserves to the north and south of Stalingrad in the fall of 1942. Once he had assembled an adequate force he planned to strike at the German flanks, defended by Hungarian and Romanian troops. The moment came on November 19, 1942, when Zhukov unleashed Operation Uranus. The Romanian 3rd Army, holding the northern flank, collapsed on the first day of Uranus, and the Romanian 4th Army in the south fell the next day. By November 23 the Soviets had managed to surround the German 6th Army in Stalingrad.

Geisel published this cartoon the day after the completion of the Soviet encirclement. His depiction of Hitler having his hat shot off while riding atop a dachshund-powered ski contraption reflects an attitude that the Germans were poorly prepared to confront the Soviets at Stalingrad. Despite what the cartoon suggests, Hitler did not opt for “switching to reverse” when confronted with the Soviet counteroffensive. Instead, he ordered his men to stand and die at Stalingrad, refusing to grant them permission to attempt to break out of the encirclement. As a consequence, the majority of the 6th Army would be destroyed there.

Related: The Last German Units Surrender At Stalingrad (1943)

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