Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904 – 1991) is best remembered for his children's books written under the pen name Dr. Seuss.
In 1928, years before he began working in children's literature, Geisel illustrated the print adverting for Flit, a DDT based insecticide. The Flit campaign became one of the most successful and longest running ad campaigns in U.S. history up to that time, it ran for 17 years.
The ads, drawn in easily recognizable Geisel self-taught style, showed people threatened by whimsical, menacing insect-like creatures that will be familiar to those acquainted with Geisel's later Dr. Seuss work. This advertising campaign's tagline, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" became a popular catchphrase in the United States. The Flit campaign was so successful it became textbook advertising case study for years to come.
During the 1930's Geisel was a successful commercial illustrator, drawing advertisements for high profile adverting accounts including Standard Oil, General Electric, NBC and Narragansett Brewing Company.
He began to work on illustrated literature, mostly children's literature, in the late 1930's, publishing as Dr. Seuss the books "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" (1937), "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" (1938), "The King's Stilts" (1939), "The Seven Lady Godivas" (1939), and "Horton Hatches the Egg" (1940).
In 1941, Geisel was hired to draw political cartoons by New York City based, politically left, New Deal proponent, and interventionist daily newspaper PM. In the two years Geisel drew for PM, the nearly 400 political cartoons he produced dealt almost exclusively with the political and social aspects of the prelude to American involvement in the wars in Europe and the Pacific, and World War II after American direct involvement began.
Sometimes gentle, sometimes jagged these cartoons signed as Dr. Seuss were of a strength that would not have appeared in almost any major newspaper. While serving in the Army during World War II, Geisel's superior officer wrote in an evaluation of Geisel that he was a "personable zealot." The 400 Dr. Seuss PM cartoons show the accuracy of this assessment.
The illustrations show Geisel to be a strong opponent to American isolationism. He portrayed the lack of action toward German and Japanese aggression as either heartless, cowardice, or appeasement. His drawings were intemperate toward those he felt were either intentionally or unintentionally leading America to doom, such as Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald Nye, Burton Wheeler, Norman Thomas, Virginio Gayda, Hamilton Fish, and members of America First, and the American Bund.
In a cartoon titled "The Isolationist", published by PM on July 16, 1941, American isolationism promoted by those such as Charles Lindberg is portrayed as a whale living on the peak of a mountain in the Alps. The caption below the illustration:
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!) ...
Other cartoons portray American isolationists as uncaring, one features a woman, named "America First" reading a violent tale from a book titled "Adolf the Wolf" to her children. She reads aloud, "and the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones... but those were foreign children and it really didn't matter."
While the Dr. Seuss cartoons have strong criticism for isolationists of the "America First" type ideology, Geisel was careful not to say that are actually Nazis, but that they are dangerous to America nonetheless.
Many will be pleased at the forward way Geisel addressed Nazism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against African-Americans.
American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, commenting on these illustrations wrote, "These cartoons rail against isolationism, racism, and ant-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."
Many will find a major lapse in the stereotypical portrayal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Geisel drew cartoons that today are considered racist by many, months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
A cartoon many find disturbing was published by PM on February 13, 1942, titled, "Waiting for the signal from home." It shows a legion of many thousands of identical Japanese-Americans stretching along the West Coast of the United States from Washington, Oregon, to California, lined up to pick-up packages of TNT stored at a building with a sign that reads, "Honorable 5th Column." This cartoon draws on the impression many Americans had that Japanese-Americans were unpatriotic and un-trustworthy. It was widely believed that Japanese-American saboteurs would engage in destruction if ordered to do so by the Japanese Emperor. This bias along with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor lead to the act of imprisoning Japanese-Americans in internment camps.
PM on January 13, 1942 published a Geisel cartoon featuring John Haynes Holmes, a prominent Unitarian minister and pacifist, noted for his anti-war activism, and a Japanese soldier holding a knife and a severed head. The newspaper received a flood of mail defending the minister. Geisel responded with an editorial that appeared in PM on January 21, 1942 (ellipses in original): "In response to the letters defending John Haynes Holmes... sure, I believe in love, brotherhood and a cooing white pigeon on every man's roof. I even think it's nice to have pacifists and strawberry festivals...in between wars. "But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seem like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: 'Brothers!' It is a rather flabby battlecry. "If we want to win, we've got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left."
Some see Geisel as later being penitent. Geisel traveled to Japan a few years after the war. It has been common speculation that to some degree in Geisel's "Horton Hears a Who!" (1954), dedicated to a Japanese professor Geisel met in Japan, the Whos represent the Japanese. According to Richard Minear, author of "Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel" published in 1999, "Horton Hears a Who!" is an allegory for the American post-war occupation of Japan.
After the Pearl Harbor attack ended the isolation debate, Geisel's illustrations focused more on morale building and promoting the sale of war bonds. Overall Geisel reserved most of his antagonism for Adolf Hitler, who appeared in 108 of Dr. Seuss's World War II political cartoons.
Issue, subjects, and topics appearing throughout the two years of cartoons drawn by Geisel, from January 1941 to January 1943 include: America First, Anti-Comintern Pact, Anti-Semitism, Appeasement, Bureaucracy, Carelessness, Committee on Un-American Activities, Communism, Complacency, Congress, Defeatism, Disunity, Domestic Security, Elections, Foreign Aid, German Invasion of Soviet Union, "Good News/Bad News", Inactivity, Inflation, Isolationism, Japanese Fuel Imports, Journalism, Labor Effect on War Production, Lend-Lease Act, Military, Neutrality Act, The Normandie, Overconfidence, Patriotism of Japanese-Americans, Peace Negotiations, Political Corruption, Production, Propaganda, Racism, Rationing & Recycling, Recruitment, Republican Party, Savings Bonds and Stamps, "Society of Red Tape Cutters," Tammany Hall, Taxes, United Nations, War Bonds, War Effort, War Industries and War Profiteers.
People drawn include major figures of the day including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels and Hideki Togo.
Other individuals drawn or mentioned include: Theodore Bilbo, Clare Chennault, Charles E. Coughlin, Stafford Cripps, John Cudahy, Elmer Davis, Jean Darlan, Martin Dies Jr., Hamilton Fish, Virginio Gayda, John Haynes Holmes, Herbert Hoover, Cordell Hull, Ernest G. King, Frank Knox, Fiorello LaGuardia, Pierre Laval, John Lewis, Douglas MacArthur, Robert R. McCormick, Vyacheslav Molotov, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Gerald Nye, William O'Dwyer, Eleanor Patterson, Joe Patterson, Henri Phillipe Pétain, Robert Reynolds, Erwin Rommel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gerald L.K. Smith, Eugene Talmadge, Norman Thomas, Sumner Wells and Burton Wheeler.
In 1942, Geisel began drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board.
In 1943, Geisel joined the U.S. Army as a captain. Captain Geisel was the commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. He participated in the production of the Private Snafu Army training series, and the post war Army training films "Our Job in Japan" (1945) and "Your Job in Germany" (1945).
A few years after the war he returned to Children's literature. In the post war years Geisel produced his most successful Dr. Seuss books:
Horton Hears a Who! (1954)
The Cat in the Hat (1957)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957)
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958)
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1959)
Green Eggs and Ham (1960)
The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961)
The Lorax (1971)
The Butter Battle Book (1984)
The genesis of many of the Seussian characters in these books can be seen in the Dr. Seuss PM newspapers cartoons.
The disc also includes a glossary of individuals portrayed or mentioned in the cartoons. The reputations of many of these figures have not remained in common knowledge past the mid 20th century. Such as:
Theodore Bilbo - Former governor of Mississippi, Democrat U.S. Senator from Mississippi, (1935–47). Geisel's drawing of him refers to his mastery of the filibuster.
Charles E. Coughlin - A controversial Roman Catholic priest, who during his weekly radio broadcasts made anti-Semitic comments and favored some of the actions taken by Hitler and Mussolini.
Stafford Cripps - British ambassador to the Soviet Union, which was allied with Nazi Germany through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Cripps led a mission to Moscow in 1940 and obtained a secret and explicit pledge that the Soviet Union would enter the war on the British side.
Robert R. McCormick - Owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. A leading non-interventionist, an opponent of American entry into World War II and of the increase in Federal power brought about by the New Deal.
Hamilton Fish - U.S. House of Representatives member from New York. A November 16, 1942 Time magazine article referred to him as, "the Nation's No. 1 isolationist: In 1939 he believed Germany's claims were 'just'; in 1941 he became entangled in Nazi Agent George Sylvester Viereck's messy affairs."
Norman Thomas - an American Presbyterian minister, known as a socialist and a pacifist, was a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. In 1937, he formed the "Keep America Out of War Congress." After the Pearl Harbor bombing he changed his position to supporting for US involvement.