When Dr. Seuss Took On Adolf Hitler

The children's author drew more than 400 fantastical political cartoons in the early years of World War II.

The children's author drew more than 400 fantastical political cartoons in the early years of World War II.

transports3.jpgCourtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UC San Diego

Years before he wrote The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss drew a sketch of a man hanging on a hook over a steaming typewriter. It was 1940, and the typist in the picture was Virginio Gayda, the leading press agent in fascist Italy. Benito Mussolini appeared above him, a naked cherub directing his propagandist's every move. Dr. Seuss passed the sketch along to the left-wing magazine PM with this letter:

Dear Editor: If you were to ask me, which you haven't, whom I consider the world's most outstanding writer of fantasy, I would, of course, answer: "I am." My second choice, however, is Virginio Gayda. The only difference is that the writings of Mr. Gayda give me a pain in the neck. This morning, the pain became too acute, and I had to do something about it.

At the time, Dr. Seuss -- whose real name was Theodor Geisel -- was a commercial illustrator for companies like General Electric. But his style was already well established. One of his ads for Standard Oil showed a "Moto-raspus" -- a mischievous feline creature -- scratching at the engine of a car. Another, for NBC, featured an elephant that looked very much like the future star of Horton Hears a Who.

Between 1941 and 1943, Geisel's swoopy trees and whimsical creatures appeared in more than 400 political cartoons for PM. One of them, published six weeks before America entered the war, shows a GOP elephant and an "Isolationist Ostrich" gazing at their offspring: a preposterous creature with a long trunk and useless wings. "He's a noisy little so-and-so," the elephant says proudly, "but, sweetheart, he's all ours."

"I think he just got mad," said Judith Morgan, coauthor of the book Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel. "He saw the growing threat in Europe and thought the Americans were not paying attention."

His outrage may have had something to do with his background. German was spoken in his childhood home, and between the two wars he traveled and studied in Europe. His intimate knowledge of the continent, combined with his left-leaning politics, made Nazism especially horrifying to him. "I think he was also teased for his German heritage as a child," Morgan said. "So he may have wanted to prove how strongly he felt about America."

In Geisel's political cartoons, Hitler showed up as a villain in many forms: a mad scientist amputating limbs, a bureaucrat giving orders to the devil, a trophy hunter trying to add a Russian bear to his taxidermy collection. In contrast, Mussolini was depicted as a bumbling idiot. In one of Geisel's cartoons, the Italian dictator furiously pedals a motorbike with tank treads. "Yoo hoo, Adolf!" he calls out in the direction of Russia. "Lookee! I'm attacking 'em, too!" But his bike is tied to a post.

Later in life, Geisel admitted that many of his political cartoons were "hurriedly and embarrassingly drawn" and "full of many snap judgments." That was never more true than when he focused on the Japanese. Instead of mocking their leader, as he did with Germany and Italy, Geisel ridiculed the Japanese people, drawing them as grinning menaces, stray cats, and slithering worms.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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