Of all the significant cultural figures finding new relevance during a turbulent news cycle, one of the more intriguing is Dr. Seuss. The German American cartoonist and author, born Theodor Seuss Geisel, is best known for his children’s books, The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, and Horton Hears a Who among them. But for two years starting in 1941, Geisel worked as a political cartoonist for the liberal New York newspaper PM, crafting more than 400 cartoons on the subject of World War Two. One of these in particular, a drawing lampooning the non-Interventionist America First movement, has been reemerging recently amid protests against President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The cartoon, which mocks an apparent blithe naiveté about the dangers posed by Nazi Germany, as well as a callousness regarding the lives of children who aren’t American citizens, makes it a striking accompaniment to modern protests, not least of which is that Trump has named one of his own official platforms “America First.” 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.
They also have their own flaws, most notably their racist portrayal of both Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans. Geisel’s bigoted treatment of both only a few months before the forced internment of Japanese Americans was something many believe he tried to atone for in his later books. But the body of work he created during the war helped establish the foundations of what the writer Philip Nel has described as “America’s first anti-Fascist children’s writer.” And it helps explain why Dr. Seuss continues to resonate now, more than 25 years after his death, and as American nationalism gains momentum once again.*