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.
He even took on Japanese Americans -- a puzzling move for a grandchild of four German immigrants. One of Geisel's cartoons shows a cheerful line of slant-eyed people marching down the West Coast, picking up blocks of TNT and looking out over the Pacific for a "signal from home." It appeared in print on February 13, 1942, just six days before Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order that sent more than 110,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.
According to Morgan -- who was Geisel's close friend as well as his biographer -- the artist later regretted some of his cartoons, but he remained proud of others. "He specifically liked one about racial harmony, which shows an organ that has cobwebs forming over the black keys for lack of use," said Morgan. "That was the kind of cartoon that had lasting value."
Another of Geisel's lifelong favorites showed a matronly woman reading a book called Adolf the Wolf. "'And the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones,'" the woman reads to the two horrified-looking children, before adding, "but those were Foreign Children and it didn't really matter."
Geisel had the same mixed feelings about his political work with Frank Capra. Toward the end of the war, he worked with the Hollywood director to write a number of short films for the U.S. government. He told Morgan that some of them had turned out more militant and vitriolic than he would have liked. "You'll see flowers; you'll see some mighty pretty scenery," the narrator intones in a 10-minute film instructing American soldiers on how to behave in occupied Germany. "Don't let it fool you. You are an enemy country. Be alert, suspicious of everyone."
After the war, Geisel left politics mostly behind, but some critics later claimed to see political themes in his children's books. The New Yorker's Louis Menand has described the antihero of The Cat in the Hat as a Cold War figure, trying to wipe the world free of "pinkness" (i.e., "Pinkos"). And Richard Minear, a professor of Japanese history who wrote the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, sees Horton Hears a Who as a parable about the postwar occupation of Japan.
"Ted was frequently amused or aghast, depending on the case, by people reading too much into his children's books," said Morgan, "though some of them might have had the nugget of a political idea." For instance, there's Yertle the Turtle, a 1958 book about a tyrant who forces his subjects to pile on each other's backs so he can rise to greater heights. The turtles take the abuse until one rebel at the bottom finally lets out a burp. The whole stack tumbles and the dictator falls into the mud.
In light of his political cartoons, it's not much of a stretch to see Yertle as a statement on war and peace and the absurdity of any creature who takes itself too seriously. Besides, said Morgan, "in his early drawings for the book, Ted did draw the turtle with a mustache. Yertle was very definitely Hitler."