Hitler Hears a Who!

Dr. Seuss's War Work

By John Strausbaugh

Before he became famous for his zany children's books, Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, put pen and ink to a very different purpose: wartime propaganda. He may have been German-American, but he was extremely anti-Nazi. And anti-Japanese as well.

Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield MA, where his family ran the prosperous Kuhlmbach & Geisel brewery, referred to by locals as Come Back & Guzzle. Between the anti-German sentiments that swept the country during World War I -- something he'd never forget -- and the Prohibition years, his family's fortunes faded, but they were still able to send him to Dartmouth and then Oxford. At Oxford he met his future wife Helen Palmer, who would become a successful children's book author herself. Otherwise he hated it and left after a year.

Returning to the US, he sold his first cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post in 1927 and used the check to move to New York, taking a studio walk-up in Greenwich Village. He signed the work "Seuss," his mother's maiden name, which his family pronounced the German way, Soyss. He soon added the "Dr." -- a winking reference to the Ph.D. he failed to get at Oxford. During the Depression, when so many others struggled, he made a comfortable living drawing humorous advertisements for Standard Oil, and saw his first couple of children's books published.

In 1940 Random House published Horton Hatches the Egg. It didn't make much of a dent on the market, but that's not the principal reason Dr. Seuss didn't do another children's book until after the war. The Nazis' startlingly easy conquest of Western Europe in the spring and summer of that year -- and the continued insistence of many Americans that the US should not get involved -- galvanized him. He set aside the work for children and drew his first editorial cartoon, lampooning Italian Fascists.

A mutual friend showed it to Ralph Ingersoll, who had just started an innovative daily paper in New York, PM. Ingersoll had formerly worked for Henry Luce's publishing empire, and had helped conceive and launch the magazine Life in 1936. With its large pictures and concise copy, Life was soon the most successful and popular news magazine in the country. PM was in effect Ingersoll's attempt to recreate Life as a daily tabloid newspaper. He used new printing technology and high-quality paper so the photos and illustrations looked cleaner and crisper than they ever had in newspapers before -- and the ink, for the first time in newspapers, didn't rub off on your fingers. Also unlike any other daily paper, PM accepted no advertising. Ingersoll decided it would derive its income entirely from subscriptions and a five-cent cover price (when the city's other dailies were two cents). That way, he reasoned, he and his writers would be completely free to express their opinions. And in fact over its roughly eight-year lifespan, PM would be loved, despised and lampooned for its unrestrained opinionating.

His noble experiment attracted exceptional contributors. The photographers included Margaret Bourke-White, one of Life's stars, and Weegee, who flourished as a PM photo-essayist. Ad Reinhart drew comics. Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker did some writing for it, and Dashiell Hammett briefly helped out with editing. The famed Streamline Age designer Norman Bel Geddes suggested a unique accordion-fold format for the tabloid, which Ingersoll wisely rejected.

Geisel fit right in. The first issue of PM hit the streets on June 18 1940, a few days after the Germans rolled into Paris. Like Geisel, Ingersoll was very anti-Hitler and anti-Mussolini and very gung-ho about the US getting involved to stop them. By January 1941 Dr. Seuss was PM's regular editorial cartoonist. He would do at least three cartoons a week for the next two years, more than 400 in all. He freely mixed odd fantasy creatures like those in his children's books with caricatures of his favorite targets: Hitler, Mussolini, Lindbergh and the American isolationists, nameless "Japs." His cartoon for the Monday after Pearl Harbor shows an ostrich labeled Isolationism being tossed in the air by the exploding word WAR, under the legend, "He Never Knew What Hit Him." The next day he drew a bunch of slit-eyed, bucktoothed Japanese rudely waking the American eagle from his "nap." In February 1942 PM ran a Seuss cartoon depicting thousands of Japanese lining up to receive packages of TNT from a booth labeled "Honorable Fifth Column," with the legend "Waiting for the Signal from Home..." And so on. For those who know only his children's books, the rude caricatures and racist stereotypes can be startling, but they're entirely consistent with other propaganda and editorializing of the war years. See, for instance, wartime Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Geisel drew his last illos for PM at the end of 1942. At 39, he had enlisted in the Army. He remembered the anti-German uproar of his youth and wanted to demonstrate that a German-American could be just as patriotic and anti-Hitler as anyone. He was assigned to Frank Capra's signal corps unit, making newsreels and propaganda films in a rented Hollywood studio nicknamed Fort Fox. Among the animations he worked on there -- with Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Mel Blanc and others -- were the "Private Snafu" cartoons that instructed soldiers about health, safety and security issues.

In 1944, by then a major, he was sent to Europe to show US generals there a training film for occupation troops, Your Job in Germany. It warned GIs to be on their toes, because once a Nazi always a Nazi. At Omar Bradley's headquarters in Luxembourg Geisel met up with Lt. Colonel Ingersoll, who was helping to run the now-famous "Ghost Army" deception unit. Geisel would later tell the New Yorker that Ingersoll thought he, "like most Stateside tourists, would like to have a peek at some actual fighting while he was in the area -- without, of course, getting too dangerously exposed." Ingersoll gave Geisel a driver and jeep and sent him to the town of Bastogne. Just as Geisel arrived, German troops surrounded the town. "Nobody came along and put up a sign saying, 'This is the Battle of the Bulge,'" Geisel told the New Yorker. "How was I supposed to know?" He was stuck in the besieged town for three days before British troops rescued him. Ingersoll was sure he'd gotten Geisel killed. He was greatly relieved when they met up again at a party five years later.

Ingersoll's radical and costly experiment at PM struggled financially and in other ways through the war, was a target in the Red Scare years that followed, and ended in 1948. It took until the 1950s for Dr. Seuss to hit his stride as a creator of children's books -- Horton Hears a Who! in 1955, The Cat in the Hat in 1957, et al. He kept at it until the publication of Oh, the Places You'll Go! in 1990, and died the following year.

For a very good book on this topic, see Richard H. Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War.

Published March 11th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.