Theodore Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss — published his first children’s book, the charming and whimsical And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, in 1937, followed a year later by the equally delightful The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. By 1940, as World War II was engulfing Europe and Asia, Dr. Seuss, as he was already known, had turned to drawing political cartoons. By 1942 he had devoted his work to aiding the American war effort.
That work is astonishingly racist.
This always comes as a shock to my students. For them, as I suspect for nearly all of us, Dr. Seuss is a beloved children’s author and illustrator, the creator of the Lorax, and of Horton, the keen-eared elephant who hears a Who, and the Grinch, who in the end learns that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.
I show my students examples of Seuss’ wartime artwork as part of our exploration of the ideological foundations of American foreign policy. In his brilliant book Ideology and US Foreign Policy, historian Michael Hunt argues that a belief in the hierarchy of races is one of the three fundamental ideas at the core of our conduct of foreign affairs. “Inspired by the struggle of white Americans to secure and maintain their supremacy under conditions that differed from region to region,” Hunt writes it is the oldest of these ideas, deeply embedded in how Americans think about ourselves and our place in the world.
I read Hunt’s book for the first time as a graduate student, and I have assigned it to my own students ever since so that they too can wrestle with the ideas that shape our foreign policy. Race is perhaps the most powerful of those ideas.
As Hunt writes, the 17th and 18th century folk wisdom shared by our founders, their contemporaries, and passed down to subsequent generations, a system of belief which placed those with the lightest skin atop a hierarchy of races, was reinforced in the 19th century by “scientific” investigation which purported to confirm the physical, intellectual, and moral inferiority of those with darker skins. “Blacks above all others,” Hunt argues, “served as the anvil on which Americans forged this notion of racial hierarchy and the attendant color-conscious view of the world.”
While our treatment of Americans of African descent served as the baseline, these ideas were also manifested in the genocide of Native Americans as the infant United States expanded westward, and later as we acquired the trappings of overseas empire in the Spanish-American War that ushered in the 20th century. As we became more active and assertive in international affairs, encountered other peoples, other nations, the baggage of race was our blueprint for how to relate, how to respond.
Anglo-Saxonism, says Hunt, “the belief that Americans and the British were one people united by uncommon and common interests,” occupied the central place in our thinking about race as it related to foreign policy. Germans, as our racial cousins, like us save for their loss of the love of liberty, followed closely behind. But from there it was all downhill, from the Slavs to the “Latin” peoples of Europe (France, Italy, Spain), to the deepest, darkest depths of savage Africans, fit for nothing more than white domination.
The people of East Asia, Japan and China, enter the American consciousness in the last half of the 19th century, seen as an exotic bundle of contradictions: “subhuman yet cunning, unfeeling yet boiling inward with rage, cowardly and decadent yet capable of great conquests.” And so Americans developed two different images of “Orientals,” a positive one, Hunt writes, “appropriate to happy times when paternalism and benevolence were in season,” and a negative one, suited to those tense periods when abuse or aggrandizement became the order of the day.”
The wartime cartoons of Dr. Seuss put these contradictions on vivid display. In the images reproduced here, Hitler is portrayed as essentially an aristocrat, his head held high in a posture of contempt of others, almost attractive and noble for all his arrogance. Not so the Japanese, shown here leering with a slant-eyed squint through thick glasses, with buck-toothed grins. Or as inhuman monsters and insects with caricatures for faces.
The key point I am making isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a racist propagandist. He was. But he was no outlier. The attitudes on display in his wartime cartoons were the attitudes shared by his fellow Americans. They were attitudes passed down over the centuries from one generation to the next. They were attitudes that turned the war in the Pacific into the most brutal war Americans had ever fought, one which culminated in the dropping of the atomic bomb on cities populated by people we viewed as barely human. They are attitudes which we have inherited today.
Dr. Seuss was a racist, a propagandist. And American.