Dr. Seuss: Propagandist, racist, American


seuss 4Theodore Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss — published his first children’s book, the charming and whimsical And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Streetin 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.

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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.”

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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.

No religious test


The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

So reads clause 3, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

James Madison, in Federalist 52, reiterates this in his discussion of qualification for election the House of Representatives, arguing that:

Under these reasonable limitations, the door … is open to merit of every description … without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.

Later, in Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton contrasts the powers of the office of the President with that of the King of England in part by noting the extreme difference in their spiritual roles:

The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church!

It is important for us to keep these documents in mind as we think about the recent controversy surrounding Ben Carson’s claim on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday that Islam, as a religion, is inconsistent with the Constitution, and his declaration that:

I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.

Despite the outcry from his political rivals and Muslim-American groups in particular, Carson has tried to clarify while refusing to back down:

I said I would support anyone regardless of their background if in fact they embrace American values and our Constitution and are willing to place that above their beliefs.

The problem, of course, is that Carson doesn’t believe Muslims are capable of doing so. I’ll leave aside the question of whether Carson himself, a conservative Christian Seventh-day Adventist and biblical literalist, is capable of suborning his own beliefs to the Constitution and the values of an increasingly secular America. Nor will I point out that the comments Carson directs at Muslims are reminiscent of the very sort of religious persecution that was once aimed at Adventists themselves.

Instead, I’ll point the candidate, who seems to believe that followers of certain religions can’t be trusted to serve America with honor and distinction, defending its values and institutions, to the Veteran’s Administration, which has no such qualms. As a meme which showed up in my social media feed put it this morning, any candidate who wants to bar members of certain religions from public service should take a walk around Arlington National Cemetery and see the diversity of religious faiths represented on the headstones of the fallen.

Or just take a look at the VA’s authorized “emblems of belief” above, which are allowed to be placed on government headstones and markers. Every flavor of faith, from atheists to Wiccans to followers of the Norse god Thor are represented. Right alongside Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is …

And Muslims.

The American way of foreign policy

high noonI have been teaching American foreign policy for a long time now, and for as long as I can remember I have shown my students the classic Western film High Noon as a way to give them insight into the enduring beliefs about ourselves and the nature of the world around us that animate our conduct of foreign policy.

I originally wrote the comments below as background for my students to give them some context when they watch the film (I’ll be showing it in class today and Friday). But I’ve also been thinking about it in relation to the discussion of foreign policy that has emerged in the current presidential campaign.

As most of the Republicans (Rand Paul the notable exception) seeking the White House have argued over and over again, the world is a dangerous place with enemies that America must confront head-on, with force, lest everything we stand for fall to ruin. America is all that stands between global order and global chaos. We lead not because we desire power, we lead because we must, because no one else will, because no one else is capable.

Lindsay Graham, while an afterthought in the polls, is representative of this perspective, one shared with most of his GOP rivals, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (though her rhetoric while bellicose is far less apocalyptic), and even with the much maligned (by Republicans) President Obama. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July on the threat of ISIS and his plans to militarily intervene in Iraq and Syria to defeat extremism and stabilize the Middle East, Graham said:

This is the 1930s all over again, and this ISIL threat is something that will come our way soon if we don’t stop it over there … There is no substitute for winning this conflict. There is no substitute for America.

President Obama, speaking at West Point in 2014, while stated in more measured terms, expressed the very same sentiments about America’s role in the world:

[I]t is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come. .. The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

What follows are the comments I originally wrote for my students:


High Noon (1952) is both a product of its times, the early years of the Cold War, as well as a reflection of our enduring collective political values and beliefs. In other words, High Noon tells us much about how Americans see themselves, and how we saw (and I would argue) continue to see America’s role in the international arena. When you watch this film I think it will come as no surprise that High Noon has been screened in the White House more often than any other movie.

The metaphors in the film operate in two ways. First, the character of Will Kane (Gary Cooper) serves as a metaphor for the post-WWII United States. Kane is the archetypal Western hero evidencing the best qualities of the American character: courage, steadfastness, and devotion to justice.

Some of the background details of the film serve to underscore these embedded values. For example, in the pivotal church scene, the congregation is singing this verse from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; / He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: / Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! / Our God is marching on.

This implies a divine mission to set affairs aright, a mission that men of courage will meet. By failing to act, the townspeople condemn themselves in the sight of the Almighty, an idea made clear in the piece of scripture, Malachi 4:1, that the pastor reads, which evokes similar visions of both righteousness and judgment:

 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the

LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

At the same, the challenges Kane faces in the film are reflections of the challenges the United States faces in the new reality of the Cold War. Just as Kane is a metaphor for the US, Hadleyville, the town where the action takes place, can be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII international system.

The setup for the story is that Kane, having cleaned up Hadleyville after a long struggle, is hanging up his gun and badge and retiring. This can be seen as the film’s equivalent of the American victory in World War II. After a brief time of peace and quiet, the bad guys – the Frank Miller gang – return to Hadleyville and once again threaten the peace. Here the film equates the threat of communism with the fascist tyranny of the war years.

The central question is how Kane and the townsfolk, and metaphorically the United States and the rest of the world, will respond to this new threat.