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"Private Sanfu" was a USAAF Signal Corps training film Seuss made with Frank Capra, to teach incoming troops all the mistakes they could possibly make in their military service.
As World War II began, Geisel turned to political cartoons, drawing over 400 in two years as editorial cartoonist for the left-wing New York City daily newspaper, PM. Geisel's political cartoons, later published in Dr. Seuss Goes to War, opposed the viciousness of Hitler and Mussolini and were highly critical of isolationists, most notably Charles Lindbergh, who opposed American entry into the war. One cartoon depicted all Japanese Americans as latent traitors or fifth-columnists, while at the same time other cartoons deplored the racism at home against Jews and blacks that harmed the war effort. His cartoons were strongly supportive of President Roosevelt's conduct of the war, combining the usual exhortations to ration and contribute to the war effort with frequent attacks on Congress (especially the Republican Party), parts of the press (such as the New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald) and others for criticism of Roosevelt, criticism of aid to the Soviet Union,investigation of suspected Communists, and other offenses that he depicted as leading to disunity and helping the Nazis, intentionally or inadvertently.
In 1942, Geisel turned his energies to direct support of the U.S. war effort. First, he worked drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. Then, in 1943, he joined the Army and was commander of the Animation Dept of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces, where he wrote films that included Your Job in Germany, a 1945 propaganda film about peace in Europe after World War II, Our Job in Japan, and the Private Snafu series of adult army training films. While in the Army, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Our Job in Japan became the basis for the commercially released film, Design for Death (1947), a study of Japanese culture that won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), which was based on an original story by Seuss, won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film.
"Too old for the draft, but wanting to contribute to the war effort, Ted served with Frank Capra's Signal Corps (U.S. Army) making training movies. It was here that he was introduced to the art of animation and developed a series of animated training films featuring a trainee called Private Snafu."
Most people know Theodor Seuss Geisel as Dr. Suess, author of kid classics, among them The Cat in the Hat (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), and There's a Wocket in My Pocket (1974).
What readers of Dr. Suess likely wouldn't know is this: in January 1941 after establishing himself as a cartoonist, Geisel began penning one-panel, political cartoons for a newspaper in New York called PM and did so until January 1943. Browsing the online archive at UC San Diego, it's clear that he was concerned about Germany's aggressive military actions in Europe, his countrymen's isolationist leanings, and after the Pearl Harbor attack, his country's continued internal bickering about the best way to fight the war.
Several cartoons are illustrative of these tensions. First, a cartoon dated June 23, 1941 shows a typical Dr. Suess bird (fat belly with a long neck), wearing an Uncle Sam hat relaxing with feet up and a drink on a side table, as the world is being shot up and shelled on all sides. One bullet even rips through the bird's tall hat and another through the "home sweet home" sign next to the chair. The caption reads:
"Said a bird in the midst of a Blitz,
'Up to now they've scored very few hitz,
So I'll sit on my canny
Old Star Spangled Fanny...'
And on it he sitz and he sitz."
Geisel knew that the war would eventually come to the US, despite his government's perceived reluctance to act or the efforts of isolationist groups. The group America First (a group that espoused complete neutrality from the European war, including withholding aid?money and materiel) and Charles Lindberg (the famous pilot) were his frequent targets. A cartoon dated September 18, 1941 shows Lindberg atop a garbage truck labeled "Nazi Anti-Semite Stink Wagon", clad in a gas mask and shoveling garbage into the street with a caption that reads "Spreading the Lovely Goebbels Stuff," a reference to Nazi Propaganda Minister and a not so subtle dig at his patriotism.
Lindberg spoke at many of America First's rallies, and "[h]is approach was, in effect, more understanding of the Germans (without approving of what they did) and more skeptical of the Allies than the conventional view in the United States. Lindbergh saw a divided responsibility for the origins of the European war, rather than an assignment of the total blame to Hitler, Nazi Germany, and the Axis states." After December 7, 1941, America First disbanded. On December 8, a Geisel cartoon shows an ostrich (his symbol for American isolationism) being blown into the sky under the under the word "WAR," an I-told-you-so send off.
Geisel's cartoons from Pearl Harbor until early 1943 are generally patriotic, urging readers to get behind the war effort but also to face the new realities of the day. Many of them dealt with America's own internal political and social wrangling on how to defeat the Axis and Geisel believed such problems only aided the enemy.
Other cartoons highlighted domestic tensions of the time. In a cartoon dated February 13, 1942, Geisel shows a myriad of Japanese Americans, all drawn with stereotypical round eye glasses and buck teeth, lining up, from California to Washington state, to receive a brick of TNT from a Japanese "official." On top of a building is another man, looking glass to the eye, who is "waiting for the signal from home." The depiction is troubling, according University of Massachusetts History professor Richard H. Minear, who writes:
"Perhaps it is no surprise that American cartoonists during the Pacific War painted Japan in overtly racist ways. However, it is a surprise that a person who denounces anti-black racism and anti-Semitism so eloquently can be oblivious of his own racist treatment of Japanese and Japanese Americans."
A cartoon dated June 30, 1942 backs up Minear?s assertion, showing Uncle Sam telling a concert pianist (the war industry) to use both white and black keys (labor), the latter with cob webs in-between. More cartoons of the period decried other types of American racial prejudice, phony optimism, and overconfidence by those not fighting. It is a difficult to reconcile these conflicting images, as Minear asserts, especially if we tend to think of Dr. Suess as a quirky artist and wordsmith only.
Film, Fraternization, and France
In 1940, Ted accepted an offer to join the army and was assigned to Fort Fox, the army's instructional film unit based in Hollywood. There, Ted reported for work, in his custom-tailored-by-Brooks Brothers uniform, to make instructional and training films for soldiers. His boss, Frank Capra, and Jack Jones, the animator responsible for such American characters as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, taught Ted to edit a script and bring film to life by leaving much behind on the editing room floor. His work won awards, including two Academy awards for the film, Hitler Lives in 1946 and a documentary on Japan in 1947. Ted credited both Capra and Jones for teaching him the conciseness which brought so much to his later children's writing.
Ted came face to face with his dislike for authority and his German heritage when he wrote and edited Hitler Lives. It was this film which outlined the military's new "no fraternization" policy. "The Nazi party," Ted wrote, "may be gone, but Nazi thinking, Nazi training and Nazi trickery remain. The German lust for conquest is not dead...trickery remains. You will not argue with them. You will not be friendly...There must be no fraternization with any of the German people." Although Ted wrote and produced the film, and was required to hand-carry it throughout the European theatre to obtain the personal approval from every general behind the lines and at the front, this policy made him uncomfortable, not the least of which was due to heritage. He later worked to rescind this policy, joking with colleagues in the service, "Just be a good soldier. Leave the bungling to the State Department!"
One of his side trips through the war zone was planned by former PM boss Ralph Ingersoll. He drew a map route to get Ted and his military police escort around the fighting at Bastogne, but they took a wrong turn somewhere, ending up ten miles behind the enemy line the morning of the evening that the Battle of the Bulge erupted. They remained trapped in enemy territory until rescued by British troops three days later. In Seussian rhythms, Ted recounted "The retreat we beat was accomplished with a speed that will never be beat."
Ted was in France on the first New Year's after the Allied forces occupation. Subdued despite the celebrations going on all around him, he walked through the rain down the Champs-Élysée to the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, scrawling on a piece of scrap paper a poem which began:
If he had lived, he'd probably have been 45 or so
And he might have been standing here, saluting too
At the grave of
The Unknown Soldier...
The joy all felt as the war ended was marred for Ted with word that his sister, Marnie, had died at home of coronary thrombosis after fighting years of depression and living reclusively.