Dr. Seuss Draws Anti-Japanese Cartoons During WWII, Then Atones with Horton Hears a Who!

seuss japan 1

Before Theodor Seuss Geisel AKA Dr. Seuss convinced generations of children that a wocket might just be in their pocket, he was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM from 1940 to 1948. During his tenure he cranked out some 400 cartoons that, among other things, praised FDR’s policies, chided isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and supported civil rights for blacks and Jews. He also staunchly supported America’s war effort.

To that end, Dr. Seuss drew many cartoons that, to today’s eyes, are breathtakingly racist. Check out the cartoon above. It shows an arrogant-looking Hitler next to a pig-nosed, slanted-eye caricature of a Japanese guy. The picture isn’t really a likeness of either of the men responsible for the Japanese war effort – Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo. Instead, it’s just an ugly representation of a people.

In the battle for homeland morale, American propaganda makers depicted Germany in a very different light than Japan. Germany was seen as a great nation gone mad. The Nazis might have been evil but there was still room for the “Good German.” Japan, on the other hand, was depicted entirely as a brutal monolith; Hirohito and the guy on the street were uniformly evil. Such thinking paved the way for the U.S. Air Force firebombing of Tokyo, where over 100,000 civilians died, and for its nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it definitely laid the groundwork for one of the sorriest chapters of American 20th century history, the unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese-Americans.

waiting for signals

Geisel himself was vocally anti-Japanese during the war and had no trouble with rounding up an entire population of U.S. citizens and putting them in camps.

But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.

Geisel was hardly alone in such beliefs but it’s still disconcerting to see ugly cartoons like these drawn in the same hand that did The Cat in the Hat.

jap alley

In 1953, Geisel visited Japan where he met and talked with its people and witnessed the horrific aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. He soon started to rethink his anti-Japanese vehemence. So he issued an apology in the only way that Dr. Seuss could.

He wrote a children’s book.

Horton Hears a Who!, published in 1954, is about an elephant that has to protect a speck of dust populated by little tiny people. The book’s hopeful, inclusive refrain – “A person is a person no matter how small” — is about as far away as you can get from his ignoble words about the Japanese a decade earlier. He even dedicated the book to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.”

You can view an assortment of Dr. Seuss’s wartime drawings in general, and his cartoons of the Japanese in particular, at the Dr. Went to War Archive hosted by UCSD.

via Dartmouth

Related Content:

Private Snafu: The World War II Propaganda Cartoons Created by Dr. Seuss, Frank Capra & Mel Blanc

New Archive Showcases Dr. Seuss’s Early Work as an Advertising Illustrator and Political Cartoonist

Fake Bob Dylan Sings Real Dr. Seuss

The Epistemology of Dr. Seuss & More Philosophy Lessons from Great Children’s Stories

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrowAnd check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily. 


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  • I-RIGHT-I says:

    Walt Disney too! Bad, bad men for demonizing the people who only wanted to slaughter other people, and did! This article was in poor taste and the author and editors exhibit teenage understanding of WWII and how the world works. Next: How Bugs Bunny in drag helped shaped the homophobia of a generation.

    • Darin John Hocking says:

      The fact that Japan was trying to rape and pillage America does not give us the right to imprison our own citizens of Japanese descent. As for Disney, he was a great cartoonist and had many good qualities as a human being, but he was also a racist SOB. he is on record as being very anti-Semitic and to the best of my knowledge they have never tried to bomb us

      • I-RIGHT-I says:

        Non sequitur fallacy but I’ll let it go. Ford was a Nazi sympathizer, Sr. Bush and Kennedy too. LBJ was as racist as they get, “the nigg**s will be voting Democrat for the next 200 years” and FDR’s decision to intern the Japanese in during WWII was the correct call. nThis is the real f’ing world my boy. Your daddy didn’t know either so I guess you get a pass but you’re going to find out in spades if you’re under 30. If you’re an American (maybe) you’d better get your shit together really soon and stop all this childish touchy feely nonsense.

        • Darin John Hocking says:

          I am 47 my boy and I know very well how the world works. The Japanese were interned so that their greedy neighbors could get the prime property they owned. I am really unsure how to respond to the rest of your vague, meaningless babble, so I will leave it at that.

          • I-RIGHT-I says:

            Yes, that’s pretty old to be hanging on to the beat up old canards of the Left and lies of the race baiters. You missed the rest because you wanted to. I assume you’re smart enough to recognize your own foolishness thrown back at you. I’ll bet LBJ was your hero. Sorry about that.

          • Darin John Hocking says:

            seriously? LBJ did some decent things almost despite himself, but he is definitely not my hero. If you are calling me a leftist, that must mean everyone to the right of Reagan but to the left of Lyndon Larouche. You must be fun at the clan rallysn

  • I-RIGHT-I says:

    Walt Disney too! Bad, bad men for demonizing the people who only wanted to slaughter other people, and did! This article was in poor taste and the author and editors exhibit teenage understanding of WWII and how the world works. Next: How Bugs Bunny in drag helped shaped the homophobia of a generation.

  • Fee-fi-fo-fum says:

    Ogden Nashn nnThe Japanese (1938)n nnHow courteous is the Japanese;nn He always says, u201cExcuse it, please.u201dnn He climbs into his neighboru2019s garden,nn And smiles, and says, u201cI beg your pardonu201d;nn He bows and grins a friendly grin,nn And calls his hungry family in;nn He grins, and bows a friendly bow;nn u201cSo sorry, this my garden now.u201d

  • Playtrombone64 says:

    It’s human behavior to demonize the enemy in times of war. Were the characterizations of the Japanese accurate or fair? Of course not, but Americans were fighting a people who had decided to try to rule a large portion of the world and the emotional response led to these kinds of images.

  • LazyGepid says:

    We only (pretend) to take offense at this because we won the war.

  • Ronny says:

    Well done to Dr Seuss for being open to a new understanding and making amends.

  • candomarty says:

    “The picture isnu2019t really a likeness of either of the men responsible for the Japanese war effort u2013 Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo. Instead, itu2019s just an ugly representation of a people.” Well, wrong on both counts; it really does look a lot like Hitler and Tojo [for some reason the author added in Hirohito although he’s not in the cartoon, and Hitler (as he mentioned in the previous sentence, is–but hey, why edit?)] and are anything BUT generic. Just because you’re trying to push a point doesn’t make it OK to change reality to your preference.

  • Steve Bshaw says:

    So amusing to read the moral outrage of journalists separated from the horrors of WWII by 70 years. Perhaps you should poll the WWII vets who went through the Bataan Death March, were POWs of the Japanese, the Chinese and Filipinos who suffered under the Japanese occupations as much as the Jews did under the Nazis…perhaps you should ask them how “offensive” these characterizations are.

  • dee anne moore says:

    I remember selling war bonds in the first grade 1946..the world had just closed a chapter that would forever be known as WWII..I had recently accompanied my family to Union Station in Indianapolis where we awaited the train that carried my uncle home… I remember first hearing the shrieking of my mom,aunts and grandparents who spotted him coming before I could see above the adults. He had been stationed on an aircraft repair carrier in the pacific. He told us of a shipmate who was on a deck gun…who was killed when a Japanese plane crashed near the deck of the ship..I new little about the reasons for the war and less about the people who were behind the reasons. I learned to read early and after a few years, my family had purchased a series of books that were about the war…published, I think, by Collier’s …The books had many photos that war correspondents and others had taken…One photo was indelibly etched in my mind…a chubby baby, face wet with tears, mouth wide, crying. Alone, the baby sat in the midst of rubble and nothingness that was the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima …a nuclear bomb that my country had dropped on thousands of civilians…men, women and children. The devastation was palpable. As years have passed and I have witnessed the incredible destruction and killing that men all over the world are able to rain upon their fellow human human beings… I know that religion plays a very large part in how actively a culture accepts being the aggressor towards their neighbors. What is clear is there are three currently that justify any violence that their followers choose to initiate. The irony is, that the three are actually one snake with three heads…Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Currently, Islam is seen as the most violent..but it really is just the most raw. The other two are more able to ‘sanitize’ their actions, making them appear less ‘barbaric’… Grandmothers spun the chicken by it’s head, twisting the neck before plucking it clean of feathers …and moving it through the process that put it on the table for consumption. We are “civilized” now …we let the process be done in an even less humane way (grandmother’s chickens had a relatively good life prior to the fateful moment). Today’s process, sanitized for our sensibilities, is horrific and brutal..and the life of the chickens are worse than the death that awaits them. We, who select the well packaged, clean and ready for pot offering in the meat department of the supermarket ..convince ourselves that we are not barbaric..that we are more civilized. War is like that. We have learned how to do our killing away from our backyards…out of sight…so that we do not lose a beat in our daily lives. We are disturbed when we are reminded by a legless young man in a wheelchair…or one who has just taken their own life out of total desperation.. We do no good or provide no hope for the future by living in denial and claiming that we are the ‘good’ guys and the other people are the ‘bad’ ones. The three Abrahamic beliefs are constructs of men..and are easily manipulated to fit whatever is desired to be qualified and validated as ‘acceptable’… There is no ‘good’ belief.. There are humans who are humane and compassionate and do not rely on the adage, ‘well they did it’, or, ‘they are worse’… rather they rely on their own inner compass that seeks to find the good apples in the barrel …and even when there is a bad one, do not throw the others out with it. We will only survive on this planet if we can contain and manage our primal instincts…as hairless apes..chimpanzees who are warlike by nature …Religions are double edged swords …Kali…”goddess” who is at one…the good and the bad..destroyer…restorer.. If we need myths, we should choose the ones that are more honest about their worth…and not the ones that give total control over all…with a disclaimer in the fine print.. (can do these things under certain circumstances ..no refunds given)

  • Lee says:

    Well, how many US citizens didn’t hold racist views of the Japanese at the time? Just watch cartoons from the era: they contain some of the nastiest depictions of the Japanese (and they weren’t much better when it came to other non-white ethnicities).

    Dr. Seuss deserves credit for having a change of heart later on. It’s too bad that the US went on to have politicians like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, Jan Brewer, Dov Hikind, not to mention entertainers like Mel “the Jews started all the wars” Gibson.

  • Hypestyle says:

    The racial venom in the cartoons is inexcusable, regardless of the war context. Same things goes for the cartoons he drew mocking Africans and black Americans. Mr. Geisel/Seuss deserves his kudos for his children’s books, but these early works cannot be simply erased, and they are not above critique just because he is a “beloved” children’s book author.

  • Calistyle910 says:

    His earlier work is deplorable. But he turned it around and isn’t that what we want from people who espouse racist views? We want them to change? And instead of applauding that, I’m reading comments making excuses for the earlier work and saying “Well, THEY were more racist than US, so there!” It’s just silly. The point of the article was to show people can change, and Dr. Seuss did, for the better, for which I am grateful. We as a society should be able to forgive someone who made amends.

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