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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  1. I-RIGHT-I says . . . | August 21, 2014 / 5:15 pm

    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.

  2. I-RIGHT-I says . . . | August 21, 2014 / 5:15 pm

    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.

  3. Fee-fi-fo-fum says . . . | August 21, 2014 / 6:44 pm

    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

  4. Darin John Hocking says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 6:21 am

    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

  5. Playtrombone64 says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 6:53 am

    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.

  6. LazyGepid says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 7:09 am

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

  7. Ronny says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 8:07 am

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

  8. candomarty says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 1:31 pm

    “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.

  9. I-RIGHT-I says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 4:23 pm

    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.

  10. Darin John Hocking says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 9:54 pm

    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.

  11. I-RIGHT-I says . . . | August 23, 2014 / 3:00 am

    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.

  12. Darin John Hocking says . . . | August 23, 2014 / 5:53 am

    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

  13. Steve Bshaw says . . . | August 23, 2014 / 7:28 pm

    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.

  14. Kilroy Was Here says . . . | September 7, 2014 / 11:31 am

    I have Steve and you are VERY right. Also the Japanese during WWII were MUCH more racist than we ever were!

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