Most of us come to know the work of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel through his children’s books (I, for instance, remember Hop on Pop as the first book I could read whole), and while he remains most famous as a prolific teller and illustrator of surreally didactic tales for youngsters, his productivity entered other cultural areas as well. Perhaps the most surprising chapter of his career happened during the Second World War, when Seuss, who had already demonstrated his strong anti-Hitler, anti-Mussolini, and pro-Roosevelt sentiments in political cartoons, went to work scripting propaganda films.
Having joined the U.S. Army in 1943 as a Captain, Seuss went on to take charge of the Animation Department of the Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit. Working under Frank Capra toward the end of the war, he wrote the short films Your Job in Germany and Our Job in Japan, both intended to get American soldiers into the right mindset for the occupations of those defeated countries. “With your conduct and attitude while inside Germany, you can lay the groundwork of a peace that could last forever,” says the narrator of the former, “Or just the opposite.”
Unlike the similarly G.I.-targeted Private Snafu cartoons we featured last year, nothing of Seuss’ fanciful style comes through in these films, which use all-too-real footage to illustrate to “our boys” as vividly as possible what could go wrong if they let their guard down in these only-just-former enemy territories. “The German lust for conquest is not dead,” the narrator warns, “it’s merely gone undercover.” The German people, he insists, “must prove they have been cured beyond the shadow of a doubt before they ever again are allowed to take their place among respectable nations.”
Our Job in Japan also holds out the prospect of a prolonged peace — “peace, if we can solve the problem of 70 million Japanese people.” But this short doesn’t have quite as damning a tone as Your Job in Germany; instead, it focuses on how best to rehabilitate an “old, backward, superstitious country” full of impressionable people “trained to follow blindly wherever their leaders led them.” According to the script, the eminently teachable and adaptable “Japanese brain” just happened to fall under the sway of warlords who decided it could “be hopped up to fight with fanatical fury.” Patronizing, certainly, but a far cry from the popular conception in the west at the time of the Japanese as a cruel, power-mad race inherently bent on bloodshed.
Seuss himself had a history of anti-Japanese cartooning (also featured on our site), but it seems his views had already begun to turn by the time of Our Job in Japan, which argues only for setting an example demonstrating that “what we like to call the American Way, or democracy, or just plain old Golden Rule common sense is a pretty good way to live.” As a result, no less a player in the Pacific theater than Douglas MacArthur found the film excessively sympathetic to the Japanese and tried to have it suppressed, a kind of controversy that never erupted around the likes of Hop on Pop. But as far as the actual winning of Japanese hearts and minds goes, I suspect Seuss’ children’s books have done a better job.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.