Theodor Seuss Geisel is best remembered today for his popular children’s books but in the war years he contributed pointed political cartoons to the newspaper PM. (U.S. Army)
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He was not yet the iconic children’s book author we all know and love—he wouldn’t become that until after The Cat in the Hat became a bestseller in 1957—but Theodor Seuss Geisel made his voice heard in the months before the United States entered World War II. As an editorial cartoonist for the left-leaning daily newspaper PM, the man the world came to know as Dr. Seuss used his skills to alert America about the growing threat of world war. He wielded his pen to flay notable figures like Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Japan’s Hideki Tojo but also took aim at American isolationists, most notably Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator and a key member of the America First Committee. Once the U.S. was in the war, Geisel added Americans who weren’t doing their part for the war effort to his list of targets and attacked anti-Semitism and racism (although his protrayals of the Japanese can seem uncomfortably racist themselves today). As graphic artist Art Spiegelman says in his introduction to the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, “the cartoons let us know what happens when Horton hears a heil.”
Horton the elephant was, of course, one of the beloved creations of the man who called himself Dr. Seuss. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904, Geisel became known for his advertisements for Flit, a bug spray manufactured by Standard Oil. (Flit makes an appearance in some of his PM cartoons.) By World War II he had also published a few children’s books, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), The King’s Stilts (1939), and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). None of them enjoyed the success of his postwar work.
Increasingly concerned about the rise of fascism, Geisel penned an attack on the Italian editor and fascist supporter Virginio Gayda. A friend of Geisel’s showed the cartoon to Ralph Ingersoll, the founder and publisher of PM, who printed it in the January 30, 1941, edition. Geisel was off and running. Over the next two years he drew more than 400 cartoons for PM and heaped comical scorn on his subjects. “Ted’s cartoons grew savagely eloquent and often very funny, displaying his gift for derision,” wrote biographers Judith and Neil Morgan. The last cartoon Geisel drew for PM ran on January 5, 1943. Two days later Geisel joined the army and went to work for the Signal Corps unit under Hollywood director Frank Capra.
this article first appeared in world war II magazine