Most of you will know Dr Seuss as one of the most famous children's authors of the 20th century. He was famous for numerous books such as The Cat in The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
However, before he started writing children’s books, Dr Seuss led a very important life. Theodor Seuss Geisel, to give his real name, was a political cartoonist.
At the start of his career as a political cartoonist, he drew over 400 cartoons for the left-leaning New York City newspaper PM. These cartoons denounced Hitler and Mussolini, while Seuss was also highly critical of non-interventionists such as Charles Lindbergh.
During the time America was not involved in the war effort, Seuss’ cartoons were highly supportive of President Theodore Roosevelt and attacked those whom he deemed to be aiding the Nazis by being creating disunity.
After the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the war, Seuss’ cartoons changed in nature. His work explicitly supported and praised the American war effort.
This is understandable during wartime, but by today’s standards, some of the cartoons were overtly racist towards America’s enemies, with Japan, in particular, bearing the brunt of Seuss’ criticism.
The cartoon depicts the Japanese man with a pig snout, a moustache similar to Hitler’s, buck teeth and squinted eyes.
It is an overtly racist cartoon which plays up to traditional stereotypes about the Japanese. It also uses the American public’s hatred of Hitler to lump them and the Japanese together.
The depiction of Emperor Hirohito as the “typical” Japanese man serves to portray the Japanese as a collective. A race of people who look the same and think the same.
Dr Seuss was not the first cartoonist to portray the Japanese in this way and he certainly wasn’t the last, but his cartoons did help to exacerbate the dehumanisation of the Japanese that occurred during wartime.
Whereas in World War I, the Kaiser was seen as evil, while the German people were seen as innocent, this did not apply to the Japanese. By depicting the Emperor as an ordinary Japanese man, Seuss was characterising the Japanese as a group and implying that they were all evil, not just the Emperor.
The same extended to actions against the Japanese too. The inhumane concentration camps the Nazis were using, which the American public became aware of towards the end of the war, were also used by the Americans and accepted by the vast majority of the public.
Seuss’ cartoons helped to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment during the war. He was not have been the only cartoonist to do so, but the fact remains he had a choice to make when drawing his cartoons.
He chose to portray the Japanese in a certain light. One which dehumanised them and justified any attacks the Americans made on the country, including the dropping of two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
His views towards the Japanese were in sharp contrast to his views on Germany’s persecution of the Jews. He was critical of the isolationist stance of many Americans before the USA entered and implored that the country take in more refugees to spare them from the Nazis.
However, Seuss would later recant his views and produce the work for which he is most well-known today.
Dr Seuss visited Japan in 1953, where he witnessed the damage suffered by Hiroshima after it was bombed. He met and talked with people who had suffered as a result of the bomb.
It was this visit and these meetings that led him to change his views. He could not take back what he had done, but he could change what he did in the future.
Seuss apologised in a unique way, he wrote a children’s book. Horton Hears A Who, was published in 1954 and serves as an allegory for America’s postwar occupation of Japan. Seuss dedicated the book to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.”
The book is about an elephant who while splashing in a pool hears a speck of dust talking to him. Horton vows to protect the speck of dust from oblivion in the face of his fellow animals who are not convinced of the existence of a community on the speck of dust.
Throughout the book a regular theme reappears, that of the importance of every life no matter how big or small. Horton believes that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
In contrast to his earlier views, Seuss is preaching a policy of tolerance and co-existence between all races, no matter the differences we may have. The story preaches an important concept, but it also teaches us something else.
It shows us that we should view the world in absolute terms. We tend to view the world in black and white, but the reality is that the world is many shades of grey. Viewing the world along absolute lines shoehorns into narrow and often dogmatic views.
It is much better to be fluid, self-critical and constantly reevaluating your views. In an ever-changing world, its lunacy to stay fixed to rigid beliefs and ideals.
We may think we are right, but we spend the majority of our life in the dark, then we do being right. What we can learn from Dr Seuss, is that our views can and should change and that our past does not define our future.