Dr. Seuss Satirized “America First” Decades before Donald Trump Made It Policy
Dr. Seuss has long stood as a beloved figure of the American experience: Cat in the Hat (1957) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960) remain two of the best-selling English children’s books of all time. His fantastical characters and sing-song rhyming have stoked childhood imaginations for decades. But before he became an acclaimed author, Dr. Seuss was also a political cartoonist, creating images that commented on isolationism in the lead-up to World War II—and which are also deeply resonant with our current moment.
Beginning just after the start of World War II, Dr. Seuss (whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel) created more than 400 political cartoons for the liberal-leaning New York tabloid PM. But due to the newspaper’s relatively small readership (at five cents a copy it was many times more expensive than other papers of the day) and that Dr. Seuss sometimes downplayed his political leanings, these works remained little known.
Even the artist’s widow, Audrey Geisel, was unaware of her late husband’s political cartoons until the publication of historian Richard H. Minear’s 1999 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War. Minear says that Geisel came up to him after a lecture on the book, which resurfaced some 200 of Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons, and expressed her surprise.
A number of those cartoons, which have resurfaced in recent weeks, focus on the 1940s isolationist movement known as “America First.” The phrase has more recently been marshalled by the Trump administration as a slogan for its populist foreign policy agenda, which puts the interest of American people before all others.
One image draws comparisons between the America First movement and the Nazi party. It pictures two men at the “Great U.S. Sideshow;” a peacefully smiling American wearing a blazer branded “America First,” and a grisly man whose sweater is marked with a swastika are conjoined by a “Siamese Beard.”
Another, drawn in 1941, sees a characteristically whimsical kangaroo with “America First” scrawled on its side. From its pouch sprouts a kangaroo tagged “Nazis” from which sprouts one tagged “Fascists,” which further carries a tiny kangaroo, “Communists.” The caption reads: “Relatives? Naw... Just three fellers going along for the ride!”
Minear, a leading historian of Japan during World War II, used to quiz his students at University of Massachusetts Amherst to see if they would recognize Dr. Seuss’s political work. He used an “America First” cartoon for the exercise, criticizing America’s shuttering to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Penned in 1941, it pictures a woman reading to her grandchildren wearing a sweater stamped with the slogan. “I would cover up the signature and say, you all know this artist, who is it?” he recalled. It would take a while, but someone would eventually spot the Seussian cat in the cartoon’s corner.
While Dr. Seuss was vocal in his opposition to a number of political issues, “he was just as blind as everybody else” when it came to U.S. relations with Japan, and with Japanese Americans, Minear says. One particularly scathing image, published in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the week before Roosevelt’s move to send Japanese Americans to internment camps, depicts hoards of Japanese Americans queuing to collect blocks of explosives. He is said to have regretted some of these drawings in hindsight.
Dr. Seuss stopped drawing for PM in 1943, and went on to join the army as a captain, where he created propaganda films while working under Frank Capra. He returned to creating children’s books following the war, and his classic 1954 book Horton Hears a Who! is seen by many as both an apology and an allegory of the American occupation of Japan. In it, a big-hearted elephant teaches youngsters that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Horton Hears a Who! is far from the only one of Dr. Seuss’s books that include a political and social message, according to a number of historians. “He had some faith in kids,” Minear says.
If you go back and re-read some of his most famous books through this lens, you’ll find discreet appeals to the nation’s most tender and malleable minds, promoting tolerance, resistance, and awareness.
Dr. Seuss revealed some of these messages outright, calling The Cat in the Hat “a revolt against authority.” But many of stories’ undercurrents are debated, others buried in edits.
“Yertle the Turtle, when Dr. Seuss first drew it, had a Hitler mustache,” says Minear. The mustache didn’t make it to print, but the 1958 storybook, centered around the rise of a power-hungry turtle, distills the perils of fascism into their most fundamental terms.
Likewise The Sneetches and Other Stories (1953), named for yellow creatures—some born with stars on their bellies, some without—cautions against racial prejudice. It’s no stretch of the imagination to connect their patches with those worn by Jews during the Holocaust. “That wasn’t the Star of David, but that’s the issue behind it,” says Minear.
Political readings, of course, don’t apply to every book in his output—but certainly some of his most enduring. Each December, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1956) warns a new generation of children of the trappings of consumerism. The Lorax (1971) is widely understood to be about environmentalism. The Butter Battle Book (1984), a tale of the Yooks and the Zooks whose unwavering opinions on which side of bread to butter find them in an arms race, is a satire of the Cold War that lays bare the consequence of intolerance.
These stories, many now more than 70 years old, are no doubt dated in some respects. But as they continue as fodder for bedtime stories and primary school learning, their lessons—for both wide-eyed children and their adult narrators—undoubtedly hold up.
And as “America First” reenters the rhetorical landscape, they also serve as a reminder of the power of artistic expression to help effect social and political change.