My most interesting Christmas present was the 1999 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, a collection of editorial cartoons that Theodor Seuss Geisel drew for the New York daily PM in 1941 and ’42. I hadn’t known the creator of Green Eggs and Ham and Yertel the Turtle ever drew editorial cartoons. I also hadn’t known he drew Japanese-Americans as a fifth column serving the cause of Hirohito and Tojo.

The most extreme of these cartoons ran on February 13, 1942. In it, every Japanese-American on the west coast appears to have lined up outside the “Honorable 5th Column” dispensary to receive a box—or is it a brick?—of TNT. Each face sports the same sinister, idiotic grin. One of these grinning devils, perched on the roof of the dispensary, looks west to the homeland through a telescope. The caption: “Waiting for the Signal From Home . . . ”

(A few days later, coincidentally or not, the internment camp program was announced and the roundup began.)

Richard Minear, who edited the book and wrote the commentary, calls the above cartoon “scurrilous” and Geisel’s certainty that Japanese-Americans weren’t to be trusted his “one major blind spot.” How to account for such “kneejerk racism” from a man and a newspaper so “antiracist and progressive” as Geisel and PM both were? The wartime New York left had its blind spots, says Minear, and this was one of them.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, that particular blind spot would have been shared by a lot more than the New York left. In fact, the notion that there was something Geisel wasn’t seeing would have occurred to almost no one. His eyes were wide-open. While the U.S. still sat out the war he’d drawn cartoon after cartoon savaging the isolationists who wanted to keep it that way. On October 1, 1941, PM carried his drawing of a granny labeled “America First” reading a storybook to a couple of frightened children. The book is called “Adolf the Wolf” and the granny concludes, “. . . and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones . . . But those were Foreign Children and it really didn’t matter.”

Four days later his cartoon took the form of an advertisement for a revitalizing tonic: “I WAS WEAK AND RUN-DOWN. I had circles under my eyes. My tail drooped. I had a foul case of Appeasement. . . . THEN I LEARNED ABOUT ‘GUTS’ that amazing remedy For all Mankind’s Woes . . . “

When America went to war Geisel drew cartoon after cartoon demanding that black and Jewish laborers get a fair share of the jobs that were opening up. “Listen, maestro . . . ,” says Uncle Sam to “War Industry,” a cigar-puffing big shot in tails who’s sitting at a piano, “if you want to get real harmony, use the black keys as well as the white!” That cartoon ran in June 1942. That December Geisel drew Hitler cinching up the ribbon around a Christmas package labeled “RACE HATRED/My Annual Gift to Civilization.” Says Hitler to a little fellow labeled “U.S. Anti-Semite,” “Put your finger here, pal . . . “

Long before the U.S. entered the war, Hitler was Geisel’s preoccupation. Japan was the enemy from left field. He’d hardly thought about it. Japanese-Americans were a people he probably hadn’t thought about at all. 

Seuss left PM at the end of 1943 to join Frank Capra’s movie-making unit of the U.S. Army. In 1947 he visited Japan, and in 1954 he published Horton Hears a Who!, which seems to be generally interpreted as an apology. (It’s dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.”) One short bit of commentary observes that “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.”

Minear, a historian of wartime Japan, wasn’t as sure. Horton tells the story of a friendly elephant who protects a civilization of creatures so tiny they occupy a speck of dust. If Whoville is Japan, Horton must be the postwar occupying United States, Minear reasons, and he quotes the mayor of Whoville’s expression of gratitude:

“My friend,” came the voice, “you’re a very nice friend.
You’ve saved all us folks on this dust speck no end.
You’ve saved all our houses, our ceilings and floors.
You’ve saved all our churches and grocery stores.”

Minear then comments, “For an American in 1954 to write these lines—even in allegory—calls for willful amnesia.” For before Horton/America decided to save Whoville/Japan and make it safe for democracy, its bombers had pounded into rubble the country’s largest cities, killing more than half a million civilians.

When I first flipped through Dr. Seuss Goes to War the lesson I thought it was teaching was that even the best of us are products of their circumstances, and we have no business judging what others did then by what we know now. That may be true. But the larger lesson, I’ve come to think, is that we do judge, and will judge, and will be judged. No one gets a free pass. Almost 70 years after they were drawn, Geisel’s anti-Japanese caricatures made me wince. And if it’s easy enough to think about context and get past them, the racism of, say, Woodrow Wilson is another matter. It now matters more than ever, and it’s a big piece of his legacy.

It’s puzzling to watch men and women who want to be president damn immigrants and damn refugees, courting voters by indulging their fears. Do they think history will go easy on them because it’ll consider the circumstances? History is much better at assigning blame and shame than at forgiving. Time has its gracious moments, but it’s brutal.