Dr. Seuss and the Four Freedoms

One of the goals of the education team at Four Freedoms Park is to help students investigate the Roosevelt-era, the years leading up to World War II, and the meaning of Roosevelt's four freedoms then (1941) and now. Our educators aim to help students draw connections between the themes of this era and their own experiences. 

This is no easy feat. What, after all, do eighth graders have in common with Americans living through the Depression or World War II? Through art-making workshops, guided tours, and immersive in-school residencies, our education department has developed innovative and creative ways to tackle this subject matter. 

Below, Four Freedoms Park Educator Emily Davidson explains how Dr. Seuss (yes, Green Eggs and Ham Dr. Seuss) has become a tool to investigate the politics leading up to World War II, the four freedoms, and the legacy of FDR. 

We take our students to the Room, the very tip of Four Freedoms Park, across the river from the United Nations, and ask them to closely look, deeply analyze, and read between the lines of the speech engraved in granite. Who was Roosevelt speaking to when he introduced the Four Freedoms? What was the purpose of his address? Why were the Four Freedoms so important in 1941--and, how do they remain relevant today, during our lifetime?

By answering these questions, students can start to build crucial capacities in Social Studies: they identify cause and effect, understand how concepts change over time, and sequence national and global events on a timeline. Through this line of inquiry, we strive to help our U.S. history students become engaged, informed, and active citizens; students, who, 70 years after FDR’s momentous speech, may help to realize his vision.

But with this task, we need help. We employ primary sources including letters, songs, artworks, and poems from FDR’s era, with the purpose of bringing citizen voices and visions to a comprehensive discussion about the Four Freedoms. One of the tools we use are the political cartoons of Dr. Seuss, author of children’s classics like Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, who deftly and humorously gives our students critical insight into the politics of 1941.

As a cartoonist with PM, a New York left-wing, daily newspaper, Dr. Seuss brought humor and satire to animate a range of domestic and international issues. Drawing his familiar brand of silly characters paired with catchy messages, he published over 400 comics between 1941 and 1943.

Today, the cartoons tell a nearly diaristic story of the Four Freedoms--from Pearl Harbor to war industry to victory efforts on the homefront. In them, Seuss personifies the mood and feelings of a conflicted country--anxious to enter another World War, but obligated to help those countries under fascist rule. Our students respond to his timeless sensibility, his ability to tell the truth while pulling no punches, and to the variety of engaging and controversial strategies he employs...

Dr. Seuss gives us drama. 

Published just one day after Pearl Harbor, Dr. Seuss personifies the surprise attack--just as the Japanese literally blasted our spirit of American Isolationism out of the water.

Dr. Seuss makes Uncle Sam a bird.

Sometimes, with the strength of an eagle, and at other moments, burying his head in the sand like an ostrich. Despite their knowledge of vocabulary words (appeasement) or political figures (Lindburgh,) our students compare and contrast these cartoons to understand that history remains complicated--built from diverse perspectives on controversial events.


Dr. Seuss portrays hatred like a disease. 

Our students recognize this powerful metaphor and its implications today, as though Fascist Fever of ‘41 has evolved to a case of Isis-itis in 2015. A picture like this can illuminate elaborate global conflict maps or dense history book texts--its evocative and accessible to different kinds of learners.

Dr. Seuss calls for consensus.

Seuss recognizes the absurdity and dark humor in American politics, and continually called for leaders and citizens to act from a place of higher morality. He extended such morality to Black Americans -- championing their rights to work and receive equal opportunity in the war industry.

Students apply this deeply urgent sense of ethics to their own lives: recognizing how a global issue is similar or related to their personal experience at school or in their community.

Throughout Seuss’s work, from his PM political cartoons to his well-loved primary school rhymes, Seuss reminds us, in the words of Horton the elephant “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” ……

All photos  courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UC San Diego.