Uncle Sam-I-Am: Dr. Seuss’s Private Snafu

With the 110th anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s birth, we are reminded of his enormous impact on children’s literature. Less remembered, however, was his time spent serving in the US Army’s Information and Education Division. During World War II, Theodor Seuss Geisel inspired thousands of soldiers and honed his storytelling skills. And, before there were cats wearing hats, turtles named Yertle, and Wockets in pockets, there was Private Snafu.

Private Snafu in Rumors (Local Identifier: 111-M-930)

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of young Americans flocked to join the war effort. While the support was generally welcomed, Army officials were faced with a problem. How could they turn masses of ordinary teenagers into trained soldiers?

One possibility was training films. Training films were used during World War I, but became even more popular during World War II. Career soldiers, however, found the films unhelpful, and young recruits found them boring. Desperate for a solution, the Army turned to Hollywood.

Under the supervision of Oscar-winning director Frank Capra – It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it with You (1938) – the Army commissioned a newsreel specifically for military personnel. The Army-Navy Screen Magazine (ANSM) was a biweekly production that featured a variety of short segments including propaganda, entertainment, and training films.

In order to keep soldiers’ attention, Capra recruited talented men such as Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and Private Snafu), Chuck Jones, and Theodor Geisel to create humorous, sometimes raunchy, cartoons. This team of creative minds partnered with Warner Brothers studios to create the character, Private Snafu. An example of a full length ANSM newsreel can be seen below, Private Snafu’s “The Home Front” can be seen at 11:23.

Local Identifier: 111- ANSM-15

Private Snafu was intended to relate to the non-career soldier. In most of the cartoons, Snafu (an acronym for Situation Normal All Fouled Up) learns a valuable lesson when he disobeys basic army protocol. For example, in the cartoon, “Censored” (111-M-1076), Snafu sends a letter to his girlfriend back home describing an upcoming attack on a Japanese island.  When Snafu’s girlfriend gets the letter, she talks to her mom, who continues to pass along the message. The information eventually gets back to the Japanese and the army’s operation is thwarted.  Snafu wakes up from this nightmare with the realization that he should be more careful about what he writes in his personal letters.

Some of the cartoons, such as “Going Home” (111-M-1085), clearly have Seussian influences. Others are more reminiscent of Chuck Jones and Warner Brothers. Bugs Bunny even makes a cameo in “Gas” and “Three Brothers.” While Geisel was more involved in some episodes than others, his overall influence on the cartoons was invaluable.

Censored (Local Identifier: 111-M-1076)

As you may realize, Snafu tends to be more provocative than a typical cartoon, especially by 1943 standards. Geisel and his team believed that scantily dressed women, mild foul language, and sexual innuendoes would help keep soldier’s attention. Because the Snafu series was only intended for Army personnel, producers could avoid traditional censorship.

Additionally, the cartoons often have negative depictions of the Japanese. While it is hard to condone the racist images from a modern perspective, the cartoons attempted to unite soldiers against a common enemy in order to instill basic army knowledge. While modern scholars can debate whether the ends justified the means, most accounts show that the Snafu cartoons were well-received at the time.

Going Home (Local Identifier: 111-M-1085)

Between 1943 and 1946, there were a total of 28 Snafu cartoons. They would be the last black and white cartoons produced by Warner Brothers Studios. During this time, Geisel also developed a life long friendship with Chuck Jones. Jones would later go on to produce the classic adaptation of Geisel’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

It is likely that Geisel’s experience with the Snafu cartoons influenced his career. Throughout these cartoons, Geisel began to use limited vocabulary and rhyme. Nine years later, he would write The Cat in the Hat using just 236 words. It is one of the best selling books of all time with over 11 million copies sold.

As we look back on the legacy of Dr. Seuss, we should not merely think of his whimsical rhymes and children’s books, but also on the men he influenced during his military career. He will certainly not be forgotten any time soon.

A playlist of more Private Snafu cartoons and Army-Navy Screen Magazines can be seen here.


2 thoughts on “Uncle Sam-I-Am: Dr. Seuss’s Private Snafu

    1. You can see Tarfu in our Private Snafu playlist. (That installment was not written by Geisel, though.) I’ve set the link so it will begin at the Snafu cartoon, but if you watch the entire Screen Magazine, there is also a really interesting story about planning for the post-war housing boom.

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