Well before the Grinch Stole Christmas or the Cat in the Hat Came Back, Dr. Seuss gave voice to Private Snafu, a cartoon character decidedly not for children.
Snafu was a horny, stupid, sloppy big mouth who did everything wrong. That was the point. Private Snafu starred in propaganda cartoons for the U.S. Army during World War II. By constantly messing up, he taught lessons about why it’s important to do things right – or at least, to do them the Army way.
Dr. Seuss – Springfield, Mass’s own Theodor Geisel – wrote many of the 23 cartoons ultimately shown to soldiers between June 1943 and 1946. Because some of his audience was only semi-literate, Dr. Seuss used simple, easy-to-remember rhyme for his characters. He later used the same technique in his books for children.
Snafu, the narrator explains, stands for “Situation Normal…All Fouled Up.” But he pauses before the word “fouled,” to hint at the F-word usually used.
The cartoons were risqué, with bathroom humor, bosomy women, mild cursing and racial stereotypes of the enemy that would horrify people today.
Private Snafu was described as “a patriotic, conscientious guy who thinks the army’s swell.” But he gets himself into hot water by disobeying orders. In the process, Private Snafu shows how to handle a rifle, manage personal hygiene, avoid malaria, put on a gas mask – and why it’s important.
He has a good angel on his shoulder, though, or rather a cigar-smoking, unshaven Technical Fairy First Class, who persuades Private Snafu to do the right thing
In one episode, Snafu complains about peeling potatoes on KP. The Technical Fairy, in a dream, shows him what would happen if Snafu ran the Army. The soldiers would all get booze and women, but their enjoyment would end when the Luftwaffe catches them unprepared.
“The moral, Snafu, is the harder you work, /The sooner we’re gonna beat Hitler, that jerk,” the Technical Fairy tells him in pure Seussian.
The cartoons came about after Warner Brothers Cartoons won the bid for the contract from the U.S. Army. Frank Capra, who directed It’s a Wonderful Life, dreamed up Private Snafu. Dr. Seuss was joined by such giants of animation as Chuck Jones, Mel Blanc and Bugs Bunny creator Fritz Freleng.
Bugs Bunny, in fact, makes cameo appearances in two of the shorts. Daffy Duck appears as well.
In one cartoon, Private Snafu starts a rumor and ends up in a padded cell, driven insane when it multiplies into word that the Allies lost the war.
“The hot air is blowing, a rumor is growing,” says the narrator in more Seussian.
Several of the Private Snafu shorts deal with leaking classified information. In Spies, he lets slip that he’s taking a transport ship to Africa. Axis spies find out, the information lands on Hitler’s desk and U-boats end up killing Private Snafu. He finds himself in hell and asks the devil who let the secret out. The devil puts a mirror in front of him and he sees a horse’s behind.
In one of the last cartoons, however, Dr. Seuss may have let his imagination get a little too close to the truth. In Going Home, Private Snafu lets slip that the United States plans to drop an imaginary secret weapon onto Japan. At the same time, scientists were working on the real atom bomb. Going Home was never released, with no explanation. Was it because the writer who warned against leaking classified information had inadvertently released classified information?
Dr. Seuss would later collaborate with Chuck Jones on the ever-popular television special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
This story was updated in 2022.