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Dr. Seuss’ arms race allegory (dailyfig.com)
104 points by mcone on Jan 22, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments

Some fun facts and thoughts:

- Seuss sought input on the book from his acquaintance, marine General Victor H. Krulak.

- Like The Lorax, the story is structured as a tale from an older generation to a modern one, where the younger character is a stand-in for the reader.

- As much as Seuss was against transparent moralizing, he delighted in obvious satire, and he wasn't afraid of being too on the nose. The Chief Yookeroo, the back-room boys with their slide rules and spectacles, the butter-up band. The "Your yookery" sign. The slavic-named antagonist VanItch.

- This book is interesting to compare with Seuss' editorial cartoons decades earlier, during WWII. At that time, he was producing unabashed anti-axis propaganda. During his lifetime, he had not just observed the kind of wartime fervor the Yooks subscribed to - he had been an active participant in it. http://libraries.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/

- Writing a funny and poignant children's book about nuclear war is a hell of a challenge. The Butter Battle Book is a masterpiece.

One thing I think many people fail to consider is that, contrary to perception, we have entered into one of the most peaceful eras in all of humanity, and nuclear weapons are likely largely responsible for that peace. It's easy to fail to see the peace amongst all the war, and the media anxious to report for weeks on end about any violent event of significant scale.

However, look at things in terms of scale. 9/11 was considered an atrocious and unprecedented event. 2,996 lives lost in a matter of hours. Look at something like World War 2. In World War 2 the total death toll was around 75 million with a world population of about 2.3 billion. That's 248 million lives lost scaled up to today's population. Think about that. That would be the equivalent of a 9/11 event happening every single day for 83,555 days. Or a 9/11 event every single day for 229 years.

That sort of loss of life is completely unimaginable. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of lives lost. The Mongol Invasions in the 13th century killed off 35 million people. The colonization of America resulted in deaths that are difficult to measure but it was also in the high tens of millions at the minimum.

But today even if we look at places we ignore, like Iraq, the high end of the death tolls there are around 1 million. And a big part of the reason for the dramatic decline in war is because of nukes. If not for nuclear weapons we would have long since had a World War 3 as Europe, China, and the US vied to determine whose ideology would become the world ideology. And it's extremely possible we could have seen the first war with a death toll in excess of a billion. Instead we live in an era when a few hundred people being killed in one act is something that shakes the entire western world for months.

Mutually assured destruction may be MAD, but it demonstrates quite clearly peace sustained by self interest alone is vastly more effective than any peace built on words and promises.

"Not as bad as WWII" isn't much of a standard for world peace.

If you total up casualties from the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia then you might be surprised at just how many violent deaths have transpired in the past decade. What's more, many of these conflicts have significantly outlived WWII in duration. Will the humpty dumpty of Syria ever be put together again? Probably not as long as it's the proxy battleground for regional powers.

What we might be seeing, rather than real peace, is a disparity of safety from violence. Some countries will be bomb-wrecked hellscapes for decades, while others fund those conflicts but don't think about them too much (except for when terrorists show up to burst our bubbles).

I don't think the world has ever seen a decade without any major armed conflict. Immediately after WWII we had the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, the first Indo-Pakistani war, war in French Indochina--and virtually all of those involved either major world powers or extremely populous countries.

There hasn't been a direct conflict between two major powers since the Korean War. Such a conflict would result in unprecedented levels of death and destruction even without nuclear weapons. With nuclear weapons, it becomes impossible. Sure, sometimes there are wars between tin-pot dictators and insurgents in pickup trucks, but there have always been those wars. What we don't have anymore are modern, industrialized nations killing millions of each other's citizens in an attempt to press their respective claims on Alsace-Lorraine.

And if anything, that's a sign of hope. If Alsace-Lorraine can move beyond decades of being a bomb-wrecked hellscape, perhaps Damascus or Aleppo or Kirkuk or Mogadishu can some day achieve the same peace. Just as (fingers crossed) Sarajevo has.

Again, I don't think you're considering the scale of loss there since these numbers are so huge. Let's look at it another way. We could kill literally every single person in Syria/Yemen/Libya/Iraq/Afghanistan/Somalia and it still wouldn't even be remotely comparable to the scale of loss of WW2. You'd be a shade over half way there. And like you mentioned this is something that's been going on for many years. All that death in WW2 was compressed into 6 years - most of it within 3.

When we look at the minuscule fraction of the real loss of life in the Mideast it's completely and absolutely negligible compared to the sort of wars we've had in the past. And that's largely due to the fact that modern nations no longer fight. If nations like China and the US were capable of fighting each other without mutually assured destruction, we would have. And that is a conflict that almost certainly would have drawn in the entire rest of the world to one side or the other and the death toll there would dwarf WW2 and anything else - at least until WW4.

Instead we're approaching the centennial of WW2 meaning we have had generations live, and mostly die, without ever experiencing the sort of death and destruction that used to be regularly wrought in war. And for this, we can thank nuclear weapons.

Ohh man, the memories around this book. Lets just say it was required reading for intel analysts at my base, and we found every way possible to reference it in our reports/briefings.

For example, the SA-6 was known as a "three sling jigger"

Once upon a time we escorted an Air Force convoy whose commander referred to the enemy as "butter-side-down people".


I wonder if they happened to come from Eielson AFB. (Not expecting you to know that, but it makes me smile knowing that it stuck)

I agree with the premise halfway in the article. My generation has not grown to fear the bombs as the previous generation did. When someone of my generation is behind the buttons, I wonder if somewhere in the back of their minds there isn't a part of them that says 'perhaps in this and this situation it'd be okay to press the big red button?'.

I think the horror that war/these weapons cause will slowly drift from collective memory in mainstream western society. The warnings of the previous generation will be an endorsement of the destructive power of these weapons, instead of a deterrent of their usage.

With nuclear war there isn't just one worst case scenario but two. On the one hand even a small scale nuclear exchange with modern thermonuclear weapons could be so incredibly devastating that it would set back human civilization substantially, disrupting the entire global economy and technological/industrial/agricultural infrastructure, perhaps even leading to a cascading collapse of civilization. On the other hand, it might not. In which case people might be encouraged to think (as was common during too much of the Cold War) that nuclear weapons could just be shuffled into the military toolkit, for occasional use in "ordinary" warfare.

I grew up in the '80s, and I well remember the omnipresent feeling of dread that I'm sure most people from that generation experienced on a regular basis. Everyone knew that global catastrophe was a moment away, that any moment of any day a missile could be launched and only minutes later nuclear annihilation would rain down. You can see that in the popular media at the time, of course, the Terminator movies being a particular example, but countless others expressing that feeling (some more direct than others). It's difficult to explain what that feeling and that deep-seated knowledge is like without having experienced it. At the end of the Cold War it felt like a great weight was lifted from the world. But since then, especially most recently, it's felt that that weight has been incrementally coming back.

> My generation has not grown to fear the bombs as the previous generation did.

Before Trump, I would've agreed with you. But "fortunately" he's bringing that fear to a whole new generation, now that-- for the first time in about two decades-- we're back in a situation where there's at least a single-digit annual probability of a nuclear exchange. Hooray?

The same thing can be said about war in general, not just nuclear war.

It's absurd to me that chemical and biological weapons are banned, but nuclear weapons are not.

There is an international campaign to ban nuclear weapons, and I hope more people learn about it. The organization won the nobel peace prize in 2017.

Many nations last year signed on to the ban. Let's encourage the rest to also sign it.


The 'rules of war' are written by those on top, and they tend to benefit them. Chemical/biological weapons are relatively easy to make for smaller nations, and their development can be disguised. Nuclear weapons are the opposite on both accounts. As an aside, this is a recurring theme throughout history. Chivalry, for instance, had a not coincidental effect of ensuring that knights were very rarely killed in most battles.

Look for what can't be done in warfare and it tends to have a direct link to strengthening (or sustaining) the established powers at the expense of 'lesser' forces.

Reminds me of the statement issued by the Shining Path in Peru (who once killed everyone in village with machetes/axes, down to a six month old infant). They believed that "human rights " were an instrument of oppression, designed to weaken the power of revolutionaries.

> "...Freedom, equality and fraternity were advanced bourgeois criteria in the past. But today, since the emergence of the proletariat and more like class organized in the Communist Party, with experiences of successful revolutions, construction of socialism new democracy and dictatorship of the proletariat, has historically proven that "human rights" serve the oppressing classes and operators who run the imperialist states and landlord-bureaucratic bourgeois states in general..."

> Chivalry, for instance, had a not coincidental effect of ensuring that knights were very rarely killed in most battles.

Which is the goal of any 'rules of combat' - to formalize the process in a way which reduces the actual damage done (or at least, the damage done to those writing the rules).

It's no different to the way cats will hiss and growl and spit at each other but will usually try and avoid actually fighting. Both sides have too much to lose unless a fight is really necessary.

It had nothing to do with reducing the actual damage done. Disemboweling an unarmed and yielding infantryman was considered perfectly chivalrous. Chivalric warfare only applied to the self preservation of those in power at the time, which would be the knights and other ruling class individuals.

Reducing the damage done to people who matter, i.e. knights...

Chemical weapons were used during the Syrian civil war. Just because something is banned doesn't mean someone won't use it.

I of course agree. But this isn't a serious argument against banning them.

With a ban, there are legal routes that people can take to sue their governments to enforce the law.

Unless you mean to imply the ban will be completely ineffective. I think that would be absurd thing to argue, as there are an uncountable number of instances where laws have been effective.

When it comes to Nuclear weapons we do see a ban, but only on new countries gaining them. This international ban has been effective when it came to Iran, but ineffective when it came to North Korea.

Please refer to the link I posted. It's an actual international ban for all nations that sign it. Not the NNPT.

Nuclear weapons are not banned because they are the deterrent. Ban on Chemical and biological weapons only works because no one wants to get nuked in response.

> Ban on Chemical and biological weapons only work because no one wants to get nuked in response

Chemical and biological weapons are uniquely messy and de-stabilising. Messy because it is difficult to limit the damage to targeted enemy combatants. (In World War I, the British mistakenly gassed themselves [1].) De-stabilising because once built, they are easy for unskilled actors to clandestinely transport and deploy.

[1] https://www.webharvest.gov/peth04/20041017045619/http://www....

It is the same with Nuclear weapons. You can't control where the radiation is going to go. But again enforcement of the ban is only possible due to Nuclear weapons. A case in point is almost every first world country has stock piles of the stuff in case of a rainy day.

> It is the same with Nuclear weapons

No, it’s not. Many weapons are messy. Many weapons are de-stabilising. Few are both. HEU is difficult to enrich, difficult to transport undetected and difficult to arrange into a working bomb.

> Messy because it is difficult to limit the damage to targeted enemy combatants.

Unfortunately, this may not be true for much longer. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKQDSgBHPfY for a scare.

Nuclear weapons are even messier - fallout does not respect national borders. They are, arguably, harder for unauthorized persons to clandestinely transport and deploy, but not necessarily in terms of damage/effort.

Stealing poison gas shells from a WW1 army's stockpile, and setting them off in a city will kill hundreds of people.

So will stealing regular explosive shells, and setting them off. For some reason, though, nobody's eager to outlaw bombs.

> So will stealing regular explosive shells, and setting them off. For some reason, though, nobody's eager to outlaw bombs.

what's the difference between a bomb, and a big pile of demolition explosives?

There isn't one, and no treaty will stop some jerk from cooking up a batch of bathtub C4, and then taking it to a movie theater.

My point is that claiming that arms limitation treaties counter the 'destabilizing' aspect of stolen/unauthorized use of chemical weapons is... Not true.

Nuclear weapons have not been banned in the past because the nuclear states hold veto power in the Security Council .... a result it's taken a long time to create a real ban

The Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in '68, the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty only hit the General Assembly last year passed 122 to 1 (with the nuclear states and their cronies abstaining) and is still awaiting ratification

Of course those bans are just words on paper if actual fighting breaks out. Unless they are actually enforced somehow they don't mean anything.

It makes an absurdist kind of sense if you consider that chemical and biological weapons have limited usefulness on the battlefield, and are difficult to use as weapons of mass destruction. This in contrast with an H-bomb, which will reliably destroy a whole city in an instant. Nukes are the weapons that could actually end the world as we know it, and kill hundreds of millions of humans, if not billions, if they were unleashed. Even VX can't come close to that.

I've seen this come up a few times and let me explain why this is not a good idea. Excluding MAD theory, if you're the United States, or the UK, or France, or whomever - your nuclear weapons are the great equalizer and keep you safe. Other countries have a lot more people than you and will catch up or surpass you technologically and can invade you. Nuclear weapons immediately stop that.

Let's say China (and I'm not a fan of the idiotic relations between the US and China and the foolishness on both sides) decides that Japan just has to go. What stops them? You could say the United States, sure, but what really stops them? It's not the US Army, or the Marines - the air force and navy certainly play a part in "hey we'll come try and blow your stuff up" but what really stops them is that, no matter how much manpower they have, no matter how many airplanes or tanks they build, or how many rockets or missiles they can construct, a nuclear weapons makes all of that pretty much useless. It allows countries with smaller populations to posses weapons such that big countries can't go stomping around and hurting them. Is North Korea really scared of the United States military coming from all the way across the ocean to help South Korea? Or are they scared that the United States will drop nuclear bombs on the country?

People forget how easily countries can slip into war, even between great powers. If you live in the UK or something - you better hang on to your nuclear weapons for dear life. It sounds fun and all good to have everybody disarm, until some big country decides to come after you and you're hoping other people want to help you out.

I think the fact that we only dropped two nukes in anger is absolutely shocking; it's an affirmation of human goodness and rationality. It goes against everything else I think I know of humanity, especially against the previous history of the 20th century, against everything I know of human nature.

I mean, I'm not saying it's good we still have nukes pointed at oneanother, but we're still alive, and that's the best historical evidence I've found that humans aren't completely self-destructive.

> I think the fact that we only dropped two nukes in anger is absolutely shocking

The United States of America was the world's sole nuclear superpower between July 16th, 1946 [1] and August 29th, 1949 [2]. Towards the end of that nuclear monopoly we had the means to vaporize the competition with minimal risk of retaliation. That we did not is the greatest testament I can think of to the natural temperance of our democratic institutions, ruddy and war-mongering as they can sometimes be.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_atomic_bomb_project

I love his analogy to a tightrope walker. Sure a tightrope walker can walk a rope for a very long time without falling off, but if the rope is infinitely long, he'll fall off eventually. Same with nuclear weapons. We've had 70 ish good years where no one fell off the rope. But we have an infinite number of years to go. Someone will fall off eventually. The better question is, will it happen in your lifetime?

Arguably, we didn't drop the two nukes "in anger", and that the decision saved lives. (We also warned them ahead of time that we would drop it too...)

In this context, "in anger" is a phrase that means "in combat". I've fired a gun, but never in anger. That would be still be true if I was angry while at the shooting range.

> it's an affirmation of human goodness and rationality

It's probably more of an affirmation that humans behave better when accountable for their actions. Two nukes were dropped when the enemy of the bomber had no way to retaliate in kind, and no more have been dropped since that stopped being true.

My argument is that even this is a huge step forward.

All historical evidence before this was that state actors could not be restrained by the mere threat of overwhelming force; before this, it seemed that nation state, even the big advanced ones needed to 'give it a shot' and be restrained by the reality of devastation, even when it was pretty obvious from the outset that they were biting off more than they could chew (c.f. the Schleffen plan in World War One, Japan's attack on America in World War Two.)

Post world-war two? it seems humanity, or at least the big advanced nations, can be restrained by credible threats of devastation, which is a huge step forward over requiring actual devastation.

US was the only nuclear power for several years though.

About four years from Hiroshima/Nagasaki to the USSR's first successful test. Soviets had the bomb before the Korean War.

True. (Though the USSR's first successful air drop wasn't until Oct 1951, well into the Korea War.)

Soviet nukes were not why the U.S. held back in Korea. It was the unpleasant prospect of a war with China (albeit a non-nuclear China).


And it didn't use them in Vietnam because it was thought to require so many (dozens/hundreds) as to be the antithesis of reunification.


In short, the US avoided nukes for decades in the hope of peace, not because there were any nukes sighted on D.C. (MAD).

It's certainly better than the alternative, but some folks, who foresaw the coming cold war and the arms race, and the chance for complete annihilation, argued pretty hard for preemptively attacking while the US had a nuclear monopoly. That could have gone quite badly. After the end of the monopoly, the game theory around the world almost led to catastrophe more than once...

This time period also coincided with a huge amount of war weariness. WW2 was long and horrible.

That is the terrifying way of looking at it... what if we only exercised such restraint because our parents and grandparents lived the horrible experience of a major power war? What if the next generation in power doesn't have that same experience and restraint?

> it's an affirmation of human goodness and rationality.

only if it lasts. I agree and like to think the same way but the past 85~ years are not proof yet as we could still be proved oh-so-very wrong.

Wait, is this book not well known? My kid dressed up as one of the lab guys for his "literacy day" character (since we can't just have Halloween costumes...).

I was surprised to learn that the book had been banned in some libraries, although in hindsight, perhaps I shouldn't have been. It would explain why I didn't know about the book until sometime in my late 20s.

Reading it, it was immediately apparent to me that it was a cold war allegory, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I didn't recall Dr. Seuss books having much in the way of sociopolitical commentary, and I still don't, outside stories like Yertle the Turtle or The Lorax. If the politics apparent in Yertle the Turtle went over my head as a child, it's possible that other allegories went over my head as well. I should go back and read those books again.

I happened to read this to my 4 year olds a few weeks ago after finding it at my Mother-in-law's house. I can tell you that at least for 4 year olds, it's just a book about buttered bread.

My son asked for butter side down bread at lunch and my daughter asked for butter side up.

Indeed. To the degree that Dr Seuss' books had a sociopolitical moral, whether or not I picked up on it depended how old I was when I (re)read it and what i was aware of in the world at the time. I picked up on the environmental message in the Lorax the first time through. But then again, "Save the envrionment, kids!" was very much a part of the zeitgeist from the late 80s into the mid-late 90s. The anti-discrimination message of the Sneetches on Beaches didn't hit me until I was old enough to realize that having different skin color was an intrinsic thing that people cared about only if they wanted to be meanies, and not simply people who'd gotten more sun tanning time than me.

The idea, I think, is that introducing the concept of tragic arms races between people who are enemies for silly reasons is enough for that child to grow up, read about the cold war, and immediately recognize it for what it was.

Yup. Back in kindergarten it was just another Dr. Seuss book. Reread it in high school and the allegory was obvious.

My son asked for butter side down bread at lunch and my daughter asked for butter side up.

Best comment in this entire thread - brought a terrified smile to my face!

I don't know, even as a kid, I remember the allegories being pretty obvious in The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who. The stories generally weren't that subtle in their morals, so this story doesn't seem atypical for Seuss.

Also You're Only Old Once, perhaps?

And then there's the Seuss WWII political cartoons that I've seen recently due to their criticism of the America First movement of the time... which is interesting to juxtapose against the brazenly racist depictions of Japanese people that Seuss also did during that era.

That’s an important lesson to remember: allies here may be quite opposed over there. And, even to a racist New Englander, a Nazi thug is both detectable and disgusting.

Growing up in the 80s this was a book I read many times before going to bed. I can't remember if I got the nuclear weapon analogy or not, but it is still a good allegory about the folly of arms races.

Other obviously moralistic works by him:

* Thidwick the big hearted moose

* Anything with Horton

* How the Grinch stole Christmas

I think this book elucidates something that I miss in most popular discussions, which is fragility. As the two sides escalate, the entire system becomes more fragile.

E.g., the dude at the beginning uses a slingshot which has the consequence of breaking one other dude's stick. Not so fragile. But by the end neither dude can use their weapon at all without destroying everything on both sides of the fence. And the capabilities to use the weapon is put directly in the hands of the two dudes and no one else. Extremely fragile.

Is this a studied phenomenon? For example, does the auto industry measure fragility wrt putting networked self-driving cars on the highway?

I'm amazed that given the depth of Dr Seuss's work its stuff like Cat in the Hat that is the most exposed. Ever since I went through his work to read to a small child I know i've been amazed at how useful and framed in reality the less known stories are (e.g. Sneeches at Beaches, Yrtle the Turtle).

The "Voom" in the Cat in The Hat Comes Back is thought to be a metaphor for the bomb.

Not only was the Voom the "sub-atomic" power in the littlest cat's hat, it's eventual purpose was to cleanse the Red (pink) from the snow. The book was published in 1958, the cold war between the US and USSR was ramping up with over 100 combined nuclear tests in 1957 alone. Geisel was a vocal proponent of the US in WWII and eventually served in the US Army (as an animator).

Well I guess when I get done with Dostoevsky, I should loop back around to my 1st grade reading material.

By whom? To me, it was always a fun noise to say as loud and dramatically as possible, so to annoy my younger sister when I read the story to her. I'd always read it as a silly bit of deus ex machina employed to end the story, as we'd run out of letters in the alphabet.

Metaphor for a bomb? Maybe. But I doubt Dr. Seuss was trying to put forward the lesson to children that when you're out of ideas, the thing to do is blow it all up. I honestly think he was being silly for the sake of whimsy and amusement.

By me? As far as I know it's the most powerful object in any Seuss book and it derives that power from something so small it's invisible.

It's where my thoughts immediately went on first reading.

We read this to our kids from early on, they understand - there are even more lesser known Seuss books ...

His 'adult' "The 7 Lady Godivas' with, shock! nudity ....


And my favourite - 'The Kings Stilts':


It was also turned into an animated short, directed by Ralph Bakshi[0]:



I wonder if he changed his mind after the war. During the war, he drew a lot of anti-Japanese and anti-German propaganda.

What I find amazing is how that it was so hard for people to just say no to nuclear weapons. So we have literature that aludes to the topic rather than speak about things directly. It is cowardly to write some allegorical tale about how wicked the rulers are, setting everything in a fanciful animal kingdom. Authors should write up rather than down for children, most ten year olds may not have adult reading ability but plenty do. They can be told the truth about the world.

If I am given the choice between 'A world with nuclear weapons' and 'A world without nuclear weapons', I would choose the latter every time.

However, no person or nation is ever given THAT choice. The choice is always between 'A lot of countries have nuclear weapons, and yours does, too' and 'A lot of countries have nuclear weapons, but not yours'.

Given that choice, I would probably pick the former. It doesn't make you immoral to not want to be the country without nuclear weapons when others have them.

You can't put the cat back in the bag again.

Geopolitically making your own nukes is a huge win for a country. Sure every other country is angry with you and may even impose sanctions, but chances are you are already under sanctions anyway and now their rage is mostly impotent because you have the bomb.

You can have a big agreement for everybody to dismantle their weapons and live in peace, but it only takes one cheater to run it for everybody and it's very very difficult to verify that they are complying and/or don't have a secret facility hidden somewhere to make new ones.

Ten year olds is outside the range for this book, the recommended ages are 5 to 9.

Also, allegories have nothing to do with "talking down". There's plenty of artwork for adults with allegories. Plato wasn't writing for toddlers.

Please remember the Nobel peace prize is apocryphally attributed to having been formed because of the horrific invention of dynamite. So far every tool starts out being used violently, and the power of tools increase.

Rather than? Surely we have lots of direct literature. And, since this is so important, a portfolio addressing the issue in many ways.

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