In 1984, Seuss released The Butter Battle Book, which his publicists promoted in after-school-special language as “probably the most important book Dr. Seuss has ever created.” It describes blue-suited Yooks who like to eat their bread with the “butter side up” and orange-suited Zooks who like the “butter side down.” Their differences spark a perilous arms race, as the Zooks and Yooks strive to build a series of ever-deadlier screwball weapons. By the story’s end, they’re marching into underground bunkers to protect themselves from the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, a clear reference to “Little Boy,” the code name for the Hiroshima bomb. Seuss called The Butter Battle Book “an echo of my days as a political cartoonist.” One of the main characters is a warmongering grandfather, an obvious stand-in for Ronald Reagan, the aging president who challenged the Soviet Union with a defense buildup. Reagan understood the Cold War as a grand struggle against the menace of Communism. Seuss saw only moral equivalence, as if the choice between freedom and totalitarianism amounted to no more than an eating preference.
Virtually alone among Seuss’s works for children, The Butter Battle Book finishes on a note of threatening uncertainty. The conclusion of The Lorax is more hopeful, but its full vision is nearly as dark and spiteful, quite different from the brightness and laughter that most parents and teachers associate with Seuss. “Every once in a while I get mad,” said Seuss in 1983. “The Lorax came out of my being angry.” So he channeled his rage into his work: “The ecology books I’d read were dull. . . . In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” A few years earlier, he had described his method more bluntly: “The Lorax book was intended to be propaganda.”