Did you ever wonder where Donald Trump got the idea for his “big, beautiful wall?” Was he thinking of the Berlin Wall? The Korean demilitarized zone? Exactly what kind of wall does he have in mind? Maybe it’s like the one Dr. Seuss describes in his Butter Battle Book, published on January 12, 1984. The book is an anti-war story, a parable about arms races, mutually assured destruction, and nuclear weapons.
Theodore Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, took on the Cold War in several of his books, starting with Horton Hears A Who in 1954. So this wasn’t the first time he had written about the Cold War. But it was the first time he had written about a wall.
The narrator of Butter Battle introduces the wall in the book’s first two lines:
“On the last day of summer,” he says, “ten hours before fall . . . . . . my grandfather took me out to the wall.”
Maybe Seuss was thinking about the Iron Curtain or the Iron Fence as it was sometimes called, because we learn very quickly that the wall he writes about was meant to separate the Yooks and the Zooks, just as the Iron Curtain was meant to separate communist and non-communist Europe. Physically, the Iron Curtain took the form of border defenses between the countries of Europe in the middle of the continent. The most notable border was marked by the Berlin Wall and its Checkpoint Charlie which served as a symbol of the Iron Curtain as a whole.
The Berlin Wall (1987)
You remember the Berlin Wall, right? That wall was built to separate East and West Berlin, and it was the site of several historical events in the late Cold War, involving two very different men, David Bowie and Ronald Reagan.
David Bowie’s Concert
In June 1987, David Bowie returned to the divided city of Berlin for a concert that some Germans, rightly or wrongly, view as having changed history. Bowie had lived in West Berlin for three years in the 1970s and had recorded three albums there.
In 1977, the year Bowie recorded Heroes, the second of his three Berlin albums, East German border guards shot and killed 18-year-old Dietmar Schwietzer as he tried to flee west across the wall. A few months later, 22-year-old Henri Wiese drowned trying to cross the Spree River. Heroes was, thus, haunted by the Cold War themes of fear and isolation that hung over the city.
When, in 1987, Bowie returned for the Concert for Berlin, he chose Heroes for his performance. The concert was near enough to the border for many East Berliners to crowd along the wall to listen to the forbidden music, and the show was broadcast in its entirety by a US run radio station in the American Sector as well.
“We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.”
You can watch Bowie’s performance below.
A week after Bowie’s performance at the Concert for Berlin, the American president, Ronald Reagan, visited West Berlin. Standing in front of the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate, Reagan called on Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” You can watch the speech in its entirety below. (Courtesy of the Reagan Foundation.)
The Berlin Wall came down just two years after these 1987 events. I leave it up to you to decide what role Bowie and Reagan played in its fall. But for now, let’s get back to Seuss since his wall is all about separating too.
The Yooks and the Zooks
According to the Butter Battle Book, the people who need to be kept apart are the Yooks and the Zooks who have two very different approaches to buttering their bread. Grandfather Yook makes this very clear in a warning to his grandson, the narrator — and chief player — in the book:
“It’s high time that you knew of the terribly horrible things that the Zooks do. In every Zook house and in every Zook town, Every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!”
Even worse, grandfather goes on to opine:
“But we Yooks, as you know, when we breakfast or sup, spread our bread with the butter side up. That’s the right way, honest way!”
Grandpa gritted his teeth. “So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath!”
Now this is obviously a tremendously important problem for the Yooks, but they know just what to do. Patrol the border of course, like the Allies and Communists both did at Iron Curtain checkpoints. Perhaps the most well-known was the Allies’ Checkpoint Charlie which monitored the Berlin Wall. In the case of the Yooks, this means “watching Zooks for the Zook-Border-Patrol.”
Of course, any of you who grew up in the Cold War can certainly argue that you don’t need a physical wall to patrol your borders. I remember monitoring the skies as part of the Civil Air Patrol with my babysitter, Rosie, who marched me to a tower in the local Methodist Church every Wednesday night. She took notes while I watched for planes through my powerful binoculars, noting their direction, the number of engines, and their markings. Remember the silly song “up in the air junior birdsmen.” It was like that.
At any rate, it was clear to the Yooks that “every Zook must be watched,” and kept away from the righteous and innocent citizens of their homeland so, in addition to the wall, they bolstered their security with the Zook-Watching Border Patrol.
The border patrol was necessary because the wall itself started out as a little thing, not so high. And the Yooks actually had a Snick-Berry Switch, designed to serve as an additional deterrent, a weapon hefty enough to keep the Zooks away. This tactic worked fine until, one day
“a very rude Zook by the name of VanItch snuck up, slingshotting our hero’s Snick-Berry Switch.”
The whole episode reminds me of Truman and the A bomb.
Truman and the A-Bomb
As you might remember, the first A-bomb — code named Trinity — was tested at Alamogordo (New Mexico) on July 16, 1945. On his way home from Potsdam less than a month later, President Harry Truman received news that the atomic bomb had obliterated Hiroshima (Japan). Thinking he now had the upper hand, Truman’s opinion was that he could figure out how to use the bomb to gain concessions from the Soviet Union. But he was never able to do this. Instead, Stalin immediately pushed forward the Soviet effort to acquire atomic weaponry. As would soon happen with the Yooks and the Zooks, the arms race was on.
“We’ll give you a fancier slingshop to shoot!,” says the Chief Yookeroo.
“My Boys in the Back Room have already begun to think up a walloping whiz-zinger one! My bright boys are thinking, They’re on the right track. They’ll think one up quick and we’ll send you right back.”
Interestingly, all of this talk about thinking, spurred some thoughts of my own. So I found an excerpt of President “Ike’s” Farewell Speech on YouTube. Beware the military industrial complex he said. Watch part of his speech below.
Just like the United States in the late 1950s, the Yooks thought that what they needed was an armaments industry of vast proportions. Consequently, the Boys in the Back Room were given additional resources which they used to come up with a gun called the Kick-a-Poo Kid, loading it with powerful Poo-a-Doo Powder. The Yooks also increased their troop strength, adding a new kind of specialist, “a really smart dog named Daniel to serve as [the] country’s first gun-toting spaniel.”
Bolstered by Daniel, our fearless young Yook marches toward the wall, thinking that he now has the upper hand. But imagine! VanItch is there waiting, ready to retaliate with an
“Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz that shoots high explosive cherry pits, scaring the Yook troops out of their “witz.”
Demoralized, our wanna be hero and Daniel limp home, embarrassed by their defeat.
Instead of ‘our young Yookeroo’s’’ expected demotion, however, the Chief announces:
“You’ve been promoted! The Big War is coming and you’re going to begin it.”
So I’m confused. Is our young Yook expendable? Beginning a war, nuclear or otherwise, seems like a dangerous endeavor to me. Or does “little Yook” have talents that we’re still unaware of?
At any rate, our “little man” is now given a new weapon, a thing called the Utterly Sputter:
“so modern, so frightfully new, no one knew quite exactly just what it would do!”
“. . . it had several faucets that sprinkled Blue Goo which, somehow would sprinkle the Zooks as I flew and gum-up that upside-down butter they chew.”
Seems like this new flying machine was the latest in the Chief’s long progression of ‘boy’s toys’, and it hadn’t even been tested. There was an obvious problem. Just like Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, when sprinkling Zooks with Blue Goo, our Yook ended up sprinkling himself as well.
You may remember that Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide used by the US military from 1962 to 1975. Millions of gallons were sprayed on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War, exposing American troops in the process. The US government has documented higher cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and various kinds of cancer in exposed veterans. The herbicide also caused enormous environmental damage in Vietnam. So whether it’s Agent Orange or Blue Goo, you don’t want to mess around.
What was the Chief thinking? Was he intent on beginning a nuclear war, or was he just thinking of outsmarting the Zooks like the Allies thwarted the Communist blockade of West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift? In any event, whatever happened to peaceful coexistence through mutual deterrence? Not in the equation, I guess, because the Chief seemed determined. When the Utterly Sputter failed, he said:
“Everything is all right. My Bright Back Room Boys have been brighter than bright. They’ve thought up a gadget that’s Newer than New. It is filled with mysterious Moo-Lack-Moo and can blow all those Zooks clear to Sala-ma-goo. THEY’VE INVENTED THE BITSY BIG-BOY BOOMEROO!”
“You just run to the wall like a nice little man. Drop this bomb on the Zooks just as fast as you can. I have ordered all Yooks to stay safe underground while the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo is around.”
Duck and Cover
Remember Duck and Cover? Our young Yookeroo had no such protection. Was he dispensable? Luckily, for him, Grandfather Yook didn’t think so. He said:
“You should be down that hole! And you’re up here instead. . . .”
“Grandpa!” our hero shouted, as “VanItch klupped up,” his very own Big-Boy-Boomeroo in his fist.
“Be careful! Oh, gee! Who’s going to drop it? Will you or will he?
“Be patient,” said Grandpa. “We’ll see. We will see.”
Ok. Now we’re into brinkmanship. It’s a stalemate. Or is it? Parity anyone?
Unfortunately, Seuss leaves us hanging.
Is there a winner and a loser here?
What happens to the wall? Does it eventually fall?
Maybe Dr. Seuss doesn’t actually have an end in sight. After all, the climax of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall were unforeseeable when he finished this book. But he could have taken a hint from the old nursery rhyme. Remember Humpty Dumpty?
PostScript: Think this arms race stuff doesn’t matter anymore? Well, you’re wrong. A recent New York Times article noted that as we begin 2018 a new kind of arms race is underway. According to the Times, “this one is based less on numbers of weapons and more on novel tactics and technologies meant to outwit and outmaneuver the other side.” Read the article titled “To Counter Russia, U.S. Signals Nuclear Arms Are Back in a Big Way.” Just click here.
Be sure to check out our post on another Dr. Seuss book, THE LORAX. Access it here.
Featured photograph by Martin Pettitt (Flickr)
[Do you want more background on Heroes? Read all about it here. ]