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Dr. Seuss, nuclear war, deterrence

Dr. Seuss Has One More Lesson

A No First Use policy is the only way to prevent a nuclear war.

Words: Tristan Guyette and Hannah Martin
Pictures: Joshua Coleman

Did “Green Eggs and Ham” teach you to try new things? Did “The Cat in the Hat” show you the power of imagination? Did “The Lorax” open your eyes to the dangers of deforestation? Did “Horton Hears A Who” tell you every person deserves respect and kindness? 

Dr. Seuss’ books taught us how to read with countless morality lessons hidden inside them. So what if we told you the same author tried to reveal the dangers of nuclear weapons? During the Cold War, Dr. Seuss released “The Butter Battle Book” and in 1989 it was turned into an animation. The book, harshly criticized and even censored, was ultimately left behind. Nonetheless, the allegory is chilling. 

Allow me to tell you what happens: Dr. Seuss introduces us to two similar-looking nations of Yooks and Zooks. The only visual difference is the colors of their clothes. However, an ideology separates them; the Yooks always butter their bread butter-side up and the Zooks always butter their bread butter-side down. You immediately think one is wrong. I’d say butter side up is normal, but does it matter? 

Apparently, it does. A wall rises between the Yooks and Zooks. In the beginning, the wall is patrolled by Grandfather Yook with a pokey stick. With the pullback of the Zook VanItch’s slingshot, an arms race begins. Quickly both sides are producing bigger and better weapons to bring to the wall. This is until a Big-Boy Boomeroo is created. You might think that’s a silly name, but it’s not so far from US nuclear bombs dropped on Japan: Fat Man and Little Boy. These Big-Boy Boomeroos can blow up the entire nation on the other side of the wall. Grandfather Yook, armed with the bomb, makes his way to drop it and his grandson tags along. All the other Yooks and Zooks go underground in preparation for the fall. 

Grandfather Yook and the Zook VanItch meet each other on the wall. VanItch also has a Big Boy Boomeroo. It’s a standoff. Dr. Seuss tell us the story from the grandson’s perspective. 

He yells, “‘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…’”

Dr. Seuss ends the story there. Published in 1984, the book drew clear parallels to the Cold War, from the Berlin wall to the arms race. Dr. Seuss leaves us with two enemies, both ready to drop the ultimate weapon in a stalemate over literally their bread and butter, or one could argue, resources and their allocation. For 36 years, Grandfather Yook and VanItch have been standing on that wall at the end of the arms race with a seemingly unsolvable problem: De-escalation. 

We aren’t familiar with this type of Dr. Seuss, himself a veteran of World War II. There is no solution offered and no pretty bow to tell us what to do. How do we get the Zooks and Yooks to put away their Big-Boy Boomeroos and step down from the wall? I don’t know if Dr. Seuss knew. He offered this story for new minds to take up this problem. How will we get the Zook and the Yook to pull back their bombs from being ready to drop at any second? 

Dr. Seuss’ books taught us how to read with countless morality lessons hidden inside them. So what if we told you the same author tried to reveal the dangers of nuclear weapons?

New minds have come up with steps forward. Only a few years after publication, the US and Russia entered into the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, limiting the number and range of boomeroos the US and Russia would maintain. Similar treaties have come and gone, and the US left the INF in 2018. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the latest iteration of decades of US–Russian strategic arms reduction treaties, has been extended the maximum of five years by both governments, and will remain in effect until 2026. The likelihood of another treaty is unclear, though National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the extension of the New START is “the beginning of the story on what is going to have to be serious, sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats that fall outside of the New START agreement, as well as other emerging security challenges.” 

The threat of nuclear war continues to grow, as the US builds up its own nuclear arsenal with a 2022 defense budget that looks suspiciously similar to the Trump administration’s, and experts have raised the alarm; a new Cold War is coming. Treaties between nations have not been enough, the Zooks and Yooks remain in a deadlock of mutually assured destruction, pouring funding into their arms races while letting their citizens suffer from new threats like costly healthcare, student loans, and a global pandemic. It is necessary that one of the two nations take the first step in setting the stage for global denuclearization.


Had the Zooks and Yooks only implemented a No First Use nuclear policy perhaps they would be home, eating their toast. No First Use means that the US pledges to never again use a nuclear weapon as a first strike, reducing the risk of mistake and miscalculation and decreasing global tensions. President Joe Biden himself offered support for policies that would reduce US reliance on nuclear weapons, going as far as to say “the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.” 

Think about it, what situation could warrant the horrific consequences of a nuclear bomb? Consequences we are unprepared to face: Thousands of innocent civilian deaths, radiation that propels the killing into future generations, and cities leveled to rubble. Conflict and war are something we are used to, but the power of a nuclear bomb is not to be thrown around in battle. Without the threat of nuclear war, armed countries are able to properly calculate threat levels during conflict (even if there isn’t an insubordinate general around to offer reassurance). Furthermore, unarmed countries are not held hostage by the threat of nuclear war, either intentional or by miscalculation. 


With a No First Use policy, the ending of the Butter Battle Book changes. Here, Grandfather Yook reasons, “I won’t drop mine first but if you drop that Boomeroo, it will be over for me and for you!” Zook VanItch realizes that any action means destruction for them both and the situation begins to de-escalate. However, No First Use is the first step. It doesn’t necessarily get those two off that wall though. 

We must legitimize our commitment to the policy through further action, such as removing weapons from hair-trigger alert and taking the responsibility of starting a nuclear war out of the hands of one person. Only then will rational thought rule over impulse. And after 36 years, Grandfather Yook and Zook VanItch could put away their Big-Boy Boomeroos. Zooks and Yooks everywhere could go back to their home that hasn’t been destroyed, see their families alive, and eat the buttered bread still on their tables.

Tristan Guyette is Beyond the Bomb’s campaign director, where they unite digital and field work to combat the threat of nuclear war. Hannah Martin is a University of Michigan student studying Sociology and International Studies, and completed a fellowship at Beyond the Bomb.

Tristan Guyette and Hannah Martin

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