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A Century After Armistice, the American Popular Memory of World War I Is Still Shaped by Snoopy

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This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at History Today.

The millions of readers of the Peanuts comic strip first encountered Snoopy as the First World War Flying Ace in 1965, when Charles Schulz drew the lovable beagle pretending his doghouse was a Sopwith Camel biplane. Dressed in scarf and goggles, Snoopy imagined that he flew in hot pursuit of the Red Baron, a reference to the legendary German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen. In later strips, Schulz enlivened Snoopy’s wartime fantasies with allusions to battle sites, planes, guns and popular songs of the Great War. The Flying Ace imagery — at times including barbed-wire trenches and mention of missing comrades — seemed especially grim, considering that Peanuts’ characters were all children. The Flying Ace persona prompted Mort Walker, creator of the military-themed comic strip Beetle Bailey, to ask: “What does a dog know about World War I and the Red Baron? Where did he get the helmet?” And of the bullet-riddled doghouse, Walker declared: “Good golly, this has gone beyond the tale.”

In 1966, the Flying Ace storyline went even further “beyond the tale” in the televised CBS Halloween cartoon It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The main narrative centers on Linus, an ever-optimistic boy who, in the face of his friends’ doubts, waits in vain for the mythical, godlike “Great Pumpkin” to appear on Halloween.

Overshadowing this plotline, however, are the surreal intrusions of Snoopy’s Flying Ace fantasies. Several times, the cartoon shifts abruptly between Snoopy’s imagined war antics and the “real life” scenes of the wholesome, suburban Peanuts gang engaged in Halloween festivities, with little logical overlap. Visually and sonically, the Flying Ace sections resemble the classic dream sequences popular in mid-century Hollywood.

The Flying Ace first appears as the Peanuts children don their Halloween costumes and Snoopy puts on his pilot costume of goggles and scarf. While the children are otherwise occupied, the dog imagines himself in fierce aerial combat, ending with a crash behind enemy lines, punctuated by staccato artillery. After crashing, Snoopy traverses the ruined French countryside, the whole scene silhouetted against an apocalyptic sky. As Snoopy wiggles through trenches and passes signs for Châlons-sur-Marne, Pont-à-Mousson and the River Moselle, informed viewers can deduce that he is in a region of heavy fighting between French and German troops. A bleak soundscape of sirens, machine guns and a spectral chromatic flute motif accompanies his trek.

Given the dystopian intrusion into an otherwise gently cynical children’s cartoon, one wonders whether Charles Schulz’s own experiences in the Second World War shaped these scenes. Drafted in 1942, Schulz went from machine-gunner to staff sergeant and leader of a light machine gun squad in the 20th Armored Division. According to his biographer, David Michaelis: “The first time [Schulz] heard a machine gun on the firing range he was stunned into complete immobility. Never in his life had he handled so much as an air rifle.” After landing in France in February 1945, Schulz served in Germany and Austria. The cartoonist later recalled his first glimpse of war-torn Germany: “Everything was bombed out, crushed, every building shot up; bullet holes were every place.” Schulz’s memories seem to haunt Snoopy’s journey through France, made visible in bullet holes and gutted villages and audible in the ghastly sounds of combat.

A second Flying Ace sequence in The Great Pumpkin uses popular song to contrive nostalgia for the Great War. After his imagined combat episode, Snoopy re-enters reality by joining a children’s Halloween party. For no apparent reason Schroeder, the group’s resident child prodigy, performs a piano medley of popular First World War songs: “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “Roses of Picardy” and “There’s a Long, Long Trail.” Like many songs of the Great War, these expressed sentimentalism for home and Snoopy’s reaction oscillates between the martial, the celebratory and the maudlin, before culminating in a distraught outburst. The musicologist Glenn Watkins has described how the Second World War generation introduced younger people to the old wartime songs during the Great Depression — often “gathered round the piano on the long winter evenings after Sunday supper,” just as Snoopy hears them in The Great Pumpkin. Schulz, born in 1922, would have been a teenager in the 1930s when these songs were still being played and in the national consciousness. The Great Pumpkin’s executive producer Lee Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez recall that it was Schulz himself who suggested that Schroeder play First World War songs. The scene ended up being the only point at which the cartoon’s imaginary and “real” plot lines converge.

Although during his career Schulz regularly referred to Armistice Day (now Veterans Day in the U.S.), as well as D-Day, he and his colleagues did not deliberately set out to commemorate the Great War in the Halloween cartoon. According to their later recollections, they brainstormed the Flying Ace sequences merely as a fun, animated novelty and Schulz simply wanted another scene of Schroeder playing the piano, as he had in the popular Peanuts Christmas cartoon in 1965. Nevertheless, The Great Pumpkin, still broadcast annually on network television, helped enshrine the memory of the First World War in American popular culture.

Early reviewers immediately noted the power of the Flying Ace sequences and Snoopy continued to appear as the Ace in the Peanuts comic strip until Schulz retired in 1999. Images of the First World War Flying Ace would accompany astronauts on the Apollo 10 mission of 1969 and form the subject of a standing exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and become a U.S. postage stamp.

November 2018 marks the Armistice centenary. Obscured by the fog of passing time and the numbing effect of subsequent conflicts, the Great War has largely receded from American memory and popular culture — with the improbable exception of an animated beagle dressed as an aviator, in eternal pursuit of the Red Baron.

The Peanuts strip from July 29, 1980, shows Lucy and Marcie sitting on Snoopy’s doghouse, with the dog dressed in pilot gear. Lucy remarks, “I’ve heard that our captain was a fighter pilot during the war. I don’t suppose those experiences are easily forgotten.” In the next frame, Snoopy howls “Curse you, Red Baron!” and Marcie replies “No, I guess not.”

Through the poignant imagery of his comic strips and the haunting sequences of The Great Pumpkin, Charles Schulz made sure that America’s Great War would not easily be forgotten.

Carrie Allen Tipton writes about American history, pop culture and music.

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