Political Cartoons During World War Ii: A Visual Record Of Opinions
For years, political cartoons have been one of the favorite mediums of visual satirists. A political cartoon is defined as a “a drawing (often including caricature) made for the purpose of conveying editorial commentary on politics, politicians, and current events...They are a primarily opinion-oriented medium and can generally be found on the editorial pages of newspapers and other journalistic outlets.” Political cartoons are used to record events, to show the opinions of a population, and can be used to examine and explain history today. Political cartoons help us to easily track what were the most present and pressing issues during a period of time, as well as some of the more extreme opinions of the population. They’re visual representations of politicians and issues in the most exaggerated, most caricature way possible.
Many historians agree that the earliest known political cartoon to be published in America was the infamous ‘Join or die’ cartoon published by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, but the real father of the modern American political cartoon was Thomas Nast. A German immigrant, Nast began drawing for Illustrated Newspaper at 15, and later would make a name for himself creating cartoons during the Civil War. He removed needless details common in lithographs (an early precursor of the political cartoon) and shortened captions, both changes which have carried over into cartoons today. He famously created the elephant and the donkey symbols for the Republican and the Democratic parties respectively, as well the image of Santa Claus that we often see today.
As newspapers became more regular parts of people's lives, political cartoons (occasionally called Editorial Cartoons) did too. During World War I and II, these cartoons were used to show what was going on in politics around the world, what was happening with world leaders regarding the war, and how America was operating while at war. With so many things to keep track of, political cartoons became a way to easily find out the most recent breaking news in the world. Cartoonists took creative liberty to express their own thoughts and feelings about the war and politicians. World War II political cartoons portraying Americans views on the war, on Hitler and on FDR (especially about his New Deal and war policies), were common subjects for cartoonists to illustrate.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (more commonly known as FDR), was elected as our 32nd president in 1932, and would go on to be elected 3 more times. He served as president during World War II until his death on April 12th, 1945, shortly before the end of the war. Considering he was a major figure during almost all of World War II, it is only natural that he was often portrayed in political cartoons during this time. Many cartoons specifically focused on his New Deal program, and his plans for America while the war was ongoing. For example, a cartoon published in the New Masses depicted FDR in a fighter jet, dropping 7 bombs on Hitler, which represented the 7 point plan as the key to defeating Hitler.
But he wasn’t always portrayed in such a heroic manner. In cartoons about his court packing plan to get his New Deal to pass, or on how he was going to expand executive power, he’s portrayed as greedy. Many cartoons show him as a doctor or cook, mixing together too many ingredients/drugs to create the New Deal, at the risk that they might explode or make the patient, (who was often America herself), sick.
Besides drawing FDR, many political cartoonists had strong opinions on World War II. Especially near the beginning of the war, when America refused to enter the war to aid their allies. Many cartoons,(such as this one published in 1941), embodied the opinion that the government was being prideful by assuming that Hitler would not invade the United States after finishing taking over Europe. These cartoons pushed for a move by the United States to assist Europe in the fight against the Nazis.
During this time period, one of the most prevalent arguments used by the American government as a reason for not entering the war was the Neutrality Acts that were passed after World War I, forbidding foreign entanglement. These acts were commonly represented in cartoons by the idea of “America First” or the idea that America needed to take care of her own. That if we didn’t interfere with what was going on with other nations in the world, we would be just fine, and the evil would pass us by. This idea is something that still comes up today, but back in the 1940s it was used to justify the reason America didn’t go to the aid of her allies. Cartoonists who disagreed with this idea would put the words “America First” on characters who were often either surrounded or connected to enemies such as Nazis, Hitler, Mussolini, and others, sometimes even putting them in a setting to suggest that they were already here, in the “american hemisphere”. A very famous example of these types of cartoons is a of an older woman is reading a story called “Adolf the Wolf” aloud to some children, saying:
“...and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones… But those were Foreign Children and it really didn’t matter.”
Cartoons similar to this were used many times to show the absurdity of the isolationist mind set, such as in this cartoon showing mice trying to protect themselves from cats Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, while defending themselves with books titled “Why Not to Help Your Allies” and “Isolation Hand Book”. This cartoon was an effort to show how the American Isolationists were being foolish, and were failing to see that by not helping with the war overseas, they were putting themselves in danger.
The isolation mindset died out, and America declared war on December 7th, 1941 after being attacked at Pearl Harbor. But now, a different crowd of people became vocal against the war. Some Black Americans spoke out about the fact that America was going to liberate Europe and combat anti-Semitism, while leaving behind a country where racism was prevalent. Although Black Americans and major black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News were “largely supportive of the war”, there were some editorial cartoons released that were very against entering WWII. These cartoons would show things similar to this cartoon by Jan Jackson published on June 17, 1944. This cartoon depicts American soldiers going to liberate a white European woman while leaving a black woman chained in the USA. Above the cartoon, the words ‘We’ll Be Back’ serve as a promise that won’t be fulfilled. This was around 10 years before the Civil Rights movement began in 1954, but in these cartoons we can see the undercurrent of that movement begin to peak through in this and other similar cartoons. In another cartoon from 1945, instead of depicting America running away to another country, it shows America hand in hand with Nazi Germany, both wearing blacked out glasses with the words ‘race hate’ on them, effectively comparing the Nazi reign to America’s racism problem.
Black cartoonists weren’t the only ones who used cartoons to speak out against about things concerning the war. But instead of focusing on the fighting or the racial prejudices, many white cartoonists spoke out about different issues that were ongoing at the homefront. A popular subject was about how many Americans were all talk and no do. Cartoonists would portray Americans sitting in chairs taking naps, waiting for the war to be over, or talking about what was going wrong with the war. They showed the one thing that many Americans had: unjustified optimistic attitudes about the war. They would talk about the war as if the United States had already won it, while closing their eyes to what was really going on.
Often, it was shown how people were being distracted from a larger problem by things like petty political squabbles, and how America was failing through things like blunders, complacency, and carelessness. The idea of ‘would of, could of, should of’ was commonly displayed throughout these cartoons. Cartoonists began to advocate for the need of the American people to sacrifice in order to win the war. Artists would use their cartoons to prompt the American people to enlist, to donate money or time. Many called for people to buy War Bonds and for more effort to speed up production of materials
Some cartoons showed heroic soldiers fighting the good fight, serving their country and more. One comic by Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster called How Superman Would End the War showed their character Superman fighting the Axis powers and ended up with him taking Hitler and Stalin to the League of Nations. Siegel and Shuster were both Jewish, and some people have said that it is subtly suggested in this comic that Superman may be a Jew as well, based on a line Superman says to Hitler.
“I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw”
Another subject that was portrayed in a positive light during the war was women helping with the war effort. During World War II, since many of the men were away fighting, women would take up jobs that had traditionally been done by men, such as being train conductors, airplane repairmen, doctors, and taking on office work. Some women even served in the military in areas like the Air Force. Cartoons appeared during this time to promote the work of women, something that hadn’t really been seen before. Many of these cartoons contained messages similar to that of the ‘We Can Do It!’ Rosie the Riveter poster. These cartoons showed woman being willing to serve and being very essential to the war effort, and urged other women to do the same. In this cartoon, the motto “They serve that men might fight!” is a call to action by political cartoonist Charles Hou.
World War II gave rise to many political cartoonists. One of the most well know illustrators who got their start during World War II was Theodor Seuss Geisel, a man better known by the name of Dr. Seuss. Seuss created cartoons for the New York daily newspaper PM from December 1941, right after Germany declared war on the United States, till January 1943, after which he joined the Army as a captain and became in command of the the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit, which was a part of the Air Force. Through that department, he created many propaganda films for the United States. Later in life, he went on to write many of the beloved books we know today such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
While working on political cartoons, Seuss showed that he had strong opinions. In his cartoons, you can see his strong dislike of isolationism, Hitler and interestingly enough, Charles A Lindbergh, the famous American pilot who was also the first person to cross the Atlantic solo in an airplane. Although Lindbergh was an international hero, during the 1930s he spoke out with admiration for Hitler, and then in 1941, joined America First (an anti-interventionist organization). He later gave a speech in which he “made a distinction between the “Jewish race” and “Americans”.”
In one of Seuss’s cartoons portraying Lindbergh, he is petting a sea monster who has Hitler's head and proclaiming “‘Tis Roosevelt, Not Hitler, that the World Should Really Fear.” This is just one example of how Seuss viewed Lindbergh, as someone who was ignorant of the dangers of the Nazi’s, and who agreed with their viewpoints.
Seuss was also a strong advocate for Civil Rights, anti-Semitism, and was very strongly against racism. He had many cartoons that pushed for more fair working conditions and more employment for Black Americans, and he spoke openly in his cartoons on how the War Industry was being racist against Blacks who wanted to help with the mountains of work that needed to be done.
But, for all of the social activism that Seuss campaigned for, he “had one major blind spot: Americans of Japanese descent.” In many of his cartoons, Dr. Seuss showed majorly racist tendencies when drawing these types of characters. All of his Japanese figures had pig-like noses, comical smiles and wispy mustaches, and all look exactly the same. And although this is surprising to hear about a man who was such an advocate of Civil Rights, when we reflect on this time in America, we can see it's not a strange as we might think.
Looking back now on World War II, it is clear to see that there was a blindspot in many Americans views. Most overlooked the the internment of the Japanese Americans during this time, and few ever spoke out against it. It is strange, but for some reason it’s something that the majority of the American people never thought of as a civil rights issue, including Dr. Seuss himself.
Besides Dr. Seuss, a few other notable cartoonists from this time period include: Herbert Block (or more commonly known as Herblock), who won a Pulitzer Prize for his war time cartoons in 1942, as well as two more in 1954 and 1979; and Bill Mauldin who illustrated the life of a day to day soldier during World War II and won a Pulitzer in 1945 and 1959.
During World War II, political cartoons were an important way for people to know what was happening in American politics, what was going on with the War and the rest of the world. Today, these cartoons provide unique opportunities to see what people thought about American Government and leaders. Through political cartoons, we can identify different group’s viewpoints on matters like World War II, racism in connection to the war, women involvement and Civil Rights movements. We can also use political cartoons as records, to see what was going on in the world in just a few simple images.