Political cartoons attempt to sway opinions

An illuminating exhibition of political cartoons from the early to mid 20th Century opened Friday, March 24, at the Wilton Historical Society on Danbury Road. Guest curator Matthew Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State College, gave a talk on the three dozen images that covered America’s isolationism and avoidance of World War I, its eventual entry into the war, the ensuing rejection of the League of Nations and a return to isolationism, and the country’s ultimate entry into World War II.

Warshauer gave a talk on the show to a gathering of about 20 people at the opening. At the same time he was searching for images to include, he said, Donald Trump was giving his inaugural address as president. As someone who has read every presidential inaugural address, Warshauer said, he listened closely.

“One of the things that struck me, that stood out, is he used the term ‘America first,’ and he questioned the role of America in the world and whether we need to think about the United States or other places. So the more things change the more they stay the same and it brings us full circle,” he said of the exhibition. “When you read the last panel, it raises the issue of America first. What do you think about this issue?

“You don’t need to be an historian to think about this question. All you need to be is a citizen, because we all have thoughts and opinions about this. That is the exhibit, because what these artists are trying to do is influence the average American.”

Some of his selections are by very well-known artists, including William Allen Rogers and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), and some are by lesser known or unknown artists, but they were seen by a huge readership and were very influential, he said.

“Everything you are seeing here, these are images of the day that the average person would have seen,” he said. There were thousands of newspapers across the country, and many ran the same images, so the audience was substantial.

The images are displayed on the wall of the main gallery downstairs at the historical society, and a card identifies the artist, the title of the piece, and when and where it was published. Warshauer encouraged visitors to think about what they were seeing, and if with a companion, to discuss what they believe the message to be. What was happening in the weeks and months before the cartoon was published? How does the title and any text help convey the meaning? What do the symbols mean? “Imagery is all about symbols,” he said.

“Put it all together. What is the artist trying to say?” Warshauer’s interpretation is on the flip side of the identifying tags.

The first few images deal with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, by William Allen Rogers, published in the New York Herald. Germany is cast as a villain, children are pictured as victims of the attack, and President Woodrow Wilson is often depicted as weak.

One of the events that finally pushed the United States into the war was an attempt by Germany to ally with Mexico. Germany tried to convince Mexico it could regain territory in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico that it had lost in the 19th Century.

The plot was discovered when a coded telegram was intercepted, an image of which — along with a decoding sheet, translation — is part of the exhibition.

“What ultimately pulls us into World War I? It’s finding out about the Zimmerman telegram,” he said. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded telegram to Mexico encouraging it to engage the United States. That, Germany figured, would keep the United States occupied while it went about defeating Britain and France.

“It’s a good strategy as long as the coded message stays secret,” Warshauer said. “But it didn’t. The British intercept it, they decode it and they publish it. The Americans know, this is de facto war.”

Influential cartoonist Clifford Kennedy Berryman responded to the telegram with a cartoon that shows a hand with a German insignia holding a knife and carving up the United States, with Arizona, New Mexico and Texas going to Mexico and the rest of the United States going to Germany, except for California, which might, he suggests, go to Japan.

One of Warshauer’s favorite cartoons is in the section devoted to America’s return to isolationism after World War I. The Gap in the Bridge was published in December 1919 in Punch Magazine.

“We never ratify the League of Nations. We never take part in the League of Nations. What most historians take from that today is that sets us up for World War II, that without the United States involved in settling the problems of Europe, that we’re destined to fall back into the trap of war.”

In the cartoon, a sign reads: This League of Nations bridge was designed by the President of the U.S.A. The stones making up the bridge read Belgium, France, England, and Italy, but “the center stone, the keystone, is missing,” Warshauer pointed out. The missing stone says “Keystone USA.” “And Uncle Sam is on the side lounging and this bridge is never going to be completed and thus it is not going to be structurally sound.”

The final wall of the exhibition is devoted to American isolationism and World War II. This is when the America First movement comes to the fore. There is one image from the America First Committee, based in Chicago, that shows the Statue of Liberty as “War’s First Casualty.”

Opposed to such sentiment was Dr. Seuss, who drew political cartoons in his highly recognizable style for PM Magazine. Six panels from 1941 argue against the America First movement.