Cartoons: Unraveling Freedom


May 7-1915-1918

Those Idiotic Yankees

Getting Under Cover

Please, Your Honor, ...

Ten Little Hyphens

Refusing to Give the Lady a Seat

Where's Rehse?

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  • May 7, 1915 = the date of the sinking of the Lusitania
    Prussianism = refers to ruthless military tactics
    Military uniform = incorporates symbols from the German uniform including the Pickelhaube spiked hat and an iron cross

  • Hyphen Club = people straddling two ethnic groups, such as German-Americans, where a hyphen connects their paired identities
    Dumba = Constantin Dumba, ambassador to the U.S. from Austria-Hungary
    von Papen = Franz von Papen, German military officer
    Bernstorff = Count Johann von Bernstorff, ambassador to the U.S. from Germany
    "Solemn Assurances" = Germany's repeated promises to respect American rights, such as safe passage on the seas, that would be broken with renewed attacks on American ships or lives.
    Uncle Sam = a newly invented symbol representing the United States
    Blinders = Note that Uncle Sam, yoked like a horse, is wearing blinders, devices used to limit a harnessed animal's field of vision. A related expression, "to have blinders on," is used for someone who fails to see the obvious.

  • Tent = the protection of U.S. citizenship
    Legs = labeled with enemy nationalities from World War I

  • Dachshund = German breed of dog
    Germany = America's chief enemy during World War I
    France = an ally of the U.S. during World War I
    Dog judge = Boston terrier, a dog breed originating in America

  • "Sitting on line" = Immigrants are "on the fence" in the cartoon, a common visual for having divided loyalties, i.e. to German heritage on one side of the fence, and American residency on the other
    "Hoch der Kaiser" = "Long live the Emperor"
    "high degree" = suggesting someone of prominence or advanced education
    "German war news" = presumed by many to be biased and inaccurate

  • Borah = William Borah, Republican Senator from Idaho
    Lodge = Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican Senator from Massachusetts
    Johnson = Hiram Johnson, Republican Senator from California
    Standing lady = the personification of peace
    Note: The U.S. Constitution requires the Senate to ratify, or approve, all treaties by a two-thirds majority in order for it to become binding on the United States.


  • The cartoon commemorates the three-year anniversary of the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania. The loss of the ship and nearly 1,200 passengers and crew members, including 128 Americans, did not immediately draw the United States into the conflict that became known as World War I. However it did fuel desires for revenge and was offered as evidence of uncivilized, ruthless behavior by the German military. Here the smokestacks of the sinking Lusitania appear to be firing at a fleeing German officer, suggesting that the combined forces of America and her European allies, as they avenge the deaths of those who perished three years earlier, will force the Germans to retreat. The rough seas may suggest both the challenges that have unfolded since the sinking as well as ones that remain in the fight.

  • Although many Americans wanted to avoid joining the European battles that became World War I, others, such as former President Theodore Roosevelt, argued that the United States had to support the conflict. These advocates for war insisted that Germany could not be trusted and that American leaders, such as President Woodrow Wilson, were being misled by believing German promises. Policies that favored diplomacy and patience over military action made a laughing stock out of the United States, they argued. To them, American leaders appeared weak, as if they were being manipulated and controlled by German officials.

  • Home-front tensions arose in the United States as the nation went to war against the motherlands of many of its immigrants, including German-Americans, Austrian-Americans, and Hungarian-Americans. Citizenship offered one way for these newcomers (often labeled hyphenated Americans by critics) to demonstrate their loyalty to their adopted homeland, and many immigrants completed the process of becoming naturalized citizens of the United States during the war years. Skepticism remained among native-born Americans, however, about the genuineness of these conversions, as shown by Sid Greene's political cartoon. Were these immigrants "true Americans," he seems to be asking, or were they clever opportunists seeking sanctuary under the "big tent" of citizenship while retaining loyalties to enemy nations?

  • Dog breeds illustrate the nationalities and ethnic origins of the peoples caught up in the World War I conflict. A German (represented by the dachshund), applies to a true blue American (the American-bred Boston terrier judge), for the right to be known as a loyal ally of the United States, just like the wartime French (and, presumably, French bulldogs).

  • Cartoonist Sid Green mimics the then popular "Ten Little Indians" poem, where mishaps and adventures reduce the group from ten to none. He forecasts the fates for hyphenated Americans, those immigrants and their descendants whose ethnic origins were marked by a hyphenated designation (such as German-Americans). In his rendition of the verse, immigrants face trials such as jailing, violence, and deportation until, by the end of the cartoon, they have all been eliminated.

  • Even though custom dictated that a gentleman should give up his seat to prevent a lady from having to stand, key Republican Senators Borah, Lodge, and Johnson remain steadfast in their refusal to give a seat to Lady Peace in this cartoon. The female figure represents the hopes of many, including President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, that the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles (which he had helped to draft) would bring lasting peace to the world. Cartoonist Rollin Kirby seems to suggest that the Republican-led Senate, by opposing ratification of the treaty, could undermine the hopes of many that the First World War would be the "War to End All Wars."

  • CARTOON 1—May 7-1915-1918

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-7477
    Creator: Clifford Kennedy Berryman (1869-1949)
    Date published: May 7, 1918
    Probable publication site: The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.)


    "It took only 18 minutes for the great ship to sink. Even the Titanic had lingered on the ocean surface for more than two hours before sliding to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1912. But, on a sunny spring afternoon just three years later, the Lusitania began to list toward her starboard side almost immediately after being struck by a single submarine-fired torpedo. Minutes later she was gone."
    —from Chapter 1, "Sunk," page 13

  • CARTOON 2—Those Idiotic Yankees

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital ID cai 2a14490
    Creator: William Allen Rogers (1854-1931)
    Date published: Sept. 24, 1915
    Publication site: New York Herald


    "In fact [President Woodrow] Wilson had carefully avoided combat after the Lusitania went down. He tried instead to be a peacemaker for Europe and sought to bring harmony and democracy to the world's citizens. Thus for two years he employed diplomacy and his powers of persuasion to avoid war.…[During this period] plenty of Americans remained reluctant to shed blood for what was essentially seen as a fight between old world rivals. These citizens helped reelect Wilson in 1916 with the campaign slogan, 'He kept us out of war.' "
    —from Chapter 2, "A Call to Arms," page 29

  • CARTOON 3—Getting Under Cover

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-42610
    Creator: Sid Green (lifespan unrecorded)
    Year published: 1917 (month and date not recorded)
    Publication site: Evening Telegram (New York, New York)


    "During the early years of the war, while the U.S. government remained on the sidelines of the fight, many German-Americans had felt comfortable offering their support of the German war through speeches, published commentary, and fund-raising. Some ethnic groups, such as the Irish, even cheered for Germany because of their own dislike for Germany's foe, England.…[After America joined the fight], tensions over who could be trusted, whether criticism of the war effort symbolized disloyalty, what it meant to be an American, and whether one could retain connections to a motherland during wartime would dominate the American home front."
    —from Chapter 2, "A Call to Arms," pages 31-32

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-37781

    "The hyphens. Americans with hyphenated origins, such as German-Americans, often found their allegiance questioned at the time of World War I even as the vast majority of them took steps to become naturalized citizens (right, 1916 in New York City)."
    —from Chapter 2, "A Call to Arms," photo caption, page 31

  • CARTOON 4—"Please, Your Honor, I want to change my name from Dachshund to French Bull."

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital ID, cai 2a13266
    Creator: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)
    Date published: Sept. 27, 1917
    Publication site: Life


    "Americans rushed to eradicate all things German. Restaurants renamed the signature German dish of sauerkraut liberty cabbage. Hamburgers became liberty steak. Bars stopped serving pretzels. The German measles illness turned into liberty measles....Businesses, towns, and individuals jettisoned their German-sounding names....Berlin became Belleville. German Street became English Street."
    —from Chapter 3, "Off to Kill the Hun," page 43

    "The momentum of citizen-based policing and vigilante justice had taken hold on wartime America....Citizens gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, at a stein-breaking festival to destroy the distinctive German beer mugs. Officials locked up the German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under charges of being an enemy alien. And residents of Columbus, Ohio, reportedly put to death local dogs from German breeds, such as dachshunds."
    —from Chapter 4, "Hold Your Tongue," page 51

  • CARTOON 5—Ten Little Hyphens

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-38140
    Creator: Sid Green (lifespan unrecorded)
    Date published: unrecorded, perhaps December 6, 1917
    Publication site: Evening Telegram (New York, New York)


    "Judges scrambled to interpret new laws and weigh their intent against protections like the First Amendment right of free speech as set out in the U.S. Constitution, all within the context of wartime hysteria. Many of the accused encountered judges and juries who supported the new restrictive laws. A patron at a bar in Illinois found himself sentenced to two years at the notorious Fort Leavenworth prison for commenting that Germany was 'all right.' Three men who left a tavern singing a German war song earned six months of labor at a workhouse. A Russian-American woman speaking to a women's club received a ten-year sentence for suggesting that the nation's war effort was designed to benefit the corporations that made military weapons."
    —from Chapter 4, "Hold Your Tongue," page 50

  • CARTOON 6—Refusing to Give the Lady a Seat

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-9659
    Creator: Rollin Kirby (1875-1952)
    Date published: circa 1919-20
    Probable publication site: New York World


    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-36185

    "Contrarian rival. Henry Cabot Lodge (above), a powerful Republican senator from Massachusetts who had frequently criticized the Democratic Wilson during his Presidency, questioned the soundness of Wilson's push for a postwar League of Nations. Lodge worried that U.S. participation in the peacekeeping League would undercut America's independence, concluding that the U.S. might be forced to follow League decisions, such as going to war, even if its leaders opposed them."
    —from Chapter 5, "Between War and Peace," photo caption, page 62

    "When support for the treaty lagged on Capitol Hill, [President Woodrow] Wilson embarked on an ambitious cross-country speaking tour to recruit public pressure for its passage. Although his fame drew enthusiastic crowds, the tour failed to help the treaty. Instead, the exertion of travel and public speaking nearly killed the President. After collapsing from exhaustion during the homebound journey, Wilson was rushed back to the White House. Within days, he experienced a major stroke that left him mentally challenged and physically disabled for the rest of his life."
    —from Chapter 5, "Between War and Peace," page 65

  • Are you ready for more cartoon exploration? Consider the story of F.J.M. Rehse.

    Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-77958 (detail)

    When U.S. forces overran Germany during World War II, service members uncovered a cache of American political cartoons that had been collected during the previous world war by a German citizen. Fredrich Josef Maria Rehse collected this and other material to document contemporary viewpoints about the war. Each cartoon bears a black stamp, "F.J.M. Rehse Archiv für Zeitgeschichte und Publizistik München," or F.J.M. Rehse Archive for Contemporary History and Journalism, Munich, Germany.

    The 500 cartoons from his collection now reside in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and I spent hours looking through them in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room as part of my photo research efforts for Unraveling Freedom. My publisher and I considered many of these cartoons as possible illustrations for my book.

    Can you find any cartoons from the Rehse collection among those posted here? You'll be able to spot them by looking for the collector's trademark stamp.

Cartoon Reading Skills:
Start by making an inventory of the visual clues in the illustration. Cartoonists work within a tight space, so nothing is added frivolously. Even small details add to the meaning of the work. Can you identify what each visual element represents?

Next consider the text. What meanings are intended by words that accompany the illustration? Take note of any cartoon caption as well as text that appears within the art.

People reviewing these cartoons when they were originally published would have been familiar with the meaning of most visual and textual clues. For today's readers, it's easy to be stumped by content in historical cartoons because we lack that background knowledge. If you're unsure of the cartoon's symbolism, click CLUES on the right of this page.

After you've identified the meanings of the art and text, try to construct a written or spoken story that explains the illustration. When you're done, you can compare your analysis with my suggested INTERPRETATION.