In anticipation of our March online forum with Barbara Melosh on visualizing the Great Depressionâ€”and in light of our current economic situationâ€”I thought I’d post some observations about how some of the New Deal’s policies were viewed by mainstream editorial cartoonists. If nothing else, the record of 1930s political cartooning offers a useful lesson about the hazards of using visual evidence to teach history.
As far as most newspaper and magazine political cartoonists were concerned, New Deal programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) were wrong-headed if not outright threats to the American republic. Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have won most of the votes, but most newspaper and magazine publishers were wealthy Republicans who opposed him. As a result, the political cartoons in their publications also opposed Roosevelt. Based on the record of political cartoons of the era such as the Washington Starâ€™s 1938 â€œThe Fuehrer Wallaceâ€ (above)â€”which depicts Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace as Adolf Hitler saluting goosestepping ranks of American farmersâ€”the New Dealâ€™s policies were highly unpopular.
A few important cartoonists were consistent supporters of the New Dealâ€™s social and economic programs, such as Daniel R. Fitzpatrick in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Collierâ€™s Weekly, and Clarence D. Batchelor in the New York Daily News. But as Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan commented in their comprehensive 1968 study of American political cartoons, The Ungentlemanly Art, â€œThe great majority of cartoonistsâ€”perhaps reflecting the great majority of their publishersâ€”were hostile to the New Deal.â€ Some of the nationâ€™s most revered political cartoonists were numbered among the administration’s many pictorial detractors; Jay N. (â€œDingâ€) Darling of the New York Herald Tribune and Des Moines Register, for example, served on the Republican platform committee at the 1932 national convention, and the Washington Starâ€™s Clifford Berryman created the fascist-saluting Henry Wallace.
Often acerbic, sometimes vicious, always exuberant in denunciation, the political cartoonistsâ€™ interpretation of the New Dealâ€™s achievements and failures registered the frustrations of the conservative bastion of newspaper publishing in an era characterized by government activism and social reform. â€œNever had cartoonists and public opinion been on such separate tracks,â€ Hess and Kaplan concluded, â€œand never had each so little effect on the other.â€