Today’s post will take us back a century to the United States’ entry into World War I. The cartoon for this post, titled “At Last a Perfect Soldier,” was drawn by Robert Minor in 1916, about a year before the United States officially declared war on Germany. And that’s where our story begins.
Minor was a well-known socialist in his time, and was friends with radical leftists (“Robert Minor” by Spartacus Educational). As seen through his artwork, he was critical of the government and of what would be called “The Great War.”
In “At Last a Perfect Soldier,” he depicts a physician examining a tall and burly man with his arms crossed. The most important part of the image, of course, is that the man becoming a soldier has no head.
The symbolism is not subtle here. Minor is clearly arguing that the United States government wants soldiers without brains — leading to critical thinking and questioning — to be fighting this war. On a slightly deeper level, Minor is also arguing that people with brains should be inherently against this war.
Our story doesn’t end there, though. After the cartoon was published in The Masses radical magazine, Minor and the magazine were charged with, but not convicted of, violating the Espionage Act of 1917 (“A Political Cartoon is Like an Onion,” Alex).
In other words, the government argued that Minor’s cartoon was against the law because it was hindering the war effort. Can someone say “freedom of speech violation”?
Freedom of speech, as we’ve learned in contemporary America, is not as clear cut a freedom as we might make it out to be. There are other considerations, like if the speech is threatening or hateful. Or if the speech is contrary to the war effort that the government is pursuing.
By charging The Masses and “At Last a Perfect Soldier,” the US government acknowledged that those media had at least some power (and probably persuaded other radicals to follow Minor and The Masses more closely). One article talks about the power of political cartoons in particular, saying that “cartoons have the capacity to be simultaneously clearer and deeper than debate moments.”
In other words, political cartoons have a unique and lasting impact. They are able to have more layers than most prose in a shorter space, and can be more memorable because of their clarity and humor.
Maybe the government is right. Political cartoons are dangerous. Which is all the more reason to take them seriously.