Editor's Letter

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This issue we bring you essays on some important subjects: the 200-year-old seesaw struggle between Congress and the president, the unending fiasco in Korea, and the largely forgotten civil war our patriots fought with former friends and family who remained loyal to King George III.

You’ll find an interesting constant in these articles: the use of cartoons. Time and again, political satirists and propaganda artists got right to the core of issues we were trying to bring alive. Political cartoonists sharpened their editorial knives way back to the earliest days of the Republic, as you’ll see in Tom Fleming’s story, “The Imperial Congress,” which starts on p. 26 and features 10 iconic cartoons created between 1787 and 1974. Although issues of concern in their day may be long forgotten, the cartoons bring them back in stark clarity, whether through Ulysses Grant portrayed as the debauched Babylonian King Belshazzar or Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations assailed by arrows on America’s shore. I have no doubt that somewhere right now an editorial cartoonist is sharpening his or her pencils, thinking about the midterm elections, and plotting a new take on the age-old American theme of pitched battle between Congress and president.

At certain moments in our history, cartoonists reflect our angst, as with the remarkable cartoon gallery (pp. 46–47) surrounding the capture of Jefferson Davis at the end of the Civil War. Northern illustrators fixed on the rumor of his capture in a dress and delivered a torrent of merciless and often crass satire. As you look at these images, you can feel the pent-up revulsion to four bitter years of war and bloodshed—and the release valve that the defeated leader’s humiliation must have provided. Even if, as it turns out, the story of Davis in petticoats was false.

Of course, cartoons can also be bent to nationalistic purposes. In the Korean War Propaganda Collection at North Dakota State University, we discovered efforts by a small psychological warfare group of the American Eighth Army that created 600 leaflets for winning the hearts of enemy troops and Korean civilians in the early 1950s. The leaflet “Why Die for Russia and China?” on p. 17 shows a Russian figure pushing a Chinese soldier, who pushes the North Korean. The most frightening, blatantly inflammatory image we found in our research is the North Korean poster on p. 25, picturing an American GI as an evil baby killer. What’s particularly chilling is that the poster appeared in 2004.

Lest we forget, cartoons can entertain us, too, reaching deeply into our common humanity to touch our hearts. We couldn’t pass up the chance to salute the 60th anniversary of the first Peanuts comics strip. For six decades we have counted on Charlie Brown—who cheerfully lines up to kick the football that Lucy will always pull away at the last second—to get up, dust himself off, and try again . . . and again. That indomitable spirit rising to the challenge of naysayers and kite-eating trees is a particularly American trait—and Charles Schulz never missed an opportunity to remind us of that, even as we stumbled through the civil rights era and terrible assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

We salute the cartoonists who have brought us stimulation, provocation, and humanity throughout our history.