When I began my career as a history teacher, political cartoons were an easy tool to engage students in the days before the Internet. I could cut them out of local papers and news magazines, and even copy them out of the cartoonist’s books. The cartoon is a wonderful analytic teaching tool that allows for students to read a cartoon’s parts and also develop their own cartoons by focusing on the parts and symbols in a cartoon. Political cartoons, as an art form, predate the United States. In its brief 237 year history, there have been only been two cartoonists to define political eras. Thomas Nast defined the progressive era after the Civil War with his cartoons on Boss Tweed and monopolies along with his renderings of the now iconic images of Santa Claus, the Republican elephant, and Democratic donkey. In the 20th century, the title belongs to Herb Block, or as he is better known, Herblock. Block’s drawings of American events covered 72 years! His cartoons displayed a unique view of events, some controversial for the time period. But his career, drawings, and topics show the importance of a free press to dissent against the powers that be in order to reach the average American. For Herb Block, this right was his responsibility.
Herb was born in Chicago in 1909. His father, a chemist, was also an avid artist and cartoonist who submitted cartoons to Puck. Life, and Judge. From him, Herb gained his love of drawing. In addition, his father worked part-time for the Chicago Reporter while Herb’s brother worked at the Tribune. Working in the press was in the family blood. It was in high school that Herb began his artistic career writing and drawing for the school newspaper. It was during this time that his father suggested he merge his two names for what would become his signature – Herblock. He would take these two skills to the next level in college. He attended both Lake Forest College during the day and the Art Institute at night. He also got a part-time job as a cartoonist at age 19 for the Chicago Daily News.
After graduation, Herb took a position with the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) out of Cleveland. Herb with paycheck in hand, had a unique perspective of the New Deal and was a proponent for many of FDR’s early New Deal policies to help those who suffered during the Depression. After several New Deal policies, programs, and acts were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court with more justices. Herb took offense. Herb’s actions reflect the right of the press to dissent and air grievances through art.
Political cartoons, unlike sundials, do not show the brightest hours. They often show the darkest ones, in the hope of helping us move on to brighter times. And they all represent personal views.
In the years before Word War II, Herb took a stand against fascist dictators in Europe. In the wake of World War I, the US had taken a staunch isolationist point of view in the 1920s and 30s. Very few Americans wanted the US to take an active role in European affairs. Herb’s cartoons were a dissent against the isolation. Using simple iconic images, Herb was able to get his point across. The cartoons about Germany, Italy, and Spain earned Herb his first Pulitzer Prize in 1942.
However, not everyone was pleased with his cartoons including his boss. The president of NEA, Fred Ferguson, took offense with what he viewed as Block’s own personal view and not the view of the NEA. While awaiting Ferguson’s rebuke in New York, news broke of Herb’s win. The prize vindicated Herb and only further substantiated his cartoon viewpoints.
In 1943, Herb was drafted into the army at the age of 33. He drew cartoons and published articles for the Army. It is after World War II that Block begins his prime years. In 1946, Block took a position at the Washington Post and never looked back. Block drew for the paper with complete autonomy over 40 years. In those 4o years, Block’s works came to define the Cold War, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. He would add 3 more Pulitzers to his shelf in 1954, 1973, and 1979.
For Herb, this era was of particular importance. Herb said,
The Fear-Filled Forties and Fifties were a dark period, when the spread of communism abroad increased anxiety and frustration at home. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) had long been in the business of looking for “subversives.” The hunt was now joined by many groups, large and small, official and self-appointed. If we couldn’t crush communism abroad, a person could nail a neighbor at home. All kinds of super-patriots – from congressional committees fed by J. Edgar Hoover’s aptly named “raw files” to a New York state grocery operator – compiled lists of “un-Americans.” Simply seeing a person’s name on such a blacklist was enough to prompt entertainment and broadcast executives to ruin careers.
In response to McCarthyism, Herb not only coined the phrase but ridiculed the accusations.
Through the Sixties, Herb’s keen eye and pen created a unique look at Civil Rights, the Nuclear Arms Race, and Vietnam. However, it was Watergate where Herb rose above the pack and created a series of cartoons I still use with my students. Combined with Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting, the paper, in and of itself, helped to bring down the presidency of Nixon.
Herb continued after Nixon to make many more classic cartoons. But what these two eras and ten cartoons above show is that Herb was not afraid to step on a few toes to expose the truth even if it involved the President or the Congress. In addition to his Pulitzers, Herb also won several awards for his lifetime of work including the ACLU and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Where Herb stands out is that his drawing exemplifies the American ideal of a free press. He chose to speak out for those who couldn’t speak by drawing for them. His outrage against the events of the day turned into dissent and a redress of grievances, something he considered a right and inherent in the Bill of Rights. It was this belief that drove his work. His responsibility to was to speak for the common man and to them.
In the 1800s, political cartoons were an important part of the press and the fabric of America. The majority of Americans could not read in the 1800s but they could read a cartoon. For immigrants, the cartoon was the news. For Herb, he continued this tradition in the 20th century reaching a large portion of Washington, D.C. and the nation through the rebukes and outrage found in his art. For Herb, though, the cartoons he drew were something he thought of as common sense and filled with humor as politicians were called to task for their actions which is the responsibility of a free press.
To take a few key objects, a couple of symbols, and sum it up in one simple sentence is a true art form. Herb did that for 72 years until his death in 2001. His cartoons were the “water-cooler” discussions during the peak of America’s problems. Mike Peters of the Dayton Daily News said of Herb’s importance to and influence on the craft,
He was the father of political cartooning for everybody. As I said in my eulogy [at Herb Block’s National Cathedral memorial service], you would see him walk in like Obi-Wan Kenobi — he was the person whom everyone knew and he knew everything. He would tell you [something] only if you asked. … He walked around the newsroom a sweet little guy, but then he would shut the door and then, it was [as if] you could hear him breathing and turning in to Darth Vader. There was the dichotomy of him being so kind with his hound dog eyes and face. Then he would get in there and become [this other guy]. … He brought down giants. … Like with [Joseph] McCarthy, he knew historically what was going in. [Like Edward R. Murrow], he had the guts to go after McCarthy and knew how dangerous he was. To have someone like that, in that position at The Post — how cool was that?
Of the 20th century, he was the giant. There were a lot of great cartoonists, but there was not a great cartoonist in the position of being where every cartoon was a local cartoon in Washington. He influenced our government so much, and it’s true what Nixon said: “When you opened the paper … Oh my God.”
Current Chicago Tribune cartoonist described how Herb influenced him:
His work was a huge influence on me. Not so much artistically as much as conceptually. His passion and tenacity were a constant inspiration. Even when I was a kid growing up in Madison, Wisc., Herb’s work appeared almost daily in the afternoon daily. You just knew that his cartoon would pull no punches. I was amazed he could do that day after day.
As the Internet has continued to expand, the number of daily cartoonists in newspapers has dropped precipitously. It, along with the newspaper format, is a dying art form. Websites like Cagle.com help to get cartoonist’s work out to the public even if the cartoonist is not affiliated with a newspaper. Still, today, a political cartoon is an art form that is essential to a vibrant democracy. For 72 years, Herb Block defined that art form and its principles.
As next year’s National History Day competition begins in earnest in less than a month, I can think of no better topic that fits with the theme of Rights and Responsibilities in History than that of Herb Block.
For further reading
Books by Herb
Block, Herbert. Herblock: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist ed. by Harry Katz (2009)
Herblock’s history: political cartoons from the crash to the millennium. Library of Congress, 2000.
Herblock special report Norton, 1974
Herblock’s state of the Union. Simon and Schuster, (1972)
The Herblock gallery. Simon and Schuster, (1968)
Herblock’s here and now. Simon and Schuster, (1955).
The Herblock book (1952)
Herblock looks at Communism [1950?]