Diploma History© 2012-13 Contact Me

with Mr. Conway

Cold War Cartoons

Political cartoons have a long tradition in the Western world. In countries like the United States, cartoons are used to lampoon political and civic leaders. The secret to understanding political cartoons is to understand how different subjects are characterized and how people are presented in caricature.

Lampoon: to publicly criticize someone by using ridicule, irony or sarcasm.
Caricature: a picture, description or imitation of a person or thing in which a striking characteristic is exaggerated for comic or grotesque effect.

Let’s look at some simple examples and how to interpret them.


In this example the author is presenting a critical view of the Marshall Plan (written on the flag on the bicycle). The friendly, older American taxpayer is encouraging a large, overweight and apparently drunken Europe to Keep pumpin’! on the road to Self Support. The aim of the cartoon may not be overt criticism of the Marshall Plan as much as a simple commentary on the depth and level of American commitment. It is important to note that the character assisting the struggling cyclist is the American taxpayer and not the more traditional character Uncle Sam. The Marshall Plan, in other words, was a financial commitment that was born by the average American and not simply by a government decree. The caption below the cartoon reads “I think he’s getting the hang of it” indicating that Europe would eventually be able to utilize the Marshall Plan for a full recovery and would ultimately be stabilized by the influx of American aid.

Stalin Plan

In this next image the Marshal Stalin Plan is juxtaposed against the Marshall Plan in an obvious critique of Soviet response.

Juxtapose: to place close together for the purpose of drawing a comparison

The caption reads: It’s the same thing without mechanical problems. Indicating that part of the American aid package was also increased mechanization in the agricultural centers of Western Europe. This is an important point because if you consider comments made in our study of World War II, you should recall that American soldiers were often shocked when they saw the number of horses that the German Army required to transport arms and materiel. The United States arrived in Europe with a fully mechanized force that was vastly superior in mobility to most European armies.

A second part of this cartoon is the use of the hammer and sickle symbol of communism. The symbol is broken into a plough that is being pulled by a straining laborer while Stalin explains the benefits of his “Plan.” One of the workers is harnessed to the plough like a draught animal while another labors behind the sickle. Meanwhile, another peasant looks on over the wall that separates the two spheres of influence in Europe.

Iron Curtain

In this cartoon we can see that the subject is an obvious parody of a stage play where Stalin is nervously peaking behind the Iron Curtain. Churchill and Truman sit in the balcony while the other Western Democracies are seated behind the orchestra. The sign on the placard reads Item 1, the 3 Blockade Lifters. This cartoon was quite obviously made at the time of the Berlin blockade. The orchestra is ready and waiting for Stalin to begin the show and to enter his own demands for lifting the Berlin blockade. One of the things that this cartoon does well is to highlight the drama of the blockade and Stalin’s own performance. The blockade was a political, diplomatic stunt more than a legitimate plan of action and Stalin had no specific plan for ending the blockade. Since none of his demands were met he eventually had to simply abandon the blockade despite the loss of face in the international community.

What is important when looking at a political cartoon is to understand that they should not be difficult to interpret. At the same time, you should look for markers that give you an indication of time, place and personality.


In this cartoon the setting is the United States, with the dome of the US Capitol building in the background. A young girl stands in the middle of the scene while some men circle in protest– one man with a sign reading If you ain’t for Frnaco and Chiang, you’re un-American. The commentary here refers to two important points. The first is that the 1950s in America was dominated by an extremist trend called McCarthyism. During the McCarthy period, thousands of suspected communists were persecuted and driven from their jobs and offices. This is undoubtedly one of the blackest periods of American history because the United States initiated a veritable witch-hunt within its own State Department. (One man carries a briefcase with the title State Department.) The result was that many qualified experts on the Soviet Union and China were driven from office for suspected communist tendencies, thereby putting the cause of American diplomacy back. We can see the image of Senator Joseph McCarthy holding a bucket of black paint or tar with the word Smear written across it. McCarthy was involved in a devastating smear campaign that blackened reputations, ruined careers and devastated people’s lives.

At the same time, the placard mentions Franco and Chiang- Franco was the fascist dictator of Spain and Chiang refers to Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo of Taiwan. Both men were autocratic dictators who instituted martial law in their nations and led very repressive regimes. However, both men were also staunch anti-communists and so the United States was willing to overlook their crimes in favor of their anti-communist stance. This cartoon refers to the blatant hypocrisy of the United States as the caption reads, What ever happened to freedom from fear?

McCarthy was finally reprimanded and censured by the United States Senate in 1954 and ended his career in disgrace, however, during the McCarthy era of trials and reckless accusations, Americans became reactionary to the point of extremism. The important goals of the Bill of Rights and American civil rights were abandoned in a time of fear mongering and nationalistic paranoia. The legacy of the McCarthy era left a deep impression on the psyche on the American public and also contributed to a polarization of American society.

Now have a look at a cartoon from the Berlin blockade era. Each one of you can try and write a short paragraph that describes the cartoon and its intended message. Have fun!


The net on top reads: Demand for Air Control