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Background and Scope of this Collection
Herblock began drawing cartoons for daily newspapers in his native Chicago in 1929, just six months before the stock market crash plunged the world into the Great Depression. During his first decade as a cartoonist, the themes of economic catastrophe and war dominated his work.
Only nineteen when his career began, Block imitated the Midwestern School of editorial cartooning epitomized by John T. McCutcheon (1870-1949) of the Chicago Tribune, characterized by sparing use of black space and a loose ink brush line on smooth, layered paper board. Early in 1933 Block left Chicago for Cleveland, becoming the editorial cartoonist for Scripps-Howard's syndicate, the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA).
By the mid-1930s his characteristic style--the use of strong graphite shading and confident ink brush strokes on stippled coquille paper--had emerged. His characters lost their comic strip roundedness and became more accurate representations as well as strong caricatures. By the time World War II erupted, Block had broken with the Midwestern School and matured as a cartoonist.
Herb Block attacked the isolationist policy of the United States government long before Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, because he understood that the fascists in Europe were an international issue. Block's cartoons attacking Francisco Franco in Spain, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Adolf Hitler in Germany demonstrated his matured style, with his deliberate and assured use of ink brush and pencil.
The Depression and the war in Europe politicized Block, and he developed opinions that, at times, were at odds with those of his publishers. His editor at Scripps-Howard, Fred Ferguson, took exception to some of his cartoons and summoned him to New York in 1942. While he was en route, news broke that Block had won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, which effectively prevented Ferguson from firing his star cartoonist. In 1943, Block left his NEA position for service in the Army, where he drew cartoons and wrote articles before mustering out in 1945.
Cold War beginnings, 1940s-1950s
In the years following World War II, growing tensions between world powers and the chilling threat of nuclear warfare gave rise to what is commonly called the "Cold War Era." From 1948 to 1953 these tendencies intensified. As the leading democracy in the postwar world, the United States found its influence and authority challenged by dictators of totalitarian states as they consolidated their positions in the global hierarchy. Herb Block's cartoons during this time critique the nature of totalitarian states and their sometimes violent imposition of authority on their own societies and others. He also voiced urgent need for international agreement on nuclear arms control.
Herblock won his second Pulitzer Prize for his 1953 cartoon on the death of Joseph Stalin. As relations worsened between the U.S. and Soviet Union, internal debates flared within America over varied forms of Communist infiltration. Communist China took aggressive action in Korea, which eventually led to American involvement in the Korean War.
Senator Joseph McCarthy and other American elected officials responded to the Cold War and the threat of Soviet expansionism by attacking citizens who they perceived had ties to the Communist Party. Herblock invented the term "McCarthyism," but, as his cartoons show, he inherently understood that the evils inflicted in the name of combating communism were not the work of McCarthy alone. He also castigated other congressman for using their political power to ruin private lives based on little concrete evidence. Among those Block challenged were House Un-American Activities Committee members Richard Nixon, J. Parnell Thomas, Harold Velde, and Karl Mundt, as well as McCarthy ally Senator William E. Jenner. Block perceived the dangers of an unchecked smear campaign by elected officials pretending to defend America, and wrote, "They had been more interested in prosecutions--or persecutions--than they were in justice." Herblock realized that human lives and reputations were at stake and stood up to defend them.
The 1960s dawned auspiciously with the election of John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected President in the nation's history. Hopes for enacting his progressive New Frontier initiatives faded, however, after his assassination in 1963. Years of extraordinary social, cultural and political unrest unfolded as the nation also experienced the assassinations of Kennedy's brother Robert and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, racial riots, confrontations with communist powers, the Vietnam War, and increased polarization between citizens.
Through his clearly articulated cartoons, Herblock brought balance and well informed opinion into the arena of public debate during this turbulent decade. With insight and even humor, when possible, he illuminated facets of the African American struggle for equal rights, domestic vs. military spending, extremism, space race, and the horrific possibility of nuclear annihilation.
In his cartoons and book Herblock Special Report (1974), Herblock traces the political rise and fall of Richard M. Nixon. His account begins in the 1940s and 1950s when Nixon used "dirty tricks" in his run for congressional office, followed by his 1954 "anti-Communist" campaign that damaged the careers of reputable senators, his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up, and eventual departure in disgrace from the presidency. In his foreword, Herblock explains that his cartoons and book did not arise from "simply 'not liking' [Nixon]... It was not liking what he did . . ." Along with colleagues at the Washington Post, Block won a special Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Watergate scandal - work that helped precipitate Nixon's resignation in the face of probable impeachment. Noting that he probably created more cartoons relating to Nixon than he did on almost any other individual, Herblock observed that Nixon's career "in some way has affected all of us."
Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and the 1970s
Herb Block did not have a high opinion of either the Ford or Carter administrations, which he believed bungled international relations in the Middle East. Oil became the lynchpin of the 1970s, as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) increasingly controlled the price of oil, affecting the world's economies and politics. Block questioned Ford's relationship with the Middle East, citing his willingness to take advantage of countries' increased oil wealth by selling them weapons. He feared the rise of terrorism, both by officially recognized governments and by groups attempting to undermine the existing political system. He attacked the Carter administration for its inability to take a firm stand on international issues, accusing it of lack of leadership. Although Jimmy Carter triumphed with the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, the hostage crisis in Iran (1979-1981) irrevocably marred his presidency.
Ronald Reagan and the 1980s
Herblock believed that Ronald Reagan's policies of government deregulation, unimpeded spending, and readiness to undo social programs made a shambles of the country. Reagan appalled Herblock in a way that only Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon had done before. The "tangled web" of foreign policy--especially the Iran-Contra affair--that deceived the American people, angered him. He wrote, "Ronald Reagan had not only run against the federal government when he first campaigned for the presidency; he continued to run against it while heading it. So there might be considered a certain logic to his efforts to get around government rules and restrictions when they interfered with what he and his band of performers wanted to do." Block spent eight years reminding Americans of what had transpired and attacked what he perceived as the unmitigated greed of the Reagan Administration.
Bill Clinton, George Bush, and the 1990s
Herb Block remained active into his last years, with his zeal for tackling key issues and assessing the deeds and words of prominent public figures undiminished. His cartoons about Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush highlight striking contrasts between the two: Bush, the self-contained 'compassionate conservative' vs. Clinton, the initiative-driven activist. Block criticized trends or conditions that he found troubling during Clinton's tenure: the rich getting richer, the lack of parity in women's salaries, and a willingness to overlook human rights violations abroad. He criticized candidate Bush's lack of forthrightness, and later, President Bush's energy policy. Of special note, Block exposed flaws in the American political process that became apparent in the 2000 presidential election, namely, Bush's fundraising reached record highs, unchecked by campaign finance reform. Block also powerfully conveyed widely shared dismay when Bush became the first president in more than a century to take office without a plurality of the popular vote.
Compiled by Sara Duke and Martha Kennedy, 2009.