Offensive weapons: Herblock and the visual rhetoric of postwar liberalism

by Simon Appleford

Institution: University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
Department: 0342
Degree: PhD
Year: 2015
Keywords: American History
Record ID: 2058346
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/72916


Herbert Block???better known by his nom de plume "Herblock"???was one of the most prominent voices of liberalism in the postwar era. In his role as political cartoonist for the Washington Post, which he held from 1946 until his death in 2001, he articulated the values of liberalism to a much broader national audience than was reached by the writings of other liberal writers and intellectuals. In doing so, he played a critical role in shaping public discourse and opinion across a wide-range of political and social issues during the postwar era. This dissertation explores how Block's cartoons became tools to further the goals of liberalism in the three decades following the conclusion of the Second World War. Block's cartoons spoke not only to current events, but also regularly supported those causes???such as environmentalism, gun control, and, especially, civil liberties???that he viewed as critical to ensure and maintain the continued quality of life to which Americans should aspire. The longevity of his career and his unstinting and unapologetic support for the liberal agenda therefore affords a unique lens through which to interpret and understand the shifts and contours of twentieth century American political culture. Indeed, I argue that Block's cartoons interpreted, influenced, and reinforced postwar liberal opinion, ultimately helping to shape what became the standard liberal interpretation of the era, repeated in textbooks and depicted across popular culture. Traditional discussions of Block's cartoons pick and choose examples from a small subset of his total output to highlight the specific point that the scholar or commentator is trying to make. Instead of relying on a close reading of a sample of hand-selected cartoons that are extrapolated to draw broad conclusions about the nature of his liberalism, however, this dissertation instead analyzes Block's body of work from 1946 to 1976 in its entirety???some 8,500 cartoons. My analysis illuminates longer-scale trends in Block's output that are otherwise obfuscated by the day-to-day nature of his working schedule, such as how Block's cartoons consistently featured one political party over the other, regardless of his self-stated commitment to political neutrality, and suggests new methodologies that can be deployed by other researchers to interrogate large corpora of visual artifacts. In doing so, this dissertation reveals new insights into how a prominent member of the liberal mainstream interpreted and presented the events of the day and reveals how Block's cartoons, far from simply reflecting liberal ideology, helped define our very understanding of the nature and limits of twentieth century American liberalism.