All posts by roya

If They Would Exchange Presents

Cartoonist John Knott ridicules the post World War I predicament of U.S. and European relations in regards to the stalemate between war debt revision and disarmament.
Cartoonist John Knott ridicules the post World War I predicament of U.S. and European relations in regards to the stalemate between war debt revision and disarmament.

If They Would Exchange Presents is a political cartoon by John Francis Knott mocking the predicament of U.S. and European relations post-World War I. It depicts “Europe” giving the gift of disarmament to the U.S., represented by Uncle Sam, in exchange for war debt revisions. The cartoon implies that Europe would disarm if the U.S. would revise, or essentially decrease, European war debt; likewise, the cartoon suggests that the U.S. would gladly decrease European war debt if Europe were to disarm first (Knott 2). The accompanying editorial titled “The Reparations Problem” summarizes the context of the cartoon. It explains that by the end of 1931, the U.S. Congress finally gave approval for a one-year postponement of German reparations, acknowledging a proposal made in the previous year by then President Herbert Hoover. The U.S. Congress did not want to cancel war repayments, as it strongly indicated to the International Committee on Reparations, but instead wanted to suspend payments. The reason for Germany’s inability to pay was that it could only pay from borrowed money that it was no longer able to obtain or from money made off of exports that were heavily tariffed (“The Reparations Problem” 2).

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Serbian nationalists in 1914 catapulted Europe into the First World War. The assassination set off a domino effect, causing country after country to get involved in the escalating conflict that eventually developed into World War I. What ensued after the war was the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, a meeting that established the terms of peace after the war, and during this conference the Treaty of Versailles was established (Cochran). The reparation clauses of the Treaty of Versailles stated that Germany was to take responsibility for the damages caused by World War I and that it must adhere to a payment schedule to pay back the cost of those damages. The mindset of the United States and its allies was that they were essentially dragged into the war out of obligation, and therefore should be repaid for everything lost in the war. However, it was known that Germany could not pay the entire costs of the war and that it was nearly impossible to create a realistic repayment schedule in 1919, the year that the treaty was signed. The Treaty of Versailles did not have a definitive reparation settlement (Merriman and Winter 2207). Therefore, naturally, Germany wanted debt revisions. Germany, however, wasn’t the only European country in debt. For example, in 1934, Britain still owed the US $4.4 billion of World War I debt (Rohrer). For this reason, Knott’s cartoon depicts “Europe” in need of war debt revision and not just Germany.

The disarmament portion of the cartoon pertains to the U.S.’s insistence on worldwide disarmament, highlighted in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace proposal that said, “All countries should reduce their armed forces to the lowest possible levels (Multilateral disarmament.)” (Fuller). The Treaty of Versailles initiated the notion of disarmament by targeting Germany in particular, forcing them to take full blame for World War I and to disarm. “The German army was to be limited to 100,000 men and conscription proscribed; the treaty restricted the Navy to vessels under 100,000 tons, with a ban on the acquisition or maintenance of a submarine fleet. Moreover, Germany was forbidden to maintain an air force” (“Treaty of Versailles, 1919″).  The Treaty’s main concern was the disarmament of Germany. Politicians, journalists, and academics argued at the time that the naval race for arms was one of the major causes of the war. Based on this idea, the victors of the war decided to force Germany to disarm due to its previous invasion attempts toward France. It was thought that by forcing its disarmament, Germany was being stripped of its power to wage war (Merriman and Winter 856). Soon, this philosophy was expanded to include all European nations. “Following the atrocities of World War I, both nations [the U.S. and Great Britain] hoped to avoid any future conflicts, and both faced difficult economic times that restricted military spending. As a consequence, the two governments were willing to consider serious limits on offensive weapons” (World History Encyclopedia 593).

Reduction of conflict, however, wasn’t the only motivation behind disarmament. The Great Depression diverted attention from the issue of disarmament to debt and unemployment. In 1932, everyone owed America money, but because of the depression, few countries could repay their loans. The U.S. decided that if nations didn’t spend money on arms, they would be able to repay the United States; therefore, the U.S. called for worldwide disarmament (Bradley 38).

Knott’s cartoon represents a very circular predicament. The two entities were at a stalemate. The U.S. was the world’s major creditor nation, and in order to get paid back, it insisted on worldwide disarmament so that funds could be redirected to debt repayment. Europe, however, would only disarm if war debts were lowered and revised first. It was as though this political stalemate could only be resolved by some miracle.

That is exactly the point Knott wants to impress upon his audience. The illustration of the Christmas tree, along with the fact that the cartoon was being published on Christmas Eve, gives the cartoon an air of Christmas spirit. The term “Christmas Miracle” is typically used to emphasize how unlikely an event is to occur, and that seems to be what Knott is implying as the only solution to this conflict – a Christmas Miracle – given how unlikely a compromise seemed in 1931.  What is also humorous is how nonchalant the gift exchange is, almost trivializing the damages and lives lost in the war. It is as if there is no rivalry or conflict of interest between the two parties; it’s not as aggressive, or desperate, or even as somber as one would expect. It is definitely not a gift exchange of good will either; Christmas is regarded as a time of selfless generosity and community, a time of giving rather than receiving without the expectation of anything in return. However this is a very self-interested exchange, defying the traditional, selfless ideals of Christmas. These contradictions serve as indirect attacks on the U.S. and Europe’s inability to reach an agreement.

If They Would Exchange Presents is a political cartoon by John Knott that focused attention on and mocked the diplomatic gridlock between the U.S. and Europe. It uses the setting and themes of Christmas to criticize the two sides’ uncompromising stances toward disarmament and war debt revisions, comparing the successful exchange of “presents” to a Christmas Miracle. The cartoon serves as political commentary on post-World War I negotiations and ranks as one of Knott’s many politically motivated cartoons.

Works Cited

Bradley, F. J. He Gave the Order: The Life and Times of Admiral Osami Nagano. Bennington: Merriam Press, 2014. Google Books. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Cochran, Philip. Austin Community College. Austin, Texas. 27 Oct. 2015. Lecture.

Fuller, Richard. “The Treaty of Versailles – 28th June 1919.” rpfuller. rpfuller, 3 June 2010. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Knott, John. “If They Would Exchange Presents.” Cartoon. Dallas Morning News [Dallas, Texas] 24 Dec. 1931, sec. 2: 10. Print.

Merriman, John, and Jay Winter. “Disarmament.” Child Care to Futurism. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 855. Print. Vol. 2 of Europe since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction.

Merriman, John, and Jay Winter. “Reparations.” Nagy to Switzerland. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 2206. Print. Vol. 4 of Europe since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction.

“The Reparations Problem.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News [Dallas, Texas] 24 Dec. 1931, 85th ed., sec. 2: 2. Print.

Rohrer, Finlo. “What’s a Little Debt between Friends?” BBC News. BBC News Magazine, 10 May 2006. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

“Treaty of Versailles, 1919.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Watch Out for Greek Debt!

The cartoon Watch Out for Greek Debt! depicts the famous Greek statue Discobolus by Myron with “Greece” written on it, ready to throw a discus symbolizing debt at other, cowering European countries.
The cartoon Watch Out for Greek Debt! depicts the famous Greek statue Discobolus by Myron with “Greece” written on it, ready to throw a discus symbolizing debt at other, cowering European countries.

The political cartoon Watch Out for Greek Debt! depicts the famous Greek statue Discobolus, with the word “Greece” written on it, ready to throw a discus, which symbolizes debt, at other cowering European countries (Sooke). The statue is posed as if it is about to hurl the discus, and all of the statues around it are ducking to avoid getting hit. This cartoon symbolizes how the other countries are avoiding getting “hit” by the negative consequences of Greek debt and having all of their political-economic progress regress (“Watch out for Greek Debt!”). The cartoon emphasizes the potentially devastating effects of Greek debt for other European countries in the Eurozone.

The European Union (EU) is an economic and political partnership between twenty-eight European countries that was created in the aftermath of World War II. The intent behind the creation of the EU is that countries that trade with each other become economically interdependent and therefore more likely to avoid conflict. The establishment of the EU brought about the creation of the euro, the single currency used across the twenty-eight countries (“The EU in brief”). Greece is one of the many members of the EU, along with Ireland, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Portugal, to name a few (“Countries in the EU and EEA”). Greece in particular, however, is singled out in this cartoon as the most vulnerable as well as the most threatening member of the bunch.

Greece is in the midst of a debt crisis that could potentially crumble the economies of its European neighbors. After Wall Street crashed in 2008, Greece became the center of Europe’s debt crisis. Greece admitted that it had been understating its deficit figures for years and suddenly found itself shut out from borrowing in financial markets, leading the country toward bankruptcy. This sudden decline put Europe on the verge of a new financial crisis. To avoid collapse, the financial troika – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission – issued the first of two international bailouts for Greece, which would eventually total more than $264 billion in today’s exchange rates. “Greece’s relations with Europe are in a fragile state, and several of its leaders are showing impatience” (“Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained”).

The other countries depicted in the cartoon are not chosen at random either. Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – collectively called “The PIGS”– are known for having “binged on cheap debt” and “allowed citizens’ benefits to go well beyond the means of their governments.” In 2010, the PIGS were going bankrupt at a fast rate and threatened the continued existence of the euro and the entire European project. However, since then, all of the PIGS except for Greece are returning to economic health (Dawber). Now Greece is putting them at risk of relapsing into economic instability, threatening the euro in the process. This is symbolized in the cartoon as “Greece” throwing a discus of “debt” at its neighboring European countries.

There is coincidental irony in the name of the statue, Discobolus, and the subject matter involved. The suffix “obolus” means “a silver coin or unit of weight equal to one sixth of a drachma, formerly used in ancient Greece” (“obolus”). It is ironic that a discus that symbolizes a Greek drachma has “debt” written on it, as if foreshadowing that Greece being a part of the EU and using the euro as its currency has a formidable future of debt crisis.

The issues illustrated in Watch Out for Greek Debt! have a lot of similarity to the issues depicted in the political cartoon If They Would Exchange Presents by John Knott (Knott 2). Published on Christmas Eve 1931, Knott’s cartoon shows Uncle Sam of the United States offering a Christmas gift of war debt revisions to a queen representing Europe; and in the generous spirit of the season, she is offering the gift of disarmament in exchange.

In the twenty-first century, Greece is in debt to other countries much like Germany was in the aftermath of World War I. In the 1930s, the United States wanted Germany and the rest of Europe to disarm so that the funds going toward armament could instead go toward debt repayment; thus, in If They Would Exchange Presents, Europe’s gift to the U.S. was disarmament. In Knott’s cartoon, Germany, along with the rest of the indebted European nations, was asking for war debt revisions so that their debt load wasn’t so crippling. Germany was blamed for the damages and costs of World War I and was required to pay back the costs to the Allied nations. Repayment obligations were so onerous that they needed a moratorium and debt revisions to ever back on their feet. Similarly, in Watch Out for Greek Debt!, Greece is held responsible for threatening Europe’s economy, and needs bailouts for its crippling debt like Germany was asking for war debt revisions. “The bailout money mainly goes toward paying off Greece’s international loans, rather than making its way into the economy. And the government still has a staggering debt load that it cannot begin to pay down unless a recovery takes hold” (“Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained”).

The humor of comparing these two cartoons, and particularly comparing twenty-first century Germany and Greece, is that Germany is now the poster-child for Greece to model itself after. “Germany has fewer outstanding tax debts than any other country in Europe, while Greece has more than any other. That difference not only helps Germany enjoy a far more fiscally sound position than Greece, but it offers a stark contrast between a disciplined government and one that historically has been hardly disciplined” (O’Brien). It is ironic that Germany, which once was economically unstable and deeply indebted to other countries, is now an example of European economic health, the example to which Greece aspires.

Lastly, in Watch Out for Greek Debt!, Greece has the potential of putting contemporary Europe in as much debt and economic instability as in the 1930s because of the region’s shared economic interdependence on the euro. The Knott cartoon shows Europe of that era requesting war debt revisions because it is in an economic rut. Contemporary Europe could potentially descend into similar economic turmoil because if Greece were to collapse, then the euro could collapse with them, causing a domino effect.

Works Cited

“Countries in the EU and EEA.” GOV.UK. Gov.UK, 24 July 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Dawber, Alistair. “While Greece Flails, Are the Rest of the Stricken Pigs Taking Off?” Independent. Independent, 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

“The EU in Brief.” Europa. European Commission, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

“Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained.” The New York Times. New York Times, 31 Oct. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Knott, John. “If They Would Exchange Presents.” Cartoon. Dallas Morning News [Dallas, Texas] 24 Dec. 1931, sec. 2: 10. Print.

“Obolus.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed. N.p.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. The Free Dictionary. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

O’Brien, Matt. “7 Key Things to Know about Greece’s Debt Crisis and What Happens Next.” The Washington Post. N.p., 5 July 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Sooke, Alastair. “The Discobolus: Greeks, Nazis and the Body Beautiful.” BBC. BBC, 24 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

“Watch out for Greek Debt!” Cartoon. Enikos. N.p., 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.