Unlce Sam asks his allies France and Great Britain to repay the United States for helping them in World War I.
In the 1920’s to late 1930’s, the years following World War I, several European nations were indebted to the Unites States, causing prominent issues. In World War I, the United States joined forces with Great Britain, Belgium, Russia and France to form the Allies and work to defeat the Central Powers made up of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. The Allies were ultimately able to win the war and force Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which contained a war guilt clause. By signing this clause; Germany was accepting responsibility for all of the loss and damage that the war caused and agreeing to pay thirty two billion dollars in war reparations (Potter). War reparations are when a country makes amends for a transgression they have committed by paying money to the countries they wronged (Moulton and Pasvolsky). However, the years following the end of the war were difficult for the economies of Great Britain, France and Germany not only due to the devastation, but also the expenses that come with war, such as transportation, weapons, repairs etc. (“World War I Fast Facts”). Thus, the end of the war came with massive war reparations and war debts. These were no small sums; to put it into context, even in 2014 Great Britain was still making plans to pay back what they borrowed from the United States. (“First World War Debt to Be Paid off at Last”).
War debts refer to the money a country owes to another country for the resources that were borrowed to fight the war. After World War I, the United States asked for war reparations from Germany, as decided in the Treaty of Versailles, and for Great Britain and France to repay war debts. Considering much of the war took place on European soil, Germany, Great Britain, and France suffered a lot of destruction to their cities. This made it quite challenging for them to acquire the money they needed in order to fully repay the United States (Moulton and Pasvolsky).
The political cartoon by John Knott titled, “Better Than Nothing” published on December 30, 1931, in the Dallas Morning News, illustrates the United States asking to be repaid by their allies for help in the war. In the cartoon, it shows Uncle Sam representing the United States off the Coast of the Gulf of Mexico, asking Great Britain and France to pay the war debts they owe. Since France and Great Britain were unable to pay the war debts, you see Uncle Sam pointing to the land that is near him—the large colonial possessions of Great Britain and France in the West Indies, Guiana and Central America—while saying “I might take some real estate on account.” If Great Britain and France could not pay the money back, the United States did not want to go home empty-handed. While Uncle Sam is asking for the land, France and Great Britain are across the Atlantic Ocean looking quite unfazed as they are sharing a smoke together.
The title of Knott’s cartoon, “Better Than Nothing” coincides with an editorial that was published in the same Dallas Morning News issue; the editorial titled, “Reparations and War Debts,” announces that United States congress voted not to reduce or cancel the war debts. That meant that Great Britain and France were expected to pay back every cent of what they owed to the United States. The article also explains that Great Britain and France had their hands tied because they needed Germany to pay them reparations before they could even afford to repay the United States.The editor equated this situation to Great Britain and France essentially being “bankrupt” and stuck. Something was going to have to give or an alternative deal was going to have to be made in order to move forward.
Senator Capper, who was one of the Senators who had a hand in the ruling that no cancelations or reductions be made to the war debts, was quoted in an article in The New York Times as saying, “Uncle Sam has played Santa Claus long enough.” Senator Capper was worried that the amount of money the United States loaned to these countries was beginning to become “too much of a load.” At that point, not only had America paid for most of the war itself, but also the reconstruction that followed the war (“Capper Opposes Debt Revision; ‘Uncle Sam Santa Long Enough’”).
Another editorial that was featured alongside John Knott’s cartoon in the Dallas Morning News was entitled “Buy Them Out.” In the article, the editor explained how Representative McFadden of the United States Congress suggested an alternative deal that would help Great Britain and France repay the war debts they owed to the United States. Instead of forcing Great Britain and France to pay billions of dollars—that they did not have—McFadden proposed offering the countries a buyout deal where they would give up their colonial territories south of the United States as repayment of their debt. The article goes on to explain that if such an agreement were to be made, “Holland only would be left of European powers having control over United States territory south of Canada, excepting the Falkland Islands in South America.” Though this deal was fair in economic terms, it was most likely not going to be something on which Great Britain and France were eager to sign off.
The message Knott is getting across with his cartoon is that it is only fair for the United States to walk away with at least some sort of repayment for the debt that Great Britain and France owe, even if it is not in the form of cold hard cash. In the cartoon, Knott does not portray Great Britain and France as two men who are struggling and can barely get by; rather, Great Britain is drawn with a belly, portraying the state of being well-fed, and both Britain and France are smoking, which can be considered an act of luxury. This keeps the audience from empathizing with Britain and France and helps to show them that it is fair to expect the two countries to find a way to repay what they owe in some form or fashion.
When the United States Congress voted not to cancel or reduce the war debts owed by France and Great Britain, this demonstrated that the United States were demanding to be repaid no matter what. The question was not if, but how the United States was going to get repaid by these countries. John Knott illustrated a potential answer to this question through his cartoon. Works Cited
“Buy them out.” Dallas Morning News, December 30, 1931. Editorial.
“Capper Opposes Debt Revision; ‘Uncle Sam Santa Long enough’.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Dec 27, 1931, pp. 1. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/99200163?accountid=7118.
“First World War Debt to Be Paid off at Last.” Evening Standard, 03 Dec. 2014, p. 45. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=99762662&site=ehost-live.
Knott, John. “Better Than Nothing.” Dallas Morning News, 30 Dec. 1931. Editorial.
Moulton, Harold G., and Leo Pasvolsky. World war debt settlements. The Macmillan company, 1926.
Potter, Edmund D. “World War I debts,” The 1930s in America, edited by Thomas Tandy Lewis, Salem, 2011. Salem Online.
“Reparations and War Debts.” Dallas Morning News, December 30, 1931. Editorial.