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Isolationism versus Freedom of the Seas

Debating Freedom of the Seas, Uncle Sam reminds Senator Hiram Johnson of the consequences of entering World War I by displaying a list of casualties and war debt accrued.
Debating Freedom of the Seas, Uncle Sam reminds Senator Hiram Johnson of the consequences of entering World War I by displaying a list of casualties and war debt accrued.

The political cartoon “What Price Freedom of the Seas” by John Knott illustrates the struggle between the general public and politicians in the United States (U.S.) during the years preceding World War II. Opposing interpretations of the ideology: Freedom of the Seas, caused much debate between people who were against the war, but for commerce, and people who were against both. In the U.S.’s best interest to stay out of the war, Neutrality Acts were passed which allowed U.S. ships to be neutral against belligerent nations, and continue trade with both allied and hostile nations alike under the ideology: Freedom of the Seas. Many of the people in the Senate were Isolationists (people who were against any foreign contact/conflict) including Hiram Johnson who also was an advocate for free trade. The accompanying editorial to the cartoon, “Senate Neutrality Bill” brings in the differing viewpoints on the issue of Freedom of the seas. People recognized that the ideology was crucial for trade and geo-political control over the seas for the U.S., but the continuation of embargos was highly disputed especially after WWI where hostile nations attacked neutral American ships aiding Britain. The editorial compared the leadership during 1937 under Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to a past president’s ideology with foreign nations: “Speak softly and carry a big stick” -Theodore Roosevelt. This ideology and later policy meant negotiating peacefully with foreign nations while simultaneously intimidating them with a big stick (military power).(Big Stick Diplomacy 132)  This comparison is critical of FDR’s decision to continue trade while intimidating opposing forces with a “big-stick” as “a more timorous leader would stop trade at once in order to avoid trouble-making incidents” (Dallas Morning News) The different interpretations of the ideology “Freedom of the Seas” led to contradictory actions, unsuccessful neutrality acts, and an eventual entrance into the war just four years after Knott’s cartoon was published.

Knott’s 1937 cartoon depicts only two characters: Hiram Johnson and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam holds a piece of paper tallying the number of wounded and killed during World War I and the amount of debt accrued to the United States (U.S.) after the war ended. He has a disappointed expression on his face as he sadly puts his hand on Hiram Johnson’s shoulder who raises his fist and exclaims: “I believe that a nation’s commerce is its lifeblood and that we should insist upon our rights under International Law!” In Johnson’s hand he strongly holds onto a poster with the words “Freedom of the Seas” written on the side.

Hiram Johnson was a Republican U.S. senator in California from the years 1917 to 1945. Although Johnson took progressive positions in domestic affairs, he was an isolationist – strictly against getting involved in foreign affairs. He was against signing the Treaty of Versailles, and joining the League of Nations under Woodrow Wilson, but he helped endorse FDR’s New Deal. He was a big name and had a big voice in the isolationist movement. He was one of the few progressive republicans who was in favor of FDR, so when he chose to be in favor of the Neutrality Acts, he had much influence due to being favored by both Democrats and Republicans. FDR originally opposed the Neutrality legislation, but eventually approved the acts because of both parties agreeing, and his re-election on the horizon. Johnson tried to stay out of foreign conflict until the end of his career: “Although Johnson had been an outstanding Progressive governor, by the time of his death on Aug. 6, 1945, his views on foreign affairs made him part of an outdated isolationist minority in Congress.” (Hiram Warren Johnson 300) As a stylistic choice, Hiram Johnson was drawn heavier in the political cartoon. This portrayed the greediness of his statement in the cartoon to continue free trade while many citizens strongly predicted it would lead to war.

The U.S. firmly believed in having neutral waterways for commerce to continue, this protection in the seas is rooted in the ideology of “Freedom of the Seas.” In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while many countries were being colonized, some nations also wanted control of the seas surrounding their land. They enforced their power with naval force and bases at canals. (Rappaport 111) However, many of these nations believed the seas to be free like air: “Queen Elizabeth I of England proclaimed: ‘The use of the sea and air is common to all; neither can any title to the ocean belong to any people or private nation fought for free water travel, beginning with Thomas Jefferson, who enacted the Jefferson Embargo Act of 1803 (mentioned in the editorial as a parallel to the need for free water travel and commerce in 1937). The Embargo Act prohibited U.S. ships from going into foreign ports. This was to compel French and English ships from interfering with American merchant ships while they were in the Napoleonic Wars (a war over French expansion). This act eventually backfired and negatively impacted the U.S. economy until it was repealed. (Embargo Act (1807) 379) Freedom of the Seas was declared by London in 1908 as an unofficial agreement with allied and enemy nations, but no belligerent nations ratified it thus not binding them to it during World War I. “Upon the outbreak of war the United States called for a de facto observation of the Declaration of London.” (Young) The ideology was never set in international law except for small treaties between allied nations. As years went on this ideology was disputed in many nations, the U.S. being extremely for it, especially Hiram Johnson who used this ideology to continue to trade while war went on. It’s very contradictory that he was an isolationist that wanted to continue foreign trade at the cost of inevitably entering war.

Uncle Sam holds a sign with the debt owed to the U.S. after World War I and the number of American soldiers killed or wounded during the war. (Schuker 542) The expression on Uncle Sam’s face symbolizes the disappointment much of the public had in the Senate’s interpretation of Freedom of the Seas. Many people in both the general public, and in political chairs wanted to avoid war at all costs, as the war only 20 years prior to this cartoon was World War I, which was detrimental to the U.S. as a whole. Although many politicians knew about how devastating the past war was, they continued to push for free trade, which many people disagreed with as that would most likely lead to war. Due to there being no international law for free trade, and America simply enforcing it with a “big-stick” initiative, it was only a matter of time before hostile nations attacked U.S. ships bringing resources to friendly nations. This violation of the ideology would most likely bring the U.S. into the war. Robert Lansing, (Legal Advisor to the State Department at the beginning of World War I and later the Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson) compared the neutrality of 1937 to the neutrality of 1915 (World War I) due to the U.S. establishing itself as a neutral power, but eventually being brought into both wars because of belligerent nation violation of free waterways. (Lansing)

After World War I, the need to stay out of war in 1937 expanded into the Isolationist viewpoint (originated in 1934 in the Nye Committee). The main idea of Isolationism was avoiding alliances and conflict with all foreign nations completely. In 1934, there was speculation that the entrance into the World War I was for profit instead of good ethics. Created by the U.S. Senate, this committee investigated business leaders who were suspected of manufacturing supplies and trading with belligerent nations. “Committee members found little hard evidence of an active conspiracy among arms makers, yet the panel’s reports did little to weaken the popular prejudice against “greedy munitions interests.” (Schlesinger) This viewpoint was driven by Hiram Johnson in 1937, however his drive for free trade with belligerent and allied nations contradicted part of the Isolationist viewpoint, confounding the original ideology.

The Neutrality Acts, passed between 1935 and 1939, were the main catalysts of the cartoon and editorial because they allowed trade to continue between the U.S. and hostile nations. Congress passed four acts that limited American involvement in the ongoing war on the Seas and in Europe (Delaney 66). “[The Neutrality Act of 1935] banned all arms and ammunition shipments to belligerent nations and placed America’s armaments industry under federal control for six months.” (Delaney 66) As the four acts came out they edited the previous acts, usually strengthening them. The 1937 act had a “cash-and-carry” provision, allowing the U.S. to supply belligerent countries resources if they paid in cash and guaranteed that the U.S. would not become 9 (the same year the U.S. declared war). The Neutrality Acts were passed to keep the U.S. out of the war, but the inclusion of enforcing free trade with these acts ultimately made them unsuccessful as belligerent nations infringed upon the notion of “Freedom of the Seas” and attacked vessels sent to friendly nations.

The editorial “Senate Neutrality Bill” expressed the differing viewpoints groups of people at the time. The two options debated by citizens were: to completely end trade “… a more timorous leader would stop trade at once to avoid trouble-making incidents.” (Senate Neutrality Bill) While the other option was to continue the embargos under the Neutrality Acts because commerce and geo-political control in the seas was the lifeblood of the nation. Citizens, knew that free trade was vital, but they predicted it would lead to conflict “Yet embargoes create an international antagonism that may form the prelude to conflict.” Isolationists wanted nothing to do with any foreign nation. Hiram Johnson wanted free trade under the pretext of Freedom of the Seas, but he did not want to enter a war. The ultimate decisions made by FDR and the Senate couldn’t satisfy all of these viewpoints and this angered many people. Articles were written by regular citizens calling out the acts for not giving the citizens a choice and calling the neutrality a “compound of ignorance, timidity, and ignorant isolationism.” (Peace act). Although many of these people interpreted Freedom of the Seas differently, the ideal outcome as stated in the editorial, would be peace.

“What Price Freedom of the Seas” by John Knott illustrates how Hiram Johnson believed that through the Ideology of Freedom of the Seas and the upkeep of its principles through force or a “big stick” America should’ve been allowed to continue free trade with any nation. This greed made him blind to the possibility of conflict happening due to this continued trade, as it had happened before in 1807. Many citizens and politicians recognized the problem of continuing trade especially after the tragedies of World War I “We have grown older: we have burnt our fingers in war: we would like to keep the peace.” (Senate Neutrality Bill) The actual decisions made in the Senate eventually led to the U.S. entrance into World War II. The idea of Freedom of the Seas has been debated since ships were able to travel across the oceans. Many regions around the globe have had treaties signed to ensure power over their portion of the ocean while other nations pushed for complete neutrality of the seas (U.S. being one of these nations). Today, 57 years after the cartoon was published, Freedom of the Seas is set in international law: Freedom of Navigation, but the differing interpretations still exist, which may lead to miscommunication and conflict.



Works Cited

“Big Stick Diplomacy.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2015, pp. 132-133. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.

Delaney, David G. “Neutrality Acts.” Major Acts of Congress, edited by Brian K. Landsberg, vol. 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 66-69. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.

“Embargo Act (1807).” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2015, pp. 379-381. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.

“Hiram Warren Johnson.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Gale, 2004, pp. 300-301. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.

Knott, John. “What Price Freedom of the Seas.” Dallas Morning News. 5 March 1937.

Lansing, Roberrt. (1937, Jan 31). NEUTRALITY: 1915 SHEDS LIGHT ON 1937. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from

“Peace act,” 1937 model. (1937, Feb 23). The Washington Post (1923-1954) Retrieved from

Rappaport, Armin, and William Earl Weeks. “Freedom of the Seas.” Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, edited by Richard Dean Burns, et al., 2nd ed., vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002, pp. 111-122. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., and Roger Bruns, eds. Merchants of Death Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974.  New York:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1975.

Schuker, Stephen A. “World War I War Debts.” Dictionary of American History, edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 3rd ed., vol. 8, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, pp. 542-543. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.

Young, Jr., James Leroy: Freedom of the Seas , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08.

“Senate Neutrality Bill.” Dallas Morning News. 5 March 1937, page two.

Freedom of Navigation versus Freedom of the Seas

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, is seen pushing the United States’ 44th president Barack Obama back with a croupier stick in order to stop American military involvement in the South China Sea
The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, is seen pushing the United States’ 44th president Barack Obama back with a croupier stick in order to stop American military involvement in the South China Sea

In Heng Kim Song’s political cartoon “Heng on the South China Sea Dispute” the United States (U.S.) is seemingly infringing upon China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea under the pretext of the current International Law of Freedom of Navigation. The South China Sea (SCS) region has been a zone of conflict for many years after World War II with territorial and jurisdictional disputes. Having multiple nations fighting over potential natural resource deposits, fishing grounds, and strategic control over the waterways and islands make this region very dangerous. Currently, many of the countries in the region are working for peace and resolution. However, the U.S. has been sending military vessels under the pretext of Freedom of Navigation to spy on the islands owned by China due to speculation that the country is building major weaponry and military equipment on the Paracels, Spratlys, Macclesfield Bank, and Pratas groups of islands, threatening U.S. commerce and allied nations. Beijing has issue with the U.S.’s spying and over-extensive interpretation of the Freedom of Navigation agreement leading to tension and negative confrontation. This is also apparent in John Knott’s 1937 cartoon “What Price Freedom of the Seas?” where the U.S.’s interpretation of the ideology: Freedom of the Seas, has led to conflict and opposing opinions from the general public. In 1937, the upkeep of commerce and geo-political control over the seas was very important to the U.S. and they tried to maintain commerce with belligerent nations under the pretext of Freedom of the Seas. The importance of commerce and control is still apparent today in the South China Sea. Although 80 years apart, both cartoons depict the U.S. interpreting the notion that the seas are neutral, differently from other nations and people (whether the notion is an ideology or a law).

An article by Ankit Panda that sheds light on Heng’s cartoon is called “China Reacts Angrily to Latest US South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation” from the international news magazine: The Diplomat. The article presents both sides to the dispute. The U.S.’s argument is that “China claims to support freedom of navigation, but discriminates between civilian and military vessels” because they have captured American military vessels and drones in the past. While China’s argument is “Its [the U.S.’s] behavior has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, disrupted peace, security and order of the relevant waters and put in jeopardy the facilities on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation.” (Panda) This article and other articles like “Protecting Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea” from the Diplomat challenge the U.S. to ratify the UNCLOS before demanding other nations to allow them near their land under the international law.

The UNCLOS is “a comprehensive framework for the regulations of all ocean space” created in the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between the years 1973 and 1984. The UNCLOS set regulation rules for many different situations including: “…the limits of the territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of individual states; the right of access to the sea, freedom of navigation and other lawful uses of the sea in various maritime zones; exploitation, conservation and management of living resources of the sea; deep sea mining in the area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction; marine scientific research; protection and preservation of the marine environment; and the settlement of disputes.” (Mensah 463) As of today there are 157 signatories (countries that have signed) that include both the U.S. and China. However, the U.S. never ratified this treaty, making China doubt the legitimacy the U.S. has on using this law for its Freedom of Navigation operations in the SCS.

The United States has always believed in having neutral oceanic territory across the globe from the Jefferson Embargo Act of 1807 to today. This “Freedom of the Seas” idea allowed nations to travel across all waterways for commerce, natural resource hunting, and simple passage across the oceans without fear of being attacked by other nations near their waterways. This idea is still extremely important to the U.S. today because of commerce, international business, and natural resource deposits rely heavily on being able to send ships freely through the seas.   However, this was only an idea, mostly reinforced through intimidation from the U.S. and small agreements between allied nations. The introduction of the UNCLOS in 1994 legally set this ideology in international law, changing the idea of “Freedom of the Seas” to “Freedom of Navigation” with many nations signing onto it, ratifying it, and abiding by it. This change gave the U.S. more incentive and protection to spy on China’s current developments on their islands (shared by many allied nations to the U.S. like Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines).

The main region of conflict in the SCS are the many groups of islands often categorized into the Paracels, Spratlys, Macclesfield Bank, and Pratas (these islands are also often simply grouped into either the Paracel islands which are all the islands in the northeast, and the Spratlys islands -northwest). These islands are currently owned by six claimates: Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and China. All of these nations recognize that “the Sea is one of the primary routes for international trade, and many claimants believe that the Sea hides bountiful oil reserves in addition to its plentiful fishing stocks.” (Mirski) However, it wasn’t always this way, in fact, at the end of World War II, no claimate owned a single one of these islands. Ownership of these islands only gained attention a year after the war: “Then, in 1946, China established itself on a few features in the Spratlys, and in early 1947, it also snapped up Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands chain.” (Mirski) But the SCS was still not seen as a priority until 1955 and 1956 where other nations started to claim different portions of these island chains. In the 1970’s claiming these islands became even more urgent to the nations surrounding them because oil was found beneath the waters. This led to invasions and the Battle of the Paracel islands where many Vietnamese were killed by Chinese naval forces. China later invaded more chains in 1988 killing more Vietnamese people. In 1995 China built bunkers above Mischief Reef for protection, causing a dangerous increase of tension between all the claimates.

In response to this rivalry, in 2002 China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN- which included Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos) came together to sign the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS. (Mirski) The declaration was “a code ‘to lay the foundation of long-term stability’ with respect to the territorial dispute.” (Baviera 348) This code’s purpose is to provide stability and peace between all the nations involved in the Sea, but it can only be upkept if all parties act civilly and peacefully. Today the U.S. speculates that China is beginning to show threatening signs of neglecting this code with the numerous sightings of increased militarization on these islands, threatening the friendly nations and U.S. commerce. (McLaughlin)

The reason for U.S. involvement in the Sea (other than for maintenance of free trade) is due to satellite images taken in 2015 revealing increased militarization on Chinese man-made islands. These man-made islands have been on the news since 2015: “China has begun secretly constructing a military airstrip on a man-made island in the South China Sea, provoking alarm among countries in the region already fearful of its increasingly aggressive actions. Satellite images released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington show that Chinese workers have constructed a third of a runway, eventually expected to be almost two miles long, on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.” (Coghlan) The speculation around these islands is that they will be vital landing pads and pubs for military ships and planes as China wards off other claimates or eventually decides to invade the other islands. More images were captured later by drones, satellite, and planes throughout 2016, confirming American speculation. Beijing has had a number of these drones seized due to a violation on their Freedom of Navigation interpretation, making the U.S. want to send even more drones due to this need for secrecy.

The cartoon itself shows two main characters: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping who represent the leadership of the United States and the Republic of China at the time this cartoon was published. They are depicted standing at a sand table with models of jets, missiles, flags, and military vessels often used to coordinate war strategies. As Obama moves a jet towards where the Chinese arrows point, Xi Jinping pushes Obama back with a croupier stick while exclaiming “Beat it!” This cartoon depicts the conflicts going in the SCS on a smaller scale being just between Barack Obama and Xi Linping in a small room, around a sand table. The sand table is often used in war strategies, and this depiction in the cartoon shows the geo-political “game” these two leaders are playing. The consequences of this political game can be detrimental. The cartoon’s small-scale depiction and inclusion of toy planes and ships may also have a different meaning… Both nations think the other’s interpretation of the law is faulty, but not many things have been done to resolve the conflict, similar to arguments made by children on a playground. The model planes, ships, and the phrase “Beat it!” make Xi Linping look like a school bully on a playground, shooing away another kid wanting to play with the jets. Knowing the true magnitude of the actual conflict makes this interpretation seem a bit out there, but it may be Heng criticizing the actions made by both leaders that led to no resolution.

Behind Obama is a door with the word “Asia” written on it, suggesting that the rest of Asia may be metaphorically “behind closed doors” in this conflict because of how much more powerful both the U.S. and China are than the other Asian nations involved in this ordeal. Although much of the other claimates in this conflict are geographically much closer to China than the U.S., they are allowing the U.S. to continue getting involved in the SCS for personal interest. Barack Obama in this cartoon is in-front of the door that says Asia, representing the other countries and standing at the frontline against China. Many of these smaller nations depend of the U.S. for its umbrella of defense. Xi Linping pushing Obama back with a stick instead of a serious weapon also shows that the conflict for now is somewhat peaceful for the time being.

The U.S. involvement in the South China Sea is heavily based on the maintenance of international trade. The U.S. is taking actions that respect its interpretation of Freedom of Navigation, but so is China. As of today, there is no concrete resolution between these two interpretations, all the while the tensions keep rising. This is also apparent in John Knott’s cartoon where different groups of people and belligerent nations interpreted the ideology of Freedom of the Seas differently. In the Knott cartoon belligerent nations violated the ideology and it pushed America into the war, as many citizens predicted. Currently both China and the U.S. think the other is violating the law, and this is only leading to confrontation and conflict. The parallels of these instances that are 80 years apart are staggering, but hopefully this time the U.S. will not repeat history, and not enter a World War for a third time.


Works Cited

Baviera, Aileen S.P. “The South China Sea Disputes After the 2002 Declaration: Beyond Confidence-Building.” ASEAN-China RelationsRealities and Prospects, edited by Saw Swee-Hock, et al., Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005, pp. [344]-355. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Coghlan, Tom. “Satellite images show China’s secret island airstrip” Times, The (United Kingdom) news edition 2, EBSCO Industries Inc. 18 April 2015. Web.

Gates, Douglas. “Protecting Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.” The Diplomat. 28 May 2015. Web. 12 November 2017.

Heng Kim Song. “Heng on the South China Sea Dispute.” New York Times. print.  22 February 2016.

McLaughlin, Elizabeth. “What you need to know about tensions in the South China Sea.” ABC News. 17 March 2017. Web. 12 November 2017.

Mensah, Thomas A. “UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).” Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, edited by Ted Munn, et al., vol. 4: Responding To Global Environmental Change, Wiley, 2002, pp. 462-463. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Mirsky, Sean. “The South China Sea Dispute: A Brief History.” Lawfare. Publ. by the Lawfare Institute in Cooperation With Brookings. 8 June 2015. Web.

Panda, Ankit. “China Reacts Angrily to Latest US South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation.” The Diplomat. 4 July 2017. Web.  3 November 2017.