Better Than Nothing…
From the 1920’s to late 1930’s, the years following World War I, several European nations were indebted to the United States. This was due to the fact that the United States helped in many parts of the war and was not paid back. In World War I, the United States joined forces with Great Britain, Belgium, Russia and France to form the Allies, who worked together to defeat the Central Powers 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. This Treaty contained a “war guilt clause.” By signing this clause, Germany accepted responsibility for all of the loss and damage that the war caused and agreed 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 World War I were difficult for the economies of Great Britain, France and Germany not only due to the devastation, but also the expenses that came with war, such as transportation, weapons, repairs, and so forth. (“World War I Fast Facts”). Thus, the end of the WWI came with massive war reparations and war debts, which were not small sums. War debts refer to the money a country owes to another country for the resources that were borrowed to fight the war. 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”).
With their massive war reparation debts, from Germany, who had just signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28,1919, with allied nations -Britain, France, Italy and Russia- to formally end the war, Germany struggled to pay back what was determined to be owed to Great Britain and France, according to the Treaty of Versailles. In turn, this made it quite challenging for Great Britain and France 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, depicts the United States asking to be repaid by its allies for their help in the war. The cartoon shows Uncle Sam, who represents the United States, standing off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and asking Great Britain and France to pay the war debts they owe. Since France and Great Britain were unable to pay their war debts, Uncle Sam points to the land that is near him—the large colonial possessions of Great Britain and France in the West Indies, Guiana and Central America—and says, “I might take some real estate on account.” Meanwhile,
Great Britain and France stare back across the Atlantic Ocean, looking quite unfazed as they share a smoke together. Knott’s illustration makes the point that if Great Britain and France could not pay the money back, then the United States did not want to go home empty-handed and would instead accept the two European powers’ colonial territories in the Americas as repayment.
The title of Knott’s cartoon, “Better Than Nothing,” coincides with an editorial that was published in the same Dallas Morning News issue. Written during the Great Depression, the editorial titled, “Reparations and War Debts,” announces that the 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 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 Arthur Capper, a U.S. Representative of the state of Kansas who had a prominent 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 Great Britain and France 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 for 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 piece, the editor explained how congressman Louis Thomas McFadden, a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, suggested an alternative deal that would help Great Britain and France repay the war debts they owed 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 further explained 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 an agreement that Great Britain and France would accept.
The message in John Knott’s cartoon was that it was only fair for the United States to walk away with at least some sort of repayment for the debt that Great Britain and France owed, even if it was 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 financially 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, an act of luxury. This kept the audience from empathizing with Britain and France and helped to show the fairness of expecting the two countries to find a way to repay what they owed the U.S. 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 was demanding repayment no matter what. The question was not if, but how the United States was going to be repaid by the two countries. John Knott illustrated a potential answer to this question through his cartoon.
“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.