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.
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Lansing, Roberrt. (1937, Jan 31). NEUTRALITY: 1915 SHEDS LIGHT ON 1937. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/102014742?accountid=7118
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“Senate Neutrality Bill.” Dallas Morning News. 5 March 1937, page two. http://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=F54G4FSDMTUxMDgxNzg1OS41MjgyMjA6MToxMjoxMjguODMuNjMuMjA&p_docref=v2:0F99DDB671832188@EANX-10425769CAC69DDF@2428598-1042576A718AA444@17