Cold War Issues Through Political Cartoons
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 39

Cold War Issues Through Political Cartoons

Authors: Elizabeth Byrne-Lo, Ilan Danjoux

Editor: Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14 to 16

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One of the controversial incidents of the Cold War was the death of Herbert Norman, a 48 year-old Canadian diplomat. On April 4, 1957, while stationed in Egypt, he left his wife at their Cairo hotel, took the elevator up to the top of another building and walked off its rooftop to his death. His suicide created a political storm after it was revealed that he had been accused of communist sympathies by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in the United States. This accusation was even more upsetting because Norman had already been cleared of any Communist associations in an extensive RCMP investigation after the U.S. Government had made similar accusations several years earlier.

The Norman incident is indicative of the unfounded fear and overreactions that were common in Canada during the Cold War era. Political cartoons were one way to ridicule what some considered to be the excessive efforts of governments to identify and punish suspected communist sympathizers. What can we learn about the Cold War by studying the political cartoons of the time? Are they effective in offering critical commentary about the excesses of that era?

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This MysteryQuest invites you revise political cartoons created during the Cold War based on information found in newspaper articles published at that time. To accomplish this task, you will learn more about Herbert Norman and the Cold War. You will then be introduced to four techniques used by cartoonists to communicate their message visually. These techniques will help you examine Cold War cartoons and suggest ways to enhance the message by adding additional features. Finally you will interpret and adapt two political cartoons based on newspaper articles that address similar Cold War issues.

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STEP 1: Learn about Herbert Norman

To learn more about the life and times of Herbert Norman, read the background sheet, Herbert Norman and the Cold War. Highlight or underline up to ten important details that relate to the main conclusion of this article. After doing this, formulate the overall message or main idea of the article in one or two sentences.

STEP 2: Learn to read political cartoons

Political cartoons offer a unique perspective into a historical period. Often published within hours of the events they cover, they offer immediate and unfiltered interpretation of emerging issues. Interpreting political cartoons requires knowledge of the visual techniques that cartoonists use to communicate their message:

  • Distortion:drawing people or objects as oversized, undersized or otherwise disproportionate to their actual size in order to create an impression. The effect is often to suggest the importance, influence or power of actors or issues. For example, a very tall RCMP officer who is larger than everyone else communicates the superior power of the police force.
  • Symbolism: using objects and images to signify or represent something else. For example, a cartoonist might draw a muscle:man with an American flag threatening a sickly child wearing a maple leaf flag. This might indicate that the U.S. was using its power to intimidate a weak or defenseless Canada.
  • Composition: arranging the people and objects in the cartoon to create an impression. This can show their relative importance, such as placing one object in the centre of the frame and another in the background.
  • Words: inserting labels and captions to add meaning that cannot be communicated graphically. These may be labels to identify the country, person or event. Words may also be used as captions or comments offered by characters in the cartoon.

Practice recognizing these features by examining RCMP Dilemma, a cartoon published in The Ottawa Journal in 1957. Use the chart, Decoding Political Cartoons to identify one or more examples of each of the four techniques, and to explain what each might mean. For example, you might identify the snowshoes in the cartoon as an example of symbolism. The inclusion of snowshoes might suggest that the artist didn't think that the RCMP was very sophisticated in its technology. After analyzing the specific features of the cartoon, decide on the cartoon's overall message. Record this statement supported with references to features in the cartoon on the bottom part of the chart. Remember that cartoon elements often work together to communicate the message.

STEP 3: Revise the cartoon's message

Political cartoons differ in style and depth of analysis from written articles. It is interesting to compare how the same event is represented in a cartoon and an article. Re-examine the cartoon in the previous example and compare it with Unexplained Role of RCMP in the Norman Case, the accompanying newspaper article that was published on the same page. Use the chart Representing Ideas in a Cartoon to identify the conclusions and supporting details from the article that are not included in the political cartoon. Then suggest one change for each of the four cartooning techniques to make the cartoon more closely reflect the article's message. Explain your proposed changes to the cartoon. For example, you might add a faded poster with a statement "We always get our man" to suggest that the RCMP may not have been as effective as it once was in tracking down criminals. Modify the cartoon itself by sketching your suggested changes on a printed copy of the drawing.

STEP 4: Modify cartoons to represent a different message

Having familiarized yourself with the elements of cartoon design, your task is to adapt two political cartoons to make them more representative of the conclusions in two related newspaper articles. To ensure your cartoons reflect the style of the time, you are asked to modify existing cartoons on the same topic but whose message differs from the newspaper articles you will depict. The two sets of documents to work with are:

Complete each of these tasks in three stages:

  • Use a separate copy of Decoding Political Cartoons to record your analysis of each cartoon.
  • Use a separate copy of Representing Ideas in a Cartoon to note differences in the main conclusions of each cartoon and the accompanying article. Propose one or more changes for each of the four techniques to revise each cartoon to better reflect the article's message. Record these changes and the reasons for them on the chart.
  • In each case, modify the cartoon itself by drawing your suggested changes on a printed copy of the cartoon.

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Select what you consider to be the best of the two modified cartoons. Use the evaluation rubric Assessing the Representation of Ideas to assess how accurately and clearly you analyzed the cartoon's key features and whether your proposed changes to the cartoon accurately and appropriately represented the differences in the article's message.

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Background: Herbert Norman and the Cold War

Activity Sheet: Decoding Political Cartoons

Activity Sheet: Representing Ideas in a Cartoon

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Depict an article as a political cartoon
Read the article The Norman Case is Closed. After identifying its main idea and support details, create an original cartoon to visually represent the intended message. Be sure to use all four cartooning techniques.

Create a Herbert Norman cartoon
Create a cartoon that summarizes the main factors or elements in the Herbert Norman case. Decide which elements of his life should be exaggerated (distorted) to show their importance and which symbols you would use to denote his affiliations. Think of where you would place other actors or objects and what words you might use to enhance the image. Draw a sketch that integrates each of the four techniques of political cartooning

Are cartoons effective?
Based on your comparisons of political cartoons and newspaper articles, what conclusions can you draw about the relative effectiveness of these two modes of communication in exposing the excessive efforts of the anti-communist movement. List the strengths and weaknesses of each and offer an overall assessment.

Explore other challenges
Extend your knowledge by exploring other issues associated with the Herbert Norman case:

  • MysteryQuest 37 invites you to rate the factors that most influenced Norman's decision to take his own life.
  • MysteryQuest 38 invites you to decide whether Norman was truly an innocent victim or might he have been guilty of wrongdoing.

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Primary Sources

Photographs, Paintings or Drawings

Political cartoon: RCMP Dilemma: Report to Ottawa or Washington. A. C. Kaufman, March 8,1957

Political cartoon: No Fooling. Ritchie, nd

Political cartoon: Doing some Undercover Work on your Neighbour, Grassick, nd

Newspaper or Magazine Articles

Editorial, "Unexplained Role of RCMP In the Norman Case," The Ottawa Journal, April 26, 1957

Magazine article: The "Fifth Column" Agitation of the Warmongers, The Clarion, September 15, 1940

Magazine article: This "Screening" Business, Michael Barkway, Saturday Night, January 3, 1950

Editorial: The Norman Case is Closed, Vancouver Province, August 17, 1957