Ronald Reagan's Presidency

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What do political cartoons reveal about Reagan's era American foreign policy?

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Political cartoons have been used to shape the political narrative in the United States since the mid-1700s, as was the case with Benjamin Franklin's use of a dissected snake to urge colonists to unite against British rule (Join or Die, 1754). Typically, they emphasize polarized stereotypes of the parties involved and aggrandize the emotional appeals therein to achieve a particular persuasive effect.

To interpret a political cartoon, there are a few factors one should think about. First, consider the publication and the artist. What are their political affiliations? Are they known to lean strongly in one direction over the other? Are they considered a credible source or publication for the time or industry? Second, consider the cartoon itself. Who or what is being depicted? What mood or tone does the image set? Are there words or dialogue associated with the image? What stereotypes or generalities are being highlighted? Third, consider the artistic devices. What style of art is being used, and what does that say about the content? Is the cartoon a satire, parody, or spoof? If so, in what ways and what does it poke fun at? What cultural symbolism is used in the art? In the language?

Considering the historical impact and structure of political cartoons, and knowing that the Reagan Administration's foreign policy centered largely on establishing America as a capitalist superpower and the Soviet Empire as a communist arch villain, one can presume political cartoons helped to shape and propagate that narrative. How Reagan and his administration are pictured in the cartoon should influence one's interpretation of the policies and the people's respective feelings about them.

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Political cartoons have a long history in the United States. They date back at least to the time of Thomas Nast (1840–1902). The Reagan presidency, from 1981 to 1989, can be viewed through the lens of political cartoons, and it is not unique in this respect.

Dana Summers's cartoons for the Orlando Sentinel on Reagan are excellent and include many on foreign policy. One depicts a disheveled Canadian standing under an acid rain cloud. Ronald Reagan offers the the man Rolaids for his discomfort. This cartoon reflects the contentious issue of acid rain and environmental protection. Summers also drew a beefy football player to illustrate America's military buildup and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Reagan's presidency was notable for both enhanced military spending and lengthy disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. A third cartoon by Summers illustrates the thorny issue of trade deficits with Japan during Reagan's presidency. Other cartoons deal with Latin America and the Iran-Contra Affair.

In summary, political cartoons reflect all the major foreign policy issues during Reagan's two terms, and that is not uncommon for American presidents.

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It would be easier to answer this question if we could know what political cartoons you have been shown about foreign policy in the Reagan years.  I have provided two cartoons to help with this answer.

In general, political cartoons can only tell us how particular individuals perceived Reagan’s foreign policy.  We can assume that many people agree with the opinion of any syndicated cartoonist because otherwise they would not be syndicated.  However, we cannot know for sure that any particular cartoon has the agreement of a large portion of the population.  Thus, cartoons can only tell us what sorts of issues were important in Reagan’s foreign policy and how certain individuals felt about those issues.

For example, this cartoon can tell us that issues of communism loomed large in Reagan’s foreign policy.  It can also show us that this particular cartoonist believed that Reagan was making too much of the communist threat.  This is shown by the excessive size of the communist countries that seem to be menacing the free world.

As another example, this cartoon shows us that issues of Iran, the Middle East, and missile defense were all important in the Reagan years.  It also implies that Reagan was misguided about some or all of these issues.  This is seen most clearly in the tattoo of the person who appears to be Khomeini, labeled as a “moderate.”

Thus, cartoons can show us what issues were important and what certain individuals thought of Reagan’s approaches to those issues.

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Political cartoonists active during the administration of President Ronald Reagan often adopted a very condescending tone that was intended to portray Reagan as a simple-minded, virulently anti-communist warmonger. Additionally, some cartoonists exploited Reagan’s background as an actor (who continued to enjoy what some called jingoistic films) to further illuminate what they perceived as the cartoonish nature of his presidency.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, he brought into office a hardline approach to foreign policy, something that was perceived as being lacking under his predecessor, President Carter. Carter’s presidency coincided with the Iranian Revolution and subsequent seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and a dangerous deterioration in the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. This resulted in the Carter administration’s proposed build-up of nuclear weapons—a build-up that rivaled that supported by the incoming administration of President Reagan. Additionally, some films produced during this period played into President Reagan’s image amongst many liberals as a buffoon overly influenced by muscular imagery, such as that depicted by Sylvester Stallone in his film about a muscular Vietnam veteran and special forces legend named John Rambo. When Rambo was released in 1982, therefore, political cartoonist Steve Greenberg drew a cartoon that showed a series of shirtless warriors, beginning with the Rambo character holding a machine gun, followed by Reagan (also holding a machine gun), and then devolving into ever greater levels of parody ending with depictions of the Marx Brothers.

Another cartoon depicting Reagan as a foreign policy novice and buffoon was published by Bill Schorr. Schorr’s imagery also emphasized what he viewed as the president’s dimwittedness and ignorance on foreign policy. Tony Auth, who contributed political cartoons for the Philadelphia Inquirer, often depicted Reagan’s conduct of foreign policy in a demeaning manner intended to make the president appear foolish, excessively harsh on communism, and vile, as in a cartoon showing a particularly strict-looking Reagan sitting under a map of the world in which communist countries dominated the globe.

What most political cartoons depicting the Reagan Administration’s conduct of foreign policy sought to convey was a sense of a country governed by an amateurish and dangerously hawkish chief executive, in way over his head.

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