One of many featured political cartoons in “The Forbidden Book” that discuss Uncle Sam’s greed, mocked as the U.S. burden.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the best political cartoons, with their nimble blend of stylized imagery and clever captions, manage to say even more.  In “The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons,” authors Abe Ignacio, Enrique de la Cruz, Jorge Emmanuel and Helen Toribio, show just how the political cartoons of the time captured what is now a largely forgotten chapter of American history: the bloody and drawn-out war that was this country’s first Asian quagmire, long before Vietnam and Afghanistan.

“The Forbidden Book” features cartoons that first appeared in newspapers and leading magazines of the 1890s and early 1900s, including Puck and Judge magazines, which were on opposite sides of the political fence, and Life Magazine, one of the few voices critical of the nation’s imperialistic ambitions. First published in 2004, the book grew out of Ignacio’s personal collection of Filipiniana that he showcased in history exhibits throughout California and the Philippines.

The political cartoons, many beautifully reprinted in color, are at the heart of the book, but the authors also do a great job of putting them in historical context, explaining the political backdrop behind the drawings.

The early chapters of the book focus on America’s preparations for the Spanish-American War. In a typical 1898 cartoon that appeared in Judge Magazine, a phalanx of soldiers forming a vast American flag stretched into the horizon. The caption reads: “Our Flag. One Grand Wave of Patriotism Answers Uncle Sam’s Call to Arms.” After the quick U.S. victory over Spain, the cartoons focused on the responsibilities of being a colonial power. Artist Victor Gillam, who had drawn the flag picture, drew another cartoon a year later that depicted a perspiring Uncle Sam climbing a rocky mountain with a heavy basket on his back. At the top of the mountain sat a golden figure on a pedestal, the embodiment of civilization. In the basket on Uncle Sam’s back are a group of child-like men representing newly acquired lands, including the Philippines and Cuba. The caption simply reads: “The White Man’s Burden (apologies to Kipling).” Not everyone bought into the benevolent interpretation of Uncle Sam’s actions. That same year, The Criterion magazine had a picture of Uncle Sam standing with the Declaration of Independence at the end of a sword held out in front of a fearful Filipino. Caption: “Our Gift of Freedom.” Life Magazine, meanwhile, depicted Uncle Sam talking to a Filipino farmer. Holding a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, Uncle Sam asks: “Which hand will you take?”

As the Philippines’ push for independence from the U.S. turned into a full-fledged war, many cartoonists predictably rallied behind the troops. But others honestly reflected the brutality of war. In 1902, a New York Evening Journal drawing showed a firing squad of American soldiers preparing to execute four blindfolded young boys. The caption read: “Kill Everyone Over Ten. Criminals because they were born 10 years before we took the Philippines.” Another cartoon published in Life Magazine resembles the flag drawing from the start of war. The drawing again showed Uncle Sam standing in front of a large group of men. But on this panoramic field, the neat rows were filled with dead men and the patriotism of the Gillam drawing had given way to a more sobering caption: “The Harvest in the Philippines.” By 1913, when the last of the fighting ended, the war in the Philippines had claimed the lives of several thousand U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands (some estimates place it as high as a million) Filipinos.

In examining the Philippine-American War through the lens of that era’s popular media, Ignacio and his co-authors bring vividly to life a war that, in many ways, set the pattern for future American escapades in Asia, including subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam and present-day Afghanistan.

“The Forbidden Book” also pays tribute to the lively and raucous media of the time. With newspapers and magazines becoming a diminished presence in today’s cultural landscape, political cartoons have largely lost their stage and are struggling to make the leap to the Internet age. Would a future historian have enough material to compile a collection of political cartoons that comment on future wars? That’s difficult to imagine. But through the opinionated snapshots captured in this book, we get a glimpse of how a nation’s attitudes were formed at the birth of the 20th century, and we also see a country grappling with issues like racism and the proper use of U.S. military might in far-flung places around the world: issues that continue to haunt and divide us today.

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