Tony Auth on Vietnam’s role in his career as a political cartoonist

This story is part of a WHYY series examining how the United States, four decades later, is still processing the Vietnam War. To learn more about the topic, watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novicks’ 10-part documentary “The Vietnam War” running Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. through Thursday, Sept. 28 on WHYY-TV.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Auth was the staff editorial cartoonist at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 41 years. In 2012, he became the first digital artist in residence at WHYY, where he continued his work on both cultural and political subjects.

The gallery of cartoons above spans Auth’s career from before, during, and after the war. What follows is an excerpt from an interview he did with the Library of Congress on August 5, 2005, about how the war in Vietnam got him started in political cartooning and the impact it had on his life and career.

In the late 1960s, I was a recent graduate of UCLA. I was working as a medical illustrator at a large teaching hospital, when friends with whom I’d worked at the UCLA Daily Bruin, where I had done decidedly non-political cartoons, approached me.

The war in Vietnam was escalating, and more American troops were being committed. Vietnam became the dominant issue in American politics. My friends were starting a weekly newspaper and invited me to become their political cartoonist.

At that time, some great cartooning was being done in college and “underground” papers. Ron Cobb at the L.A. Free Press stood out. His work was a revelation and inspiration. It was so full of life and energy. It was also irreverent and impolite, compared to the bland and predictable editorial cartoons I was used to seeing in the L. A. Times. All that was about to change, however.

Paul Conrad came to the Times from the Denver Post, and, in a move that would change the history of American political cartooning, the Denver Post hired a young Australian named Pat Oliphant as their staff cartoonist. What a turn-on their work was for a young aspiring cartoonist. I was now reading voraciously, and therefore seeing the work of Herblock, Jules Feiffer, David Levine, and others who were creating inspired, funny, beautiful, angry, and above all, honest images. As my commitment to political cartooning became a passion, I began to feel I was part of a raucous and iconoclastic fraternity of commentators, most of whom I would not meet for several years.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam war went on. Casualties mounted, and more Americans questioned the wisdom of our involvement. Opinion journalism, investigative reporting, political cartooning, stand-up comedy, folk music, protest songs, rock ‘n’ roll, poetry, plays, teach-ins — all became part of a robust, seething period of questioning in America.

In 1971, my alternative and underground cartooning led to big leagues, in Philadelphia. Conservative press baron Walter Annenberg had just sold his Philadelphia Inquirer to Knight Newspapers, and new publisher John Knight was making big changes. He hired me as his new cartoonist and placed me under the direction of editorial page editor (and former Nixon administration official) Creed Black. Suddenly, I was in a tougher, more combative arena, forced to defend and justify my ideas to get them into the paper. I lost some battles, won more, and — greatly aided by the government’s ham-handed war policy — had the chance to draw compelling commentary.

It is difficult for those who weren’t there to imagine just how divided and passionate the country was from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. We think of America as divided now, between red and blue states. During Vietnam, the divide was generational, with families torn apart, some parents not speaking to their children, and some young people burning their draft cards or fleeing to Canada. And the civil rights movement, desegregation orders, Martin Luther King’s assassination, the rise of the Black Panthers, and a new women’s movement all provided incendiary ink for cartoonists.

I have long believed that political cartoonists are born of social upheaval, and that generation of unrest gave us, among others, Jeff MacNelly, Garry Trudeau, Mike Peters, and Doug Marlette.

1968 was the tipping point, the time when citizens’ growing awareness of government deception produced a new majority who understood they were getting cooked books, exaggerated numbers of Viet Cong dead, and fairy tales about the success of “Vietnamization.” Reporting by David Halberstam, Seymour Hersch, and Walter Cronkite, among others, ate away at the natural tendency of Americans to trust, especially in time of war, that the president means well and that to support the troops means supporting the government.

Finally, the Pentagon Papers, a pentagon-sponsored history of the war in Vietnam, leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (which led to the “plumbers,” which led to Watergate), were published, in spite of the government’s vigorous opposition. The Pentagon Papers documented years of deception, lies, folly, and the monumental sacrifice of lives in service to misguided notions of Cold War pathology and national pride. In a democracy, the people are supposed to have the power. And to exercise that power wisely, they must have accurate information.

A question political cartoonists are often asked is: Do you think you have any effect? Does your work help bring about change, progress, or reform?

Yes, but only in the sense that any of us contributes one particle a day to the torrent of news, opinion, argument, spin, exaggeration, and lies that people are exposed to constantly. All that any of us who comment on “current events” want to do is to be part of the robust and ongoing conversation of American democracy. We say what we have to say, as best we can, and we expect disagreement, controversy and tumult. As Bill Mauldin once famously said:, “When you do this for a living, you get two things: awards and hate mail.”

As I mentioned earlier, one thing leads to another. Vietnam led to Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, Jimmy Carter, the Iranian hostage crisis, a backlash against “the sixties,” and Ronald Reagan. Now, with President George W. Bush, we are involved in a war in Iraq, another war of choice, accompanied by deceptions, exaggeration, hype and spin … with eerie echoes of that previous quagmire (defined, by the way, as a difficult, precarious or entrapping position). It would appear that, whether we know the past or not, we may be doomed to repeat it.

Who are the cartoonists being born of the current battles in American politics? We don’t yet know, of course, but they will emerge. A more intriguing question, and one which cannot as yet be answered, is where their work will appear, and whether they will be able to make a living at it. This has always been a tiny profession. It requires, after all, a fairly rare confluence of talent, interests, and temperament.

Thirty-four years ago, when the Philadelphia Inquirer hired me, there were 200 of us doing daily political cartoons. Now, with newspapers losing circulation and looking for ways to save money, our number is little more than 80. We know a couple of things for sure. There will always be artists doing impolite, raucous, iconoclastic. and irreverent political drawings. And nothing could be more American.

Special thanks to David Leopold at the Tony Auth Archive, for access to these cartoons and to this interview.

To learn more, watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novicks’ 10-part documentary “The Vietnam War” running Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. through Thursday, Sept. 28 on WHYY-TV. WHYY members will have extended on-demand access to the series via WHYY Passport through the end of 2017.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.