An American Icon Turns 100!
October 29, 2021 marks the 100th birthday of Bill Mauldin, one of the greatest cartoonists of the twentieth century. Mauldin sadly passed away more than 18 years ago, but we at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library are dedicated to honoring and telling his remarkable story. Through our book, Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin; and our exhibit, Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin and the Art of war; we have introduced the life and work of Bill Mauldin to an audience that is increasingly unfamiliar with the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist.
Bill Mauldin is best known for using his experiences and those of the downtrodden World War II infantryman to express his disdain and anger at the injustices he believed plagued the military. He spent nearly five years illustrating not only the ins-and-outs of life in the army, but of the grim reality of life on the front lines of the war in Europe. Bill Mauldin’s cartoons provided a voice for the enlisted man because he believed it was vital to expose society to the perspectives of those who experienced war firsthand.
As a young man, Mauldin saw an opportunity to escape his own dismal circumstances through the Army, and like many young men of the era, the Army ended up providing him with endless opportunities. Where he differed from most other young men of the period was that he possessed an incredible talent for illustration and visual story-telling. His cartoons reflect the cultural nuances of life in the Army at the time and were viewed with either frustration or pleasure. For officers and career-soldiers, Mauldin was a threat. To men like himself; poor, moderately educated, aimless, and generally unequipped for a life in the service, he became a folk hero who used his art to speak on their behalf.
Today Mauldin is lauded and venerated for his wartime cartoons. Yet the five years he spent in uniform represents just a small fraction of his cartooning career. He went on to use his fame as a springboard to launch a lifelong mission to hold military and political leaders accountable to those fighting America’s wars. His wartime service solidified a desire to expose and speak out against the inequalities he experienced and witnessed.
Mauldin would draw upon these themes as an editorial cartoonist, first at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and then for nearly 30 years at the Chicago Sun-Times. As an editorial cartoonist he made it his mission to critique the issues plaguing politics and society. He addressed civil rights, presidential politics, Chicago politics, and cultural issues facing the American public with care and ease. His cartoons were the product of meticulous thought and craft, intending to never let an issue fall beyond his grasp. He was so good at capturing the essence of the public’s perception that those he criticized could not avoid acknowledging the impact of his work. During the height of the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Clarck Clifford wrote to Mauldin concerning a cartoon in which he was depicted, noting “without commenting on the accuracy of the thought your cartoon portrayed, I must say that it was another excellent example of how the pen is often much sharper than the sword!”
Today Mauldin’s cartoons help us understand much about the past. His cartoons addressing World War II – and all the conflicts he witnessed – provide a view into the experience of our men and women in uniform. From combat to peacetime, his cartoons highlight the variety of humorous and grim moments that constitute military life with an accuracy that make them timeless. Soldiers today can look to Mauldin’s Willie and Joe and see aspects of their own service illustrated through many of the hundreds of cartoons depicting life at the front and in the rear.
His more than 50 years cartooning provide valuable and unique insights into the past and should be studied for what they illuminate about American history. We hope you’ll explore the thousands of cartoons held in our collection, all available to view on our website. Through them you can explore American military and political events from WWII to Desert Storm, through the lens of one of America’s greatest illustrators. If you’d like to see Mauldin’s original work and understand more about his life and career, visit the Museum & Library in person and explore Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin and the Art of War for yourself!