For many Americans, the tensions of 1961—conflicts between East and West, the use of nuclear weapons and traditional warfare, political battles between conservatives and liberals, and issues concerning civil rights and segregation—played out forcibly throughout the rest of the decade. This selection of political cartoons by Herblock shows how his fear of nuclear annihilation led to the creation of some of his best work that year. He also addressed economic stagnation, suffrage for residents of Washington, D.C., civil rights, and the space race.

Herblock developed his character “Mr. Atom” in 1946 to visualize the threat of nuclear annihilation omnipresent during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States from 1945 to 1990. He used Mr. Atom repeatedly in 1961, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) challenged American president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963). Khrushchev began to build the Berlin Wall in August 1961 and detonated large nuclear weapons during tests as further evidence of Soviet strength. Herblock drew a series of bone-chilling and nuanced cartoons that depicted his Cold War fears, for which he laid blame on the Soviets.

“Put Out That Light—Do You Want to Blow Up the Place?”

Nikita Khrushchev made Berlin a focal point for a Cold War showdown in August 1961. In the week before Herblock published this cartoon, East German authorities created a barricade to keep tens of thousands of citizens from fleeing to the West. By Friday, August 19, a five-foot concrete barricade had been erected in parts of the city. Herblock used powder kegs and missiles not only as a metaphor for the initial five-foot barricade, but also for the confrontation between East and West, arguing that what the Soviets feared the most was liberty for their people.

Put Out That Light—Do You Want to Blow Up the Place? 1961. Published in the Washington Post, August 23, 1961. Graphite, India ink, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (001.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05418] © Herb Block Foundation

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Out of the Bottle

On August 31, 1961, as tensions concerning the Berlin Wall increased, the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear bomb in a test. While Berlin was a defined dividing line between East and West, the nuclear threat knew no geographic boundaries. Herblock echoed existing fears of a nuclear holocaust by showing the skull of death as a visual representation of both a nuclear mushroom cloud and the genie let out of the bottle by Khrushchev.

Out of the Bottle, 1961. Published in the Washington Post, September 1, 1961. Graphite, India ink, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (002.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05425] © Herb Block Foundation

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The Show is Over

As the Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing on August 31, 1961, the West decried the threat of nuclear annihilation as a form of terrorism. While the Berlin Wall began the process of drawing a physical line between East and West, Communist Party-led governments cracked down on the movement of people who attempted to flee their influence. Herblock uses the dropped mask with its vacuous smile as his symbol of the façade of détente in combination with the whip and jackboot to depict Soviet aggression.

The Show is Over, 1961. Published in the Washington Post, September 3, 1961. Graphite, India ink, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (003.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05426] © Herb Block Foundation

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“If You're Serious About Wanting to Get Down—”

The fever pitch of the Cold War led President Kennedy to speak before the United Nations on September 25, 1961, where he poignantly argued that both East and West should reduce their arms and armies to the point necessary to maintain internal order and permit the United Nations to be the international peace force. Herblock depicts a young Kennedy standing up to Khrushchev, the elder statesman, on the brink of the precipice.

If You’re Serious About Wanting to Get Down,” 1961. Published in the Washington Post, September 26, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (004.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05442] © Herb Block Foundation

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“Sleep, Baby, Sleep”

As Geneva Convention nuclear arms control negotiations broke down in 1961, the Soviet Union detonated a fifty-megaton nuclear weapon, and the United States threatened to resume atmospheric testing in retaliation. Here, in a chilling image, Herblock defines the Soviet Union as the bad guy, which he represents as a nuclear missile. It annihilates the human race, symbolized by the unseen baby in its buggy.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep,” 1961. Published in the Washington Post, October 25, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (005.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05464] © Herb Block Foundation

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“In A Word, Yes”

President John F. Kennedy took office on Friday, January 20, 1961, and ten days later gave a State of the Union Address that spelled out what he saw as the disasters of the previous administration: recession, bankruptcy, falling farm income, and unemployment. He proposed to increase government payments to the unemployed and boost the economy through industrial initiatives and international development. Herblock depicts the economy as a tired white-collar worker watching television.

In A Word, Yes,” 1961. Published in the Washington Post, January 3, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (006.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05257] © Herb Block Foundation

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“It Hardly Seems Possible”

In 1946 when he joined the Washington Post, Herblock took up residence in Washington, D.C., and immediately became a champion of suffrage for District residents. In 1961, the citizens of Washington, D.C., received the right to vote for the president and vice president for the first time. Here, Herblock uses the metaphor of a man stranded on a desert island anticipating the arrival of a ship on the horizon to represent Washingtonians celebrating the arrival of voting rights through the passage of the 23rd Amendment.

It Hardly Seems Possible,” 1961. Published in the Washington Post, March 19, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (007.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05310] © Herb Block Foundation

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April, 1961

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968) became the first human in space, orbiting Earth for 108 minutes in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. One month after Herblock drew this cartoon, Alan Shepard (1923–1998), in his Mercury spacecraft, became the first American in space. Herblock takes the high road in this cartoon—rather than begrudging the Soviets’ winning the space race, he celebrates the wonder of exploring the cosmos.

April, 1961, 1961. Published in the Washington Post, April 13, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (008.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05327] © Herb Block Foundation

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Anti-Freedom Rider

The civil rights movement expanded dramatically in 1961 with Freedom Riders, both African American and white, who rode side-by-side on buses through the South to encourage racial integration in daily life. The event was largely peaceful until it reached Alabama, where angry mobs beat riders and burned buses. Here, Herblock suggests that racism holds the United States back from being a world power.

Anti-Freedom Rider, 1961. Published in the Washington Post, June 16, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (009.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05371] © Herb Block Foundation

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“If You Had Any Initiative, You’d Go Out and Inherit a Department Store”

Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), the long-serving Republican senator from Arizona, inherited a Phoenix-based chain of department stores when his father died in 1929. Associated with the conservative movement, he became a major player in the Republican Party in 1961. Herblock reacted sardonically to Goldwater’s hard-line conservatism, which he felt was unrelenting toward the poor, particularly the impoverished in the African American community.

If You Had Any Initiative, You’d Go Out and Inherit a Department Store,” 1961. Published in the Washington Post, December 12, 1961. Graphite, ink brush, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (010.01.00) [Digital ID # LC-DIG-hlb-05493] © Herb Block Foundation

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