The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
X-RAYS AND THE YELLOW KID
American children learn about the Monroe Doctrine in school as an abstract principle: the European powers shouldn't meddle in affairs in the Western Hemisphere - that's our territory. Most of them probably never think about it again. After all, when did it ever come into play in the real world?
The year was 1895. The British had a colony along the northern coast of South America called British Guyana. Its long-standing border dispute with next-door neighbor Venezuela over a bit of protruding territory called Guayana Esequiba flared up for the usual reason: money. Gold was found at the nearby El Callao, run by and claimed by the British. The dispute got so bad that the two countries severed diplomatic relations, the strongest step that can be made short of war. Many people indeed assumed that war was a real possibility.
Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela were none too good at the time because of various trade concessions that Venezuela had made to rich American interests. In fact, our ambassador, William Scruggs, got fired for trying to bribe the Venezuelan president to be more reasonable about being shafted, promising in return to try to get America to intercede in the boundary dispute. Neither side agreed, since Scruggs was working on his own, but a man who could be bought like that was valuable. In a move that's as modern as today, Venezuela hired him to act as their lobbyist in Congress. Scrugg's appeal invoking the Monroe Doctrine was far more successful. On February 22, 1895 Grover Cleveland signed the bill proposing binding arbitration.
Nothing is more boring than arbitration in an international boundary dispute, so the crisis should have disappeared under a blanket of yarns and did for months. Then Richard Olney, the new Secretary of State, felt the need to flex his muscles. In July, he wrote a blockbuster diplomatic memo on the subject so martial that it was called "Olney's twenty-inch gun" (although twenty-inch something else might be a better term).
Great Britain's assertion of title to the disputed territory combined with her refusal to have that title investigated being a substantial appropriation of the territory to her own use, not to protest and give warning that the transaction will be regarded as injurious to the interests of the people of the United States as well as oppressive in itself would be to ignore an established policy with which the honor and welfare of this country are closely identified.
A diplomat breaking out the "honor" card is practically a declaration of war. It's exactly what Groucho as President Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup was satirizing when he deliberately insulted Ambassador Trentino until his honor could stand no more. The American people loved this. They were feeling their oats as a nation and thought that the snooty colonialists in Europe could stand a lesson or two. The dispute ground along slowly but eventually reached the highest levels, when Cleveland formally proposed a United States Commission on the Boundary Between Venezuela and British Guiana and Congress quickly ratified it. It went into effect on January 1, 1896. The diplomatic version of drawing a line in the sand, the U.S. essentially double-dared Britain to cross it or back down. They did the latter, a signal that they recognized the U.S. right - or at least the U.S. power - to control foreign dealings in the New World.
That was the atmosphere in which that Hogan's Alley cartoon of March 15, 1896 shown above was published. The specific trigger for the cartoon came on March 5, when the British released what they called the "Venezuela Blue Book," the case for their side that they were putting before the Commission, widely mocked in the press as an inadequate sham. Probably it was. This wasn't a court of law, but a court of politics; the decision would depend on backroom negotiations. Still, it was enough to revive anti-British sentiments, especially among the Irish immigrants who lived in the New York slums.
Mickey Dugan, the Yellow Kid, was a mouthpiece for those sentiments. He lived in Hogan's Alley, which was the name of the cartoon strip in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, a sensation starting in 1895 when it started being run in color. Mickey's white shirt, which served as a billboard on which to write his dialogue - word balloons wouldn't be used in the strip until later - turned a brilliant yellow, a new and eye-catching color for newspapers. People talked about the Yellow Kid and the strip became a huge circulation booster, so huge than William Randolph Hearst hired its artist, Richard Outcault, to draw the strip for his New York Journal at a fabulous salary. The World simply hired another artist and kept on going, so that two competing Yellow Kid strips could be found every Sunday. Such shenanigans epitomized the vicious war between the papers that would only be exacerbated by the antics they used during the Spanish-American war. The whole period became known as Yellow Journalism, a tribute to the power of a comic strip that lasted a mere three years.
The media war between Hearst and Pulitzer was so simultaneously outrageous, petty, and influential that it's fascinating history in its own right, made more so by the remarkable parallels to today's left/right media battles. Still, you might ask what it's doing here? The answer is found in one of the placards carried by the neighborhood kids.
X-Rays were a new wonder in the world. No one had stopped talking about the mind-boggling invisible rays that could literally see inside one's body since newspapers first carried the story of Wilhem Röntgen's discovery in January 1896. Röntgen's rays annihilated space and altered peoples' perception of reality in a single event, similar to but even more abrupt than the way the telegraph had annihilated time. X-Rays immediately became a buzzword that every au courant commentator had to use, in cartoons no less than in words and movies. Outcault's satiric world brought the news to the masses, in their language and with their (albeit caricaturized) faces. A half century before Peanuts, he saw that having children mouth the words and attitudes of adults made their supposedly wise, worldly, and fashionable actions ridiculously juvenile. And he also pre-figured the 20th century universal of using the latest technologies to comment on news, literally seeing wots' in it, cartoonists often cutting as deeply as the best pundits.
Oh, the Venezuela crisis. In 1899, after the U.S. crushed Spain in Cuba and the Philippines and became an imperialist power in their own right, a Tribunal of Arbitration in Paris quietly settled the affair by giving Britain, America's fellow imperialist, trading partner, and cultural cousin, pretty much everything they wanted, including all the gold. Please tell me you never thought otherwise.