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Baby New Year Ready For War was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Hope Ha, 11th Grade
Baby New Year Ready for War is a magazine cover for The Saturday Evening Post by J.C. Leyendecker. The cover depicts a blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby sitting on top of a suitcase with British flag colors, along with a small satchel. The baby looks up through a gas mask, while clutching an umbrella. The title of the magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, is clearly visible on the top; the date of the magazine, Dec. 30, 1939, is written to the side. At the bottom of the cover, the upcoming year, 1940, is painted in big clear letters.
This piece is part of a series of magazine covers for The Saturday Evening Post that were released each New Year from 1906 to 1943. Each cover depicted a “New Year Baby” specific to that year, along with a background and symbols that represented the current climate in the United States. Baby New Year Ready for War was released for the new year of 1940, a tense and eventful time. At this point, much of Europe was engaged in World War II, but the United States had not entered the war. At first glance, the title of the magazine cover seems to suggest that the United States was ready to enter the war, but a closer analysis proves otherwise.
The magazine cover shows the New Year’s Baby ‘prepared’ for war with a gas mask, an umbrella, a suitcase, and a satchel. The first hint from the artist that directs attention to Britain is the suitcase, which has the pattern and colors of the British flag. At the same time, the gas mask and the umbrella are direct, prominent references to British defense tactics prior to its involvement in World War II. In the aftermath of World War I, all of the allied forces, the United States, Britain, and France, were extremely reluctant to get involved in another international conflict. Having just witnessed the millions of deaths and horrible warfare of World War I, Britain went about trying to prevent a second world war and its casualties in two ways: appeasement and gas masks. In World War I, gas warfare had been extensively used and resulted in the deaths of millions of people, a consequence that Britain was not keen to forget. Wary of similar outcomes in another war, Britain began manufacturing millions of gas masks in an effort to protect its entire population (Moshenka, 2010, 609-610). The New York Times wrote on February 26, 1937, “The nation learned to its amazement tonight that British factories were already turning out gas masks at a rate of 100,000 daily to defend the civil population against the horrors of another war” (Kuhn, 1937).
The gas mask covering the baby’s head is a clear reference to this British endeavor. The baby also cradles an umbrella, which is a more specific allusion to Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain from May 1937 to May 1940. Known for his policy of appeasement as well as for the fact that he always carried an umbrella with him, Chamberlain was responsible for stalling Great Britain’s involvement in World War II by making deals with Hitler (Gottlieb, 2016, 357).
In exchange for giving Hitler the land he wanted, Chamberlain was promised that war would not reach their shores. Most famously, in the Munich Conference of September 1938, Chamberlain went so far as to agree to the annexation of Czechoslovakia under Nazi control to placate Hitler, an exchange which would garner Chamberlain much criticism in the decades to come (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Ultimately, Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler failed, as it wasn’t long after the Munich Conference when Hitler openly declared war by invading Poland in September 1939 (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).
And so, this New Year Baby ends up with an umbrella and a gas mask at the beginning of 1940. Rather than showing that the New Year Baby is ready for war, Leyendecker implies the opposite. The umbrella and the gas mask serve as a reminder of Chamberlain’s failed appeasement plans and the futility of the gas masks. In the aftermath of World War I, it is worthwhile to note how Britain largely acted based on the fear that stemmed from World War I. In the case of gas masks, Gabriel Moshenska, archaeology lecturer at the University College London, explained it as such: “The fear of gas warfare informed the military, political, scientific, and social discourses of defence policy…The British government’s decision in 1935 to create and store enough gas masks for the entire population should be understood in this light: during the 1938 Munich Crisis more than 35 million of these masks were distributed” (Moshenska, 2010, 610). Yet, while gas masks do provide some form of warfare protection, the umbrella is certainly not a militant weapon. As a symbol, Julie V. Gottlieb, history lecturer at the University of Sheffield, interprets Chamberlain’s umbrella as, “…first and foremost a functional object, providing protection mainly against foul weather. It elicits English virtues of pragmatism…and that rather uninspiring Baldwinian catchphrase ‘safety first’” (Gottlieb, 2016, 362). And truly, the appeasement method that the umbrella represents is a defensive tactic, which attempts at all costs, including the price of Czechoslovakia, to avoid war in that fearful, ‘safety first’ manner. In this magazine cover, Leyendecker’s condemnation of Britain’s defense tactics is clear, in that fear-driven methods of gas masks and appeasement are not sufficient for the preparation for war. While the baby clutches the umbrella and looks up innocently through the oppressive gas mask, the baby is decidedly not ready.
The importance of this magazine cover lies in the insight it provides into the American mentality prior to Roosevelt’s address to Congress, otherwise known as the Four Freedoms Speech. When this magazine cover was released, the United States had witnessed all of Britain’s attempts to avoid a war and protect themselves, through methods such as gas masks and appeasement, but instead of witnessing the prevention of a war, the United States saw the beginning of World War II. More than ever, perhaps, Americans were scared of getting involved in World War II. Especially after the atrocities of World War I, many Americans supported isolationist policies, meaning that they opposed the United States’ involvement in World War II, despite their friendship with Britain (Office of the Historian).
In an effort to change this isolationist mentality, on January 6, 1941, Roosevelt presented the Four Freedoms in his address to congress as reasons for why the United States should enter the war and aid their allies in Britain and France. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms were Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Fear. It is interesting that Roosevelt would cite fear as a reason why the United States should enter a war which American citizens unequivocally feared. Roosevelt himself stated that freedom from fear meant “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world” (Roosevelt, 1941). Roosevelt argued that the Four Freedoms were freedoms that should belong to everyone, regardless of whether they were American or not, and that included the freedom from fear. Thus, it was imperative that the United States help Britain and France in order to grant this freedom to all. Michelle Farrell, law professor at the University of Iowa, interpreted this fourth freedom as such, “Roosevelt was telling the American public – in order to enjoy this freedom, in order to secure freedom from fear, we must go to war” (Farrell, 2016).
In the end, the United States entered World War II, but not by choice. Almost a full year after Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which prompted the United States to join the fight. It would be a long road to victory, but the Allies would win in 1945, and the result of this war would be United States emerging as one of the sole global superpowers – only rivaled by the Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, the United States was a long, long way from where this New Year Baby started out, and the uncertain, unprepared, and scared baby of the United States was long gone.
Farrell, Michelle. “Celebrating The Four Freedoms: Freedom From Fear.” University of Iowa Center for Human Rights. February 03, 2016. Accessed August 1, 2018 https://uichr.uiowa.edu/news/celebrating-the-four-freedoms-freedom-from-fear/
FDR Presidential Library and Museum. “FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech.” FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Accessed August 1, 2018. https://fdrlibrary.org/four-freedoms
Gottlieb, Julie V. “Neville Chamberlain’s Umbrella: ‘Object’ Lessons in the History of Appeasement.” Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2016. Pp. 357-388. https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/bcoppola/wp-content/uploads/sites/469/2017/04/umbrella.pdf
Kuhn, Ferdinand, Jr. “Gas Mask Output Startles Britain.” The New York Times, February 26, 1937. https://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/102234130/57D617A687BF42A8PQ/3?accountid=33982
Moshenska, Gabriel. “Gas masks: material culture, memory, and the senses.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 16, No. 3, September 2010, pp. 609-628. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40926125?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=britain&searchText=gas&searchText=masks&searchText=world&searchText=war&searchText=ii&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dbritain%2Bgas%2Bmasks%2Bworld%2Bwar%2Bii&refreqid=search%3A7e3c1af3a2e944e74493d448a7b0d554&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents
“American Isolationism in the 1930s.” Office of the Historian. Accessed August 1, 2018. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1937-1945/american-isolationism
Roosevelt, Franklin D. “1941 State of the Union Address: ‘The Four Freedoms.’” Speech, Washington, DC, January 6, 1941. American Rhetoric. http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/fdr-the-four-freedoms-speech-text/
Shoemaker, Vaughn Richard. What a Handy Article an Umbrella Is. September 30, 1938. Ink on paper. Coppola Collection.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Neville Chamberlain.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed August 1, 2018. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008230.