By MIKE MAGEE
On the evening of December 29, 1940, with election to his 3rd term as President secured, FDR delivered these words as part of his sixteenth “Fireside Chat”: “There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness…No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it.”
Millions of Americans, and millions of Britains were tuned in that evening, as President Roosevelt made clear where he stood while carefully avoiding over-stepping his authority in a nation still in the grips of a combative and isolationist opposition party.
That very evening, the Germans Luftwaffe, launched their largest yet raid on the financial district of London. Their “fire starter” group, KGr 100, initiated the attack with incendiary bombs that triggered fifteen hundred fires that began a conflagration ending in what some labeled the The Second Great Fire of London. Less than a year later, on the eve of another Christmas, we would be drawn into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Now, 83 Christmases later, with warnings of “poisoning the blood of our people,” we find ourselves contending with our own Hitler here at home. Trump is busy igniting white supremacist fires utilizing the same vocabulary and challenging the boundaries of decency, safety and civility. What has the rest of the civilized world learned in the meantime?
First, appeasement does not work. It expands the vulnerability of a majority suffering the “tyranny of the minority.”
Second, the radicalized minority will utilize any weapon available, without constraint, to maintain and expand their power.
Third, the battle to save and preserve democracy in these modern times is never fully won. We remain in the early years of this deadly serious conflict, awakened from a self-induced slumber on January 6, 2020.
Hitler was no more an “evil genius” than is Trump. But both advantaged historic and cultural biases and grievances, leveraging them and magnifying them with deliberate lies and media manipulation. Cultures made sick by racism, systemic inequality, hopelessness, patriarchy, and violence, clearly can be harnessed for great harm. But it doesn’t take a “genius.” Churchill never called Hitler a “genius.” Most often he only referred to him as “that bad man.”
The spectacle and emergence of Kevin McCarthy, followed by Mike Johnson, as Speaker of the House, and the contrasting address by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries as he handed over the gavel, represent just one more skirmish in this “War for Democracy.”
If our goal is a “healthier” America – one marked by compassion, understanding and partnership; one where fear and worry are counter-acted by touch and comfort; one where linkages between individuals, families, communities and societies are constructed to last – all signals confirm that the time is now to fight with vigor.
As Churchill vowed on his first day as Prime Minister, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” At about the same time, FDR offered this encouragement, “We have no excuse for defeatism. We have every good reason for hope — hope for peace, yes, and hope for the defense of our civilization and for the building of a better civilization in the future.”
The re-emergence of white supremacists and nationalists, theocratic and patriarchal censorship, and especially post-Dobbs attacks on women’s freedom and autonomy, are real and substantial threats to our form of government. They indeed are minority views, but no more so than the minority in 1940 which allowed a small group of “bad men” to harness a relatively small nation of 70 million people into a force that very nearly conquered the world.
Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill packed his bags and headed directly to a British battleship for the 10-day voyage in rough seas (filled with German U-boats) to Norfolk, VA. Hours after arrival he was aboard a U.S. Navy plane for the 140 mile trip to the White House which he entered in a double breasted peacoat and a naval cap, chomping on a cigar. He would remain the guest of the Roosevelts for the next three weeks, heading home on January 14, 1942.
On Christmas Eve, he joined the President on the South Portico of the White House for the lighting of the White House Christmas tree. Here is what Churchill said to the President’s guests and 15,000 onlookers: “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern tasks and formidable year that lie before us. Resolve! – that by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed their inheritance and denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
He spent the following day working on a speech to be delivered to a Joint Meeting of Congress on December 26, 1941, the kind of a Pep talk all good and decent people of America could benefit from today. As we ourselves have learned since January 6, 2021, Churchill was right to warn us of complacency and caution, and that “many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us.”
He was clear and concise when he warned that day that Hitler and his Nazis (whom Trump so openly admires) possessed powers that “are enormous; they are bitter; they are ruthless.” But these “wicked men…know they will be called to terrible account…Now, we are the masters of our fate…The task which has been set is not above our strength. Its’ pangs and trials are not beyond our endurance.”
“Trump will be defeated,” he would say were he with us today. “You may be sure of that!” But we must be up to the task – brave, organized, and strategic. Now is the time, and as the British Times of London editorial reminded in 1942, as Churchill set foot once again on homeland after his American visit, timing is everything. “His visit to the United States has marked a turning-point of the war. No praise can be too high for the far-sightedness and promptness of the decision to make it.”
Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian, a regular THCB contributor, and the author of CODE BLUE: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex.