Exploring Human Potential

The Danger of Stroking a Tiger – Learning From Churchill and FDR

Posted on | January 12, 2023 | 6 Comments

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. 

The Germans were listening as well, and sent a different type of message as the Luftwaffe, in concert with the address, 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 “Second Great Fire of London.”

There was nothing happenstance about the timing or methods of the attack. The night was moonless, keeping RAF fighters lacking air-to-air radar grounded. There were high winds to fan the flames that night. High explosive bombs were used to target water mains to hamper fire fighters, and the Thames was at low tide making accessing it for a water supply neigh impossible.

Combined with Roosevelt’s words, the actions of December 29, 1940, now 82 years later, highlight two truisms when confronting evil orchestrated at the hands of racist, autocratic leaders.

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.

The battle to save democracy in these modern times has not been won. As was FDR at the time of his address, we are in the early years of this deadly serious conflict, and still in catch-up mode, awakened from a self-induced slumber on January 6, 2020.

Hitler was no more an “evil genius” than was 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, as it turns out, 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 as Speaker of the House, and the contrasting address by 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 a s 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 rise of white supremacists and nationalists, theocratic and patriarchal censorship, and especially post-Dobbs attacks on women’s freedom and autonomy, are both real and substantial threats to our form of government. They indeed are minority views, but no more so than the minority in 1940 who 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.

On December 7, 1941, we Americans were “awakened from our slumber” by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill reached Roosevelt that night, and FDR said, “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We are all in the same boat now.” A few weeks later, Churchill arrived in a battleship, docked off Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Shuttled from there by plane, he witnessed Washington aglow, quite a contrast to his own blacked-out London. He stayed as a guest in the White House, and on Christmas Eve was asked to make a few remarks.

Here is what he said to the President’s guests, and (I suggest) to us today:
“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups 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.”


6 Responses to “The Danger of Stroking a Tiger – Learning From Churchill and FDR”

  1. Martha Lewin
    January 13th, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    So we’ll said Mike. Thanks for the reflection and the reminder.

  2. Mike Magee
    January 13th, 2023 @ 11:25 am

    Thanks, Martha. Best to you! Mike

  3. Joshua Sands
    January 14th, 2023 @ 10:28 am

    Thanks for this Mike. It is an important message. Majority leader McCarthy represents a minority of extremists that don’t believe in government. The defunding of the IRS that will increase the deficit and decrease the tax enforcement of corporations and people making over 400K demonstrates the Republican commitment to cultural myths of American self reliance vs actual governing. The increased funding of the IRS enjoys the healthy support of the majority of Americans. This is one of so many examples that help make your point.

  4. Mike Magee
    January 14th, 2023 @ 11:00 am

    Thanks, Josh, for this concrete example. Last week’s move by the Republican controlled Missouri state legislature to tighten the dress code on female legislators is another concrete and dramatic expression of continuing intentional erosion of women’s freedom and autonomy (ie democracy under attack). Best, Mike

  5. Laura Hudgins
    January 24th, 2023 @ 12:30 pm

    It seems to me that repeating “White Supremacists” over and over helps the wrong side of history. There must be a better way to refer to white bigots, but I can’t think of one in the moment.
    Thank You, Dr.Magee, for your paradigm, and historical expertise.

  6. Mike Magee
    January 24th, 2023 @ 4:15 pm

    Thanks, Laura. As you point point out, words and labels count, as do actions. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “A word is dead when it is said some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”  Conservative columnist, Jonah Goldberg recently wrote, “Our country, if you read the ‘Federalist Papers,’ is about disagreement. It’s about pitting faction against faction, divided government, checks and balances. The hero in American political tradition is the man who stands up to the mob – not the mob itself.” By whatever label, racism is erosive and damaging to civil society and must be vigorously opposed. Best, Mike

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