The 20th Century saw upheavals and social unrest from its start to its close and political leaders have, for good or ill, dealt with these crises as best they can. Often, while people fail to recall the deeds and the circumstances of these crises, the words uttered at the time continue to resound down the ages. This is the gift of oratory, and its best it can make concrete an emotional moment and solidify a response to a time when leadership is most needed. Words are not actions, but it is true that words can outlive the actions they inspired.
Martin Luther King: “I Have a Dream”
That the world has so readily accepted Barack Obama’s accession to the presidency of the United States is astonishing when you consider that within living memory African-Americans were forced to sit on the backs of buses or eat in ‘black only’ restaurants. How did change come so fast and so far? It was at least partly down the work of one man – Martin Luther King Jr, who spoke out with amazing courage at a time when his people were oppressed and ridiculed. His moral force and clarity of his vision were nowhere more obvious than in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, made in 1963 at the Lincoln memorial in Washington.
Within 5 years, King was dead – murdered by a racist gunman – but his legacy lives on today, and this is one of the watershed speeches of the American 20th Century
Winston Churchill: “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches”
In Churchill, Hitler not only met his military match, but also a supreme orator who – like the Nazi dictator – knew exactly which buttons to press to rouse national fervour. At a time when his country faced defeat of arms for the first time in centuries, he corralled and solidified his compatriots through resounding speech. Like many of Churchill’s speeches the delivery might sound odd to modern ears, frequently falling in pitch at the end of sentences giving his words a sombre, almost downbeat feeling. Despite that, in terms of imagery and power, this is Churchill at his evocative best. Calls to history are commonplace in political parlance, but his comparison of the RAF pilots to the Crusaders (horribly un-PC in this day and age!) and his call upon a thousand years of history cannot fail but to stir the breast.
John F. Kennedy: “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”
The sixties were a time of tumultuous change and the very appearance and background of John F. Kennedy, allied to his violent and public death seemed to chime deeply with the times. Faced with crises in both Cuba and the Soviet Bloc, JFK showed that he had a rhetorical touch equal in every way to the stature and importance of the times. In declaring himself to be a Berliner in this famous piece of oratory, he placed himself on the side of freedom over oppression using memorable imagery and the common political trick of appealing to the judgement of history.
Franklin Roosevelt: “A date which will live in infamy”
Roosevelt was another towering figure America’s recent past, and it fell to him to deal with one of the supreme crises of that nation’s history when the US Navy at Pearl Harbour fell victim to a surprise attack by the Japanese navy. This, the briefest of speeches and surprisingly factual, is determinedly short of the kind of soaring oratory practised by Churchill. In its character it rather reflects the unsparing nature of the conflict to come, in which no quarter was given or taken and which would end in the conflagration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 4 short years later. Despite that, the words and intent are resounding and clear and echo down the years as a clarion-call to America’s determination to stand on its principles.
The Duke of Windsor: Abdication Speech
Whilst the monarchy may be little more than a political sideshow and tourist attraction these days it still has the capacity to connect with the people like few other institutions. Amongst the many scandals that have hit the monarchy over the last century, few are as poignant as that which befell Edward VIII, who was forced to give up his crown in order to pursue his love of an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Unlike the other speeches in this list, its impact on the world was minimal and its content more personal. However, in its simply expressed dignity and public declaration of love, it remains touching and powerful even today.