6 iconic speeches that changed the modern world

Brian MacArthur has been searching history for the most iconic speeches for a long time. Here, he lists 6 speeches that changed the modern world forever

The boost in votes for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom’s 2017 General Election was attributed to social media - Facebook, Twitter, and other sites on the internet. There was no memorable speech. Yet when I first reported the General Election in 1970, the two party leaders, Harold Wilson for Labour and Edward Heath for the Conservatives, made speeches to audiences of up to 1000 every night. The art of oratory is always said to be dying and yet it shows a remarkable tendency to survive. Through much of this year, speeches by Donald Trump and Theresa May have dominated the headlines.

Both Trump and May appear in the new updated edition of The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches, in which more than 400 pages are devoted to speeches made since 1940 and the end of the Second World War - that is, in my lifetime. So which orators have made speeches that stand out as particularly significant?

1. Winston Churchill

When this speech was made in May 1940, it was just three months since the recently ousted Neville Chamberlain got more cheers in the Commons than Churchill. Yet on becoming Prime Minister Churchill mobilised the language and made it fight. This speech was made three days after he had formed his Coalition Cabinet and imposed his character and resolve on the Commons. His words then are still quoted today, nearly 70 years later:

‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs -- Victory in spite of all the terrors -- Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival'

Winston Churchill

2. John F. Kennedy

Perhaps the most electrifying speech for those of us who came of age in the 1960s was John F Kennedys inaugural, which I found framed on the office walls of many of my contemporaries, because it was so inspirational:

‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’

3. Nelson Mandela

Colonialism and race have been defining issues in the modern world. Three of the great speeches were made by Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, the outstanding orator of his age. Mandela in 1964 was speaking before being sentenced to life imprisonment for membership of the African National Congress and its resistance to the apartheid government of South Africa. He used exactly the same peroration when he was released in 1984 and went on to become President in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

‘During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

4. Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was leading a march on Washington for jobs and freedom and 210,000 had gathered at the Washington Monument in August 1963 to hear the speech of the voice of Black Americans, which he had written in long hand. No public figure of his generation could match the skill with which he made a mastery of the spoken word, the servant of his cause:

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Martin Luther King

5. Barack Obama

The beneficiary of Luther King's mission was Mr Barack Obama, who became the first black American to be elected to the Presidency in 2008, at the age of 47. There were tears on the faces of a vast Chicago crowd as he spoke, citing the example of African-American centenarian Ann Nixon Cooper and the changes she had witnessed in her lifetime:

‘America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?’

6. Malala Yousafzai

As well as race one of the great issues of our time is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which insists on the repression of women and their education. Perhaps the bravest speech this century was made by a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai became an advocate for girls’ education even as a child. The Taliban issued a death threat against her. In October 2012 a gunman shot her when she was travelling home from school. She survived and in 2014 became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2017 she won a place at Oxford University. This is from her speech to the United Nations on her 16th birthday:

‘So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.’


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The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches

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Whether it was Churchill rousing the British to take up arms or the dream of Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro inspiring the Cuban revolution or Barack Obama on Selma and the meaning of America, speeches have profoundly influenced the way we see ourselves and society.

Gathered here are some of the most extraordinary and memorable speeches of the last century - from Lenin to Reagan, Thatcher to Malala. Some are well known, others less so, but all helped form the world we now inhabit.

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