Rhetoric, in all its forms, comes to the attention of historians both for its historical impact and literary value. Dozens of speeches have either brought the nation together or drastically dispersed it – the impact of speeches in politics, social movements and wars is undeniable.
That is why I present the ten most powerful speeches of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I only include those shot after the widespread use of image-and-audio synchronized cameras. You will notice that there are no female speakers; hopefully this will change as time, and society, declines. The list is ordered from oldest to most recent.
This speech is one of the most famous by a president. Its meaning became the rallying cry of an impoverished people, who relied on the charismatic, newly inaugurated Roosevelt to lead them through the valley of the Great Depression. The oration stands in stark contrast to much of his campaign, which was marked by the fact that he actually spoke very little poignantly. Emerging technology also made it more accessible for the average citizen to view or read this speech.
2.Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Pearl Harbor,”A date that will live in infamy(December 8, 1941).
Years later, President Roosevelt took the stage in a congressional hall to deliver a stern message not only to his members, but also to the American people. He condemned the monstrosity that had occurred in Hawaii, an act of the “Empire of Japan”. Less than an hour after the speech, Congress authorized the United States to formally join the Allies in World War II.
On a frigid January day, the brave Massachusetts native John F. Kennedy took the oath of office, ushering in the Camelot era in the United States, which would begin the Cold War. His words stood in stark contrast to the legacy of his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, whose words rarely became so passionate. JFK’s youth and enthusiasm, along with his many controversies, make his speeches even more remarkable in the eyes of history.
4. John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Address to Berlin,”I am a Berliner(June 26, 1963).
Just five months before his assassination, President Kennedy traveled to Berlin to assure the citizens of West Berlin that they were approved and protected by the United States. JFK mentions the age-old “I am a citizen of Rome” and instead relates it to democratic Germany. Occasionally he even spoke in German, his famous line being “I am a Berliner”, with an unmistakable Massachusetts accent.
5. Martin Luther King, Jr.: March on Washington,”I have a dream(August 28, 1963).
The now beloved pastor and civil rights leader MLK was a master of rhetoric. His years of church training and excellent teaching make him not only empowering, but also inspiring. Hundreds of thousands of protesters witnessed King’s plea for a future where his children and their children would not be bound by race.
6. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Mason Temple,”I’ve been to the mountain top(Apr 3, 1968).
The speech was given to a congregation in Memphis, mainly about the Memphis Sanitation strikes. No one knew this would be MLK’s last public speech. As always, he advocated non-violence, boycotts and peaceful protests. His tone changes towards the end. His family and other advisers had seen the danger in Memphis and other places King traveled, and tried to dissuade him from continuing. He speaks of the possibility of his early death; the speech is truly prophetic, as MLK was killed the next night.
7. Richard Nixon: Address to the People,”Nixon resigns amid Watergate(August 9, 1974).
It is common knowledge that the always paranoid Richard Nixon was embroiled in scandal several times during his career, especially during the presidency. He foresaw his impeachment and instead decided to resign, although he did not actually admit his guilt. To this day, he remains the only president to have willingly stepped down from an active term.
8. Ronald Reagan: On the Berlin Wall,”Demolish this wall(June 12, 1987).
With the Cold War ending and the USSR on the verge of collapse, President Reagan returned to where JFK had stood to deliver a clear message to “Mr. Gorbachev”: to destroy the hastily built Berlin Wall that split Germany.
9. George W. Bush: At Ground Zero,”9/11(September 11, 2001).
The terrorist attacks of that fateful morning created a new date that will live in infamy. President Bush left his elementary school reading appointment to fly to New York and stand among the rubble with aid workers and press surrounding him. He had a firefighter under one arm and held a megaphone with the other.
10. Barack Obama: Victory Speech,”Yes we can(November 4, 2008).
Barack Obama, who stepped to the forefront of politics after delivering a powerful speech at the DNC in 2004, defeated Republican John McCain to become the first non-white man to serve as president of the United States. His campaign promise of “yes we can” followed him through two full terms, leading to the triumphant expression “yes we did”.