The 20th century was a great time period for speeches. There were many unbelievably extraordinary speeches delivered between 1900 and 2000 that will live through the ages. Some of the absolute best are listed below.
Lou Gehrig – July 4, 1939
Farewell to Baseball Speech
Baseball fans thought that Lou Gehrig’s career would never end. The slugger was called the Iron Horse because he was so durable and dedicated to baseball. Sadly, his streak of 2,130 straight games was stopped at 36 when he contracted the fatal neurological disease that is named after him.
Gehrig lived only about 4 years after he retired from the New York Yankees. There still is no cure for the disease that killed the Iron Horse.
I Am the First Accused
Nelson Mandela spent much of his life fighting for the equality of black people in South Africa. He was imprisoned in 1964 for working to overthrow the South African government by violence. He was held in prison for more than 20 years. His plight helped to focus the world’s attention on the struggle for black equality in South Africa, and around the world.
Ronald Reagan – Jan. 28, 1986
President Reagan gave a very moving and powerful speech just hours after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the Florida sky, killing all aboard. This particular space shuttle flight was best known for it carrying a civilian – a teacher – into orbit for the first time ever. Its most famous line: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.”
John F. Kennedy – Jan. 20, 1961
Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You
John F. Kennedy gave this very famous speech during his inauguration in 1961. The speech is largely remembered for its call of self-sacrifice on the part of the American people: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” However, the speech also highlighted his belief in the necessity of America to stand up for freedom in the world: “”Let every nation know… 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.”
One of the signature programs that came out of this famous speech was the Peace Corps program, which still today sends young Americans abroad as ambassadors for America.
Winston Churchill – May 13, 1940
Blood, Toil, Sweat and Tears
This was Winston Churchill’s first speech as prime minister. It was delivered as World War II was just beginning, with Hitler tearing across the continent. This speech made very clear that Churchill was fully committed to dedicating Great Britain to the defeat of the Nazi regime, whatever the cost: “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
Winston Churchill is regarded by many experts as the greatest wartime leader of the 20th century. He recognized the menace that was building in Germany 10 years before war broke out.
John F. Kennedy – May 25, 1961
Decision to Go to the Moon
The Soviet Union put the first man into orbit on April 12, 1961. The US feared it was losing the race to space. This is when President Kennedy decided to announce a huge endeavor: A goal of putting a man on the moon by 1969. This was a very audacious goal, considering that the US had not even put a man into orbit yet. The Saturn rocket was only a dream of a few German engineers.
Most famous line: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
America reached Kennedy’s goal on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. It’s too bad that Kennedy was not around to see that great day in world history.
Martin Luther King – 1963
I Have a Dream
Martin Luther King delivered this classic speech before the Lincoln Memorial during the March on DC for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. It was viewed as a major turn of the tide in the fight for the equality of blacks in America. Note that the passage “I have a dream” was not actually written in the speech; King ad libbed that legendary line.
A memorial to King was recently placed on The Mall in Washington, DC.
Franklin Roosevelt – March 4, 1933
The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself
The US was in a very deep depression in the early 1930s, and people felt that President Hoover had not shown proper sympathy for the country’s misery. President Roosevelt used his First Inaugural Address to try to ease the fears of the American people. He then began to institute many federal programs in an attempt to ease the suffering of the Depression.
Ronald Reagan – June 12, 1987
Tear Down This Wall
Germany was divided after World War II between the communist east and the free west. When President Reagan took office, he was determined to bringing down the Soviet Union, as well as uniting Germany. President Reagan helped to usher in the end of the communist era by urging the Soviet premier to ‘tear down this wall.” The wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union began to disband that same year. Reagan had left office the year before but his dream had become reality.
Winston Churchill – June 4, 1940
We Shall Fight On the Beaches
Winston Churchill, the great prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, gave this speech during the Battle Of France. At this time, it appeared possible that Nazi Germany would invade the island of Great Britain. Churchill did a brilliant job of describing the very real military disaster that was unfolding in Europe, while at the same time leaving no doubt that he believed that in the end, the Allies would prevail. Great Britain fought the Nazis alone until the Americans entered the war in 1941.
It will be interesting to see if we have as many great speech makers in the 21st century as we did in the 20th.
By Joseph Pickett