Words have the power to alter the course of history. They can harden the resolve of an entire nation or people, encapsulate the ideals of a movement, and evoke joy – or provoke anger – long after they have been said. Here, to mark the 100th issue of BBC History Revealed, historian Dr Seán Lang selects what he feels are 10 of the most impactful quotations of the 20th century...


Once you've read the feature, we'd love to find out which quotation you feel has had the biggest impact. Click here to cast your vote

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

Who said it? Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933

About: The United States lay devastated by the Great Depression, an economic collapse without precedent that destroyed the country’s global image as a land of opportunity and reduced millions of Americans to poverty and destitution. The governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had run for and won the presidency on the promise of a massive recovery programme, dubbed the ‘New Deal’, but he knew he could do nothing unless the American people first regained their self-belief.

In his inaugural address on 4 March 1933, Roosevelt reassured them that they had nothing to fear, except fear itself – “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

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The New Deal lasted throughout the 1930s until the Second World War set the country back towards full employment. Through the programme of reforms, regulations and projects, Roosevelt understood the power of words. He explained policies simply and clearly to radio listeners in his ‘fireside chats’, reassuring Americans that they had what it would take to improve their own lives and that the government would help. Roosevelt was elected an unprecedented four times, but it was that first inaugural message that set the tone for his time in office and helped give back the US its self-belief.

President Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
President Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

"We shall never surrender"

Who said it? Winston Churchill, 1940

About: By June 1940, it seemed that Adolf Hitler had won his war. He had conquered Poland; launched a devastating assault in Denmark and Norway; and attacked in the west, invading the Netherlands and Belgium, and storming through northern France to cut off the British army and much of the French. It was only a matter of time before France was forced to surrender and German troops entered triumphantly into Paris. To any impartial observer, it seemed obvious that Britain had no choice but to seek a peace settlement with Hitler. But Winston Churchill, Britain’s pugnacious and controversial new prime minister, decided to ignore those pressing him to do just that.

In an electrifying speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940, later broadcast on the BBC, he declared that Britain would fight on and never surrender – that “we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be”. Churchill knew that Britain’s navy and air force would make a German invasion hazardous, though not impossible, and that the only chance of defeating Nazism was to keep going until the United States could join the war. His words defined the stubborn defiance and ‘Dunkirk spirit’, which saved not just Britain but the world from a Nazi victory.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 1940 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 1940 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

"The atom bomb is a paper tiger"

Who said it? Mao Zedong, 1946

About: The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 redefined the world. Leaders had always been able to plunge their peoples into war, but now they could wipe out whole cities, even countries, with a single order. While the United States was the only one with nuclear capability at first, the Soviet Union was not far behind thanks to communist spies in the west passing nuclear secrets to Moscow.

In an interview with American journalist Anna Louise Strong in 1946, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, described the atom bomb as a “paper tiger”, something that looks more dangerous than it is. Mao meant that all governments depended on the support of the people, and they would never consent to using atomic weapons. The phrase was taken another way: no government would dare use such weapons for fear of provoking a response from the other side. This was the idea behind the doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ during the Cold War, as the power and number of nuclear weapons intensified. Even then, the world came perilously close to disaster on more than one occasion.

Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese communist party (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese communist party (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

"Well he would, wouldn't he?"

Who said it? Mandy Rice-Davies, 1963

About: This ordinary retort marked an unlikely watershed in British social history. Marilyn (better known as Mandy) Rice-Davies was a model and dancer working in London’s Soho, where she met Christine Keeler and her friend and protector, Stephen Ward. A successful osteopath,Ward was well-known in high society, hosting parties and introducing girls like Keeler and Rice-Davies to his well-connected friends, including the Secretary of State for War John Profumo and the Conservative peer Lord Astor. A public scandal – the Profumo Affair – ensued when the truth of Ward’s parties was revealed, especially with reports that Keeler had slept both with Profumo and a Russian naval attaché, Eugene Ivanov, which made the affair a diplomatic furore.

Rice-Davies was a witness at Ward’s trial. It was widely held at the time that people in high society were trustworthy and honourable, incapable of the lewd behaviour associated with ‘lower’ classes. When it was put to Rice-Davies that Lord Astor denied her claim of an affair, the assumption was that his word was worth more than hers. Her cheeky response – “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” – suggested that the aristocracy were no more honourable than anyone else.

Mandy Rice-Davies, July 1963 (Photo by Kaye/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Mandy Rice-Davies, July 1963 (Photo by Kaye/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I am the greatest"

Who said it? Cassius Clay, 1963

About: Muhammad Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964, was always much more than a boxer: he was a role model for young black people around the world and a major international celebrity, mixing his sporting triumphs with irrepressible charm and wit.

Boxing had long been a way for poor Americans to better themselves. Clay, who came from the segregated South, won the light heavyweight gold medal at the age of 18 at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games before turning professional and starting an immense career that saw him become world heavyweight champ three times. As well as a pugilist, though, Clay was a charismatic selfpromoting poet always showing his gifts for trash talking. In 1963, shortly before announcing his conversion to Islam and his new name, he issued a record of rhythmically-spoken poetry entitled I Am the Greatest.

Ali continued to describe himself proudly as ‘the Greatest’, but he put his reputation and career on the line, and even risked jail, by refusing to serve in the US Army in 1967 as the war in Vietnam raged. His case went to the Supreme Court and Ali became a symbol of growing American opposition to the war, and a figurehead of the civil rights movement. He was now a champion of the dispossessed as well as ‘the Greatest’ in the boxing ring.

Cassius Clay, May 1962 (Photo by Stanley Weston/Getty Images)
Cassius Clay, May 1962 (Photo by Stanley Weston/Getty Images)

"I have a dream"

Who said it? Dr Martin Luther King Jr, 1963

About: Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic speech was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, an enormous statue of the US president who had ended slavery in the United States. By the 1960s, however, true emancipation was still far off as African-Americans faced entrenched legal discrimination and police violence. King, who had made his name leading protests against racial segregation, was speaking to a huge civil rights rally calling for jobs and fair treatment for America’s black population, but his speech went much further than that.

King’s style of oratory owed much to his background as a Baptist preacher and his imagery, of a dream in which black and white people lived in harmony and friendship – and where his children “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” – was in line with the visionary sermons that many of his listeners had heard in church. The power of his words went far beyond the 17 minutes that his speech took and the 250,000 people gathered on that day, 28 August 1963. They became not only a defining moment of the civil rights movement, but of US history.

Martin Luther King Jr addresses crowds during the March On Washington, 1963 (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr addresses crowds during the March On Washington, 1963 (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

"All you need is love"

Who said it? The Beatles, 1967

About: The Beatles were at the height of their fame and influence by the 1967 ‘summer of love’. Pop music had developed into a young people’s lifestyle and outlook that their parents, of the wartime generation, found utterly bewildering. The Beatles did not just produce hit records: they put forward a new philosophy, which overturned the older generation’s assumptions about behaviour, dress and morality. When their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band appeared in May, it quickly took on cult status. A month later, the group unveiled a new song, ‘All You Need is Love’, as part of the first global live television link-up called Our World, which was watched by an audience of approximately 400 million.

The song had been purposely written with simple repeated lyrics to appeal to the international viewers, and so summarised the new attractive, easy-to-grasp philosophy in clear terms. As the song itself says, “It’s easy”. Older heads might point out that life needs a lot more than love, but in 1967 few young people were listening. Pop music has been one of the defining cultural influences that mark the postwar world: it has overcome generational, social, political and cultural barriers with its infectious rhythms and simple messages. While ‘All You Need is Love’ may have always been an ideal, it has endured.

The Beatles promote Our World campaign at Abbey Road, 1967 (Photo by Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
The Beatles promote Our World campaign at Abbey Road, 1967 (Photo by Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind"

Who said it? Neil Armstrong, 1969

About: That, at any rate, is what Neil Armstrong meant to say when he stepped down from the lunar module onto the surface of the Moon on 20 July 1969. Either he slipped on his words or they were obscured by a bleep in the transmission, because the version heard back on Earth did not have that crucial “a”. It did not seem to matter. Armstrong was right: it was a giant leap, though at the time no one quite knew in what direction.

Space exploration had excited people around the world since the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in 1957 and putting a human being on the Moon had seemed the ultimate prize. Where was all this endeavour to go after that? Science fiction suggested a world of space voyages, but the reality was to be much closer to home. Space technology moved into the world of satellites, first for telecommunications and later for everything from television to meteorology and traffic management.

Inevitably, the military potential of space was quickly recognised. The Moon missions opened space up as a further area of operation for the nations of the Earth, so Armstrong was right, even if he got his words wrong.

A portrait of Neil Armstrong aboard the Lunar Module Eagle on the lunar surface just after the first moon walk. (Photo by © Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Neil Armstrong aboard the Lunar Module Eagle on the lunar surface just after the first moon walk (Photo by © Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

"There is no such thing as society"

Who said it? Margaret Thatcher, 1987

About: The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister, ushered in a revolution. Her immediate aim was to resolve the economic problems into which the country had sunk in the 1970s, which she did by promoting a new philosophy based on free enterprise and the rolling-back of state control.

In an interview for Women’s Own magazine, Thatcher outlined her belief that, ultimately, it is not for the government to resolve people’s problems; individuals and families must look after themselves and their neighbours. In that sense, she said, “There is no such thing as society”.

The phrase provoked a storm of controversy. Supporters applauded her emphasis on individuals, while opponents denounced what they saw as her uncaring attitude towards the Welfare State, which many regarded as the most significant change in 20th-century British society. The phrase encapsulated two completely different political philosophies: a belief in the power of the state as a force for good or as an enervating drain on the people’s energies.

Margaret Thatcher, May 1987 (Photo by Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images)
Margaret Thatcher, May 1987 (Photo by Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images)

"Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights"

Who said it? Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995

About: The feminist movement had used a shorter version of this phrase since the 1980s, but it entered the mainstream when Hillary Clinton, the First Lady as wife of US President Bill Clinton, spoke at a United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

The transformation of the position of women in society was one of the most striking changes to took place in the 20th century. The century had begun with the celebrated campaign for women to have the right to vote, and by the end feminism had developed as a movement and philosophy that sought to transform human society along the lines of equality. Clinton was an apt figure to give voice to the aim.

She was a lawyer who, in 1974, had been part of the Watergate investigation team that brought down President Richard Nixon. But her husband’s presidency meant that she had to perform an essentially ceremonial role. She could support Bill in his duties, but could she hold office herself?

As long as women’s rights continued to be regarded as a category on their own, it seemed, women would never be accepted as equals – hence her impassioned iteration that women’s rights are not just rights for women: they have always been basic human rights.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Which of these 10 quotations do you think has had the biggest impact? Click here to cast your vote.

Voting closes at 11.59pm on 31 October. We’ll announce the results in a future issue of BBC History Revealed and online at historyextra.com



Dr Seán LangSenior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University

Dr Seán Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in modern European history and the history of the British empire.