Three Open Letters that Changed the Course of History

The power of the written word cannot be overstated. Powerful writers have changed the course of history by causing untold millions of people to change the way they saw themselves and the world around them. Following are three particularly powerful letters of note that continue to impact the world today.

The Soldier’s Declaration

The Soldier’s Declaration was an open letter written to Britain’s military leadership during the First World War. The author of the letter, Siegfried Sassoon, was a British poet who earned the Military Cross for bravery under fire, was put on leave after being wounded twice, but subsequently refused to return to the trenches when ordered to do so.

The letter eviscerates Britain’s leaders, accusing those in power of looking for ways to prolong the war rather than end it. He clearly states that the goal of the war had changed from “defence and liberation” to “aggression and conquest,” and subsequently decries the “callous complacence” exhibited by those back home who did not share in the agonies experienced by soldiers on the front line. The letter caused an uproar in the House of Commons and Sassoon was subsequently sent to a mental institution; however, his sentiments live on in the tens of millions of conscientious objectors and anti-war protestors who have been inspired by Sassoon’s brave open letter.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Letter from Birmingham Jail was penned by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his cell. It was a response to “Call for Unity” clergymen who criticized King for taking the fight against racial discrimination to the streets rather than working to eliminate discrimination via the legal system. In the letter, King defends his decision to travel to different cities to fight against racial injustice by reminding the clergymen that a host of prophets and apostles in Bible times also traveled widely to share their message with the masses. He affirms his respect for the rule of law while at the same time asserting that just men have a moral duty to disobey unjust laws. He goes on to remind readers that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and points out that those living in the United States should not be made to feel like outsiders in their own home country.  The Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of three letters of note from Rev. King as he worked to shore up support for the Civil Rights movement.

Niels Bohr’s Letter to the United Nations

Niels Bohr was a prominent Danish physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on atomic structure and quantum theory. At the same time, Bohr was also a philosopher who worked to help refugees before and during World War Two. Niels Bohr wrote an open letter to the United Nations five years after World War Two ended and shortly after Russia tested its first nuclear bomb, expressing his concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and calling for international cooperation in monitoring nuclear energy to prevent “grave dangers to world security”. His open letter led to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957.

These are just a small sampling of letters of note that have changed the world. While such long letters are uncommon in the age of cell phones, internet, and social media, the written word continues to effect change in many ways by enabling individuals to share ideas and information designed to inspire creativity and innovation, raise awareness of important issues, and empower like-minded individuals to work together to make the world a better place.

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