All of the references in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" explained

It was always burning, since the world's been turning
Billy Joel
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Elizabeth II, Prince Philip
Queen Elizabeth Ii And The Duke Of Edinburgh On Their Coronation Day / Print Collector/GettyImages

Verse 2 (Early 1950s)


Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a married couple who were convicted of espionage for passing information on to the Soviet Union and were executed by electric chair in 1953. The information included designs for American radar, sonar, jet propulsion, and nuclear weapons. They were the first civilians convicted for such charges and the first to be convicted during peacetime. For decades, many people maintained their innocence, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, intercepted Soviet cables were declassified, which detailed their role in the spy ring.


The nuclear weapons used against Japan by the United States in 1945 were uranium and plutonium-based respectively. The Hydrogen bomb was the second generation of nuclear weapons. First tested by the United States in 1952, the H-bomb is now the standard design for nuclear weapons, due to its lower mass and greater destructive power.

Sugar Ray

Sugar Ray Robinson was a boxer whose career lasted from 1940 to 1965. From 1943 to 1951 he was on a 91-match unbeaten streak and was the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times. Like Joe DiMaggio, Sugar Ray was a prototype for the modern sports celebrity, due to his flamboyant style outside the ring.


Panmunjon was a village just north of the North Korea/South Korea border. It's where the armistice agreement that ended hostilities in the Korean War was signed. The building where it was signed still stands. It's now known as the North Korean Peace Museum. After the war, the village fell into the demilitarised zone, and as all civilians were moved out of the DMZ, the village fell into disrepair. After the war, a “Joint Security Area” was built about a kilometer away; the JSA is a series of buildings that straddle the military demarcation line, where all discussions between North and South Korea take place. The JSA is now casually referred to as Panmunjon.


Marlon Brando was a movie star whose career spanned six decades and was known for his intensity. This is because he was one of the first actors to bring method acting and the Stanislavski Method of acting to the mainstream. The 50s were his breakthrough decade, earning his first Academy Award nomination for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. He is also remembered for his outspoken activism and notoriously bizarre behind-the-scenes prickliness.

The King And I

The King And was a Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on Margaret Landon's novel Anna And The King Of Siam about a British schoolteacher who is hired as a governess to the children of the king of Siam. In this case, Joel was probably referring to the Academy Award-winning 1956 film adaptation starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.

...And The Catcher In The Rye

The Catcher In The Rye is a novel by J.D. Salinger detailing a weekend in the life of cynical but privileged teen named Holden Caulfield. The book was published in 1951 after being serialised between 1945 and 1949. The story is iconic as an accurate and unsparing account of youth culture of the time and has been banned and censored over the century for that reason. Chillingly, it's been linked to several high-profile murders. Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon, was arrested with a copy of the book that he had purchased that day and was clutching the book when he was sentenced.


General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. Before being president, he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War II, where he planned and supervised two of the most consequential campaigns of the war. He was the last president until Donald Trump who had not held political office before being President.


While there were probably several relevant vaccines, this line almost certainly refers to the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1952, which began the ongoing effort to eliminate poliomyelitis. The effort has been so successful that polio is frequently referred to as "eliminated." At its peak in the 50s, there were around half a million cases worldwide reported each year, but in 2022 that number was down to just 894. Salk's vaccine was declared safe and effective on April 12, 1955, causing celebrations across the world.

England's got a new queen

On February 6, 1952, after the death of her father King George VI, Elizabeth II became the Queen of England. She was coronated over a year later in June 1953, to allow for a traditional period of mourning. Elizabeth went on to be the longest-serving British monarch, serving for 70 years before she died in 2022, and is the second-longest reigning monarch of any sovereign state in history. Much Like "We Didn't Start The Fire," her reign bore witness to much of the history of the 20th century. In fact, she met with 13 of the last 14 American presidents.


Rocky Marciano was a professional heavyweight boxer whose career lasted from 1947 to 1955. He held the world heavyweight title from 1952 to 1956 and is still the only heavyweight boxer to finish his career undefeated. He's also tied with Joe Louis with the highest knockout-to-win percentage in the world.


Liberace was a classical musician and pianist who lived at just the right time to take advantage of the medium of television, as his shows were far more visual than any other classical musician. On stage, he wore a white top and tails and played grand pianos custom decorated with mirrors, rhinestones and gold leaf, to distinguish himself visually. His star rose during the golden age of television. On The Liberace Show (1952-1969)he used flamboyance, schmaltz, and a casual jokey manner to connect with his audience.

Santayana goodbye

"Goodbye" is not signing off the second verse, but rather signifying the death of philosopher George Santayana in 1952. Santayana was responsible for common aphorisms such as "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and "only the dead have seen the end of war."