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
Billy Joel / Luciano Viti/GettyImages
6 of 10
En-Lai Chou
Zhou Enlai, Chinese Politician & Military Officer / McCarthy/GettyImages

Verse 5 (Late 50s and Early 60s)

Little Rock

In 1957, over three years after the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed segregation in schools, nine black students were recruited by the NAACP to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. A mob of segregationist protestors attempted to stop the "Little Rock Nine " from attending the school, and Arkansas governor Orville Flaubus mobilized the National Guard to support the segregationists. effectively using the military to prevent nine children from attending school, and only backed down due to a court order.

President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division to support the students, but rather than accept the students, Little Rock's four high schools were closed, and remained closed for a year. Integration across all grades in Little Rock was not fully achieved until 1972, fifteen years later.


Another death... Boris Pasternack was a Russian author, poet, and composer who passed away in 1960. Pasternack is responsible for the definitive Russian translations of works by Goethe and Shakespeare, and is probably best remembered as the author of the epic "Dr. Zhivago." Though Pasternack remained loyal to the Soviet Union, "Dr. Zhivago" angered the Soviet authorities due to its perceived anti-Marxist bent, and was banned in the Soviet. It caused an international incident when the novel won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pasternack was forced to turn down the prize. In 2014, declassified CIA documents revealed that the agency had been involved in the printing and publishing of “Dr. Zhivago” and had ensured that copies were distributed behind the iron curtain.

Mickey Mantle

Mickey Mantle played for the New York Yankees from 1951 to 1968, spending his entire playing career with the team. He was The American League's MVP three times.


Jack Kerouac was an author and poet who, along with poet Allan Ginsberg , defined the freewheeling stream-of-consciousness literary style of the beat generation. As such, his stories documented the burgeoning hippy generation, and inspired artists such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Jim Morrison.


Sputnik was the first artificial satellite put into orbit. Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1958, giving the Soviets the first win in the space race. Its launch was unanticipated by the United States, triggering the Space Race. Its signal, which was broadcast for 21 days, was easily monitored by amateur radio operators, making Sputkik an effective statement of Soviet technological dominance and causing a global panic.

Zhou Enlai

Zhou Enlai was the First Premier of the People's Republic of China, serving under Mao Zedong. As Mao dedicated most of his later years to ideological work, Zhou became responsible for affairs of state and diplomacy, making him effectively the leader of the nation. He was designated Mao's successor but died shortly before Mao did.

Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war epic starring William Holden and Alec Guinness that was the highest grossing film of 1957 and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were uncredited, because they were both on the Hollywood Blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusades. The climax of the film is the destruction of the titular bridge; it was not a miniature, and they were about half a century from CGI. An actual bridge was built in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to be destroyed for the film.


Lebanon’s population is comprised of many ethnic and religious sects, including Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Druzes. Lebanon's national pact of 1943 was a compromise, in which each group agreed to “forego seeking foreign [...] protection or attempting to bring [the nation] under foreign control or influence.” In 1957, when Lebanese president Camille Chamoun expressed support for the Eisenhower Doctrine, many Lebanese Muslims saw this as violating the National Pact. Chamoun requested US military intervention to put down an armed rebellion against his leadership. The crisis lasted around three months until Chamoun’s presidential term ended.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle was the Chairman of the French National Committee, a free government in exile during the Nazi occupation of France, and then Chairman of the provisional government once the occupation ended. In 1958, he returned to power as the French president. As president, he saw an integrated Europe as a “third pole” between the US and the Soviet Union and ensured that the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) was realized.

California Baseball

Given the patterns that have emerged in this song, it’s pretty easy to pin down even the vaguest of references. While baseball might be America’s pastime and California may be a very big state, the time period and the previous references to the Brooklyn Dodgers tell us that this refers to the team moving to Los Angeles and becoming the LA Dodgers. Interestingly, this was around the same time that the New York Giants relocated to San Francisco, allowing the teams to continue their rivalry.  New York baseball became California baseball.

Starkweather Homicide

Charles Starkweather was a serial killer who murdered eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming between late 1957 and early 1958, accompanied by his fourteen-year-old “girlfriend” Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather was executed in 1959. The Starkweather murders, along with the Clutter Family murders, and the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, were among the first crimes to generate national media attention, and as such, are a part of American folklore, inspiring movies like Badlands, Kalifornia, and Natural Born Killers, as well as the Bruce Springsteen song “Nebraska.”

Children of Thalidomide

Thalidomide was an over-the-counter medication sold under the name Contergan, and advertised to treat anxiety, insomnia, and morning sickness. However the drug was not tested on pregnant people, and children born from parents who had taken thalidomide were born with severe birth defects, most commonly phocomelia, or severely deformed limbs. The number of embryos affected before thalidomide was taken off the market is estimated to be up to 20,000; approximately 40 percent died at or shortly after birth. Thalidomide has been called the “biggest man-made medical disaster ever.”