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
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President Nixon Pointing During Press Conference
President Nixon Pointing During Press Conference / Wally McNamee/GettyImages

Verse 8 (1960s and 1970s)

Birth control

If it weren’t for the rough chronological order of the song, this reference would be a mystery, as humans, especially women, have been practicing birth control since before the beginning of civilization. But 1960 saw the approval in the US of the oral contraceptive, also known simply as “the pill.”

A generation before advances in industrialization and mass production led to cheap and easily accessible condoms, the pill contributed massively to the sexual revolution. Unlike condoms, the pill was exclusively used by cis women, making it a fundamental tool for female sexual liberation.

IUDs and barrier contraceptives like diaphragms also thrived during the 1960s, giving women more control than ever over their reproductive health.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was the president of North Vietnam from 1945 to his death in 1969. This, of course, made him the nation’s leader during the Vietnam War. In 1941, he founded the Việt Minh, an independence organization that opposed French colonial rule through guerilla tactics.

As president, Ho pushed for the invasion of South Vietnam, and believed that Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia, should be united under communism, declaring during peace talks in 1963 that "Indochina is just one single entity." In 1976, with the North victorious and Vietnam reunited, the former capital of South Vietnam (Saigon) was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.

Richard Nixon back again

As noted previously, Richard Nixon was a congressman and a Senator before running for President. He also served as Vice President under President Eisenhower. Nixon ran for President in 1960 against JFK, losing narrowly, before running successfully in 1968. Nixon was “back again” several times over.

Moonshot

In 1961, President Kennedy announced his intention to lead the nation to a manned mission to the moon by the end of the decade. The effort came to be called the “moonshot,” and the word entered common usage, as an impossibly ambitious effort with an inspiring goal— a “giant leap” if you will.

On July 20th 1969, Kennedy’s pledge was fulfilled, when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first two humans to set foot on another celestial body, an event just as ambitious and inspiring as the term "moonshot" suggests.

Woodstock

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was a three-day music festival held in 1969, which is one of history’s largest music festivals, with up to an estimated half a million attendees. Woodstock became synonymous with the counterculture and hippie movements, and its cultural significance was further solidified by a 1970 documentary film and soundtrack.

Artists who played at Woodstock included Joe Cocker, Joan Baez (who was six months pregnant at the time,) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Who, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix famously closed the festival with his iconic rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Watergate

The three Nixon references in “We Didn’t Start The Fire” are like a three-act play, and now we come to the denouement: Nixon’s downfall, the Watergate scandal. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington DC. An investigation by the Department of Justice linked cash found in the burglars' possession to Nixon’s fundraising organization.

Witnesses told Senate hearings that Nixon had not only approved the burglary but had also approved plans to cover up the administration’s involvement; that testimony was later confirmed by the infamous Nixon White House Tapes. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, and though he was pardoned by his successor (former Vice President Gerald Ford), 48 others were convicted of illegal activities related to the scandal.

Punk Rock

We’re taking our own giant leap here, I guess because Billy Joel’s career had begun in earnest, and he had less time to watch the news.

Woodstock was in 1969, the Watergate scandal spanned the years 1972 through 1974, and punk exploded onto the scene in 1977. Of course, any music nerd would be able to point to many influential punk acts from before that fateful year, but punk became a social movement almost overnight when The Sex Pistols made their infamous TV appearance on England’s Today show on December 1,1976 (Warning: NSFW language, and also Steve Jones’ t-shirt. Bear in mind that this was primetime TV in the mid-70s!)

The Sex Pistols’ incendiary career only lasted around 18 months, and after they flamed out, the sound of punk diversified, becoming more sophisticated and melodic, even in some cases coming full circle and returning to pop. Into the late 70s and 80s, punk was more an attitude than a sound. But that attitude was unmistakable— rebellious, spiky, irrepressible, and contradictory.

But it's still rock 'n' roll to me.

Begin

Menachem Begin was the Prime Minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983. Begin is best remembered for the Camp David Peace Accords, a peace treaty with Egypt in which Israel agreed to cede the territory in the Sinai Peninsula that it had captured during the Six-Day War in 1967. The agreement also secured access for Israel to the Suez Canal.

Begin later approved the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a point of contention in the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict. In 1982, he launched an invasion of Lebanon, a conflict that mired the nation in hyperinflation and stagnation. The resulting public pressure led to his resignation.

Reagan

Ronald Reagan was the 40th president, who served from 1981 to 1989. Reagan’s political career followed an extensive showbiz career; he starred in 53 films, including Bedtime for Bonzo, a comedy in which he adopts a baby chimp.

As president, he became known for the doctrine of ”Reaganomics,” which involved tax cuts, corporate deregulation, and cuts in public spending. Reagan’s tenure was a storied one; he survived an assassination attempt, and his time in office also coincided with the AIDS epidemic and the Iran-Iraq war. He escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union (strangely while taking a more conciliatory diplomatic approach with the Cold War foes), escalated the War on Drugs, and oversaw the illegal sale of weapons to Iran and the funding of anti-government rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan still regularly tops public polls of the greatest presidents in history.

Palestine

Palestine is a state in the Middle East that’s recognized by 138 of the 193 United Nations member nations; the UN itself considers it a “non-member observer state.” In 1947, the UN passed a resolution to split the area of South Levant into a Jewish state (Israel) and an Arab State (Palestine), with an international regime administering the city of Jerusalem.

However, decades of conflict have shrunk Palestine’s territories to a fraction of what the UN proposed. In 1988, Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, issued a declaration of independence. The territory claimed by Palestine in the declaration (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River including Jerusalem) have been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967.

The region has seen frequent flare-ups of this conflict, including the ongoing Israel-Hamas War launched in October 2023.

Terror on the Airline

Monty Python fans might remember a sketch in which Michael Palin plays a charmingly befuddled aeroplane hijacker, politely demanding that a plane to Cuba be redirected to Luton. In a post-9/11 world, this may seem in bad taste, but at the time, plane hijackings were common. They were inconvenient but rarely turned violent and were tolerated by the airlines as preferable to the security measures that are common at airports today.

Of course, non-violent terrorism is an oxymoron, and starting from around the early 70s, hijackings became more serious. Before 9/11, the most high-profile hijacking was Transworld Airlines Flight 847, a flight from Cairo to San Diego that was hijacked by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah in 1985. The ordeal lasted three days, some passengers were beaten, and those with Jewish-sounding names were separated from the others. One passenger, Navy Diver Robert Stethem, was murdered.

Ayatollah's in Iran

In 1979, a popular revolution in Iran installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini as the first Supreme Leader of the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini immediately began making his mark on the international community, supporting the hostage takers during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, calling the United States “the great Satan” (and the Soviet Union “the lesser Satan”), and issuing a fatwa calling for the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie.

Khomeini was said to have such charisma that critics and detractors fell under his spell, and he amassed a cult of personality. He passed away in 1989, and his funeral was one of the largest gatherings of people in human history, with about one-sixth of Iran’s population in attendance. He is still considered “inviolable” in Iran, with citizens regularly being punished for insulting him.

Russians in Afghanistan

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the invasion led to a ten-year quagmire that was a significant factor in the fall of the Soviet Union. The reasons for the invasion are still up for debate, and the events leading up to the invasion are too convoluted to give a clear picture of the Soviet’s intent.

British journalist Patrick Brogan noted, "The simplest explanation is probably the best. They got sucked into Afghanistan much as the United States got sucked into Vietnam, without clearly thinking through the consequences, and wildly underestimating the hostility they would arouse.” The analogy to Vietnam is particularly insightful, as with the United States supporting the Mujahideen, the guerilla forces fighting the Soviet invasion, the Soviet-Afghan War quickly devolved into a US/Soviet proxy war. 

As a side note, the plot of the action movie Rambo III has the titular hero traveling to Afghanistan to support the Mujahideen, who are widely seen as the precursor to the Taliban.