The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1958 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1958

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Title Page | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964-1989 (Part 1) | 1964-1989 (Part 2) | 1964-1989 (Part 3)
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle
California Baseball,
Starkweather homicide,
Children of Thalidomide

In 1958, the Treaty of Rome was signed to form the European Union; racing champion Juan Manuel Fangio was kidnapped by Cuban rebels, and NASA was founded as America's foremost space agency. But what did Billy Joel remember?


The 1958 civil war in Lebanon was instigated by Lebanese Muslims who were inspired by the February 1958 unification of Egypt and Syria and wanted to make Lebanon a member of the newly formed United Arab Republic. Pro-Nasser1 demonstrations grew in number and in violence until a full-scale rebellion was underway. The unrest was intensified by the assassination of Nassib Mahni, the Maronite anti-Shamun2 editor of At Talagraph, a daily newspaper known for its outspoken pro-Arab views. The revolt was becoming a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims.

This state of turmoil increased when, in the early hours of 14 July, 1958, a revolution overthrew the monarchy in Iraq and the entire royal family was killed. In Lebanon, jubilation prevailed in areas where anti-Shamun sentiment predominated, with radio stations announcing that the Shamun regime would be next. Shamun, realising the gravity of his situation, summoned the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, and France on the morning of July 14. He requested immediate assistance, insisting that the independence of Lebanon was in jeopardy.

Although the war took a toll of several thousand lives, it was regarded by many people as a comic opera, especially when 5000 US Marines were landed on the beaches near Beirut and came ashore amongst swimmers and sunbathers. The role of the Marines, in a situation described by the US Department of Defense as 'like war but not war', was to support the legal Lebanese government against any foreign invasion, specifically from Syria. The Marines were summoned because Shihab3, believing the army would mutiny and fall apart if ordered into action, had disobeyed Shamun's orders to send the army in against the Muslim rebels. Thus, Lebanon's army had again proved unwilling to defend its country's government.

Nevertheless Shihab's reputation for evenhandedness was enhanced by his refusal to commit the army to ending the civil war, and he was elected to succeed Shamun as President. Although Shihab relied heavily on the military intelligence branch of the army as his power base, he surrendered command of the Lebanese army and did not rule as a military dictator. On the contrary, he was a reformer who made significant concessions to Muslims in an attempt to heal the wounds of the civil war.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle was born on 22 November, 1890 in Lille, France - the son of the headmaster of a Jesuit school. Following a good education in Paris, he joined the French army and served with honour during World War I, during which he was wounded three times before being captured by the Germans and held in a prisoner-of-war camp for the final 32 months of the conflict.

After the war, de Gaulle took a position as a lecturer at the French War College where he trained many more soldiers and developed his own ideas and concepts about modern warfare4. When it became clear that War was about to sweep across Europe once again, de Gaulle found himself leading several different armoured divisions. In May 1940, de Gaulle's 4th Armoured Division of 200 tanks was the only force able to temporarily halt the inexorable march of the German panzer divisions into France.

By June of 1940, de Gaulle had been promoted by the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud - he was now Minister of War. However, upon returning to France following a trip to London, de Gaulle discovered to his shock that Paul Reynaud had been deposed as Prime Minister, and that the new PM Henri-Philippe Petain was seeking an armistice with Germany. De Gaulle fled to London, fearing for his life. Sure enough, less than two months after fleeing to Britain, de Gaulle had been sentenced to death in his absence by the new Nazi-appeasing Vichy Government.

In exile, de Gaulle was backed by Winston Churchill as the true leader of the 'Free French'. The day he arrived in Britain, de Gaulle made a famous radio broadcast to his homeland, encouraging the French people to continue to fight against the German occupiers. Over the next three years, he made significant progress in uniting the disparate resistance movements in France. In 1943, de Gaulle moved to Algeria where he established an organisation called the French Committee of National Liberation (FCNL), making plans for the future of the (hopefully) soon-to-be-liberated France. However, he angered both Churchill and Roosevelt when in May 1944 de Gaulle announced that the FCNL was now to be known as Provisional Government of the French Republic. This slap in the face effectively caused Churchill and Roosevelt to cut de Gaulle out of their plans for the D-Day invasion.

However, by the time the Allied forces had moved to liberate Paris from the German occupiers, de Gaulle had been forgiven for his diplomatic faux pas and was allowed to ride with the US Army as they drove into the city for the first time on 25 August, 1944. De Gaulle then represented France during the signing of the official German surrender document in 1945. De Gaulle soon retired from the French government in 1946, turning his hand initially towards the establishment of a right-wing group called the RFP (Rally of the French People) before settling down to write his memoirs.

In 1958, de Gaulle returned to the French political scene when he was elected President during the Algerian Crisis5. He swept to power, and during the next few years of his government de Gaulle granted independence to all thirteen French colonies in Africa. Eventually the popularity of both himself and his government began to decline. In April 1969, following a number of massive student riots and a massive defeat in a referendum, de Gaulle resigned as French President. He died little more than a year later, on 9 November, 1970.

California Baseball

In 1958, the famous and well established baseball club, the Dodgers moved from their traditional and original home of Brooklyn, New York City, to the West Coast. Specifically, Los Angeles, California.

Similarly in 1958, the long-time rivals of the Dodgers, the New York Giants, moved to San Francisco, California. This was largely in order to continue the famous rivalry of the two teams.

The two teams in New York competed fiercely, and they were often the two best teams in the National League. Great players emerged from this rivalry, as the teams had to constantly recruit better and better teams to match each other. It also aroused a great interest in the sport in New York. The rivalry was very beneficial for baseball in many ways, but it was never really the same in California.

This move to California was very much a turning point for baseball. It gave the Yankees dominance of New York (and, often of all baseball) in popularity, defused the long standing New York rivalry, and disgruntled millions of Dodgers and Giants fans in New York City. Now, only baseball old-timers will remember the days of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, fighting for dominance...

Starkweather Homicide

On 1 December, 1957, Charles Starkweather executed Lincoln, Nebraska gas station attendant Robert Colvert with several shots to the head. His murderous spree was just starting...

Almost two months later, he then murdered the mother and stepfather of his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, before going on to strangle Caril's two year old sister in her bed. Starkweather and Fugate stayed in Caril's family home for two days before going on the run. Seven more people would be dead before their rampage of violence would come to an end.

First up were a young couple who had stopped to try to help him get his car going again. Starkweather shot the boy, then tried to rape the girl. Failing to do so, he shot and killed her too.

Now needing more guns and ammunition, he killed his friend August Meyer and took his weaponry. The two now returned to Lincoln and broke into the house of C Laur Ward. Starkweather then took Mrs Ward and her housekeeper upstairs, tied them up and stabbed them to death. When Mr Ward returned home he too was shot by Starkweather. Now they took the Wards' car and drove to Wyoming, and along the way some twelve miles outside the town of Douglas they came across Merle Collison asleep in his car. Starkweather duly shot him nine times in his head as he slept.

At this time Joe Sprinkle stopped to see if he could be of any help, but when Starkweather turned on him he wrestled the gun off the young killer and called out to a passing Deputy, 'It's Starkweather, he's going to kill me.' Starkweather's spree was over.

Starkweather was executed by electric chair on 25 June, 1959. He was 19 years old. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled in 1977.

Children of Thalidomide

The History

Thalidomide is a drug that was introduced on to the market on 1 October, 1957 in West Germany. It was discovered by accident in 1954 by chemists in Germany who were trying to produce an antihistamine. The drug they manufactured did not work as an anti-histamine, but it was found to be an effective tranquilliser with no harmful side effects.

Demand for the drug rose and it was used to treat many anxiety conditions, including morning sickness and insomnia in pregnant women. Unfortunately what was not known at the time was that when taken during the first three months of pregnancy, Thalidomide prevented the proper growth of the foetus resulting in horrific birth defects in thousands of children around the world. These children were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s and became known as 'Thalidomide babies'.

Future Effects

Today with many of the original Thalidomide babies leading 'normal' lives and becoming parents themselves, the spectre of second generation Thalidomide babies is rapidly raising its profile.
1Full name: President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt2Full name: Camille Shamun - President of Lebanon from 1952 to 19583Full name: General Fuad Shihab - Commander-in-Chief of the Lebanese army during the crisis4Ideas he later published in two books, The Army of the Future (1934) and France and Her Army (1938).5Civil War in Algeria had begun to threaten to spill over into France itself, with Muslim-backed rebel forces desperate to gain their independence from the French state. Algeria would officially declare itself independent in 1962, after the loss of between 350,000 and 1.5 million lives during the conflict (depending on which sources you believe).

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