The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1957 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1957

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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)
Little Rock, Pasternak
Mickey Mantle, Kerouac,
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai,
Bridge on the River Kwai

1957 perhaps would never go down as a landmark year in 20th Century history. The year's inventions include the electric watch and the frisbee, and an incident in a restaurant nearly led to political tensions between the USA and Ghana. But the song gave us several other good reasons to remember the year...

Little Rock

The first public school in a Southern state to have the Brown vs Board of Education decision enforced was Little Rock Central High, in Arkansas. It was not willing to integrate, but was much less stubborn than other school districts. Little Rock had a reputation of being a better place than the alternatives for African-Americans to live in the South. The Little Rock Central High school district was the first in the South to allow integration, though there was certainly a great deal of resistance.

Seventeen students were selected to integrate into the High School, but eight decided not to because of threats and harassment. The remaining students became known as the 'Little Rock Nine'. They were:

  • Ernest Green
  • Elizabeth Eckford
  • Jefferson Thomas
  • Terrence Roberts
  • Carlotta Walls Lanier
  • Minnijean Brown Trickey
  • Gloria Ray Karlmark
  • Thelma Mothershed-Wair
  • Melba Pattillo Beals

Many white people, including the 'Mothers League of Little Rock Central High School'1 tried to prevent integration and attempted to get an injunction to prevent it - but the Brown vs Board of Education decision was legally binding.

On 3 September, 1957, the nine children tried to go into the school. Arkansas' Governor, Orval Faubus (who was considered a moderate and not against integration, but needed votes for his next term, which would come mostly from white people) put National Guardsmen around the school to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering. He announced that if they tried to enter, 'blood would run in the streets'. They were not able to enter the school on the first day.

On the second day, Daisy Bates of the NAACP called eight of the children and told them that they would walk in together. However, one of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, didn't have a phone, and tried to enter the school alone. The mob around her might have killed her, but two white people protected her and she escaped without entering the school. The other eight were denied entrance as well.

Finally, on 23 September, the Little Rock Nine finally went into the school. A judge had ordered that Governor Faubus couldn't use state troops to impede a Federal order. President Eisenhower convinced the Governor to use the National Guard to protect the students, but he dismissed them when he returned. Faubus agreed to let the order be carried out, but he hoped that the Nine would wait to integrate until the mob died down. The children were able to go into the school through the side entrance, which the mob did not expect. The police were unwilling to control the mob, but the children got in quickly.

Later, President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students. They controlled the mob easily, and each of the Little Rock Nine felt a tremendous amount of pride when they went in the front entrance without a problem. They continued on the school year, the early part of which protected by the 101st. They were even assigned a personal guard each to walk them from class. Of course, they encountered a great deal of hostility, and couldn't be protected at all times by their own soldier. Melba Pattillo in particular was given a great deal of problems. Dynamite was thrown at her, and acid was splashed in her eyes2.

Still, it was proved that it was possible that even African-Americans could get a good education in a world that discriminated against them. Five of the Nine, including Ernest Green, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls Lanier would successfully graduate from Central High.

Another resident of Little Rock at the time would go down in history in an even more important role. He was William Jefferson Clinton, later to be the 41st President of the USA.


Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in Moscow in 1890. His father, Leonid Osipovich, was a professor at the Moscow School of Painting and his mother, Rosa Kaufman, a successful concert pianist. Thus it was that Boris was surrounded from an early age with such literary and musical giants as Rainer Maria Rilke, Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Aleksandr Scriabin.

He entered the Moscow Conservatory to pursue his love of musical composition but, in 1910, changed course and went to study philosophy at the Marburg University in Germany. He returned to Moscow during the winter of 1914/15 after first taking a short tour of Italy. Once back in Russia he determined to devote himself to writing and his first collection of poems appeared in 1914. WWI, however, meant that he had to earn a living and he became firstly a private tutor and then a worker in a chemical factory in the Ural Mountains.

Despite expressing horror at the brutality of the government, he fully supported the 1917 Revolution. He remained in Russia when his parents and sisters migrated to Germany in 1921, becoming a librarian. He started writing in earnest, mostly poems which were fairly well received. By 1934 he had married twice - the first marriage to Evgeniia Vladimirovna Lourie was dissolved in 1931 and he married Zinaida Nikolaevna Neigauz in 1934. By now his interest in emotional themes had waned and he moved on to studying and writing about the underlying meaning of the Revolution. The Socialist regime, however, was putting pressure on original thought through the medium of the Writer's Union and he could no longer get his works published.

During the 1930s and 1940s he found himself under increasing scrutiny from the RAPP3 who were trying to stamp out the 'old school' in favour of pro-Soviet writers. Miraculously he still managed to stay on reasonable terms with the then powerful Stalin and avoided dying in the infamous Gulag Archipelago or being shot - a fate which many of his contemporary writers shared.

Of course, I am prepared for anything. Why should it happen to everyone else and not to me?

Pasternak turned to translating, notably interpreting the Shakespearian play Hamlet as a tragedy of duty and self denial. It was during this time that he penned Dr Zhivago, drawing on his personal experiences including the journey to the Urals in 1915. The book was rejected by Russian publishers and first appeared in Russian and as an Italian translation, courtesy of publisher Feltrinelli in Milan, in 1957. His homeland labelled it as portraying 'non-acceptance of the socialist revolution' and it was banned there for three decades. The irony was that the book was based far more on the aesthetic values held by Pasternak rather than any political intent.

Doctor Zhivago became an instant hit in the West and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The Russian government was furious at the acclaim it received and forced Pasternak to recant and decline the award4. He was destined to spend the rest of his life vilified and isolated by the authorities. Despite many offers from other nations, he was determined to remain in Russia. As he wrote in a personal letter to premier Nikita Khrushchev after yet more attacks on his work:

Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.

Pasternak died from lung cancer only two years later in May, 1960. His most famous literary legacy lives on - through his words and through the film made in 1965.

Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand condemned?
I made the whole world weep at the beauty of my land.

Mickey Mantle

Mickey Mantle was truly one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He followed fellow New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio as one of the cultural icons of the time. Playing from 1951 to 1969, he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame and today still holds many records.


To many the archetypal 'road' author, Jack Kerouac reached the peak of his fame in 1957, the free-wheeling style of his bestseller, On The Road, revolutionising the lives of millions of American teenagers.


Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1, launched on October 4, 1957, was the world's first artificial satellite.

It was also part of the first Soviet satellite programme which consisted of four Sputnik or 'fellow traveller' satellites. It was relatively small having a mass of only 83.6 kg and its mission was to send back data concerning the density of the Earth's upper atmosphere, and ionosphere.

This it did, but only for 21 days before it stopped transmitting signals.

Sputnik 2

The second Sputnik, Sputnik 2, was launched on November 3 in the same year and weighed in at 508.3 kilograms. However this time it was different. It carried a passenger on board: a dog called Laika. For just over a week scientists monitored Laika's biological rhythms to see how a living body adapted to space. Unfortunately they had not yet worked out how to return safely from space so Laika was remotely put to sleep.

Sputnik Un-numbered

April 27, 1958 saw the launch of the third Sputnik satellite but it was destroyed only 88 seconds into its flight and as such it was not given a number.

Sputnik 3

This meant that Sputnik 3 was actually the fourth Sputnik launched, on 15 May, 1958. It was supposed to send back the results of experiments carried out on the Earth's magnetic field, radiation belt, and ionosphere and this one weighed 1,327Kg. It went on orbiting the earth and sending back data until the 6 April, 1960.

Chou En-Lai

One of the two or three most impressive men I have ever met.
Henry Kissinger

Chou En-Lai is often revered as a pearl among swine when debating the leadership of twentieth century Red China. So sacred was he to the Chinese people that his funeral in 1976 sparked nationwide demonstrations of grief. It was as though a part of them had died with Chou. They believed so deeply in him, that he was saintly, that he loved them and that he fought for them. Whereas Mao was brutal, Chou was silken, tempering the hand of his master, never making a mistake. However, revisionist historians now suggest that Chou En-Lai, so long held high on a moral pedestal, may too have been flawed.

Born into the gentry in 1898, Chou En-Lai first demonstrated his predilection for revolutionary politics when during the May Fourth movement of 1919 he led a raid on a local government office protesting against the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. Subsequently spending time mingling with radical Chinese students in France and then in Moscow, Chou was by 1924 a card-carrying Communist. It was during his participation in the Long March of 1934-35, when communists sought to escape from Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang (nationalists), that he secured his position as Mao's number two. In 1937, Chou En-Lai the political tactician brokered an alliance between Mao's communists and Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalists in order to pose a united front against Japanese Imperialism; the truce lasted until after World War II, when the communists drove the Kuomintang out of mainland China.

After 1949, as China's Premier and (until 1958) Foreign Minister, Chou En-Lai proved himself to be a brilliant statesman and the architect of the People's Republic of China's foreign policy, winning great support for China in the developing world. Significantly Chou was the driving force behind China's break with Moscow and subsequent rapprochement with the United States. It was during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s that Chou won a reputation for being the face of moderation and the most likable of China's leaders. However, it may be true that in fact Chou was merely playing monkey to Mao's organ-grinder, with evidence now coming to the fore that Chou En-Lai among other things signed arrest orders for his own brother and a goddaughter.

Bridge on the River Kwai

The 1957 film 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' was an epic World War II prisoner-of-war drama starring Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins.

Directed by David Lean and based upon the novel of the same name5 by French author Pierre Boulle, the film was the year's top box-office smash. At the Academy Awards it won seven Oscars from eight nominations, Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

The Storyline

Colonel Saito: The bridge must be completed by May 12. If it is not, I must kill myself. Now what would you do if you were me?
Colonel Nicholson: Well, I suppose I'd have to kill myself.

The film is set in a POW camp in Burma6, in 1943. At the start of the film we see a column of British prisoners marching into camp, sent to build a bridge for a rail line the Japanese were building between Malaysia and Rangoon.

A conflict immediately develops between the British CO, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and the Japanese Commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). The Japanese officer is determined that all prisoners must work on the bridge and the British officer is equally determined to stick to the Geneva Convention which states that officers may not be forced to perform manual labour. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, the Japanese Commandant, desperate to finish the bridge on schedule, has the British Colonel thrown into 'the oven', a corrugated-iron sweat box, as the assembled soldiers sing 'For he's a jolly good fellow'.

Eventually the Japanese officer is forced to give in and agree that officers will not be required to work on the bridge. Colonel Nicholson is released and then performs an strange about-face - believing that the best way to keep up his men's morale and unite them as a military force is by instilling pride in their task - he becomes obsessed with building the finest possible bridge.

In the film's other main plotline, William Holden (playing Shears, an American sailor who is impersonating an officer to receive better treatment in camp) escapes into the jungle. Eventually reaching Allied lines, he is hospitalised where he meets with Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a British officer who blackmails him7 into joining a commando group organised to destroy the bridge.

Following a gruelling trek through the jungle the three commandos with their native bearers reach the bridge on the eve of the opening of the railway and are astonished to see the bridge completed and ready for use. Under cover of night the explosives are placed on the main bridge supports and wires are led back underwater to a plunger so that the destruction of the bridge can be combined with the crossing of the first troop train due next day.

At dawn, however, it is revealed that the water level has dropped and the explosives and wires can be seen from the bridge. Colonel Nicholson alerts the Japanese Commander and the two of them trace the wires back to where the Commando waits to detonate the charges once the train arrives. The British soldier kills the enemy Colonel, but Nicholson is so far deranged that he struggles to prevent the destruction of the bridge that he has come to consider his pride and joy.

The Japanese guards on the bridge having been alerted, Major Warden opens fire with a mortar attack from his position on the hillside overlooking the bridge, and Shears attempts to cross the river to assist the other Commando. The Commando is however shot and then Shears dies. Colonel Nicholson is shocked back to his senses and sees that he is spoiling his own side's attempt to block the enemy railway. 'What have I done?'

At that moment, just as the train begins to cross the bridge, Nicholson is hit by shrapnel from a mortar blast and collapses onto the plunger of the detonator. His beloved bridge and the enemy train are blown up.

The film ends with the camp doctor surveying the devastation and issuing the epitaph... 'Madness!...Madness! Madness!'

1Which interestingly, had only a few actual parents of Central High students.2And if her soldier guard hadn't cleaned her eyes, she might have been blind forever.3The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers.4With the reinstatement of Pasternak and publication of Dr Zhivago in Russia in 1987, his son received the award on his behalf in 1989.5Only in French, of course - 'Le pont de la rivière Kwai'.6The film was shot on location in the jungles of Sri Lanka.7Threatening to have him imprisoned for impersonating an officer.

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