The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1951 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1951

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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)
Rosenbergs, H-Bomb,
Sugar Ray, Panmunjom,
Brando, The King And I,
And the Catcher In The Rye

1951 marked the debut of Dennis The Menace, the original anti-hero. It was also the year when TV first played host to two shows that later became cult classics: Dragnet and I Love Lucy. Fred Davis won the first Professional Snooker Championship and Jackie Brenston released 'Rocket 88', now widely recognised as the first ever Rock 'n' Roll song. Surprisingly, given that this song wouldn't have existed without Brenston, Billy Joel's mind was on more serious things:


"We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives out with you. Your Daddy who is with me in the last momentous hours, sends his heart and all the love that is in it for his dearest boys. Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience."
- Letter from Ethel Rosenberg to her sons, June 19, 1953

Halfway through the 20th Century was a rougher time than normal for any US citizen to be labelled as hailing from east of green on the political spectrum1, and as it transpired a shockingly poor moment to be accused of spying for the Soviet cause. Riding gung-ho on an artificial frenzy of paranoia and deep-rooted hostility against east-coast WASP and Jewish intellectuals, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy's political twilight was, from 1950 until he was utterly and mercifully discredited in 1954, famously spent instigating oft ill-founded witch-hunts against anyone suspected of harbouring even the faintest predilection towards socialism. Thus, when husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in 1951, accused of atomic espionage, their fate, to be executed six minutes apart by the electric chair method on June 19, 1953 was perhaps politically sealed.

Julius Rosenberg was, by all accounts, a decent boy and a model student. Quiet, serious and with a bent for Hebrew, his father had aspirations for Rabbi-hood. But in his youth, Julius was a political animal and perhaps sowed the seeds of his fate when at age 16, he joined New York City College's Young Communist League. In 1939, aged 21, he both graduated as an Electrical Engineer and, shortly thereafter, married Ethel Greenglass.

By quirk of fate, Ethel's brother, David became an employee at the Los Alamos atomic project in New Mexico, where the United States was developing its A-bomb capability. Then, on June 15, 1950, having been caught somewhat red-handedly pilfering the family silverware, David Greenglass told FBI agents that he had been recruited by his brother-in-law, Julius, to steal atomic secrets from Los Alamos, and that this information was being passed on to the Soviets. The net immediately closed on Julius Rosenberg and he was arrested.

Here the plot thickens, or rather congeals. The FBI felt that Julius was '... just the next in a row of falling dominos ...' However, Julius maintained his innocence, and in doing so perhaps inadvertently implicated his wife. Fanatical red-baiter and Director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover was himself aggressively pursuing a conviction: 'There is no question ...' but that '... if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals ... proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter'. As a result, on August 11 1950, Ethel was arrested on the flimsiest of evidence and charged with espionage along with her husband. Julius, however, never cracked, and the FBI had no choice but to maintain the charade of their trumped up charges against Ethel.

The trial lasted three weeks in March 1951, during which David Greenglass now claims to have perjured himself under pressure from the Roy Cohn-led prosecution, and at the conclusion of which the pair were found guilty of violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. In passing sentence on April 5 1951, hard-line Judge Irving R. Kaufman proclaimed, '... With your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country ...', in retrospect, evidently bunkum.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spent the next twenty-six months on death-row, all the while maintaining their innocence, and during which time an appeal failed and a stay of execution was first granted and then vacated. Despite vehement street protests, they were executed by sensation double electrocution at New York's Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953, leaving behind an America torn asunder by emotion and acrimony.


In September 1949, the US nation was in a panic after finding out about the USSR's atomic capability, and President Truman ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to develop the Hydrogen Bomb as soon as possible.

On November 1, 1952 the first American H-bomb2 was detonated on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok during a secret test.

The hydrogen bomb, nicknamed 'Mike', was 2,500 times more powerful than the atomic ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It was reported that 'Mike' produced a fireball around 3 miles wide and its mushroom cloud sprouted up to at least 10.5 miles high within 90 seconds. It took around five minutes for the cloud to reach the top of the stratosphere and had a stem approximately 8 miles wide.

Elugelab Island, where the test took place, ended up completely destroyed and a 25 mile long, 1.75 mile deep canyon in the ocean floor appeared. The Russians exploded their first H-bomb nine months later.

The British, Chinese and French eventually detonated their own first H-bombs respectively in 1957, 1967 and 1968. The nuclear arms race soon concentrated in developing much smaller and more sophisticated nuclear bombs than the 22 feet long first one. The aim was now to make H-bombs that could be placed inside the top of a rocket.

Due to the risks associated with nuclear fallouts, an international treaty was signed in 1963 and H-bomb tests were to be mostly3 carried out underground instead.

Sugar Ray

the king, the master, my idol.
Muhammad Ali

Born in Ailey, Georgia on May 3, 1921, Walker Smith Jr is better known to boxing fans everywhere as 'Sugar' Ray Robinson. The name came from his early days when, in order to box in a Harlem gym, he borrowed his friend Ray Robinson's Amateur Athletic Union boxing card. The description came from his future manager, George Gainford, who said when he first saw him that he boxed 'as sweet as sugar'.

He boxed as though he were playing the violin.
Sportswriter Barney Nagler

After turning professional at the age of 19, Sugar Ray embarked on a spectacular career which led to his being declared 'pound for pound - the best boxer of all time' when Ring magazine reviewed its first 75 years of existence in 1997. Robinson held the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951, then was the middleweight champion five times between 1951 and 1960.

His career was marked by a series of feuds with other boxers, perhaps the most spectacular of which was with Jake LaMotta. It began with a brutal victory for the lighter welterweight Robinson over the middleweight LaMotta, then Lamotta handed Robinson his first defeat in 41 professional bouts on a TKO4. Sugar Ray avenged that with three more victories over the heavier man and then on February 14, 1951, after stepping up to middleweight, Robinson met LaMotta again at Chicago Stadium. Sugar Ray tore into the 'Raging Bull' in a St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the referee had to stop the bloodbath in the 13th round. LaMotta later said 'I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes'. The two rivals did make one more public appearance together: in 1986, Sugar Ray was best man at Jake LaMotta's wedding.

Robinson's fame was not only based on his skill in the ring, he became a major star outside as well. With a nightclub in Harlem and a pink Cadillac and a crowd of hangers-on including a dwarf mascot, barber, masseur, voice coach, secretary and the inevitable beautiful women, he spent his way through an estimated $4 million earned from boxing. By the mid-1960s he had to resort to show business to recoup his fortunes.

Sugar Ray Robinson, one of boxings all-time greats, died at age 67 on 12 April 1989, in Culver City, California, after suffering from Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.

Someone once said there was a comparison between Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. Believe me, there's no comparison. Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest.
Sugar Ray Leonard
Fighter of the Decade, 1980s


The Korean War had already lasted over a year and passed through one failed set of truce talks when, on October 25, 1951, United Nations representatives (led by the USA) sat down with the Korean and Chinese military leader to talk peace in Panmunjom.

After two weeks of negotiations, a complete halt to all UN hostile activities was called by Supreme Commander General Ridgeway. This was followed by the declaration of the 'Little Armistice' on 26 November, with exchanging of prisoner-of-war lists by both sides. The armistice ended on 27 December, and a rejected UN proposal that repatriation of prisoners should be on a voluntary basis did little to help the process.

Despite the ongoing peace talks, the war dragged on throughout 1952. In May of that year, Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war began a series of riots at the allied POW camp on Koje Island. One month later, US troops were finally ordered to use force to quell the rioting, an act that the Soviet newspaper Pravda described as surpassing the acts of Hitler.

The truce talks had now reached an impasse over the repatriation of POWs, and the UN left the talks. 1952 ended with the introduction of a compromise truce plan by India, which was almost immediately rejected by China and North Korea.

In March of 1953, a change in the political climate was heralded by the death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Shortly afterwards, part of the UN proposals for repatriation of POWs was finally accepted, and an exchange programme for sick and wounded prisoners (the 'little switch') was put in place.

On 26 April, the peace talks at Panmunjom began again. Full agreement over the handling of POWs was eventually acheieved between the UN and China on 8 June. The following day, South Korea issued a statement rejecting the agreement, leading China and North Korea to launch a major military assault in the east of the country. Further to their rejection of the POW proposals, South Korea freed 28,000 prisoners to civilian life in South Korea. China and North Korea accused the UN of collaborating in the prisoner release and withdrew from the peace talks.

After direct intervention from the US commander, General Clark, peace talks were restarted without South Korea's involvement. After one final major offensive from the North, and with the backing of South Korea, a cease-fire agreement was finally signed on 27 July, 1953. The final exchange of prisoners that had proved so problematic to agree on (the 'big switch') began 9 days later.


Marlon Brando was born on April 3, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. Both his parents were possibly descended from Irish immigrants although some sources mention a Dutch heritage. In 1935 his parents separated for a time and Brando went to live in Santa Ana, California with his mother and two sisters. The family were reconciled in 1937, however, so he spent most of his formative years in the family home set up near Lake Michigan in Libertyville, Illinois.

In 1940 he spent a short time at Shattuck Military Academy in Fairbult, Minnesota from where he was expelled for insubordination. His interest turned to acting and, in 1943, he enrolled at the New School for Social Research in New York to study drama. It was here that he learnt 'method' acting from Stella Adler, a former pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky who encouraged actors to play their parts according to their own emotions.

By 1944 Brando was ready to take to the stage. His first appearance was as Jesus in the Gerhart Hauptmann play Hannele, closely followed by a two-year run in I Remember Mama, a Broadway musical adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the play by John Van Druten. It was in 1946, affected by his part in A Flag is Born5 and the various reports of Nazi concentration camps, that he first showed an interest in politics and human rights and joined the American League for a Free Palestine.

His powerful on-stage presence brought him to the attention of many of the big names in the theatre and cinema world. In 1947 his name was put forward by Elia Kazan as the actor best-suited to play the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams. This spurred him on to try to break into films and he made his first film, The Men, in 1950.

Capitalising on his success in the stage play, he then starred in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and made Viva Zapata! in 1952. It was for this film he first won critical acclaim, winning the Best Actor Award at Cannes and the Best Foreign Actor award in Britain.

Although he is mentioned in the year 1951 in We Didn't Start the Fire, his biggest hits came much later. From 1953-55 he made a string of hits; The Wild One, On the Waterfront and Guys and Dolls, winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy in Waterfront. He then tried directing, making One-Eyed Jacks in 1961 and, also in this year, starred as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty. The rest of the films he made in the 60s were lacklustre as he concentrated on his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.

Brando burst back into the spotlight in the 70s, playing Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and bagging his second Oscar. He declined to attend the presentation evening and sent a Native American Indian, Sasheen Littlefeather, to speak on his behalf.

'To his great regret Marlon Brando feels unable to accept his award. The reasons lie in the treatment of the Indian in TV and the movies in this country, and in the recent events at Wounded Knee.'

He also, during this time, made Burn!, The Nightcomers, Last Tango in Paris and played the cameo role of Major Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Absent from stage and screen for most of the 80s, Brando returned to parody his 'Godfather' role in 1990 in the film The Freshman. 1994 saw the publication of his autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me and he continues acting to this day. Though mostly taking cameo roles or appearing as himself, he still commands fees in excess of $1,000,000 per performance. Notably, he received more money for his minor part as Jor-El in Superman than Christopher Reeve did in the title role.

Now a famous recluse he has been married three times and fathered nine children. His oldest son was released from jail in 1996 after serving time for murdering his sister's girlfriend and his daughter, Cheyenne, committed suicide in 1995.

He has been acknowledged as one of the greatest actors ever, coming 12th in Entertainment Weekly's Top 100 Entertainers of All Time6 poll. He is also well-respected in the field of human rights being a strong campaigner for both the Civil Rights Movement and Native American Indians. As he commented himself:

'There's a line in the picture7 where he snarls, 'Nobody tells me what to do.' That's exactly how I've felt all my life.'
Marlon Brando, Portraits and Film Stills 1946-1995

The King And I

Anna Leonowens wrote two books about her life in Siam8. The English Governess at the Court of Siam was written in 1870 and The Romance of the Harem in 1872. Many years later Margot Landon found the out-of-print books and combined what she perceived as the autobiographical parts of the two into a book titled Anna and the King of Siam. It was on this book that the film of the same name made in 1946 and starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison was based.

The Story - and Inaccuracies

The very simplistic story tells of the arrival in Siam of a young widow and her son. Anna has been hired to serve as governess and tutor to King Mongkut's many children. Although she initially finds him cruel, overbearing and ridiculously pompous she gradually calms him, teaches him to dance, falls in love with him and, allegedly, persuades him to change to a more democratic mode of leadership.

The genuine King Mongkut was over 60 when the original Anna arrived in Siam. He was a deeply religious man who had spent most of his life in monkhood. He was already fluent in English and conversant with Western science. There is no record that Anna was ever employed as a governess to his children and she warrants only a brief mention in his extensive diaries of the time.

The Musical and Film

A musical version of the story was commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence. After failing to convince Cole Porter to take on the project she turned to Rodgers and Hammerstein who happily obliged and The King and I opened at the St James Theatre on March 29, 1951. Although the main focus of the book was Anna herself, a virtually unknown actor, Yul Brynner, by sheer force of presence, shifted the emphasis to King Mongkut. The show proved to be a great success and Brynner was chosen to star in the film scheduled for release in 1956.

Because of historical inaccuracies portrayed in both the book and play, permission to film in Thailand was denied to the Fox studio. Instead they had to construct lavish sets and hire elephants. Despite the fact that she could not sing, Deborah Kerr took the female lead. All her songs were dubbed by 21-year-old Marni Nixon who used a modifier to deepen her voice and make her sound more mature. Three new songs were written by Rodgers and Hammerstein but all were deemed unsuitable and deleted from the final version although they are still accessible on the soundtrack.

The film was an instant success and made a household name out of Yul Brynner and his most famous line 'Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!'. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role but Deborah Kerr failed to win Best Actress in a Leading Role. The film collected five Oscars in total, two Golden Globes and netted director Walter Lang the Directors Guild of America Award. Ironically it was also nominated (but failed to win!) Best Film Promoting International Understanding - perhaps just as well seeing as it (and the book) are still banned in Thailand!

The Catcher In The Rye

The Catcher in the Rye is a book written by JD Salinger, about the events which transpired in the life of one Holden Caulfield after he was kicked out of prep school for what seemed like the thousandth time. The book was originally published in serial form in the USA over the years 1945 to 1946, and later collected into a single volume in 1951. Anyway, Salinger attempts to make Holden out to be a regular teenager. However, he - Holden, not Salinger! - is rather different from his peer group, both in the story and in real life. For one thing, he hates movies, thinking that they are 'phoney,' and that anyone who makes them (which includes his brother) is a prostitute. He is also one of the few boys in his school who do not brag about their (fictional) sexual exploits. Holden tends to have trouble around people in general, but especially girls. He also drinks and smokes, does not know what to do with his life, and is plagued by moral doubts. Just like any teenager, then.

The book is primarily told in conversational style, a method which can best be described by this quote from The Simpsons9: 'He writes the way people talk.' For most of the story, Salinger uses dialogue-style words to get across the impression that it is actually Holden telling his story, not just a book about some guy called Holden Caulfield.

When the story begins, Holden is expelled from yet another prestigious (according to Holden, 'pompous') prep school, just a few days before term would have ended anyway. He then says goodbye to his school friends and, not wanting to tell his parents what has happened just yet, travels across America back to his home town, along the way meeting up with some old friends, trying unsuccessfully to go all the way with a prostitute, and eventually gets to his home, where he tells his little sister, Phoebe, what has happened, but makes her swears not to tell their parents. They then hang out for a few days, and the books ends with Holden watching Phoebe enjoying a carousel ride.

Along the way, Holden has many ideas of what he could do. The book takes its name from one of these: there is a song that goes 'If a body meets a body comin' through the rye,' though for some reason Holden thinks it is 'catches' instead of 'meets.' He thinks about this a little, and thinks that maybe a good job would be a guy who catches little kids who are about to run off cliffs which they do no see because of tall-growing rye. He discards all these ideas almost as soon as he has them.

The book is loved by academics, because it paints a very good picture of life as an adolescent. It is hated by all students who have had to do it for required reading, because it tries to tell them what they are like and their teachers insist that it does. The best idea is to avoid reading it between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Otherwise, you will probably get some laughs out of it, and a few tears too.

1Communism, in other words.2And incidentally the first in the world.3China conducted atmospheric tests after that date.4Technical Knock Out.5This play dealt with the founding of the State of Israel.6Taken in the year 2000.7The Wild One.8Now known as Thailand.9 Whose creator, Matt Groening, is a fan of the book.

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