The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1961 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1961

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Hemingway, Eichmann
Stranger In A Strange Land
Dylan, Berlin
Bay of Pigs Invasion

That most august of publications, the Sunday Telegraph, was first published in 1961; the Venera probe reached Venus, and Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth, the first silicon chip was patented and the United States figure-skating team were tragically killed in a plane crash in Belgium. A busy year indeed: Billy Joel found even more to remind us about.


1899 in Chicago, and the newborn seemed to sense something the others had forgotten. His parents showed him violins and scripture. Nothing if not self-willed, he chose the typewriter. He joined the Kansas City Star, then he joined the war. It was in the final weeks of the Italian campaign in 1918, driving that ambulance. So nearly too late to be horribly wounded; to spend those painful weeks in the field hospital; to be changed.

You can be enigmatic without being complex. You can be brutally stark and simple, and yet a mass of contradictions. Young Ernest soon understood the fabric of fate, the weft of individual appetite twisting in right lines through the warp of collective will.

No writer will ever better express the stuff of manhood. Blood and testosterone, gunsmoke and alcohol; all at once magnificent and futile, all fuelled by the nowness of it. There is no glory and no honour, since nothing in this world is abstract. There is only the immediacy of the sensation. Action declares its own justification in its scorching wake.

Fiction is richer and truer than fact. Read Papa, and let your mind glimpse what your heart knows: 'A Moveable Feast', that tightrope between self-discovery and hedonism; 'A Farewell to Arms': a vital and pure philosophy of war; 'For Whom the Bell Tolls': the path of courage as the last open road out of hell; 'The Old Man and the Sea': distilled essence of the competitor's mission.

Mortality embellished may yet live for ever. He pursed his lips around a gun-barrel in Idaho in 1961. Grizzled and shameless, he knew that you can't take it with you. You can only cut your epitaph steel-deep into the stones.


To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.
Adolf Eichmann

Between 2 April and 14 August, 1961 a trial was held in Jerusalem that attracted the attention of the entire world. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer formally entrusted with implementing the Nazi policy toward the Jews in Germany and all occupied territories, had been tracked down by Israeli secret agents on 2 May, 1960, living under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. On 11 May he was abducted from a bus stop and brought to Israel to face charges in public for his involvement in the atrocities of Hitler's 'Final Solution'.

The Trial

The public trial caused huge international controversy and sensation. News programmes all over the world were allowed to broadcast the trial live without any restrictions by the Israeli government. TV viewers worldwide saw a nondescript little man sitting in a bulletproof glass booth while witnesses, including many Holocaust survivors, testified to his role in transporting victims to the extermination camps. The horrendous descriptions of Nazi atrocities that accompanied some of the testimony forced the entire world to face the reality of the Holocaust - a fact often denied by apologists for the Nazi beliefs.

Eichmann's sole defense was to claim that he had been a petty government functionary and was merely following the orders of superior officers.

The Verdict

From the sentencing by the Presiding Judge, His Honour Moshe Landau:

After considering the appropriate sentence for the Accused with a deep feeling of the burden of responsibility borne by us, we reached the conclusion that in order to punish the Accused and deter others, the maximum penalty laid down in the law must be imposed on him.
...the degree of his legal and moral responsibility for these acts of murder is not one iota less than the responsibility of the person who with his own hands pushed these human beings into the gas chambers.
...we have found that the Accused acted out of an inner identification with the orders that he was given and out of a fierce will to achieve the criminal objective, ....
This Court sentences Adolf Eichmann to death, for the crimes against the Jewish People, the crimes against humanity and the war crimes of which he has been found guilty.

On Appeal in the Supreme Court of Israel, a Request for clemency was rejected and the Death sentence upheld1. Eichmann was executed in Ramleh Prison on 31 May, 1962. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, beyond the territorial waters of the state of Israel.

Stranger In A Strange Land

What are the facts? Again and again and again - what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what 'the stars foretell,' avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable 'verdict of history' - what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your only clue. Get the facts!
Time Enough for Love
- R. A. Heinlein.

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) was one of the foremost science-fiction writers of the 20th Century - many would say the greatest.

First suggested in a 'brainstorming' session with his wife in 1948 and eventually published in 1961, Stranger in a Strange Land, won the 1962 'Hugo'2 Award as Best Science Fiction novel of the year. The novel went on to establish a position as the 'bible' of the 1960s counterculture and was, to many, one of the main inspirations for the 'free love' movement of that era3.

The original manuscript was some 220,000 words long and publishers at the time were unwilling to take the chance of releasing a science-fiction work of such length. The book was therefore reduced to just over 160,000 words and published as such. After the author's death, his widow located a copy of the original typescript in the archives of his work and arranged for the publication of the unabridged version which hit bookshelves in 1992. Both the 'cut' and 'uncut' versions remain in print - a testimony to the importance attached to this work.

The Storyline

Valentine Michael Smith is the only remnant of a failed attempt to colonise Mars. Born on the Red Planet and raised by Martians, he has not seen a human until the arrival of a second expedition a quarter of a century later. As legal heir to all eight of the original colonists under a contract signed before their departure, Smith is fabulously wealthy - but doesn't know what money is. Also, due to a fantastic (but plausible) legal precedent, he is in Earth eyes the owner of the planet Mars!

The first part of he book covers how he, and particularly a group of people who befriend him, manage to deal with this situation and the many interested parties who would like to gain control of this inheritance.

The remainder of the novel is concerned with Smith's attempts to understand humanity and find his own place therein. Further details may be obtained by reading the novel - we wouldn't want to spoil your fun!


Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, was one of the 1960s' - nay, the century's - most influential musicians and songwriters. Heavily influenced by country and folk standards, his early songs were peace anthems for the anti-Governmentalists (and in the 1960s, there were plenty of those in America), but reverted to the mainstream without losing any of his panache. Dylan's voice was far from melodic, and he is widely regarded as one of the worst harmonica players in history, but his songwriting talents were, and still are, unparalleled.

From Minnesota, the young Dylan followed in the footsteps of his hero, country musician Woody Guthrie. Guthrie lay hospitalised in New York, so Dylan began to spread the legend by performing Guthrie's songs in coffee bars and folk joints. He also started to write songs at an incredible rate, influenced by the range and diversity of styles in New York, and aided by a natural ear for a tune.

Spotted by Columbia Records in 1961 at Gerde's Folk City club, Dylan immediately struck the public consciousness with great album after great album. To list his entire discography here would be over-exhaustive (as of 2004, he has written 42 full studio albums), but the title should suffice for most music fans: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde On Blonde. All of these, and more, were recorded in a remarkable 5-year stint of creativity. Dylan also became involved with folk legend, Joan Baez, but their relationship began to crumble when Dylan's fame eclipsed that of his partner. A horrific motorbike crash in 1966 nearly killed Dylan, and his career was on hold until the early 1970s.

The early 1970s saw less songwriting but a series of remarkable live performances, which later became the most bootlegged records of all time. Dylan then expanded his folk, blues and country roots over the next two decades, including collaborations with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Mark Knopfler. 1990 still saw Dylan writing solid blues albums, and although his style, his voice and his influences had changed, Dylan continued to be a critically-acclaimed artist into the 21st Century.


After World War II, the Allied forces occupied Berlin. The city was split into sectors: American, British and French on the western side and Soviet on the eastern side. The city administration was a joint council made up of representatives of each of the four Allied powers. The Soviets' aim was to make Germany a socialist state like the rest of eastern Europe. The western Allies, of course, didn't want this and began developing their sectors of Berlin separate from the Soviet development of eastern Berlin.

As the political friction heated up, the Soviets left the joint council in March of 1948. Later that year they made their first attempt at closing the West Berlin borders by denying land access to the west and essentially cutting off their supplies. The Berlin Airlift provided West Berlin with supplies from the Western Allies, and the Soviets released the borders the following year. Germany, however, was irreversably divided, and the Cold War had truly begun. East Germany declared itself the German Democratic Republic or GDR (DDR), followed a few years later by West Germany establishing the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG.

Over the following decade the economic differences between East and West Berlin were increasingly apparent. The borders remained open and citizens were allowed to cross freely; thousands of East Berliners left for the western sectors. East Berlin's economy was even further damaged by the loss of skilled workers crossing the borders to work in the better economy of West Berlin, and the loss of manpower hampered reconstruction efforts.

Although the rest of the East German/West German border had been closed since 1952 the Berlin border remained open. Amid rumours of closing the border with a wall to prevent further loss of citizens and manpower, GDR Premier Walther Ulbricht denied that anyone had plans to build a wall. Yet just two months later he signed the orders to close the border and build the wall. On the morning of 13 August, 1961 West Berliners awoke to find themselves completely surrounded by barricades of barbed wire, anti-tank obstacles and roadblocks. Everything stopped at the wall; streets and train lines were interrupted, utilities were cut off, even families were separated - some with no hope of ever seeing loved ones again.

Almost immediately the GDR began replacing barricades with concrete walls. Three checkpoints were established for approved passage. Soviet propaganda claimed the wall was an 'anti-facist protection wall' for the purpose of protecting the Soviet sector from western aggression. Border guards were ordered to shoot anyone attempting unauthorized crossing to the west. Over the following 28 years this would result in 239 deaths from more than 5000 attempts.

In November of 1989, after months of demonstrations, mass defections via the newly-opened Hungary/GDR border and pressure from Soviet leader Michail Gorbachev, the GDR opened the FRG border. Tens of thousands of people crossed into West Berlin. In the days that followed millions travelled to West Germany as more checkpoints were set up and the wall began to come down. By mid 1990 East and West Germany began the process of reuniting, and by 1991 most of the Berlin Wall had disappeared. A few sections yet remain, one of which is the Wall Memorial in Bernauer Strasse, and in many places the position of where the wall used to stand is marked by a double row of paving stones.

Bay Of Pigs Invasion

We have to remind ourselves of this at every moment: that we are in a war, a cold war as they call it; a war where there is no front line, no continuous bombardment
- Che Guevara, 21 days before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

As a Communist country located just a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida, diplomatic relations in the second half of the 20th Century between Cuba and the United States were often rather tense. The Bay of Pigs invasion exacerbated the decline in good relations between the two nations, and could be considered a key event that led to the much more dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis 18 months later.

In January 1961, reacting on pressure to invade Cuba but also the need to avoid a nuclear war with the USSR, John F Kennedy authorised an invasion of Cuba. While US weapons, limited air support and CIA training and intelligence were provided to the 1,500 or so invaders, they were all exiled Cubans rather than US troops. The reason for this was to avoid the USA being dragged into both a war with Cuba and a nuclear war with the USSR that a more aggressive move was expected to bring.

On 17 April, 1961 the 1,500 exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba. As Castro had managed to overthrow the Batista regime with just ten people, after 70 of his original invasion force were killed or captured, the reasoning behind the American-supported invasion was that 1500 exiles would be able to trigger a similar revolution. Unfortunately for the invaders, the amount of local support was much lower than expected and the planned uprising and march on Havana never materialised.

The lack of local support and the fact that the invasion force fought a three day battle with just one day's supply of ammunition meant that it was eventually easily defeated by Cuban forces. By the end of fighting, 90 exiles were dead and the over 1000 more were captured. Getting the exiles back would cost the US $53m in aid.

The Bay of Pigs invasion was, overall, an abject failure. As well as the fact that the event achieved none of its political or military objectives despite costing the US taxpayer tens of millions of dollars, the invasion worsened diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba and the USSR. It also highlighted a number of inadequacies within the CIA, such as their overestimation of the level of local support that the attempted coup would receive and their failure to prevent the US government from being implicated.

Through the failure of the invasion, the world was brought even closer to the horror of a nuclear war.

1The only civil Death Sentence ever carried out in Israel.2Named after Hugo Gernsback, 'The Father of Magazine Science Fiction'.3The book has also been credited as the original idea for the water bed.

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