Sunday, April 12, 2020

We Didn’t Start the Fire, Part 2

Continuing a look at the events and people described in the lyrics for Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  

Each 2 lines of the lyrics covers one year.  Previously 1949, today 1950.


Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio.
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe
Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, "The King and I" and "The Catcher in the Rye"
Eisenhower, vaccine, England's got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye



Joe McCarthy:

US Senator, 1908-1957, the most visible public face of the communist witch hunts. 

What is known as the First Red Scare was the period during the early 20th-century history of the United States marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism, due to real and imagined events; real events included the Russian Revolution and anarchist bombings.

The Second Red Scare lasted from the late 1940s and through the 1950s and was characterised by widespread belief in, and fear of, global communism.  In 1947 President Truman signed an executive order to ferret out communists in government departments.

This widened, with McCarthy taking the ball and running with it, notably through investigations and hearings conducted by McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities. 

Often suspicion was enough, the primary targets being government employees, those in the entertainment industry, academics and labour-union activists. Careers were ruined and some were imprisoned.  Persons testifying were required to name others on threat of imprisonment, giving rise to the name McCarthy Witch Hunts, akin to the trials of witches in Salem in 1692-3. 

The witch hunts declined from the mid 1950s due to loss of public popularity and hostile decisions by the US Supreme Court.

The term McCarthyism today refers to the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. 

Relevance to 1950:

McCarthy rose to prominence after he made a speech in 1950 saying he had the names of communist spies in the State Department, from there becoming the most visible public face of the fear of widespread Communist subversion.  McCarthy didn’t start that fire but he fanned the flames the most.


Richard Nixon:


US politician, 37th president of the United States, serving from 1969 until 1974 and 36th vice president from 1953 to 1961.

A leading anti-Communist, which elevated him to national prominence.


Ended American involvement in the war in Vietnam in 1973.
Ended the military draft 1973.\
Visited China in 1972, leading to diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Initiated détente and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union 1972.
Enforced desegregation of Southern schools.
Established the Environmental Protection Agency
Presided over the Apollo 11 moon landing, which signaled the end of the moon race.
Tre-elected in one of the largest electoral landslides in American history in 1972

Resigned from office in 1974 over fallout from the Watergate scandal, in the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office, the only time an American president has done so.

Controversially pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford.

Relevance to 1950:

Nixon was elected US Senator in 1950. Alleged his opponent Helen Gagahan Douglas was “pink, right down to her underwear.” She responded by calling him “Tricky Dick”, a nickname which stuck.

Nixon campaigns in California, 1950

A 1998 book that looks at the Nixon-Douglas campaigns in the context of the times, and the legacy.



Studebaker was an American wagon and automobile manufacturer based in South Bend, Indiana.

Founded in 1852 and incorporated in 1868 as the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, the firm was originally a producer of wagons, buggies, carriages and harnesses.

Studebaker continued to manufacture other diversified products after automobile production ceased in 1966.

Studebaker entered the automotive business in 1902 with electric vehicles and in 1904 with gasoline vehicles, all sold under the name "Studebaker Automobile Company".

The company established a reputation for good quality and reliability.

Relevance to 1950:

The 1950 Starlight Champion coupe had a trunk design that led people to comment that one couldn’t tell if it was coming or going.





By 1950 TV was becoming widespread and was the most popular form of advertising. So many advertisers left radio for television that Variety described it in 1950 as "the greatest exhibition of mass hysteria in biz annals."  The rapid growth of the popularity of television surpassed even that of radio broadcasting in the 1920s.  In 1949 there were one million television receivers in the United States. In a five-year span, the number rose to thirty-two million.  By the end of the Fifties, 90 per cent of American households owned at least one television set and 5,000 cinemas had closed.

 Relevance to 1950:

See above.


North Korea, South Korea:

North Korea and South Korea were engaged in hostilities between 25 June 1950 and 27 July 1953, notwithstanding that M*A*S*H went for 11 seasons and saw Alan Alda gradually age to grey hair. 

The conflict stemmed from both Nth Korea and Sth Korea wanting to unite the country, each under its own government. Nth Korea then invaded Sth Korea and the US/UN intervened on behalf of Sth Korea. China then intervened on behalf of Nth Korea.  

On 27 July 1953 the armistice was signed after lengthy peace talks, one of the sticking points being repatriation of POWs, many of the North Korean POWs not wanting to go back to the North.  The armistice also saw the two Koreas, North and South, remain divided with a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel.

Relevance to 1950:

On 25 June 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of South Korea, with UN Security Council Resolution 82. After debating the matter, the Security Council, on 27 June 1950, published Resolution 83 recommending member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On 27 June President Truman ordered US air and sea forces to help South Korea.


Marilyn Monroe:


American actress, model, and singer. Famous for playing comedic "blonde bombshell" characters, she became one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s and early 1960s and was emblematic of the era's changing attitudes towards sexuality. She was a top-billed actress for only a decade, but her films grossed $200 million (equivalent to $2 billion in 2019) by the time of her death in 1962. More than half a century later, she continues to be a major popular culture icon.

Monroe's troubled private life received much attention. She struggled with addiction, depression, and anxiety. Her marriages to retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio and to playwright Arthur Miller were highly publicized, and both ended in divorce. She also had affairs with John and Robert Kennedy.  On August 4, 1962, she died at age 36 from an overdose of barbiturates at her home in Los Angeles. Her death was ruled a probable suicide, although several conspiracy theories have been proposed in the decades following her death. 

Relevance to 1950:

Director Joseph L Mankiewicz saw her in a small part in The Asphalt Jungle in 1950 and began casting her.  Her popularity soared and in 1950 she was signed to a 7 year contract by 20th Century Fox.

Monroe as gangster's moll Angela in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of her first performances to be noted by the critics

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