118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
95. Birth control
On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the world’s first commercially produced birth control bill. In the early 1950s, biochemist Gregory Pincus and gynecologist John Rock began work on an oral contraceptive. Clinical tests of the pill began in 1954. When the Pill, as it was popularly called, was approved, it kick-started a sexual revolution, with some studies even finding the Pill’s introduction a direct cause of a sharp increases in college attendance and graduation rates for women.
The Pill also led to something else its inventors probably didn’t anticipate: a right to privacy. In 1965, a case came before the U.S. Supreme Court when the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, Estelle Griswold, and the center’s medical director were convicted for providing the Pill at their clinic, an act seen as violating an 1879 state law that prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.”
On June 7, 1965, in the matter of Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Planned Parenthood, stating the statute was unconstitutional because it violated the right to marital privacy (as in, it’s none of the state’s business what couples do in bed). This case became a landmark decision, as it was the first to establish a constitutional right to privacy. Not only did the ruling legalize the use of contraceptives, it has since been cited in many landmark cases including 1973’s Roe v. Wade (decriminalizing abortion) and 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges (legalizing same-sex marriage).
Fun fact: Research into developing the Pill was driven by Margaret Sanger, a nurse, sex educator and birth control activist who opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916. Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013) tells her story, from her early years to her death in 1966, after achieving her life goal of seeing contraceptives available to all women.
96. Ho Chi Minh
On March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder begins bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong rebels in the south. Six days later, the first U.S. combat troops, about 3,500 Marines, come ashore at Da Nang in South Vietnam to defend airfields involved in the operation — the beginning of the American ground war in that region that would see up to 200,000 troops deployed by the end of the year.
Named after the president of North Vietnam (1945-1969), the trail was more of a network of trails, footpaths and roadways running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Its purpose was to move several tons of weapons, ammunition and supplies each day through rugged mountain ranges and dense jungle.
The bombings and deployment of ground forces generated much criticism of the Johnson administration. Even though the State Department pointed out the missions were authorized by the powers granted to President Johnson in the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, they were still seen by many — especially within Congress — as Johnson escalating the war in Vietnam without Congressional authorization.
Elsewhere, Communist nations were unsurprisingly critical of Johnson’s actions… but even among American allies, government officials who supported U.S. policy in Southeast Asia found themselves facing angry constituents for not speaking out more forcefully against the bombings. Soon enough, increasing numbers of Americans would speak out as well.
Marvel’s The ‘Nam (written by Vietnam vet Doug Murray) debuted in 1986, a time when American pop culture (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, China Beach) was fascinated with the Vietnam War. Incorporating real-life events like the Tet Offensive, the series told the story of the war from the perspective of active-duty soldiers involved in the conflict.
In 1990’s The ‘Nam #41, things got a little less “real life” as some of the GIs imagine what it would be like if the superheroes from their favorite Marvel comics came to life and got involved in the war. (Don’t worry, no national leaders were harmed in the production of this comic; the three Avengers pick up Ho Chi Minh and fly him to Paris to end the war. “And you’d better negotiate properly this time!”)
97. Richard Nixon back again
When Richard Nixon lost the 1962 California governor’s race to incumbent Pat Brown, he gave an impromptu press conference the next morning. Never a fan of the media, he blamed them for favoring his opponent and ending his political career: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Like a few other things Nixon would later say, that would turn out to be… less than true.
On November 5, 1968, in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Republican challenger Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (Lyndon Johnson announced in March 1968 he wouldn’t seek re-election). Because of the strong showing of third-party candidate George Wallace (who took five states in the South), neither Nixon nor Humphrey received more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Nixon beat Humphrey by less than 500,000 votes.
Nixon campaigned on a platform designed to reach the “silent majority” of middle-class and working-class Americans. He promised to “bring us together again,” and many Americans — weary after years of anti-war and civil-rights protests — were eager to hear his message.
Foreign policy was also a major factor in the election. Humphrey was forced to defend a Democratic foreign policy that led to a quagmire in Vietnam with no clear path to victory. Nixon promised to find a way to achieve “peace with honor” in Vietnam — though he was never entirely clear about how he planned to do that.
During his presidency, Nixon oversaw some dramatic changes in U.S. Cold War foreign policy, including his policy of detente with the Soviet Union and his 1972 visit to communist China. His Vietnam promise turned out to be harder to accomplish, though; American troops were not withdrawn until 1973, and South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in 1975 — the year after Nixon resigned.
In 1973’s Jackie Jokers #2, Richie Rich’s comedian buddy tries out a new act in which he plays a U.S. senator… but finds himself mistaken for an actual senator by both Nixon and kidnappers! Ruh-roh!
“That’s one small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.” On July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke those words to more than a billion people listening back home on Earth. Stepping off the lunar landing module Eagle, he becomes the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.
Efforts to send astronauts to the moon began back in 1961, when Kennedy said to a special joint session of Congress: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” The U.S. was trailing the Soviet Union in space developments at the time, and Americans welcomed Kennedy’s bold proposal.
At 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins aboard. After traveling 240,000 miles in 76 hours, Apollo 11 entered into a lunar orbit on July 19. The next day, at 1:46 p.m., the lunar module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from the command module, where Collins remained. Two hours later, the Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface, and at 4:18 p.m. the craft touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston his famous message: “The Eagle has landed.”
Later, Armstrong contended his quote was slightly garbled by his microphone and was supposed to be “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” He then planted his left foot on the grey, powdery surface, took a cautious step forward… and just like that, humanity walked on the moon.
And somewhere, the Watcher was watching all this happen and probably saying to himself, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”
(“Doomsday on the Moon!” from Fantastic Four #98, 1970)
On August 15, 1969, on a patch of farmland near the updstate New York town of Bethel, the four-day Woodstock festival begins. Promoters John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang envisioned the festival as a way to raise money to build a recording studio near the town of Woodstock, NY. Despite their relative inexperience, the young promoters managed to sign a roster of top acts, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival and many more.
Even with that impressive line-up, though, he festival almost didn’t happen thanks to several nearby towns refusing to host the event due to noise and security concerns. Dairy farmer Max Yasgur came to the rescue, giving the promoters access to his 600 acres of land in Bethel, some 50 miles from Woodstock. The organizers told Bethel authorities they expected no more than 50,000 people to show up… but by the time the gates opened on August 15, more than 400,000 people were clamoring to get in. Those without tickets simply walked through gaps in the fences, and the organizers were forced to make the event free of charge. Folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens kicked off the event Friday night, with Hendrix closing the show in the early Monday morning hours.
Though Woodstock had left its promoters nearly bankrupt, their ownership of the film and recording rights more than compensated for the losses after the 1970 release of a hit documentary film based on the festival.
Later music festivals — including a 30th-anniversary Woodstock event in Rome, NY — inspired by Woodstock’s success tried to match its success, but Woodstock still stands for many as the epitome of 1960s counterculture.
Fun fact: despite the massive crowds and unpredictable weather (a thunderstorm disrupted the events for several hours after Joe Cocker’s set on Sunday), only two deaths happened: one from insulin usage and another when a tractor rolled over a sleeping concert-goer. There were also at least two births recorded at the event. (As for the number of conceptions that took place, your guess is as good as mine; I’ll go with “lots.”)
And speaking of romancin’…
(DC’s Falling in Love #118, 1970; Marvel’s My Love #14, 1971)
In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office-hotel-apartment complex in Washington, D.C. The next day, it was revealed that James McCord, one of the men arrested, was a former CIA agent… and a salaried security coordinator for Richard Nixon’s re-election committee. Later, the five were linked to former White House aide E. Howard Hunt, Jr., and G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Committee for the Re-election of the President.
In August, Nixon said a White House investigation had concluded administration officials were not involved in the “third-rate burglary” (as his press secretary described it), but in the following months reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post uncovered evidence of illegal political espionage carried out by the White House and the Committee, including the existence of a secret slush fund used to investigate Democrats. Despite their reporting, Nixon was re-elected president in November.
In January 1973, five of the Watergate burglars pleaded guilty, and two others, Liddy and McCord, were convicted. At their sentencing on March 23, U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica read a letter from McCord saying the White House had conducted an extensive cover-up to conceal its connection with the break-in. These revelations led to a series of unprecedented events, including mass resignations and firings of White House staff and Justice Department officials, Senate hearings into what the president knew and when knew it, evidence of illegal wiretapping, and the revealing of the infamous “Watergate tapes” — recordings of White House conversations between Nixon and his staff secretly made by Nixon.
By the end of July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee adopted three articles of impeachment against Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process. On July 30, under coercion from the Supreme Court, Nixon released the Watergate tapes; on August 5, transcripts of the recordings were released, including a segment in which Nixon was heard instructing his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to order the FBI to halt the Watergate investigation. Four days later, he became the first (and so far only) president in U.S. history to resign.
You think your job is tough? Imagine being the guy assigned to write for Captain America in the middle of the nation’s greatest political crisis. At the end of 1972, Steve Englehart conceived a story arc in which Cap is framed for murder and must deal with losing the faith of the American people. In an editorial, he said it would be the start of a multi-issue storyline that would show “Cap was not just another superhero, whose gimmick happened to be the wearing of patriotic colors, but rather a man whose image meant something to him and others, and who represented the most positive aspects of the American dream.”
Alas, he continued, that storyline was conceived in more innocent times before the full significance of the Watergate scandal was known. “The trouble is, after I locked myself into this plotline and began work on it, Watergate did break wide open… One very minor side-product of this change is to make the underlying assumptions of my plot obsolete. Crises of confidence in much bigger men than Cap have become not only commonplace, but old hat by now.”
Because of that, Englehart decided to wrap up his storyline a few issues earlier than intended… but not before having the Secret Empire’s “Number One” kill himself in the Oval Office. Judging by Cap’s reaction, it was pretty obvious who Englehart intended that to be.
(Captain America #175, 1974)
As Roderick “Legs” McNeil, who co-founded Punk magazine the following year, said after watching one of those early shows: “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song… and it was just this wall of noise… They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.”
Or maybe not so much new as a return to what music used to be: “We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard,” Joey Ramone (aka Jeffrey Hyman) once said. “In 1974, everything was tenth-generation Elton John, or overproduced, or just junk. Everything was long jams, long guitar solos… We missed music like it used to be.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which inducted the band in 2002) agrees: “When the punk-rock quartet from Queens hit the street in 1976 with their self-titled first album, the rock scene in general had become somewhat bloated and narcissistic. The Ramones got back to basics: simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs. Voice, guitar, bass, drums. No makeup, no egos, no light shows, no nonsense.”
Following in the Ramones’ wake were other acts like Dead Kennedys, The Misfits, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Patti Smith and the Dead Boys, while over in the UK the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Pogues were among the bands defining the British punk movement.
But where was all the anger coming from? What were all these bands rebelling against? Like Brando said in The Wild One: “Whadda you got?” In those years of stagflation, gas line-ups, foreign quagmires and general disillusionment with the system, there were plenty of reasons for young people to be angry about the state of the world — and plenty of them giving voice to that anger through their music.
Over the years, the punk movement evolved and diversified, branching off into many subgenres and encouraging the development of new forms of music like new wave, emo, grunge, alternative rock and heavy metal that would shape the musical scene for decades to come. “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!”
In 2005, Rhino released Weird Tales of The Ramones, a box set compilation. It featured 85 songs on three CDs, plus a DVD with various featurettes including a documentary featuring several of their music videos up to 1990.
The box set also included a special oversized comic book written and illustrated by multiple contributors, a 3-D pair of glasses and a postcard to dedicate to Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee. Contributors included Bill Griffith, Carol Lay, Jim Woodring, John Holmstrom… and Sergio Aragones, whose double-page spread captures nicely the energy of a Ramones audience.