Dylan wrote this song in criticism of American leaders and officials. It was meant as a realization of the times, what war was coming to and why war became a pointless act, rather than a means of defense.
Eric - Melbourne, FL
In the liner notes to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
, Dylan says of "Masters Of War": "I've never really written anything like that before. I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it with this one. The song is a soft of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?"
Derek - Sarnia, Canada
Dylan would be labelled a conspiracy theorist if he released this song today. In it, he bitterly points the finger at hidden "masters" who manufacture wars for profit and gain.
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
The song condemns these masters of war, but Dylan doesn't consider it an "anti-war" song. He's speaking more specifically to the world's power brokers and the way (according to him and many others) they manufacture international conflict.
In 2001, he told USA Today that it "is not an antiwar song. It's speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up."
The event Dylan referred to in that quote occurred on January 17, 1961, a little under two years before Dylan released the song. On that day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States, gave his farewell speech from the Oval Office. It was his final Address to the Nation. In the speech, he discussed the Cold War and warned, "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex."
The statement had a powerful impact on the counterculture opposing the Vietnam War, and remained a fixture among those antiwar advocates in the US. Whether or not a person views Eisenhower's statement as valid or a "conspiracy theory" often depends largely on how the political affiliation of the sitting president complies or conflicts with the affiliation of the person viewing it.
Dylan was no stranger to protest songs at this point in his career, but this one stood out because of its unrestrained vitriol, especially in the last verse, in which Dylan viciously calls for the death of the "men behind desks" who feed the global war machine.
Though he's needled folks with his songs plenty of times through his career, Dylan never before or since sang words so openly violent.
And I hope you die, and your death will come soon
I'll follow your casket in the pale afternoon
And I will watch as you lay in your deathbed
And I'll stay over your tomb till I'm sure that you're dead
Dylan recorded the song on April 23, 1963, at Studio A of Columbia Recording Studios. He did six takes of the song; the third one is the one on the album.
Dylan performed the song at the Grammy Awards on February 20, 1991, during the first Gulf War when the Unites States invaded Iraq. He picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony.
Judy Collins recorded the song in 1963 and played it throughout her career. Leon Russell and Ed Sheeran also covered it, and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready performed it at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992.
Dylan performed this song at the United States Military Academy in 1990, but didn't sing the last verse.