The biggest news story the year you were born
History’s a funny thing. What looks like an important story as it’s happening can turn out to be completely insignificant, while that tiny headline on page 34 can go on to fell presidents. When the Watergate story first broke in June ’72, it’s possible even Woodward and Bernstein quietly wondered whether they could cover more important stuff, like the baseball scores, or that day’s Peanuts strip, or anything but an odd burglary piece.
Choosing the biggest news story from any given year is a toughie. Do you go with number of headlines generated, or historical significance? Thankfully, there’s a special power available to modern people known as “hindsight,” which allows us to distill down the wildly chaotic 12 months around the time you were born into only the single most essential story. And no, the biggest story was not that you were born. Here’s what the world was busy grappling with while you were busy bawling for more milk.
1975: The Fall of Saigon humiliates America
1975 was a crazy year. U.S. officials were being sentenced for Watergate, President Ford was nearly assassinated twice (via Smithsonian) and, in Asia, Pol Pot was enthusiastically trying his hand at this genocide thing he’d heard so much about. But for most audiences, it was another story in Pot’s neighborhood that got all the headlines. The Fall of Saigon.
The Guardian explains why this story was so important. Saigon’s fall as the capital of non-Communist South Vietnam was the biggest U.S. military defeat in decades. A bunch of peasants had just driven out the mightiest army on Earth. The images of helicopters abandoning crowds on the roof of the U.S. embassy were shared around the world and, boy, were they embarrassing. In fact the whole humiliating affair would cause Washington to soon make yet more embarrassing choices, like getting into bed with a post-genocide but anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge (via PBS). In for a penny, in for a pound.
1976: Operation Thunderbolt turns a Ugandan airport into an action movie
Since 1976, “thunderbolt” has had an alternative meaning to the regular Zeus-based one: It’s also what happens to you if you mess with Israel. On June 26, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an airliner flying from Israel to France and flew it to Entebbe, Uganda. There they threatened to execute all Jewish passengers unless 40 Palestinians were released (via Britannica).
Naturally, this was big news. But it was what came next that made it huge. As theTelegraph describes, Israel responded with Operation Thunderbolt, a daring covert raid that saw a team of commandos fly all the way to Uganda, infiltrate the airport, kill the terrorists, and rescue all but three hostages while only sustaining a single casualty. It remains the most daring hostage rescue in history, even if you include Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
Thunderbolt still continues to influence Israel. The single casualty was Yoni Netanyahu, brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was Yoni’s shocking death that sent Bibi into politics.
1977: The New York City blackout revolutionizes music
Sorry, Star Wars fans, it was tough, but nothing could top the monster blackout that hit New York City on July 13. That evening lightning fried generators citywide, plunging 7 million people into darkness. For a city about to go bust, still reeling from the “Summer of Sam,” it was like the apocalypse. The place exploded. Looters started 1,000 fires and raided 16,000 stores. By the time the power was restored, over $300 million of damage had been done.
For many ’70s folks, the blackout was final proof America was fast becoming the setting for a post-apocalyptic Kurt Russell flick. Today, though, it’s relevant for a totally different reason. The mass looting of music equipment is credited with transforming hip-hop from a niche urban pursuit into a proper music scene. That’s the same hip-hop that, in 2017, overtook rock as the biggest music genre in the U.S. (via The Guardian). The blackout may have lasted only 25 hours, but 40 years later America’s still feeling its effects.
1978: The Jonestown Massacre kills 900
There’s good publicity and there’s bad publicity, and then there’s what Kool-Aid’s PR department had to deal with after Jonestown. A radical commune set up in the jungles of Guyana by Jim Jones, Jonestown in ’78 was a community of a thousand people, all either spreading the love or abusing and torturing one another, depending on which eyewitness you believe (via Vice).
If you were an avid news follower at the time, you were aware that Jonestown existed, but it was probably firmly in the “not that important” box in your brain. Until November 18. That was when Jones induced 900 followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid in the largest massacre of American civilians before 9/11 (although some sources say they drank Flavor Aid).
For a public still reeling from the Manson Family murders a few years earlier, the Jonestown Massacre was final proof that dangerous cults were out there and they wanted you dead. It created a media storm, eclipsing even the birth of the world’s first IVF baby.
1979: The Iranian Revolution creates the modern Middle East
Choosing the biggest story some years can be a hard call but not in 1979. Despite this being the year that Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, and the year that Jimmy Carter got attacked by a swimming rabbit, there was only one story on everybody’s lips. In January, the Shah of Iran was forced to flee as his country erupted into protests. By April, the exiled future-Ayatollah Kohmeini had returned and declared an Islamic republic (via Britannica). Against such a huge shakeup, what chance could any other story have?
It wasn’t just the revolution itself that had Americans glued to their delightfully retro ’70s TV screens. Before the year was out, as CNN describes, the newly Shia-governed nation of Iran had decided it definitely wasn’t gonna be America’s newest BFF, and a mob had stormed the U.S. embassy and taken 90 hostages (later reduced to 53 after women and African-Americans were freed). Less amusing than the president fighting a rabbit, maybe, but more important.
1980: Mt. St. Helens blows its top
You’ve reached the ’80s! Congratulations, if you were born after this point, you’re officially a millennial rather than a Gen-Xer. Aptly for a year marking a major and in no way arbitrary generational shift, news in 1980 was defined by three major eruptions. One was the seismic electoral shift that saw Reagan become president. The second was the explosive assassination of John Lennon. The third was the very literal KABOOM! that marked the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
NPR has the details. On Sunday, May 18, at 08:32 a.m., Mt. St. Helens exploded in the biggest eruption the contiguous U.S. has ever seen. It blew out sideways, against all predictions, sending a jet of superheated gas blasting into what had been considered a safe zone. Fifty-seven people were killed, in what likely felt like the apocalypse. Makes you wonder how many desperate apocalypse babies were born in January ’81 in Washington state.
1981: The first shuttle launch makes space awesome again
1981 wasn’t a quiet year. The Iranian hostage crisis ended, Ronald Reagan was sworn in, and the U.K. was engulfed by riots (via The Guardian). But while these all ate up column inches, arguably the biggest story was happening down in Florida, at a little place called Cape Canaveral. On April 12 that year, NASA sent its nifty new toy heavenward for the first time. Known as the Space Shuttle, its launch was one of the biggest “Woohoo! Science!” moments of the decade.
Interestingly, the shuttle program only happened because of Richard Nixon (via Space). Tricky Dick hated the high cost of NASA’s “fly to Mars” plan when he saw it in 1972, so the space agency had been forced to fall back on the shuttle, the basic idea of which they’d originally stolen from Nazi scientists at the end of World War II. Against all odds, the product of this terrifying Hitler-Nixon tag team wound up being awesome. Two wrongs really can make a right.
1982: The Falklands War puts Britain back on the world stage
A tiny archipelago off the coast of Argentina mostly populated by sheep may not sound like the setting of a major news story. But this is 1982, the year Argentina occupied the Falklands and dared their British owners to do something about it. The military junta in Buenos Aires had calculated the world would shrug. The government in London desperately hoped the U.S. would intervene on their behalf. Both were outta luck. Instead, Britain and Argentina went to war.
The conflict lasted only two months before Britain retook the islands. But, man, what a decisive two months they were. The Guardian recalls that the already-unpopular Margaret Thatcher nearly lost power when the Argentines invaded, only to get a huge popularity boost when the U.K. triumphed. Her second term as PM, in which she became one of the most influential post-World War II European leaders, rests largely on her Falklands’ victory. In Argentina, the humiliating defeat helped bring down the dictatorship and restore democracy. Not bad for a few lumps of sheep-bearing rocks.
1983: Michael Jackson's Thriller conquers the world
The biggest serious story of 1983 came when America went and invaded the Caribbean island nation of Grenada (as Politico recalls). Not that anyone back home in the U.S. was paying much attention, because 1983 was also the year that one piece of pop culture blew up so big it became a global phenomenon. In December, the video for Michael Jackson’s 1982 single Thriller finally debuted. It wound up reshaping the entire music biz.
Billboard has the story. Thriller was the first music video to get a budget of $1 million. It was the first music video directed by a real movie director (John Landis). It was the first one to be exclusively aired on a single channel (MTV), which paid a record $1 million for the rights. When it premiered in December, the global public went nuts. Remember the tsunami that accompanied Psy’s Gangnam Style? It was like that, but bigger and with better music. Sure, invading Grenada may have restored democracy, but you can’t dance to democracy.
1984: The Bhopal chemical disaster caps an awful year in India
Every year is tough to choose, but India had an insane year all by itself in 1984. That was the year Indian troops invaded the Sikh Golden Temple, killing 300, which led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, which led to anti-Sikh pogroms that killed thousands. Yet the biggest, saddest story of all had nothing to do with sectarian strife. On December 2, an industrial accident in the town of Bhopal killed more civilians than 9/11 (via The Atlantic).
The Bhopal chemical disaster remains the worst industrial accident in history, and let’s really pray is stays that way. A screw up at the U.S.-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal resulted in a cloud of toxic gas escaping into the city, where it killed somewhere between 3,800 and 16,000 and left hundreds of thousands permanently disabled. As a gloomy Times of India article shows, most of them are still fighting for compensation. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to get it.
1985: Gorbachev becomes the final Soviet leader
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one Communist leader in two years is misfortunate, to lose two looks like carelessness. When Soviet premier Konstantin Chernenko shuffled off to Marxist heaven in early 1985, it was only 13 months since Yuri Andropov had unexpectedly died a year and half into his own reign. While the ascension of yet another Soviet leader may not have seemed all that exciting to ordinary folk at the time, in hindsight it was super important. The reason? That new-new-new premier was Mikhail Gorbachev.
The BBC does a good job putting this in context. While your mom likely wasn’t pushing you out while pondering the implications of perestroika (economic reform) and glasnost (openness) on East-West relationships (children of political science professors excepted), those terms eventually shook up the whole Cold War. Gorbachev’s reforms opened up Soviet politics to new ideas while simultaneously crashing the economy, a combination almost guaranteed to lead to revolution. Spoiler alert: Hang on for a couple years here.
1986: Chernobyl goes kaboom
The first four months of 1986 were bookmarked by two major news stories in which big things blew up. On January 28, the Challenger shuttle exploded, killing everyone onboard and traumatizing a generation of American kids. That story probably would’ve been the biggest news story of the year, were it not for what happened on April 26. In the wee hours of the morning, reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what is now Ukraine decided to upstage Challenger by blowing itself up.
The resulting emission of a cloud of radioactive death remains the worst nuclear accident in history, outdoing even the apocalyptic screw-up at Fukushima. Let’s put some numbers on it (via The Week): 49 dead in the immediate catastrophe, 4,000 deaths likely attributable to radiation, 340,000 permanently evacuated from their homes. Oh, and a huge swathe of Ukraine and Belarus that is still uninhabitable to this day. Maybe this isn’t the best time to mention the painfully ironic fact that the reactor only exploded because of an unnecessary safety test.
1987: The Iran-Contra affair nearly outdoes Watergate
There was a time when Iran-Contra was said in the same breath as “Watergate.” If you came crawling out of your momma in 1987, it was likely to a news cycle bringing tales of more government misdeeds every day.
Boiled down, the story goes something like this (via PBS): Iran had taken more Americans hostage. Reagan wanted those Americans home, while Iran wanted weapons to fight Iraq. So Reagan secretly traded weapons for the hostages, but then Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North on the National Security Council took the Iranian money and gave it to right-wing Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua because why not? If the very fact you’re reading about it now didn’t already tip you off, this was all what prosecutors technically call “waaaay illegal.”
The story broke in November ’86, but it was in ’87 that it exploded. Fourteen Reagan staffers were eventually charged, although George H.W. Bush later pardoned six of them in an apparent attempt to make sure he’d forever make the Top 2 in lists of controversial presidential pardons.
1988: The Lockerbie Bombing becomes Europe's deadliest terror attack
When Pan-Am Flight 103 took off from London on December 21, no one could have known it was less than 40 minutes away from both going down in infamy, and simply going down. As the aircraft passed over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, a Libyan bomb that had been smuggled onboard exploded. The aircraft blew apart, killing all 259 onboard and raining fiery wreckage onto Lockerbie, killing 11 more. To this day, it remains the deadliest terror attack on EU soil.
If your parents were watching the news in 1988, though, they’d have just assumed it was a terrible accident. As this timeline of the tragedy by CNN shows, it wasn’t until July 1990 that anyone admitted Pan-Am 103 had been brought down deliberately. Libya wasn’t named as the culprit until 1991. It’s only in retrospect that the significance of the crash becomes horribly clear. As this Associated Press poll from the time shows (admittedly conducted before the bombing), everyone thought Bush’s victory over Dukakis would be the 1988 story remembered by history.
1989: The Berlin Wall comes tumbling down
Forget just 1989. If this were a list of biggest news stories by decade, the fall of the Berlin Wall would still win the 1980s entry. After World War II and before 9/11, there’s literally no other story that affects the West as much. Just know that if you were born this year, there’s a good chance even your mom and pop were too busy staring at their hospital TV to pay attention to your newborn wailing.
The fall of the Berlin Wall on the night of November 9 was the death knell for the Soviet Union (as Al Jazeera explains). Barely had David Hasselhoff started soaking up the credit than revolutions fired off in Communist Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. In 1990, places like Ukraine and Estonia followed suit. By 1991, the Soviet Union had been consigned to history, Yugoslavia was disintegrating, West and East Germany had been reunited, and democracy had taken hold from the Baltic to the Adriatic. (That’s “from the bit near Sweden to the bit behind Italy,” if you’re from America.)
1990: Nelson Mandela strolls his way to freedom
No one bothered to tell Nelson Mandela he was going to be freed from prison until the night before it happened. According to NPR, Mandela, by that point in his 27th year as a prisoner, was so taken aback that he asked to stay for another week. But the South African government — which, remember, had been keeping him locked away for 27 years — said no. And that’s how Mandela found himself with less than 24 hours to prepare for what would turn out to be the biggest news story of the year.
As you’re probably aware, he totally pulled it off. Mandela’s walk to freedom is an iconic image of the 1990s, even if the new decade had barely started when he was released on February 11. It was the moment that marked the beginning of the end of 300 years of white minority rule in South Africa, and it gave the ’90s a massive euphoric kickstart.