President: Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia) (until January 20), Ronald Reagan (R-California) (starting January 20)
Vice President: Walter Mondale (D-Minnesota) (until January 20), George H. W. Bush (R-Texas) (starting January 20)
Chief Justice: Warren E. Burger (Minnesota)
Speaker of the House of Representatives: Tip O'Neill (D-Massachusetts)
Senate Majority Leader: Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) (until January 3), Howard Baker (R-Tennessee) (starting January 3)
Congress: 96th (until January 3), 97th (starting January 3)
January 19 – United States and Iranian officials sign an agreement to release 52 American hostages after 14 months of captivity.
January 20 – Ronald Reagan succeeds Jimmy Carter, as the 40th President of the United States. Minutes later, Iran releases the 52 Americans held for 444 days, ending the Iran hostage crisis.
January 25 – Super Bowl XV: The Oakland Raiders defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 27–10 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.
February 10 – A fire at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel-casino kills 8 and injures 198.
March 6 – After 19 years hosting the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite signs off for the last time.
March 19 – Three workers are killed and 5 injured during a test of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
March 21 – Michael Donald lynched.
March 30 – U.S. President Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C. hotel by John Hinckley, Jr. Two police officers and Press Secretary James Brady are also wounded.
March 31 – The 53rd Academy Awards, hosted by Johnny Carson, are held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Robert Redford's directorial debut in Ordinary People wins Best Picture and Best Director.
April 12 – The Space Shuttle program: Space Shuttle Columbia (John Young, Robert Crippen) launches on the STS-1 mission, returning to Earth on April 14.
April 18 – A Minor League Baseball game between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, becomes the longest professional baseball game in history: 8 hours and 25 minutes/33 innings (the 33rd inning is not played until June 23).
May 15 – Donna Payant is murdered by serial killer Lemuel Smith, the first time a female prison officer has been killed on-duty in the United States.
June – The United States enters the severe early 1980s recession, exactly a year after the more minor 1980 recession ended; the Unemployment Rate is 7.2%
June 5 – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that five homosexual men in Los Angeles, California, have a rare form of pneumonia seen only in patients with weakened immune systems (the first recognized cases of AIDS).
June 12 – Major League Baseball goes on strike, forcing the cancellation of 38 percent of the schedule.
June 21 – Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old African American, is arrested and charged with the murders of two other African Americans. He is later accused of 28 others, in the Atlanta child murders.
June 29 – Morris Edwin Robert, armed with a machine gun, holds hostages in the FBI section at the Atlanta, Georgia Federal Building. After three hours the hostages are rescued and Robert is killed in a shootout with Federal Agents.
July 7 – President Ronald Reagan nominates the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court of the United States.
July 8 – California Governor Jerry Brown, faced with a Mediterranean fruit fly infestation, chooses to delay the aerial spraying of malathion, in favor of continuing ground-based eradication efforts.
Hyatt Regency walkway collapse: Two skywalks filled with people at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri collapse into a crowded atrium lobby, killing 114.
Israeli aircraft bomb Beirut, destroying multi-story apartment blocks containing the offices of PLO associated groups, killing approximately 300 civilians and resulting in worldwide condemnation and a U.S. embargo on the export of aircraft to Israel.
July 27 – Adam Walsh, 6, is kidnapped from a Sears store in Hollywood, Florida.
August 1 – MTV (Music Television) is launched on cable television in the United States.
August 5 – Ronald Reagan fires 11,359 striking air-traffic controllers who ignored his order for them to return to work.
August 7 – The Washington Star ceases publication after 128 years.
August 9 – Major League Baseball resumes from the strike with the All-Star Game in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.
August 10 – Exactly two weeks after his disappearance, the severed head of 6-year-old Hollywood, Florida native Adam Walsh is found in a canal in Vero Beach, Florida; to this day the rest of the boy's body has never been recovered.
August 12 – The original Model 5150 IBM PC (with a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 processor) is released in the United States at a base price of $1,565.
Gulf of Sidra incident (1981): Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi sends 2 Sukhoi Su-22 fighter jets to intercept 2 U.S. fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. The American jets destroy the Libyan fighters.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan appoints the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor.
August 24 – Mark David Chapman is sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, after being convicted of murdering John Lennon in Manhattan 8 months earlier.
August 31 – A bomb explodes at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, West Germany, injuring 20 people.
September 10 – Picasso's painting "Guernica" is moved from New York City to Madrid.
September 11 – A small plane crashes into the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California, damaging the venue beyond repair.
September 15 – The John Bull becomes the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world, at 150 years old, when it operates under its own power outside Washington, DC.
September 17 – Ric Flair defeats Dusty Rhodes to win his first World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship in Kansas City.
September 19 – Simon & Garfunkel perform The Concert in Central Park, a free concert in New York in front of approximately half a million people.
Sandra Day O'Connor takes her seat as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Rolling Stones begin their Tattoo You tour at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.
October 28 – The thrash metal band Metallica forms in Los Angeles.
November 12 – STS-2: Space Shuttle Columbia (Joe Engle, Richard Truly) lifts off for its second mission.
November 16 – Luke and Laura marry on the U.S. soap opera General Hospital; it is the highest-rated hour in daytime television history.
November 23 – Iran-Contra scandal: Ronald Reagan signs the top secret National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to recruit and support Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
November 30 – Cold War: In Geneva, representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union begin negotiating intermediate-range nuclear weapon reductions in Europe (the meetings end inconclusively on Thursday, December 17).
December 5 – American general James L. Dozier is kidnapped in Verona by the Italian Red Brigades.
December 8 – The No. 21 Mine explosion in Whitwell, Tennessee kills 13.
December 11 – Boxing: Muhammad Ali loses to Trevor Berbick; this proved to be Ali's last-ever fight.
December 28 – The first American test-tube baby, Elizabeth Jordan Carr, is born in Norfolk, Virginia.
Cold War (1945–1991)
Iran hostage crisis (1979–1981)
Early 1980s recession (1981–1982)
January 10 – Brian Joo, singer in (Fly to the Sky)
February 4 – Allen Forrest, rapper and producer
February 17 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, actor, director, producer, and writer
April 9 – Eric Harris, high school senior who committed the Columbine High School massacre (d. 1999)
April 16 – Jake Scott, American football player
May 11 – Daniel Ortmeier, baseball player
Brock Berlin, American football player
Will Smith, American football player (d. 2016)
July 6 – Mike Karney, American football player
Billy Aaron Brown, American actor
Cole Williams, actor
August 24 – Chad Michael Murray, actor, spokesperson and former fashion model
September 11 – Dylan Klebold, high school senior who carried out the Columbine High School massacre (d. 1999)
Rivkah, author and illustrator
Ryan Bertin, wrestler and coach
Kirsten Price, American model and adult film star
November 15 – Drew Hodgdon, American football player
November 25 – Chevon Troutman, basketball player
December 2 – Britney Spears, singer, dancer and actress
Jeff McComsey, author and illustrator
Kevin Phillips, actor
Zacky Vengeance, guitarist (Avenged Sevenfold)
December 12 – Ronnie Brown, American football player
Frederick Osborn, philanthropist and eugenicist (b. 1889)
Harold Urey, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (b. 1893)
January 7 – John Pascal, playwright, screenwriter, author and journalist (b. 1932)
January 8 – Matthew Beard, child film actor (b. 1925)
Katharine Alexander, film actress (b. 1898)
Richard Boone, Western film actor (b. 1917)
January 11 – Beulah Bondi, actress (b. 1888)
January 13 – Robert Kellard, film actor (b. 1915)
January 25 – Adele Astaire, dancer (b. 1896)
Jack Z. Anderson, U.S. Representative from California (b. 1904)
Bill Haley, rock & roll musician (b. 1925)
February 22 – Ilo Wallace, wife of Henry A. Wallace, Second Lady of the United States (born 1888)
March 5 – Yip Harburg, lyricist (b. 1896)
March 7 – Bosley Crowther, film critic (b. 1905)
March 9 – Max Delbrück, biologist, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (b. 1906 in Germany)
April 7 – Norman Taurog, film director (b. 1899)
April 8 – Omar N. Bradley, U.S. Army General (b. 1893)
April 12 – Joe Louis, African American heavyweight boxer (b. 1914)
April 15 – John Thach, naval aviator and admiral (b. 1905)
Jim Davis, television actor (b. 1909)
Madge Evans, actress (b. 1909)
April 27 – John Aspinwall Roosevelt, businessman and philanthropist (b. 1916)
April 28 – Cliff Battles, American footballer (Boston Redskins) (b. 1910)
May 9 – Nelson Algren, novelist (b. 1909)
May 11 – Bob Marley, reggae musician (b. 1945 in Jamaica)
Arthur O'Connell, actor (b. 1908)
William Saroyan, dramatist and author (b. 1908)
May 23 – George Jessel, actor and entertainer (b. 1898)
May 28 – Mary Lou Williams, jazz pianist (b. 1910)
Adam Walsh, murder victim and son of John Walsh (b. 1974)
William Wyler, film director (b. 1902)
July 29 – Robert Moses, urban planner (b. 1888)
November 7 – Will Durant, philosopher and writer (b. 1888)
November 12 – William Holden, film actor (b. 1918)
November 17 – Sibyl M. Rock, mathematician (b. 1909)
November 27 – Lotte Lenya, singer (b. 1898 in Vienna)
November 29 – Natalie Wood, actress (b. 1938)
December 2 – Wallace Harrison, architect (b. 1895)
December 6 – Harry Harlow, psychologist (b. 1905)
December 7 – Hoagy Carmichael, composer and singer (b. 1899)
1981 in the United States Wikipedia
Events from the year 1981 in the United States.