Decades: 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s - 1980s - 1990s 2000s 2010s 2020s 2030s
Years: 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 - 1981 - 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986
January 1 - Greece enters the European Community
January 1 - Palau becomes self-governing
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 President of the United States of America
January 20 - Minutes after Ronald Reagan becomes president, Iran releases 52 American hostages that had been held captive for 444 days
February 10 - A fire at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel-casino kills eight and injures 198.
February 11 - Polish Prime Minister Jozef Pinkowski replaced by Wojciech Jaruzelski
February 23 - 23-F: Antonio Tejero, with members of the Guardia Civil enters the Spanish Congress of Deputies, and stops the session, where Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was going to be named president of the government. The coup d'etat would fail thanks to King Juan Carlos.
February 24 - Jean Harris is convicted of murdering Dr. Herman Tarnower, the author of the bestselling The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet
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 five injured during a test of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
March 29 - First running of the London Marathon
March 30 - President Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C, hotel by John Hinckley, Jr, whose family had connections with the vice president. Two police officers and James Brady are also wounded.
April 12 - The first launch of a Space Shuttle: Columbia launches on the STS-1 mission.
May 6 - A jury of architects and sculptors unanimously selects Maya Ying Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from 1,421 other entries.
May 13 - Pope John Paul II is shot at and nearly killed by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman, as he entered St. Peter's Square in Rome to address a general audience. (Two days after Christmas in 1983, Pope John Paul went to the prison to meet and forgive his would-be assassin)
May 21 - In France, socialist François Mitterrand becomes president of the Republic.
May 25 - In Riyadh, the Gulf Cooperation Council is created between Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
June 7 - Israeli Air Force destroys Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor
June 13- At the Trooping the Colour ceremony in London, six blank shots are fired at Queen Elizabeth II.
July 17 - Hyatt Hotel disaster: Two skywalks filled with people at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri collapse into a crowded atrium lobby killing 114.
July 29 - Lady Diana Spencer marries Charles, Prince of Wales.
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 all operations after 128 years of publication.
August 19 - Gulf of Sidra incident (1981). Libyan leader Omar Khadafi sends two Sukoi Su-22 fighter jets to intercept two US fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. The American jets destroyed the Libyan fighters.
October 6 - Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is assassinated during a parade by army members who were part of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, who opposed his negotiations with Israel
October 14 - Vice President Hosni Mubarak is elected President of Egypt one week after Anwar Sadat was assassinated.
October 21 - Andreas Papandreou becomes Prime Minister of Greece.
November 1 - Antigua and Barbuda gain independence from the United Kingdom.
November 23 - Iran-Contra scandal: Ronald Reagan signs the top secret National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), giving the Central Intelligence Agency the authority to recruit and support Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
November 30 - Cold War: In Geneva, representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union begin to negotiate intermediate-range nuclear weapon reductions in Europe (the meetings ended inconclusively on December 17).
December 1 - A Yugoslavian DC-9 crashes into a mountain while approaching Ajaccio Airport in Corsica killing 178.
December 4 - South Africa grants "homeland" Ciskei independence (not recognized outside South Africa).
December 13 - Wojciech Jaruzelski declares the state of martial law in Poland to prevent dismantling of the communist system by Solidarity
December 28 - The first American test-tube baby, Elizabeth Jordan Carr, is born (Norfolk, Virginia).
US President Ronald Reagan appoints the first female US Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor
The Pac-Man video game is introduced in the US
Year in topic
1981 in film
June 12 - Raiders of the Lost Ark starring Harrison Ford
Chariots of Fire
On Golden Pond
1981 in literature
1981 in music
Grandmaster Flash's "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel" is the first recording to use scratching
1981 in theatre
May 11 - the first performance of the history-making musical, Cats.
1981 in sports
January 25 - Super Bowl XV Oakland Raiders (27) def. Philadelphia Eagles (10)
July 24-August 2 - First World Games held in Santa Clara, California
August 21 - Salvador Sanchez defeats Wilfredo Gomez by a knockout in 8 to retain his WBC world Featherweight boxing title in Las Vegas.
September 16 - Sugar Ray Leonard knocks out Thomas Hearns in round 14, in Las Vegas, to unify the world's Welterweight boxing championship.
1981 in television
January 20 - Comedian Andy Kaufman ruins sketches and starts a brawl live on the air during ABC's Fridays.
August 1 - MTV debuts on Cable television, playing music videos 24 hours a day
Luke and Lauras's Wedding on General Hospital, becomes the most watched wedding in television history, other than the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.
The State Council of the People's Republic of China listed the four cities (Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Guilin) as where the protection of historical and cultural heritage as well as natural scenery should be treated as a prior project.
Commodore VIC-20, Sinclair ZX81, and Texas Instruments TI-99/4A launched, helping to start the 1980s home computing phenomenon.
IBM PC released
January 3 - Polly Klaas, young victim of crime († 1993)
January 4 - Alicia Keys, Musician
January 28 - Elijah Wood, Actor
February 18 - Andrei Kirilenko, Russian NBA star
February 24 - Lleyton Hewitt, Australian tennis player
April 9 - Eric Harris, perpetrator of the Columbine High School massacre († 1999)
May 13 - Sunny Leone, adult entertainer
August 5 - Rachel Scott, victim of the Columbine High School massacre († 1999)
August 8 - Roger Federer, Swiss tennis player
September 9 - Dylan Klebold, perpetrator of the Columbine High School massacre († 1999)
September 26 - Serena Williams, Tennis Player
November 25 - Barbara and Jenna Bush, daughters of President George W. Bush
December 2 - Britney Spears, Singer
December 13 - Amy Lee, Evanescence frontwoman
January 3- Her Royal Highness Princess Alice of Albany, the last grandchild of Queen Victoria
January 5 - Lanza del Vasto, philosopher, poet and non-violent activist
January 6 - A.J. Cronin, Novelist
January 23 - Samuel Barber, Composer
February 9 - Bill Haley, Musician
February 26 - Howard Hanson, composer
March 9 - Max Delbrück, German biologist
April 7 - Norman Taurog, director
April 27 - John Aspinwall Roosevelt, businessman, philanthropist
May 7 - Eddit Rabbitt, musician
May 11 - Bob Marley, Jamaican roots rock reggae singer and musician
May 18 - William Saroyan, author
June 28 - Terry Fox, cancer activist
September 1 - Albert Speer, Nazi official
October 6 - Anwar Sadat, Egyptian president (assassinated)
October 16 - Moshe Dayan, Israeli general
November 22 - Sir Hans Adolf Krebs, German medical doctor and biochemist
December 28 - Allan Dwan, pioneer film director
Physics - Nicolaas Bloembergen, Arthur Leonard Schawlow, Kai M. Siegbahn
Chemistry - Kenichi Fukui, Roald Hoffmann
Medicine - Roger W. Sperry, David H. Hubel, Torsten N. Wiesel
Literature - Elias Canetti
Peace - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Economics - James Tobin