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Top 10 Defining Moments of 1980s America

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Billy Keeley. Big hair. Big money. Big foreign policy change. Big, groundbreaking technology. The ‘80s saw America become a greater superpower with all the spoils to go with it. For this list, we’ve chosen moments that we felt best represent this essential decade in American history. Join as we count down our picks for the top 10 the defining moments of 1980s America. Special thanks to our users Awesome One and bormannator for submitting the idea on our Suggest Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by Billy Keeley.

Big hair. Big money. Big foreign policy change. Big, groundbreaking technology. The ‘80s saw America become a greater superpower with all the spoils to go with it. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 defining moments of 1980s America.

For this list, we’ve chosen moments that we felt best represent this essential decade in American history.

#10: Rise of Yuppie Culture

As the upper class thrived under President Reagan’s economics, the world began to take notice of yuppies: young, well-educated professionals with a penchant to spend and an obsession with image. Inspired by moguls like Donald Trump, yuppies bought only the finest brands, drove imported automobiles, worked out endlessly, and invested in copious amounts of cocaine – at least according to the stereotype. The 1987 Wall Street Crash killed the romanticism of the yuppie, but their stylistic influence lived on.

#9: Cable Goes Mainstream

Early in the decade, cable television services became an affordable option for many Americans. A number of specialty channels premiered that vastly affected the country. MTV not only helped unknown artists hit the big time, it also impacted popular fashion and traditional editing styles. ESPN led sports towards years of even greater financial success, while CNN kept people in tune with breaking news. The average way of life was forever altered.

#8: Spread of HIV/AIDS

The HIV/AIDS virus gained official recognition in 1981, kicking off a tumultuous time of death, fear, and prejudice. The disease’s early prominence in gay male society led to further issues with homophobia. Without efficient investigation, HIV/AIDS rapidly spread throughout the country’s population via drug use, blood transfusions, and intercourse. Cases like Ryan White’s raised awareness, leading to slow but steady treatment. Regardless, AIDS had already claimed its largest victim: the sexual revolution was dead.

#7: Developments in the Space Program

The ‘80s were a tale of two halves for NASA. In 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center. The flight served as a successful test for NASA’s Space Shuttle program, allowing for many complex space missions. However, things came to a halt when the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986. Studies showed significant concerns with proper safety precautions, and the Space Shuttle program was temporarily grounded.

#6: War on Drugs

America faced a dangerous import as crack made its arrival on city streets and created media hysteria. A more dangerous form of cocaine, crack and other illegal substances led President Reagan to escalate the war on drugs. Laws like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 sought to solve the problem, while Just Say No increased drug education. Drug arrests escalated, though some questioned the significance in comparison to other crimes.

#5: Tense Relations with Iran

Strained U.S.-Iranian relations had a massive domestic effect when Iranian revolutionaries took American diplomats hostage in late-1979. President Jimmy Carter’s inability to negotiate a release cost him reelection. Trouble arose later with the Iran-Contra Affair. Evidence showed that American officials had sold Iran weapons. The U.S. then used the proceeds to aid Contra fighters in Nicaragua, which was previously forbidden by Congress. Reagan was never proven to know about the sales, but the controversy damaged his reputation.

#4: 1981 Tax Cut and Reaganomics

When Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency, he advocated reduced government spending and taxation. He stuck to his guns with a 1981 tax cut on the upper class, hoping that their increased finances would “trickle down” to lower-income citizens. The cuts set off a large recession, but the economy grew strong and weathered a stock market crash. However, Reagan actually increased military spending, and left a massive, troubling budget deficit.

#3: Electronic Innovations

The ‘80s proved a prominent decade for electronics development. The video game market had been left in tatters following a 1983 crash. But in 1985, Nintendo introduced the NES to North America and erased any memory of it. The console’s quality design and impressive library revitalized video gaming. In the computer world, IBM introduced their first PC in 1981. Competitors were blown away and its engineering became standard, paving the way for the dominance of PCs.

#2: Pollution Persists

Despite the environmental movement, major ecological problems still existed. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck an Alaskan reef and dropped gallons of oil, ravaging wildlife. Exxon was using outdated equipment, but ensuing regulations provided hope of avoiding further incidents. Meanwhile, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident released radiation across Europe. The resulting concern was helpful in encouraging the USSR to negotiate with America to bring about our number one moment.

Honorable Mentions

- The Miracle on Ice (1980 Winter Olympics – men’s ice hockey)
- Release of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982)
- “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” Hits Theaters (1982)
- The Assassination of John Lennon (1980)

#1: The Cold War Ends, Concern Shifts to China

When he entered office, President Reagan carried a headstrong resolve to end the Cold War. He got his opportunity. With the Soviet economy stalling, Mikhail Gorbachev welcomed communications with Americans. He signed a number of weapons treaties with Reagan, including START I. Slowly, Soviet governments gave way to elections, and the Berlin Wall fell. Meanwhile, over in China, student protestors were killed at Tiananmen Square for protesting the Communist government. A long-time war was over, but other threats were alive and well.

Do you agree with our list? Which events do you think defined 1980s America and beyond? For more informative top 10s, be sure to subscribe to

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