The memories that are shared by large majorities of Americans are largely of American events and often very recent ones. Memories of significant events that did not include the U.S. are less clear. For example, while three-quarters of Americans remember the moment they heard the news of the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf, only about four-in-ten recall hearing the news of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

As the nation moves into the 21st century many of the major events that defined the past 100 years are not recalled as first-hand experiences. Indeed, only the events of the 1980s and 1990s serve as shared collective memories for strong majorities of Americans today.

Fewer Shared Memories across Generations

Nearly all adults (87%) say they know what they were doing when they heard the news of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash just two years ago; as many have equally strong recollections of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. About three-quarters of the public remembers hearing the news of the start of the Gulf War in 1991. A similar number clearly recalls the Challenger explosion of 1986.

While the public lists Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon as one of the top American achievements of the 20th century, only a bare majority (54%) of the adult population has a first-hand memory of it.

And prior events — the end of World War II, FDR’s death and the attack on Pearl Harbor — are milestones for older generations only. Although overwhelming majorities of older Americans say they remember what they were doing when they heard the news of these events, only about one-in-five adults of all ages share these memories.

The 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy is the earliest memory that a majority of Americans share: 53% say that they know what they were doing the moment they heard the news of his murder.

Powerful Memories

Kennedy’s assassination is not only the earliest event that a majority of Americans can still recall, it is also the most potent American memory for those who lived through it. Nine out of ten Americans who were old enough at the time say they remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of the 35th president’s death. Almost as many remember learning of Princess Diana’s death (87%), the Oklahoma City bombing (86%) and, among those who were alive then, the attack on Pearl Harbor (85%).

The power of Kennedy’s death and the bombing of Pearl Harbor are striking given that Princess Diana’s fatal car accident and the terrorist blast in Oklahoma City are events of this decade.

The triumphs and tragedies of the space program are remembered with equal strength: 82% of adults remember what they were doing when they heard about the 1986 Challenger explosion; 80% remember where they were the moment they heard the news of Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon 17 years earlier.

The lives and deaths of other American leaders remain vivid in the minds of most Americans who are old enough to remember, though they are less compelling than the death of Kennedy. About two-thirds of the eligible public remembers John Hinckley’s attack on Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Richard Nixon’s resignation, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Events Define Generations

For senior citizens, memories of the past several decades pale in comparison to events from their younger years. Nine-in-ten remember what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination (93%), the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (91%) and the end of World War II (89%). Almost as many can recall the moment they heard about Armstrong’s moon walk (87%) and the death of Franklin Roosevelt (85%). Fewer seniors remember hearing important news of the 1980s and 1990s: the Challenger explosion (74%) or the beginning of the Gulf War (73%).

The death of John F. Kennedy binds together the 55-64 age group: 98% remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of his assassination. Three other events of the late 1960s and early 1970s — Armstrong’s moonwalk, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard M. Nixon’s resi
gnation — are especially compelling for the generation that was in their 20s and 30s at the time. Almost nine-in-ten (89%) remember the moment they learned of Armstrong’s historic footsteps, 82% remember the news of the civil rights leader’s death and 80% recall Nixon’s announcement. The tragic events of the 1980s and 1990s are also compelling for this generation: 83% recall the Challenger explosion and 87% remember hearing the news of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Oklahoma City bombing and the failed Challenger mission are remembered as strongly as Kennedy’s death for Americans between the ages of 35 and 54. Fully 88% remember hearing the news of the Oklahoma bombing in 1995; almost as many (86%) can recall exactly where they were when they learned of the spacecraft explosion. And, although some in this age group were not even born when Kennedy was shot, of those who were old enough at the time, as many (86%) say they know what they were doing when heard the news from Dallas. About three-quarters can remember hearing the news of Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan and the beginning of the Gulf War.

Americans under age 35 share relatively few memories. The recent bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City stands out as the most-remembered event through 1995: 87% of this age group knows what they were doing when they heard the news. Somewhat fewer can recall the moment they learned of the Challenger explosion (81%) and the news of the first bombing in the Gulf War (74%). And, for a generation that was not born when Kennedy and King were assassinated, the attempt on Reagan’s life is remembered by only 61%, slightly more than the number (55%) who recall the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Culture Sets the Tone

Absent an economic calamity or a major war, Americans think of the past in mostly cultural terms. When asked to provide one-word descriptions of the decades, the public refers to the 1930s and 1940s in terms of economic upheaval and war. When they think of the decades before and since, however, Americans’ references are generally light-hearted.

Almost one-third of Americans (30%) use cultural references to describe the 1920s, speaking of this decade as roaring, swinging and carefree. Half as many (16%) mention economic descriptions, including references to both the boom and bust of these years. Affluence, the stock market crash and hard times are some of the more common responses. Those who actually lived in the 1920s, however, see things a bit differently. Although cultural references to the 1920s outweigh economic ones by two-to-one for the general public, Americans who were alive in the 1920s describe the decade in economic terms as much as in cultural terms (about 22% mention each).

The harsh economic conditions of the 1930s painted a clear picture in the public mind. References to the economy — and in particular, the Great Depression — top all others. One-in-five Americans mention the Depression directly, another 15% describe the decade in terms of hard times, struggle or poverty. No other single description is mentioned by more than 4% of the public.

Images of the 1940s are similarly dominated by the specter of World War II, which is mentioned by 35% of the public. One-in-ten make reference to economic rebuilding, getting over the Depression and good times.

Good Cars, Good Music, Good Times

Americans’ views of the 1950s are much more nostalgic. When thinking about this decade, almost equal numbers make references to the good life (24%) and the cultural icons of the era (22%). Descriptions of this decade are dominated by mentions of peace, fun, rock and roll music, Elvis, and good cars.

A generation gap opens up in the ways Americans remember the 1950s. While the public overall thinks of the cultural icons and the general prosperity of the 1950s in equal terms (22% and 24%, respectively), those who actually lived during this era are much more focused on the era as a time of progress, peace and modernization. One-third (33%) of those who were alive during the 1950s describe it in terms of the good life, compared to 17% who make cultural references. In contrast, those who were born in the following decades largely think of the 1950s in cultural terms: 29% mention the cars, music and other symbols of the era, compared to 14% who make references to the good life.

Cultural references also dominate Americans’ views of the 1960s. When asked what word or phrase best describes the decade, one-quarter of the public mentions such terms as hippies, flower children, drugs, music, and free love. However, significant numbers (16%) also mention civil and political unrest — and characterize this decade as a troubled, turbulent time.

But the politics of the 1970s — the Vietnam War, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation — are crowded out by references to disco, drugs and John Travolta and a general sense of fun. One-quarter of the public describes the decade in cultural terms, another 10% mention the carefree aspects, but only 3% characterize it politically.

The 1980s draw much less consensus; no single category is mentioned by more than 12% of the public. Characterizations of the decade range from general references to good (11%) to references to music and culture (9%) to materialism and greed (7%) to economics (7%). Again, politics takes a back seat to these cultural memories: only 2% mention Reagan or Reaganomics.

While there is again little agreement among the public about how to characterize our current decade, technology — a word barely mentioned in any previous decade — tops the list of references, with 12% of Americans describing the 1990s in technological terms. Again, as a sign of the lack of agreement over this decade, almost equal numbers mention good (10%) and getting worse (8%). Significant minorities also think of the 1990s as a fast-paced work in progress, with momentum and stress each mentioned by 6% of the public. There are no references to the Gulf War.

Americans Know What Time It Is

Although the public often does poorly on tests of political knowledge, Americans do quite well when it comes to placing major national events in chronological order. Moreover, unlike most tests of political knowledge, across these measures of information, older Americans do not consistently perform better than do younger adults. Those who experienced a particular event during their early adulthood are best able to place it in historical context.

Overall, large majorities of the public can correctly identify the historical sequence of many major political and social occurrences of the 20th century. Three-quarters know that World War II came before the Korean War and that Watergate preceded the Iran-contra scandal. Almost as many know the correct order of two landmark Supreme court cases, placing the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education anti-segregation decision before the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.

Americans’ knowledge extends beyond American wars, scandals and social politics. Seven-in-ten know that construction of the Panama Canal began before the Interstate Highway system. Nearly two-thirds (63%) know that the Cuban missile crisis preceded Nixon’s historic visit to China.

Indeed, the public was stumped by only one of six questions. Just 24% were able to correctly place the creation of the NATO alliance before the building of the Berlin Wall.

Typically, older Americans follow the news more closely and are more knowledgeable about politics and history than younger adults. However, these questions reveal a different pattern. Americans who experienced an event most directly do a better job than other age groups at placing it historically. For example, 81% of Baby Boomers (those now ages 35-54) know that Watergate

— one of the defining events of their young adulthood — came before Iran-contra. No
other generation scores as well. And, Boomers remember the timing of Nixon’s 1972 visit to China with clarity: Nearly three-quarters correctly place it after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Similarly, people ages 55 to 64, the Silent Generation, are especially knowledgeable about the events of the Cold War. Seven-in-ten know that the Cuban Missile crisis occurred before Nixon went to China, compared to 57% of older Americans and 49% of 18-34 year-olds. This age group is also best able to identify the Cold War’s manifestations in Europe: 37% know that East Germany erected the Berlin Wall after the NATO alliance was formed, compared to 21% of younger adults and 28% of those 65 and older. Again, today’s 55-64 year-olds were young adults when one or both of these events occurred.

The political clashes over affirmative action and abortion in the 1980s and 1990s — battles that were influenced in part by earlier Supreme Court decisions regarding race and abortion — are especially clear to the generation that came of age during the past two decades. Eight-in-ten Generation Xers (18-34 year-olds) know that the ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional preceded the decision on abortion rights. Three-quarters of Boomers, two-thirds of 55-64 year-olds and less than half of those 65 and over did as well.

Pew Research Center studies over the years have found that men follow international news more closely than do women and that men tend to do better than women on knowledge tests. In general, this pattern holds for many of these questions, as well — but not for all. Majorities of both genders get five out of six correct.

The greatest discrepancies are in naming the order of World War II and the Korean War (86% of men and 72% women answer correctly) and the sequence of the Cuban missile crisis and Nixon’s visit to China (70% of men and 56% of women answer correctly). There is no real difference between the percent of men (71%) and women (73%) who know that the Brown decision preceded Roe v. Wade.