8 of the Scariest Days in America

Painting of large white rectangular mansion with burned out windows but largely with an in tact exterior
The President's House After the British Burned It, Painting by George Munger c. 1815. Fine Art/Getty Images (cropped)

Over its more than two centuries of history, the United States has seen its share of good and bad days. But there have been a few days that left Americans in fear for the future of the nation and for their own safety and well-being. Here, in chronological order, are eight of the scariest days in America.

August 24, 1814: Washington, D.C. Burned by the British

illustration of white house burning

Encyclopaedia Britannica / UIG / Getty Images

In 1814, during the third year of the War of 1812, England, having fended off its own threat of invasion by France under Napoleon Bonaparte, focused its extensive military might on reclaiming vast areas of the still weakly defended United States.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, British forces attacked Washington, D.C., setting fire to many government buildings, including the White House. President James Madison and most of his administration fled the city and spent the night in Brookville, Maryland; known today as the "United States Capital for a Day."

A mere 31 years after winning their independence in the Revolutionary War, Americans awoke on August 24, 1814, to see their national capital burning to the ground and occupied by the British. The next day, heavy rains put out the fires.

The burning of Washington, while terrifying and embarrassing to Americans, spurred the U.S. military to turn back further British advances. Ratification of the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815, ended the War of 1812, and is celebrated by many Americans as the "second war of independence."

April 14, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln Assassinated

The assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, April 14, 1865, as depicted in this lithograph by H.H. Lloyd & Co.

Library of Congress

After the five dreadful years of the Civil War, Americans were depending on President Abraham Lincoln to maintain the peace, heal the wounds, and bring the nation together again. On April 14, 1865, just weeks after beginning his second term in office, President Lincoln was assassinated by embittered Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

With a single pistol shot, the peaceful restoration of America as a unified nation seemed to have come to an end. Abraham Lincoln, the president who often spoke forcefully for "letting the Rebels up easy" after the war, had been murdered. As Northerners blamed Southerners, all Americans feared that the Civil War might not really be over and that the atrocity of the legalized enslavement of people remained a possibility.

October 29, 1929: Black Tuesday, the Stock Market Crash

Black Tuesday

Hulton Archive / Archive Photos / Getty Images

The end of World War I in 1918 ushered the United States into an unprecedented period of economic prosperity. The “Roaring 20s” were the good times; too good, in fact.

While American cities grew and prospered from rapid industrial growth, the nation's farmers suffered widespread financial despair due to the overproduction of crops. At the same time, a still unregulated stock market, coupled with excessive wealth and spending based on post-war optimism, led many banks and individuals to make risky investments.

On October 29, 1929, the good times ended. On that "Black Tuesday" morning, stock prices, falsely inflated by speculative investments, plummeted across the board. As the panic spread from Wall Street to Main Street, almost every American who owned stock desperately began trying to sell it. Of course, since everyone was selling, nobody was buying and stock values continued in free fall.

Across the nation, banks that had invested unwisely folded, taking businesses and family savings with them. Within days, millions of Americans who had considered themselves "well off" before Black Tuesday found themselves standing in endless unemployment and bread lines.

Ultimately, the great stock market crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression, a 12-year period of poverty and economic turmoil that would be ended only by new jobs created through the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the industrial ramping up to World War II.

December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor Attack

A view of the USS Shaw exploding at the U.S. Naval Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,

Photo by Lawrence Thornton / Getty Images

In December 1941, Americans looked forward to Christmas secure in the belief that their government’s long-standing isolationist policies would keep their nation from becoming involved in the war spreading across Europe and Asia. But by the end of the day on December 7, 1941, they would know their belief had been an illusion.

Early in the morning, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt would soon call a "date that will live in infamy," Japanese forces launched a surprise bombing attack on the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By the end of the day, 2,345 U.S. military personnel and 57 civilians had been killed, with another 1,247 military personnel and 35 civilians wounded. In addition, the U.S. Pacific fleet had been decimated, with four battleships and two destroyers sunk and 188 aircraft destroyed.

As images of the attack covered newspapers across the nation on December 8, Americans realized that with the Pacific fleet decimated, a Japanese invasion of the U.S. West Coast had become a very real possibility. As the fear of an attack on the mainland grew, President Roosevelt ordered the internment of more than 117,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Like it or not, Americans knew for sure that they were a part of World War II.

October 22, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis

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America’s long-held case of Cold War jitters turned to absolute fear on the evening of October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy went on TV to confirm suspicions that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the coast of Florida. Anybody looking for a real Halloween scare now had a big one.

Knowing that the missiles were capable of hitting targets anywhere in the continental United States, Kennedy warned that the launch of any Soviet nuclear missile from Cuba would be considered an act of war “requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

As American school kids practiced hopelessly taking shelter under their tiny desks and were being warned, “Don’t look at the flash,” Kennedy and his closest advisers were undertaking the most dangerous game of atomic diplomacy in history.

While the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully with the negotiated removal of the Soviet Missiles from Cuba, the fear of nuclear Armageddon lingers today.

November 22, 1963: John F. Kennedy Assassinated

Kennedy Assassination: Kennedy in Car
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

A mere 13 months after resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas.

The brutal death of the popular and charismatic young president sent shockwaves across America and around the world. During the first chaotic hour after the shooting, fears were heightened by erroneous reports that Vice President Lyndon Johnson, riding two cars behind Kennedy in the same motorcade, had also been shot.

With Cold War tensions still running at a fever pitch, many people feared that Kennedy’s assassination was part of a larger enemy attack on the United States. These fears grew, as the investigation revealed that the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, had renounced his American citizenship and attempted to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959.

The effects of the Kennedy assassination still reverberate today. As with the Pearl Harbor attack and the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, people still ask each other, “Where were you when you heard about the Kennedy assassination?”

April 4, 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated

Memphis Marks Martin Luther King Day With March To Lorraine Motel

Mike Brown / Getty Images News

Just as his powerful words and tactics like boycotts, sit-ins, and protest marches were moving the American civil rights movement forward peacefully, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead by a sniper in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

The evening before his death, Dr. King had delivered his final sermon, famously and prophetically saying, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Within days of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s assassination, the civil rights movement went from non-violent to bloody, spiked by riots along with beatings, unjustified jailing, and murders of civil rights workers.

On June 8, the accused assassin James Earl Ray was arrested at a London, England airport. Ray later admitted that he had been trying to get to Rhodesia. Now called Zimbabwe, the country was at the time ruled by an oppressive South African apartheid, white minority-controlled government. Details revealed during the investigation led many Black Americans to fear that Ray had acted as a player in a secret U.S. government conspiracy targeting civil rights leaders.

The outpouring of grief and anger that followed King’s death focused America on the fight against segregation and sped the passage of important civil rights legislation, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968, enacted as part of the Great Society initiative of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

September 11, 2001: The September 11 Terror Attacks

Twin Towers Aflame on September 11, 2001

Carmen Taylor / WireImage / Getty Images

Before this scary day, most Americans saw terrorism as a problem in the Middle East and were confident that, as in the past, two wide oceans and a mighty military would keep the United States safe from attack or invasion.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, that confidence was shattered forever when members of the radical Islamic group al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airliners and used them to carry out suicide terrorist attacks on targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into and destroyed both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane struck the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field outside of Pittsburgh. By the end of the day, just 19 terrorists had killed nearly 3,000 people, injured more than 6,000 others, and inflicted over $10 billion in property damage.

Fearing that similar attacks were imminent, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration banned all commercial and private aviation until enhanced security measures could be put in place at U.S. airports. For weeks, Americans looked up in fear whenever a jet flew overhead. The airspace over North America was closed to civilian aircraft for several days.

The attacks triggered the War on Terror, including wars against terrorist groups and terror-harboring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The attacks resulted in the passing of controversial laws like the Patriot Act of 2001, as well as strict and often intrusive security measures.

On November 10, 2001, President George W. Bush, addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, said of the attacks, “Time is passing. Yet, for the United States of America, there will be no forgetting September the 11th. We will remember every rescuer who died in honor. We will remember every family that lives in grief. We will remember the fire and ash, the last phone calls, the funerals of the children.”

In the realm of truly life-changing events, the September 11 attacks join the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination as days that spur Americans to ask each other, “Where were you when…?”

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Longley, Robert. "8 of the Scariest Days in America." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/scariest-days-in-america-4151872. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). 8 of the Scariest Days in America. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/scariest-days-in-america-4151872 Longley, Robert. "8 of the Scariest Days in America." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/scariest-days-in-america-4151872 (accessed June 5, 2023).