The story that made the cover of the very first issue of LIFE Magazine—published on Nov. 23, 1936—was, the magazine’s editors admitted, perhaps surprising. The photo of Fort Peck Dam in Montana, by Margaret Bourke-White, was a stark and graphic image, accompanying a more human story about the people whose lives were changed by the New Deal project. It was also, of course, a news story, a photographic representation of the impact of one of the 20th century’s defining political programs.
In the roughly 36 years that followed, until 1972 when LIFE stopped publishing weekly, the magazine hewed close to that often elusive balance between the news of the week and timeless photography. Though the magazine may be best remembered for covers featuring celebrities or curiosities, its distinctive red logo also appeared alongside images of war, politics and scientific advancements.
Here, with one image for each year from 1936 to 1972, is a look back at how LIFE’s covers presented some of the biggest news of the 20th century. From World War II to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, from the space age to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the Beatles to Muhammad Ali—it was all part of LIFE.