American crowds chanted "U-S-A" when bin Laden was killed. When did we start that tradition?

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May 2 2011 5:40 PM

When Did We Start Chanting "U-S-A"?

Plus: Why do we smoke celebratory cigars?

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden, John Dickerson discusses the president's proactive role in the assassination, and William Saletan uncovers some holes in the raid narrative. Also, David Weigel describes the scene outside the White House following Obama's announcement, Anne Applebaum applauds America's use of human intelligence over expensive technologies, and Brian Palmer explains Bin Laden's burial at sea. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here

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Spectators at a Phillies-Mets baseball game broke into chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" as news of Osama Bin Laden's death made its way through the crowd on Sunday night. When did Americans start yelling the name of their country over and over again to express joy or patriotic pride?

Probably in the mid-1970s. There's a legend going around that the now ubiquitous U-S-A chant got started at the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey game, when the United States Olympic men's team, made up of amateurs, defeated the mighty Soviets. While certainly charming and tailor-made for a Hollywood screenplay, the story isn't true. The actual origins of the chant remain shrouded in mystery, but news stories as early as 1975 describe sports crowds repeating "U-S-A." For example, at that year's National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics swimming championships, the crowd started the chant to protest the inclusion of a Canadian team that went on to win the predominantly American event. In the 1976 Olympic ice hockey tournament, four years before the Miracle on Ice, the crowd broke out the abbreviation when the Americans defeated the Finnish team.

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None of the reports from the 1970s indicate that the chant was revolutionary, or even novel, but it's possible the journalists working at the time didn't realize they were witnessing the birth of a phenomenon. Whether it was truly new or not, there is evidence that it was not yet our defining national cheer. News reports from the same era often describe slightly different patriotic cheers. U.S. Coast Guard personnel waiting to sail their vessel at a multinational ship exhibition in 1976 chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A., we don't mess around, hey!" In 1970, blue-collar supporters of President Nixon—including those working to build the new World Trade Center towers—held a rally in Lower Manhattan. When a peace activist appeared to spit on an American flag, the construction workers broke out into cries of "U-S-A, all the way." It's hard to imagine any chant other than "U-S-A, U-S-A" spreading after such an incident today. [Update, May 3: As a commenter points out, close variants of the "U-S-A" chant appeared earlier than the '70s. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics contains audio of American fans shouting, "U-S-A, U-S-A, oi, oi, oi," which closely resembles the modern Australian cheer, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi."]

While the chant certainly was not born in 1980, it does appear to have taken off after the Miracle on Ice. A Google News archive search for "chant 'USA USA' " turns up only nine hits before 1980. The same search for the next decade results in 713 hits.

A man joins the celebration of Osama Bin Laden's death with face paint in front of the White House. Click to expand image.
Celebrating outside the White House

Patriotic cheers are not, of course, a uniquely American phenomenon. England's soccer fans, for example, are expected to be able to participate in a wide variety of chants and songs. Some of the cheers involve only the word "England," but they typically have a more complex rhythm than the U-S-A chant. French supporters holler "Allez les Bleus!" in support of their blue-clad soccer team. Canada sticks more to the American model, with chants of CA-NA-DA raining from the rafters at hockey games. They also chant "Go, Canada, Go." In 2009, Pepsi tried to get Canucks to chant the slightly more complicated cheer "Eh! O' Canada Go!" as part of a marketing campaign, but it doesn't appear to have caught on.

Bonus Explainer: Crowds in Boston broke out cigars to celebrate the killing of Bin Laden. When did cigars become associated with celebrations? Possibly before the pilgrims landed. Much like the U-S-A chant, the origins of the celebratory cigar aren't well-documented. Indigenous peoples in the West, and especially the Pacific Northwest, engaged in a practice called "potlatch"—a festival usually held on a special occasion in which a family distributes valuable gifts to the community. Tobacco was one of the gifts passed out in these celebrations, leading some to believe that the tradition of distributing cigars on auspicious occasions is Native American in origin. If early European settlers did, in fact, pick up the practice from Native Americans, the tobacco would have been smoked in a pipe. Cigars didn't make landfall in the U.S. until 1762.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.