AMERICANS who took strong positions on the matter of President Reagan's visit to Bitburg cemetery earlier this month ought to be aware of the origin and evolution of the Memorial Day we celebrate this weekend. Originally called Decoration Day, the holiday was begun in May 1868 by the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans organization. But it was not a forgive-and-forget affair. It was designed so much for the dedication of Union soldiers who had died in the war that a year later, the New York Times was prompted to write an editorial entitled ``Shall the Hatchet Ever Be Buried?''
Memorial Day was essentially a northern and western holiday for several decades. In the late nineteenth century Southerners established their own Confederate Memorial Day observance, usually held in April.
But North and South did not formally bury the hatchet for years on the matter.
What brought North and South together on the matter of war dead was World War I, which accentuated the gravity of American sacrifices through Armistice (later Veterans) Day and minimized the separate but scarcely equal observances of the Civil War dead. Then came World War II, which gave emphasis to Decoration Day as a time to honor the veterans who gave their lives fighting the German and Japanese menace.
The moral of all this is that Americans have hardly a monopoly on forgiveness, even toward their own brothers of another section. Nor have they been assiduous in preserving the best aspects of a Memorial Day, which for many is an informal benchmark that summer has begun, or is the time when the big speed-car race is run on the weekend when the swimming pool opens. Again, to quote the Times in 1869: ``Should not decoration but dinners, should not touching and tender tributes to the dead but pomp and patronage for the living ever be the central idea, this celebration will have become not a sacred but a sacrilegious one. Let the people remember this, so that the aroma of flowers may be that which shall hang chiefly about Decoration Day, and it will then prove a national day which we and happily posterity may take pride in celebrating forever.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.