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Memorial Day 2010: Don't let the USS Olympia sink from memory

Failing to repair and keep afloat the USS Olympia, a heroic ship of the Spanish-American War, would say a lot about America’s priorities.

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Except for this: Americans have never really had much of a romance with war. In 1781, George Washington fretted that the American Revolution might actually fail because Americans are “a commercial and free people” with little taste for war. Ulysses S. Grant could not stand the sight of blood.

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What we remember on Memorial Day – and on the battlefields, and even on the bridge of the Olympia – is how reluctantly we have gone to war, and how determined we have been to achieve what Lincoln called “a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The Olympia is not a exhortation to bloodshed; she is a monument to the lengths Americans will go when they are provoked.

The sun has not yet sunk below the yardarm for the Olympia, at least for this summer. James McLane, the president of the Independence Seaport Museum, will hold the Olympia open for visitors until the fall, with the hope that someone may yet step forward to save the ship. And Harry Burkhardt, the president of the “Friends of the Cruiser Olympia”, is struggling to recruit enough donations to preserve the Olympia as a living history museum.

But I suspect that finding the money isn’t the ultimate problem, even in these days of shrunken wallets.

The ultimate problem is that we can’t find the shame.

So if, this fall, the Olympia takes her final voyage down the Delaware, I hope she takes with her all the memories of Dewey and Gridley that are left (and there probably aren’t too many, courtesy of the inept priorities of our school systems), all the memories of The Unknown Soldier and the War he died in, and all the memories of the Stars and Stripes, flung out to a stiff Pacific breeze in the days when the nation felt young and self-confidence pumped through every vein.

On the day she takes her final voyage down the Delaware, I wouldn’t want those memories hanging around to remind us of what the Olympia did for us, and what we didn’t do for her.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.”