IT WAS THE sweetest day. It was VE Day and VJ Day and going to the moon. It was Christmas and it was New Year's and it was a wedding of sorts, and we were all family. It was a day for biting the lip and for brushing back tears when the hostages themselves came rolling home in Metrobuses -- government workers on the last leg of a historic commute.

It was a day of "Welcome home" and "Good to be back" and "Glad to see you." It was a day of yellow ribbons and parades and hugs. It was a day 11 persons stood on the trunk of a Yellow cab down near the White House, shouting themselves hoarse; a middle-aged man in a suit climbed a tree to see better, and if you wanted to say something profound, you reached for a cliche and nodded your head for emphasis.

Not for a very long time had the nation reacted like this. Not for a very long time had people shown such unalloyed patriotism. Not in my lifetime had I seen anything like it -- me, a child of Korea and Vietnam, of tarnished victories and papered-over defeats, of morally questionalbe acts and crusades with rotten underbellies. This day the flag did not belong to some group -- prowar or antiwar or something like that -- and the White House did not belong to a Democrat or a Republican.The flag stood for all of us and the White House had become the national home. It had been a long time coming.

Historians are going to have trouble puzzling this one out. They are going to look at the tapes and newspaper stories and wonder what kind of people we were. They will point out, rightly, that we won no battles, that, in fact, we lost our embassy. They will point out that the enemy scaled our embassy walls, ransacked our safe, took our people hostage, brutalized some of them, held all of them prisoner and that our one attempt to free them ended in shame and tragedy.

All that is true. But it is also true that a mighty nation sheathed its sword. It is also true that we stayed patient and compassionate, that we put the hostages ahead of everything else and that if we were going to end this thing the American way, we either had to take them all out by force or take them all out peaceably. We opted for the latter, and in that we succeeded. This was the strategy of Jimmy Carter. History will call him a good man.

But more than that, no one could hold up a mirror to us and say that we -- we Americans -- would have done the same. This was no "me-too" situation, where someone could say, but "you have bombed" or "you have tortured." We do not take hostages. We would not take hostages. This is something an American does not do, an American government does not do. We had been right. The hostages were innocent people and they had been wronged and now, thank God, they were home.

So yesterday, America and this city awoke to yet more news about the hostages, and then the press conference at West Point and then the trip here. hThe city had been waiting. The yellow ribbons had been up for days and the vendors were in position, and then the planes took off from West Point, one by one unitl there were four, and flew into Andrews Air Force Base. There, television brought us the welcome-home scene. Then many of us, half-a-million of us, walked to the motor route.

Near the White House, the crowd started to run. There were kids off from school and businessmen and tourists, and down by Lafayette Square people started to shout "U.S.A., U.S.A." Church bells rang. Women wearing yellow flowers walked briskly on high heels and men and boys alike scurried up trees for a better look. The police came on motorcycles and horses, but the police for once had no one to protect and no one to guard, and for the first time in a very long time no reporter was going to have to call the police to ask for the number of arrests. It was not that kind of day.

Then the buses came into view and the crowd roared. They moved slowly as they approached the White House. Kids yelled and the bells pealed and the flags waved. Inside the buses the former hostages waved back. All along the route, people cried and people smiled and people waved, and if you were there, you will remember it.

It was the sweetest day.