Senate Urges Reagan To Cancel Bitburg Visit, But White House Says No Change
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate is urging President Reagan to reassess his visit to a German military cemetery where 49 of Adolf Hitler’s elite SS troops are buried, but his chief of staff says the president will not change his plans.
″He’s assessed and reassessed and reassessed, and we are going to Bitburg,″ White House chief of staff Donald Regan told reporters Friday.
The Senate resolution, co-sponsored by 82 senators, urged Reagan to change his itinerary and to visit instead a symbol of modern German democracy to honor ″the memories of the millions of innocent civilians and hundreds of thousands of American and allied soldiers who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis.″
Several senators said the resolution, which passed Friday on a voice vote with no opposition, is a clear message to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to relieve Reagan of his commitment to visit Bitburg, a pledge that they said is severely damaging U.S.-West German relations.
Kohl has praised as ″noble″ Reagan’s determination to go ahead with the visit.
But Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet said Friday that the people of Bitburg may themselves cancel the May 5 visit because they ″find unbearable the gushing forth of abuse and slander on our city and especially on the soldiers lying in the cemetery.″
Only 49 of the several thousand soldiers buried in the cemetery are members of the notorious Waffen SS, which operated Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Sen. Paula Hawkins, R-Fla., told reporters, ″I think the entire responsibility rests on Chancellor Kohl and I am sure that when he sees the names that were on the resolution that was voted on today in the Senate that he will suggest an alternative site.″
Regan, who described the president as ″anguished″ over the criticism, said the White House had received hundreds of telephone calls on the issue and that they ran 5-to-2 against the president making the visit.
The White House press office, however, issued a statement saying the calls for the first two days, starting April 15, were ″substantially negative″ but that since then they had been running about 50-50.
On Thursday, 257 House members sent a letter to Kohl urging him to withdraw the Bitburg invitation. A House vote on a resolution urging Reagan to reconsider the visit is scheduled for Monday.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., one of many senators to speak on the issue Friday, said the Bitburg visit is a mistake because it ″reopens old wounds, offends American veterans who fought bravely in the war and dishonors the memory of the millions of victims of the Nazis who died in the Holocaust.″
Reagan originally said he did not want to visit a concentration camp site during his trip, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.
But an outcry from Jewish organizations and veterans groups following the announcement of the Bitburg trip prompted the president to schedule a stop at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site in West Germany.