President Reagan, under attack from Jewish and veterans groups and members of both houses of Congress, Thursday defended his plans to visit a German military cemetery, saying the soldiers buried there were "victims of Nazism just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps."
Reagan's announcement earlier this week that he will also visit a Nazi concentration camp failed to calm the storm of criticism. The President, speaking to editors and broadcasters at a White House luncheon Thursday, said he does not want to cancel his plan to lay a wreath at the cemetery at Bitburg, West Germany, in part because it would appear that he had "caved in" to his critics.
He said that at the Bitburg cemetery, "we only found later that there were the graves of about 30 SS troops--they were the villains who conducted the executions and all."
Reagan said that almost 2,000 others are buried at the site and that "most of those--the average age is about 18--these are the young teen-agers that were conscripted, forced into military service in the closing days of the Third Reich."
He added: "I see nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery, where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis."
Bitburg served as a German tank staging area for the Battle of the Bulge, the last Nazi offensive of World War II, which cost 10,000 American lives. Reagan made no mention of this, nor of the fact that the cemetery contains the graves of members of a Panzer unit charged with slaughtering American prisoners in the battle.
Death Camp Confusion
The President reiterated that he was not aware that the West German government had originally proposed a stop at a former concentration camp as well as at the cemetery for his state visit early next month.
"When the furor erupted, (West German Chancellor) Helmut Kohl sent me a cable and said that Dachau (a Bavarian death camp) was on the trip. I said, 'That's fine with me,' " Reagan said.
Later, White House spokesman Robert B. Sims told reporters that Reagan did not mean to say that Dachau has been chosen for the itinerary.
Deaver Visits Camp
From Germany, it was reported Thursday that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver had visited the Bergen-Belsen death camp near Hanover to evaluate whether it is suitable for a Reagan visit, but a final decision will not be made until after Deaver meets with Reagan today.
The President's plans were criticized again Thursday at a ceremony in the rotunda of the Capitol marking the 40th anniversary of the liberation of death camp prisoners by U.S. Army units.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Chairman Elie Wiesel asked Secretary of State George P. Shultz to "tell those who need to know that our pain is genuine, our outrage is deep and our perplexity is infinite" about the Bitburg visit. "Have our policy planners forgotten what SS stands for?" he asked angrily.
Wiesel asked Shultz to "be our emissary" to the White House, but the secretary did not respond to the request and only read remarks prepared earlier for the occasion, paying tribute to the U.S. forces in World War II.
"The memory of the American liberators will live on forever, as will the memory of the evil they put an end to," Shultz said.
Letter From 53 Senators
On Capitol Hill, 53 senators signed a letter to the President drafted by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) asking him to cancel the cemetery tribute.
"Given the bitterness of the Battle of the Bulge, the atrocities it entailed and the massive participation of the SS, we believe that a visit to Bitburg by an American President would be most unfortunate," the letter said.
In the House, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) circulated a resolution calling on Reagan to eliminate the cemetery from his itinerary.