WASHINGTON — When historians write the definitive story of how President Reagan blundered by initially deciding to visit the graves of German soldiers but not to commemorate the Holocaust at a Nazi death camp, they should focus on a major White House staff upheaval, Administration officials said Wednesday.
The biographers probably also will note the irony of a President fighting for an entire political career to overcome a "warmonger" image, only to find himself the target of outrage for attempting to demonstrate reconciliation with a former enemy, the officials said.
And the embarrassing incident, they added, probably will be used to illustrate the weak spot of one of Reagan's strengths: his propensity to leave all details to trusted subordinates.
There will also be other factors to cite, the aides said:
--The lack of a strong Jewish voice within Reagan's inner circle.
--The President's strong feeling of loyalty toward West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
--Reagan's overriding concern for diplomacy and strengthening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a deterrent to Soviet aggression.
--The apparent misleading of a White House advance team by West German officials about the presence of graves of Waffen SS combat troops in the cemetery.
"It's like plotting an airplane crash--there's no one thing that did it," said a senior Administration official, who, like nearly everyone who agreed to discuss the episode, insisted upon anonymity.
Some White House staff members lamented that the "storm of controversy"--as Reagan called it Tuesday in publicly reversing himself on the concentration camp visit--was particularly untimely because it damaged his efforts to lobby for congressional release of $14 million for anti-government rebels in Nicaragua.
The adviser primarily responsible for planning Reagan's May 1-10 European trip--Michael K. Deaver, known as the President's chief image maker--was back in West Germany on Wednesday inspecting concentration camp sites for Reagan to visit.
Kohl proposed late last year that Reagan visit Dachau, the camp near Munich that was liberated by American troops at the end of World War II. Deaver on Wednesday reportedly was leaning more toward Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated by the British and is regarded as logistically more convenient than Dachau.
Only 10 days ago, Deaver was privately lamenting that Reagan's trip to Europe would be "boring." That, though, was before last Thursday, when presidential aides in Santa Barbara announced Reagan's schedule, which included a wreath-laying ceremony at Bitburg cemetery but no visit to a concentration camp.
"It was another incidence of the staff being split between here and Santa Barbara, and everybody out there relaxing," one member of Reagan's inner circle said. A more organized staff would have recommended that the President change his schedule as soon as the uproar developed, this official said.
However, the initial decision to accept Kohl's invitation to Bitburg and reject his proposal to visit Dachau was made by Reagan in February with Deaver's strong approval in February, several knowledgeable officials said.
"The President was adamant about not going to a concentration camp. That was outside the theme of reconciliation he wanted to stress," one noted.
This was a period, officials noted, when the White House was going through the most extensive shake-up of Reagan's presidency. James A. Baker III was leaving as chief of staff to become Treasury secretary. Donald T. Regan was switching places with Baker, and Edwin Meese III was departing as presidential counselor to be attorney general. Virtually all the top aides of Baker and Meese were leaving the White House, too.
Deaver, the image maker and chief planner for all of Reagan's trips, was in the process of preparing to leave the White House in mid-May to set up his own public relations business.
"The new staff doesn't understand Reagan and what's good for him, and Deaver's head hasn't been there for months," said a Reagan intimate. "The staff wasn't paying attention to the subtleties. . . . There are times when you've got to say, 'Wait a minute.' "
This adviser and others pointed out that no Jewish aide is in a position of influence on Reagan's staff. "What was missing was the sensitivity," an inner-circle official said. Another added: "If they had a strong Jew in there, he would have been hollering and they would have had second thoughts."
When Deaver led a survey team to Europe in February--to lay out precisely how Reagan would observe the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II--West German officials assured him that no members of the SS were buried at Bitburg, which Kohl had urged the President to visit, according to one member of the team.
"Unfortunately, there was a foot of snow on the ground and nobody went looking at grave markers," said the survey team member, who recalled that television crews recently had no trouble finding the initials "SS" beside the names on a few dozen graves.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, Los Angeles, observed of Reagan: "The man is extremely sensitive to the Holocaust. But I know also this is a man who is extremely loyal, and he wants to be loyal to Chancellor Kohl. He looks at Kohl and says: 'How can I say no to him about Bitburg when I'm in his country?' I just think it's insensitive to Holocaust survivors."