WASHINGTON — President Reagan is "wounded" by criticism, but he is sticking by his plan to include the military cemetery at Bitburg on the itinerary of his visit to West Germany next week, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan said Sunday.
Regan agreed with a reporter that Reagan is "anguished" by the protests aroused by the plan, and he added during an interview on CBS News' televised "Face the Nation" program that "the President has been quite upset, as he's been a staunch friend of Israel."
Jewish organizations and veterans' groups have vehemently protested Reagan's acceptance of an invitation from West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to visit the cemetery, where 2,000 German troops killed in World War II--including 49 members of the Waffen SS, the combat arm of Adolf Hitler's infamous security force--are buried. In addition, 82 senators voted last week for a resolution asking Reagan to reconsider the plan, and 257 House members wrote Kohl urging withdrawal of the invitation.
Regan denied that Reagan's standing as a leader may be undermined either at home or abroad if he follows through on the plan. However, he said, the affair will "leave a scar on him (Reagan), because he is wounded by this internally."
"In his heart, he will be hurt at what has been said about him and his insensitivity, when he's a very sensitive person," Regan said of the President.
The controversy should not impair Reagan's "ability to lead," Regan added, because "if the economy continues, if our relationship with the Soviets were to improve . . . this will be behind us."
Pressed to explain why the President is standing by his commitment to Kohl, even though it has threatened to overshadow his role at the economic summit that starts Thursday in Bonn and to dim the good-will effects of his European tour, Regan said in effect that the President considers it binding.
"He's been asked to go there. He promised to go there. He's carrying out his word and he will go there with an ally," Regan said. He called it "unfortunate . . . that this has dominated the real purpose of the visit, to show reconciliation between the United States and Germany 40 years later."
(Former President Richard M. Nixon privately urged President Reagan last week not to back down from plans to visit the cemetery, the Washington Post said, citing informed Administration sources. The Post said that Nixon's views were solicited by senior White House officials.
(The newspaper reported that White House sources also said that former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger has urged Reagan to go ahead with the planned visit, citing the importance of relations with West Germany.)
As for an initial plan for the President to lay a wreath during the Bitburg visit, Regan said "details are still being worked out as to actually what happens there," adding that the appearance will last "only 10 or 15 minutes at most."
However, in a report from Bonn, West German government spokesman Peter Boenisch was quoted as saying that plans to lay a wreath remained a part of the cemetery visit.
Meanwhile, Regan said, the West German people "are overwhelmingly in favor of this."
Regan's view that the Bitburg visit will go ahead was questioned by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who said on the program that he remains "very hopeful" that Reagan will find a way out of the commitment. He suggested that either Kohl or the mayor of Bitburg might yield to suggestions that the invitation be withdrawn.
Finally, Specter said, Reagan could say simply that his plans were made on the basis of "wrong information" from "West German officials." He said he has been told "from the highest level at the White House" that these unnamed West German officials said in reply to a direct question on the subject "that there were no SS troopers at the Bitburg cemetery."
A third participant in the program, Alois Mertes, a minister in West Germany's Foreign Ministry, said from Bonn that even he, as the Bitburg constituency's representative in Parliament, "didn't know there were SS soldiers" at Bitburg cemetery, although "we know that in nearly all German military cemeteries there are Waffen SS soldiers."
Mertes cited findings of some tribunals that the Waffen SS "cannot be considered collectively as guilty people." He said that he felt "there is a partial collective condemnation of these people which is not justified."
Mertes said he that he had talked earlier in the day with Kohl and reported "no change in his position." He added vehemently that "we are not glorifying the deeds of the Nazi regime," but rather "mourning all the dead."
"We will do everything (so) that never again there will be dictatorship in Germany, that never again there will be a war coming from German soil," Mertes said. "We have worked hard, loyally, during 40 years for that, and now the German people have a feeling that . . . it is a guilty people, and that the past is more important than the last 40 years."