WASHINGTON — Austria has opened a global public relations campaign to regain international acceptance of President Kurt Waldheim, who has been barred from the United States because of war crimes he allegedly committed as a German army officer during World War II.
Former Foreign Minister Karl Gruber, warning of damage to Western relations if diplomatic coolness to Waldheim continues, met Friday with acquaintances in government and Congress as the first step in a round of visits to allied capitals to solicit support for Waldheim.
"I would not have come just to defend Waldheim, even though he is a friend," Gruber, a former Austrian ambassador to the United States, told a breakfast meeting of reporters hosted by the Austrian Embassy. "But the whole episode is a danger to Austria."
He said that if friendly relations are not maintained between Waldheim and other world leaders, Western solidarity will be gravely undermined and deep resentment will spread among the Austrian people.
"The little man in Austria now says, 'Whatever we do, they treat us like the last tail of the Germans,' " he said.
Although no other nations have taken formal action against the Austrian president, he has been treated coolly in international circles since the Justice Department, after a lengthy investigation, placed him on a U.S. "watch list" of prohibited visitors in April.
In announcing that action, U.S. officials charged that Waldheim served with a German army intelligence unit responsible for the execution of Yugoslavian partisans and that he had been party to Nazi persecution of civilians on racial and political grounds.
Gruber insisted that the allegations were unfounded. He carried with him a government document obtained from Yugoslavia that he said shows Waldheim was not guilty of wartime atrocities.
The letter, sent in 1947 from the Yugoslavian Interior Ministry to its Foreign Ministry, cited Waldheim's military service and said that the information could be used against Austria if that nation undertook action "against our national interest." Gruber said the fact that the Yugoslav government chose not to use the information showed it considered the case against Waldheim to be weak.
Gruber, who will conclude his visit here Sunday, plans to plead Waldheim's innocence at his next stops in Spain and Italy and said he also will seek contacts with government officials in other nations.
Gruber said he hopes to lay the groundwork for a meeting with Edgar M. Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress, which spearheaded the campaign that ended in Waldheim's placement on the watch list.
U.S. officials have said they intend to maintain good relations with Austria but anticipate no change in Waldheim's status on the watch list. Last month, President Reagan said he could not alter the "statutory basis for the decision."