President Reagan, responding to protests from Jews and veterans against his plan to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery next month, sought today to emphasize his commitment to remembering victims of the Holocaust and Americans who died in World War II.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan's schedule, which includes a visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany May 5, is "under review," and other officials said they would gauge reaction before deciding in a few days whether to alter Reagan's itinerary.
Speakes quoted Reagan as saying of the Holocaust: "While we remember the past with deep sorrow, we must look to the future with a firm resolve that it will never happen again."
But there were widespread objections, from Reagan supporters among others, to the cemetery visit. Chairman Elie Wiesel of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, all of whose members are Reagan appointees, said he is convening an emergency meeting Monday to appeal to the president to change his plans. "I have rarely seen such outrage," said Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and author of books on the Holocaust. "I know the president. I know this is not his sentiment."
Speakes cited Reagan's April 19 intent to award Wiesel the Congressional Gold Medal as evidence of the president's commitment to remembering the Holocaust.
The American Legion, which represents 2.5 million veterans, said "we are terribly disappointed" that Reagan has decided to visit Bitburg, the scene of a German tank staging area before the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945. German soldiers from both world wars are buried there.
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations said, "I think this was a judgment of a grievous error. It is offensive to those who care about the American soldiers who died and those who care about the millions of Jews and non-Jews" who were victim of the "Nazi genocidal effort."
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said a presidential visit to the German war cemetery "would be a very unfortunate misplacement of priorities."
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said Reagan's visit "will create a most unfortunate impression about the attitude of our country toward the crimes of the Nazi regime."
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said Reagan should visit the site of Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, and "the graves of the Allied soldiers who fell in liberating Europe from the scourge of Hitlerism."
Reagan earlier decided not to visit Dachau, saying it would revive "guilt feelings" that have been imposed on today's German population for the Holocaust. Speakes said today Reagan has "no plans" to make such a visit.
Nor does he plan to visit the graves of American war dead on his 11-day European trip.
Speakes read to reporters a list of past and planned Reagan activities to commemorate the Holocaust and remember American war dead.
Reagan is to attend the annual economic summit in Bonn and intends to give four speeches marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in which the theme will be "reconciliation" and postwar peace and prosperity.
A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified, said the White House believes that the protests over Reagan's plans to visit the Bitburg cemetery arose in part because the president's activities commemorating the Holocaust had not been adequately publicized.
The official said the White House will emphasize these other activities for a few days and see whether the protests over the trip continue.
Sources said Reagan's schedule could be revised, perhaps adding another event to mollify Jewish sentiment.
Speakes said the Bitburg visit was scheduled at the request of the West German government. He said the reason was that Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand conducted a "very emotional reconciliation event" there a year ago.
Other officials said deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, the White House aide responsible for the trip, had been warned by colleagues that the cemetery visit would be controversial. One official said that Deaver had ignored these warnings and that no objection had been raised by State Department and National Security Council officials when they were routinely informed.
Speakes said Reagan is "disturbed that anyone would question his sensitivity" to remembering the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis.
Among the activities Speakes cited today as evidence of Reagan's "active and emotional" commitment to remembering the Holocaust were his participation in ceremonies sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; a signing ceremony April 19 for Jewish Heritage Week; giving Wiesel the award, which Congress designated; a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by U.S. Ambassador Arthur Burns and Kohl April 21, and a special trip to Israel for Holocaust ceremonies by Secretary of State George P. Shultz after the European summit.