Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick yesterday joined the critics of President Reagan's scheduled May 5 visit to a German military cemetery, but White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan said, "We are going to Bitburg, period."
Regan said, however, that the ceremony in the cemetery where the graves of 47 troops of the Nazi SS are among 2,000 was "still under discussion," indicating for the first time that the president might do something other than lay a wreath.
Wick, a longtime Reagan friend, stopped short of urging the president to call off the Bitburg ceremony but called the trip "a tragedy" that the Soviets would exploit for propaganda advantage. Dole said it would be "a mistake" for Reagan to go to the ceremony, but also did not ask him to cancel it.
Wick told reporters at a breakfast meeting that "the Russians are going to have a field day" recounting Reagan's visit to the cemetery. Later in the day, he told The Washington Post that he is preparing a summary of foreign press reaction, much of it critical, for the president to peruse.
"Obviously, what set out to be a very positive undertaking is now very negative," Wick said.
While Republican strategists have been searching for an escape hatch that would enable Reagan to avoid the embarrassment of being photographed in a cemetery with SS graves, Regan and other officials reiterated that Reagan intends to keep his commitment to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and go to the cemetery.
"In the absence of some further development, Helmut Kohl believes that his reputation is now dependent upon Ronald Reagan going through with this thing," said a senior administration official.
In Bonn, West German government spokesman Peter Boenisch confirmed that U.S. officials had tried to persuade Kohl to cancel the visit in a letter written before Reagan reaffirmed his commitment to the trip in a telephone conversation with Kohl last Friday.
Boenisch said that U.S.-German relations could be harmed if Reagan called off the trip and said his government found it "difficult to understand why the president cannot visit a German cemetery that Allied soldiers have visited for the last 25 years."
"Let the dead rest in peace," he said.
In New York, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt, an underground opponent of the Nazis during the war, said that it was well known in Bitburg that the cemetery contained graves of SS men who massacred U.S. prisoners of war, and added that he was "astonished" this information was not passed on to Reagan.
At the White House, officials privately expressed frustration at Kohl's unwillingness to end the controversy by selecting an alternative site.
One official said that Reagan's "long understanding of the significance of the Holocaust and his support for Israel" was being "almost totally obscured" by the controversy. He said that Reagan had given his word to Kohl and didn't want to "disappoint someone he considers a friend."
"It is crystal clear that Kohl is unlikely to change his mind," said another official familiar with the U.S.-German negotiations on the visit. "Reagan is even more unlikely to change because he has given his word."
Meanwhile, a score of non-Jewish religious and ethnic groups added their voices to the chorus of protests against the Reagan visits. Howard I. Friedman, president of the American Jewish Committee, said that the protests of black, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Hispanic and Asian national local organizations "have reinforced our conviction that the Bitburg ceremony cannot be an appropriate symbol for reconciliation."
White House officials confirmed that Marshall Breger, the administration's liaison official for Jewish affairs, had tried in advance to soften Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's criticisms of the visit moments before Wiesel spoke at the White House last Friday.
They said Breger had asked Wiesel to make a private appeal to Reagan to cancel the visit rather than a public one. Wiesel rejected the suggestion.