President Reagan said yesterday "it is morally right" for him to visit a German military cemetery Sunday and blamed reporters for the controversy surrounding his visit, saying, "they've gotten hold of something, and like a dog worrying a bone, they're going to keep on chewing on it."
In a television interview with reporters from the six other nations participating in this week's Bonn economic summit, Reagan said that "the final word has been spoken" about his intention to visit the Bitburg cemetery, where 49 Nazi SS soldiers are buried among about 2,000 German war dead.
Reagan told the reporters that "I don't believe that many of your American colleagues -- in that sense, I mean in the press -- have been quite fair about this."
Meanwhile, the U.S. and West German governments, in another attempt to defuse the Bitburg controversy, are considering adding to Reagan's itinerary a ceremony at the Remagen Bridge honoring the exploits of American soldiers. A spokesman for the Bonn government, Peter Boenisch, said the idea was proposed by American Jewish groups and was being studied by both governments.
Reagan's plan to visit the Bitburg cemetery has come under fire from Jewish and veterans groups and members of Congress, but the president has resisted demands that he cancel it. The White House did, however, add to Reagan's itinerary a visit to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp .
Asked about news reports that some of the SS soldiers buried at Bitburg may have participated in a massacre in France and whether he was aware of that, Reagan replied, "Yes, I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform for four years myself.
"And, again, all of those -- you're asking with reference to people who are in the cemetery -- were buried there. Well, I've said to some of my friends about that, all of those in that cemetery have long since met the supreme judge of right and wrong. And whatever punishment or justice was needed has been rendered by one who is above us all.
"And it isn't going there to honor anyone. It's going there simply to, in that surrounding, more visibly bring to the people an awareness of the great reconciliation that has taken place and, as I've said before, too many times I guess, the need to remember in the sense of being pledged to never letting it happen again."
Vice President Bush, speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting yesterday, called for "understanding and support" for Reagan. Bush said the president would demonstrate "that he understands the lessons of history, that he knows that we can never let time blur our memories and that we must not be unclear about the deep truths learned during World War II."
Reagan defended the trip yesterday by saying, "I don't believe it has affected a majority of the people here. As a matter of fact, some of our own people have done polls and surveys and reveal that this is not of that great concern."
White House officials said Reagan was referring to a survey last week by pollster Richard B. Wirthlin showing public opinion "split right down the middle" on whether Reagan should go to Bitburg. The officials said Wirthlin's survey did not detect any downturn in Reagan's public approval rating, as other polls, including The Washington Post-ABC News survey, have shown recently.
In the House yesterday, lawmakers from both parties called the visit "inappropriate" and urged him to find another location. A resolution calling on him to "reconsider" is expected to be approved overwhelmingly today, as Reagan is leaving for 10 days in Europe.
Reagan said the trip started with a "very sincere desire" by himself and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to recognize the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. He again said he had misunderstood an invitation from West Germany about visiting a concentration camp site.
Defending the Bitburg visit, he said, "Shouldn't we look at this and recognize that the unusual thing that has happened, that in these 40 years since the end of that war, the end of that tragedy of the Holocaust, we have become the friends that we are, and use this occasion to make it plain that never again must we find ourselves enemy, and never again must there be anything like the Holocaust.
"And if that is what we can bring out of these observances and the trip that has been planned, then I think everything we're doing is very worthwhile."