President Reagan departed on an 11-day trip to Europe last night, appealing for "peace and reconciliation among old adversaries," as the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging him to reconsider his visit to a German military cemetery where members of the Nazi SS are buried.
In a departure statement read on the south lawn of the White House, the president made no reference to his scheduled visit to the Bitburg cemetery Sunday. Instead, he celebrated the "Atlantic partnership that anchors the freedom and democracy which our nations have created from the rubble of 40 years ago."
On the third trip to Europe of his presidency, Reagan is to attend the annual economic summit of seven industrialized nations, starting Friday in Bonn, and pay state visits to West Germany, Spain and Portugal. He is to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on the 40th anniversary of V-E Day.
At the summit, the president is expected to make a strong appeal to fellow heads of state against protectionism and also discuss with them his proposals for space missile defense, a controversial topic in Britain and West Germany.
No formal statement is expected, however, on Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as "Star Wars."
Reagan and his aides once had looked forward to the trip as a reaffirmation of the vitality of the alliance between the United States and Western Europe.
"Now we're just trying to get Bitburg behind us and go on to other things," an administration official said yesterday.
Meanwhile, the House, following the lead of the Senate, passed a sense of Congress resolution calling on the president to reconsider his visit to Bitburg. The vote was 390 to 26, with all 26 negative votes cast by Republicans.
Reagan's departure statement, released five hours before he left for Europe, sounded a characteristically optimistic note, referring to the end of World War II as "the beginning of an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity."
"We leave tonight for a Europe rebuilt from the disaster of war and morally restored from the despair of 1945," Reagan said. "The strong, confident alliance of free people who have done this can take satisfaction in their achievements and look to the future with confidence."
Earlier, Secretary of State George P. Shultz defended the president's decision in a briefing dominated by questions about Reagan's planned visit to the German military cemetery.
Shultz said, "the importance of the notion of reconciliation is ironically brought forward in a way by the reaction" to the Bitburg visit.
He then recounted a story about how a former West German president had been confronted with protests when he was invited to visit a midwestern university a few years ago.
"It shows that there is a depth of emotion here, and I think it shows, too, the importance of this notion of reconciliation," Shultz said. "We have to confront that as well as confront the horrors we are all reacting to."
In response to other questions about the subject, Shultz said, "we should never forget the Holocaust," and "reconciliation does not mean understanding for the things that took place."