Once again, television has served President Reagan well.
Two of the three networks did what the White House had hoped. They packaged the brief visit by Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the German military cemetery at Bitburg between two more emotional elements of the day's schedule: taped scenes of their visit to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and live coverage of their salute to the NATO alliance at the Bitburg U.S. Air Force base.
By delivering powerful, emotional speeches at the concentration camp and at the air base -- dealing with both the tragedies of the past and the hopes for the future -- and by maintaining a stony, dignified silence at the cemetery containing the Waffen-SS graves, Reagan certainly minimized the offense his original decision to visit that cemetery had given.
But at the end of the day, the unanswered question was still: to what end? What was it that sent him on this frantic junket from slaughterhouse to cemetery to high-security base?
The official answer, repeated by the president and his aides, was "reconciliation" of the German and American peoples. But that answer simply doesn't wash.
As Chancellor Kohl himself said in his remarks at the air base, cooperation between the German and American governments on military, economic and diplomatic matters has been so consistent and so ensured during the past four decades, "it is almost taken for granted."
The emotional reconciliation of the two peoples was accomplished, in my view, by the time of the Berlin airlift. And it was sealed (as Reagan noted) by John F. Kennedy's visit to Berlin after the Soviets' erection of the hateful Berlin Wall and his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.
The German-American alliance is based on the clear self-interest of both nations and both peoples. It should not be taken for granted. As leading figures from the United States and Germany both observed at an Aspen Institute-Berlin conference I attended a few years ago, the "successor generation" of young people moving toward power in both lands does not have the firsthand experience of World War II and the Cold War that burned into the consciousness of my contemporaries -- and our elders -- the vital necessity of uniting Europe and the United States in the cause of freedom.
Reagan could have made that point when he visited the grave of Konrad Adenauer, the great postwar leader who steered West Germany on the path of democracy and of European- American cooperation.
A sensible itinerary would have made the ceremony at Adenauer's grave the central -- and perhaps the sole -- event of the Sunday schedule. Instead, it was a last-minute afterthought, which disappeared in the welter of the emotions stirred by the other and controversial parts of the day.
Reagan has demonstrated his insensitivity to history on numerous occasions, on subjects ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to the shah of Iran and his overthrow.
But never, I think, has Reagan so willfully ignored the history of a nation and a relationship as he did when he ordered, at the outset of his European trip, a trade embargo against Nicaragua.
Anthony Lewis of The New York Times has rightly condemned the "degradation of political rhetoric . . . mocking truth," in the proclamation in which Reagan declared that Nicaragua, with 3 million people, constitutes "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." But it is as much a travesty of history as it is of language.
Of all the places in the world where the United States should not be throwing its muscle around unilaterally, Nicaragua is the one. Does anyone in our government know -- or dare tell the president -- that the Sandinista government we oppose can build sympathy for itself at home and throughout Latin America any time the United States reverts to the discredited policies we have followed there in the past?
Does Reagan, the great collector of anecdotes, know the story of William Walker, the U.S. military adventurer who tried to make Nicaragua his personal kingdom before the Civil War? Has he heard about our 21-year Marine occupation of Nicaragua and the longer period of domination by U.S. banks and companies? Does he know that we are irreparably tainted as an arbiter of Nicaragua's future by our long history of support for the Somoza dictatorship?
Latin America knows that history. Canada and Europe know it. That is why, as The Washington Post's Lou Cannon reported from Bonn last Saturday, Reagan's spokesman had not been able to name one country that supports the sanctions.
Showmanship cannot mask such gross insensitivity to history.