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Thomas Johnson – Bitburg

Helmut Kohl had returned from a fence mending trip to France where he stood hand in hand with Mitterrand at Verdun where their fathers had faced each other across the barbed wire and shell holes during the mindless slaughter of the battle of Verdun.

Kohl wanted desperately to have a similar reconciliation with the Americans and it was to be in the sleepy town of Bitburg, which was in the Frankfurt consular district. The US Air Force had a major air base just outside Bitburg. I was assigned as the primary site officer for USIA.

I had never been to Bitburg. I called the Public Affairs Officer at the air base, a Luxembourg national, and told her I would soon be visiting her to discuss preparations for the president’s visit. I made my way to the base along foggy, winding roads and met with the public affairs officer, the wing commander and the base commander.

They told me that a presidential advance team which included Michael Deaver had preceded me. I drove over to the cemetery where Reagan was scheduled to lay a wreath to look at access and a holding area for the press. Snow covered most of the tomb stones.

I asked the caretaker if anyone whose presence might embarrass the President was buried in the cemetery. He responded that the people interred were mostly townspeople, many of whom had been killed in the air raids on the city during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and January 1945. Bitburg was on the southern flank of the offensive.

I assumed that there were SS buried in the cemetery. SS were buried in most German cemeteries. I determined that the highest ranking SS officer was a lieutenant, many were draftees and the average age was about nineteen. These were kids thrown into the battle. There were no remains of war criminals in Bitburg’s sandy soil.

One of our Air Force officers had told Deaver about the presence of SS in the cemetery. Deaver reportedly replied, “Let me worry about the president’s schedule.” Once the American media latched on to the presence of SS there was a feeding frenzy which exhibited the worst qualities of a sensationalistic press in the United States. The Jewish community and the American Legion were soon up in arms.

I lost more sleep because of the president’s trip to Bitburg than any other problem I confronted during my career. I unfairly blamed myself for not warning the embassy about the presence of SS in the cemetery. I guess I wanted to be a hero.

Actually nothing I could have done would have made any difference. The die was cast. Kohl had called Reagan and told him his government would fall if he canceled the stop. Reagan had given the German chancellor his word and, to his credit, he ignored pleas from wife and influential advisors and went through with the trip as planned, although a face saving visit to the memorial at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was added to his program.

In his book A Different Drummer- My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan Deaver takes responsibility for the problems associated with the visit. But to get back to the visit, the time allotted for the stop at the cemetery kept getting shorter and shorter.

We were besieged by sensation-seeking American newsmen. For example, Newsweek had different covers on its U.S. and its international edition. The international edition cover showed just a grave of an SS soldier, while the U.S. edition had the grave of the SS soldier with the German flag, which the photographer borrowed from city hall under false pretenses and placed on the grave.

On the morning of the visit a White House staffer and I headed to the cemetery along with about 50 journalists. The German police allowed the newsmen to proceed but stopped the White House official and me. The German police refused to recognize our escort passes. The White House advance man was a former campaign worker and very full of his own importance. I told him we had plenty of time and drove back to the Secret Service post on the air base. The German police detained the political hack. To my intense regret, they released him.

Reagan at the Bitburg cemetery

Meanwhile after one call from the Secret Service, I was on my way to the cemetery. When I arrived at the cemetery I found that American TV networks had taped their cables to stone crosses. Incensed, I tore the cables off the crosses. Soon the technicians were yelling at me that their contacts might short out on the bare ground. I responded that I didn’t care about their contacts or their feeds, and reminded them that they were in a cemetery not a union hall. German reporters were stunned by the conduct of the American TV crews.

The visit to the cemetery went smoothly. The President arrived with retired Army General Matthew B. Ridgeway. Chancellor Kohl was accompanied by former Luftwaffe General Steinhoff. Kohl and Reagan walked up to the monument and stood solemnly while Steinhoff and Ridgeway placed the wreath at the foot of the monument. A Bundeswehr bugler blew some notes on his instrument.

Reagan walked to the front of the cemetery, turned left toward the journalists with the monument to his right. His head slightly bowed. His hand toward the public was relaxed, while his hand toward the monument was white knuckled.

If a journalist had asked me a question at the time, I am afraid I would have broken down crying. The strain of preparations and confrontations with the American reporters had been enormous and I felt completely drained. I felt great pain and a sense of relief.

Following his visit, Reagan’s standing was higher in Germany than any other time in his presidency. He had given the chancellor his promise and had stood by his word in spite of tremendous pressure to opt out of the visit to the Bitburg cemetery.

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