The important thing now is to limit the damage to German-American relations done by the public relations disaster over President Reagan's forthcoming visit to Germany. The American relationship with the Federal Republic of Germany is a top priority in American foreign policy. Some would say that it is the most important overseas interest the US has.
West German membership in NATO is essential to NATO. The Germans provide the largest contribution to the armed forces of NATO: a standing military force of 495,000, expandable to 1,250,000 on mobilization. The US contributes 204,200 men to NATO; the British, 56,761; the French, 48,500.
West Germany is an essential part of Western Europe. Subtract West Germany from West Europe and there is only a fringe left. It could not be defended. The very concept of Western Europe would disappear.
West Germany is essential to the economy of Western Europe. It is the most productive economy in the European Economic Community.
The defense of Western Europe is possible with West Germany. It is not conceivable otherwise. The economic vitality of Western Europe is assured with West Germany. It cannot be assured otherwise.
The survival of an economically healthy and militarily defendable Western Europe depends on a comfortable, friendly, and cooperative relationship with the United States. The furthering of such a friendly and cooperative relationship was the motive behind the hideously mismanaged arrangements for the President's visit to West Germany in May.
That the plan was bungled through insensitivity to American veterans' organizations in general and to the world Jewish community in particular does not change or reduce the importance of the German relationship to the US. That relationship must be protected and improved. The problem is how the White House is to get out of the awesome mistake of arranging a visit to a German military cemetery containing the graves of 47 Waffen SS troopers at Bitburg without going to a concentration camp memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
The first corrective step was the decision to include a visit to a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. A second was taken promptly and with great political courage by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He went to the site of the Bergen-Belsen camp on the 40th anniversary of its liberation by British troops. At a ceremony attended by survivors of the camp he declared that he accepted Germany's ``historical responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi tyranny.'' He pledged that there would never be any attempt to wipe out or ``falsify'' that ``never-ending shame.''
This is the most complete and forthright public acceptance of responsibility for the Nazi horrors yet made by a German chancellor since World War II. The grim record is not to be whitewashed. The deed is not to be forgotten.
One further step needs to be taken. President Reagan must still visit the Bitburg cemetery and go through the ritual of reconciliation when former enemies bury the past and reconcile themselves to each other. He must do it because there are some 2,000 regular-Army German soldiers also buried there who had nothing to do with the Nazi horrors.
But the President must dissociate himself and his country from the 47 SS men also buried there, for they were among the principal executioners of the Holocaust. They guarded and tyrranized the concentration camps. They were the ones who killed American prisoners in the Battle of the Bulge in cold blood. There is no reconciliation possible with them.
The President's ceremonial speech at Bergen-Belsen must be cast to symbolize reconciliation with the new Germany of the postwar era, but not with the Germany of Adolf Hitler and the SS.
Damage control cannot wipe out all the damage. But it will be possible by judicious handling of the trip to avoid lasting damage to US-German relations, if only everyone will remember that good US-German relations are a prime interest of both countries.