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Gallup Vault: Reagan's Controversial Trip to Germany

Gallup Vault: Reagan's Controversial Trip to Germany

On May 5, 1985, President Ronald Reagan joined German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, for a brief wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VE-Day. It was one of the most controversial moments in Reagan's presidency, following the revelation that 49 Nazi SS troops were among the 2,000 soldiers buried at the site. This had caused a firestorm of bad publicity leading up to Reagan's trip.

In a Gallup/Newsweek poll conducted 10 days before the visit, Americans were evenly divided as to whether Reagan should have accepted Kohl's invitation to visit the cemetery. Forty percent said it was right for Reagan to do so, and 42% said it was wrong. At the same time, 55% of Americans said Reagan should not go forward with the visit because of the controversy that had developed, while 36% thought he should proceed.

Amid Controversy, Slight Majority of Americans Said Reagan Should Not Visit Bitburg Cemetery
Given the controversy that has developed over the planned visit to this (German military) cemetery, which includes the graves of some Nazi SS (Storm Troopers) soldiers, do you think the president should visit the cemetery or not visit the cemetery?
U.S. adults
%
Should visit 36
Should not visit 55
No opinion 9
Gallup/Newsweek, April 26, 1985

Reagan did go, partly in deference to Kohl's strong urging that he not back out. But he endured a massive amount of political heat domestically, including backlash from members of Congress, other elected officials at every level of government and numerous Jewish organizations.

Even filmmaker Michael Moore makes an appearance in this saga. He and a friend followed Reagan to Germany and, after bluffing their way past security checkpoints, stood in the press area at the cemetery as Reagan's motorcade passed. They unfurled a bedsheet that read, "We Came From Michigan to Remind You: They Murdered My Family."

Foreshadowing the political climate today, Reagan took a shot at the press for being "unfair" in its coverage of the visit, saying, "I think they have gotten hold of something and, like a dog worrying a bone, they're going to keep on chewing on it."

Despite the intense criticism, Reagan defended his decision as a healing gesture, and ultimately the visit did not create a public backlash. A Gallup poll conducted in mid-May that year found that 42% of Americans approved and 42% disapproved of Reagan going to the Bitburg cemetery, similar to their original sentiments about the trip.

The event also had no effect on his overall job approval rating. Reagan's approval rating was 56% in mid-March, a month before the trip was announced, and it was 55% in mid-May, two weeks after he returned.

Read the original Gallup news release discussing Americans' reaction to the Bitburg visit.

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

Read more insights from the Gallup Vault.

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