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A Rhetorical Analysis of Reagan's Discourse at Bitburg

Jay Plum

Volume 1, 1987

Prior to the spring of 1985, Ronald Reagan's nickname, "the Teflon president," seemed appropriate. No matter what the situation, Reagan was never tarnished. In April of 1985, however, the White House announced that the President would lay a wreath at the German war, cemetery at Bitburg to fulfill a request made by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Unfortunately for Reagan, a large number of American Jews, veterans, and members of Congress were concerned and/or outraged by Reagan's planned visit to a cemetery which contained the graves of 48 SS soldiers (Powell 24). Despite these domestic pressures, however, Reagan visited the cemetery as scheduled on May 5, 1985. Following the visit, Reagan delivered an address at a joint German-American military ceremony in an attempt to explain his commitment to the visit and alleviate negative feelings surrounding his actions.

An understanding of Reagan's speech at Bitburg, from a rhetorical standpoint is important. The laying of a wreath at the cemetery and the President's speech are historically significant because they marked the 40th Anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II. This alone would justify an analysis, but the controversy surrounding the situation further warrants rhetorical study. Opponents and supporters of the Reagan plan presented strong, sometimes vehement, arguments for or against the visit.

In order to better understand this controversial visit and Reagan's discourse to diffuse criticism, this analysis employs Lloyd F. Bitzer's ideas on the "rhetorical situation to examine the discourse which resulted from the Bitburg visit. The situation which resulted was one of the few times since 1983 in which Reagan was reacting to a situation rather than creating it (Shapiro 21). Because the speech was so dependent upon the situation, Bitzer's ideas seem appropriate. In addition, this criticism will focus on rhetorical techniques found in the Reagan speech, specifically light/dark metaphors, antithetical contrasts, and references to a speech delivered by John F. Kennedy during his visit to Berlin. These techniques were useful tools in Reagan's attempt to diffuse criticism and promote his interests as a rhetor.

Rhetoric does not exist for the sake of rhetoric. Rhetoric is pragmatic; it is a means of altering reality through the creation of discourse. As Bitzer writes, "a particular discourse comes into existence because of some specific condition which invites utterance" (Rhetorical Situation 4). Bitzer identifies three constituents of any rhetorical situation exigence, audience, and constraints. As defined by this author, "any exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be" (Rhetorical Situation 6). In every rhetorical situation the exigence functions as an organizing principle. It defines the rhetor's audience and the desired change (Bitzer, Rhetorical Situation 7). In later writings Bitzer elaborated on his ideas of exigence.

A rhetorical exigence consists of a factual condition plus a relation to some interest. Literally billions of factual conditions in the environment are not perceived as being for or against anyone's interest, and no one seeks to alter such neutral conditions. Speakers are motivated to create messages when they perceive factual conditions related to felt interests. In other words, they seek to change by means of discourse something that matters, something about which they are not indifferent. A wholly neutral factual condition does not solicit a response; and an interest unrelated to a factual condition does not solicit a response; and an interest unrelated to a factual condition has no object. An exigence exists when a factual condition and an interest are joined (Bitzer, Functional Communication 28).


The interest component of the Bitburg controversy was a desired reconciliation between West Germany and the United States. That is, throughout his political career, Kohl had crusaded to restore his country to full international legitimacy (Doerner 18). With respect to Bitburg, he wanted to demonstrate that the new German democracy was unlike the Nazi Germany of the past. Indeed, Reagan and Kohl sought a reconciliation comparable to that of Kohl and French President Francois Mitterand a year earlier at the site of the Battle of Verdun. As Kohl put it: "Forty years afterward, the time seems ripe, for me and Ronald Reagan to take this step, too" (Powell 24). Such good intentions were not shared by all, however. Noted leaders within the Jewish community in the United States were appalled by the presence of the graves of 48 SS soldiers. American veterans and their families were similarly displeased. Congress also urged Kohl and Reagan to revise their agenda. The criticism and concerns formed the factual component of the situation Reagan encountered at Bitburg. Yet in spite of this domestic pressure, Reagan refused to alter his plans because of the interest component.

Everybody said after all this trouble I should have admitted the mistake and dropped the visit. But in my view, it boiled down to walking away from a true friend. If I did that, then there goes friendship. Now I think we must go ahead or appear weak (Church 13).


When the situation is examined in its totality, both the factual and the interest components, the exigence of Reagan's rhetoric is clear. Reagan sought to reconcile the United States with West Germany while not forgetting the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust.

The second constituent of a rhetorical situation, according to Bitzer, is audience. "A rhetorical audience consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change" (Bitzer, Rhetorical Situation 8). The original intent of the speech was geared toward the German public which still felt guilt for World War II. As Gunter Grass wrote, ''Wherever we set foot, we run into harsh reminders of the past. Hardly a patch of ground without it pitfall, hardly a word without a double meaning" (Ash 15). The German people were an obvious part of the rhetorical audience because they were an essential part of the reconciliation sought by Kohl and Reagan.

Likewise, it follows that critics of Reagan's visit to Bitburg were also a part of the audience. Reagan's discourse needed to eliminate their criticism before a forgiveness and reconciliation could occur. The principal audience of concern to Reagan's administration was the American Jewish community. Jewish leaders disapproved of the visit because they perceived it symbolically as ignoring Nazi action and the suffering of the Holocaust. When Reagan tried to appease the Jewish population by planning a visit to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, this audience regarded it as a clumsy political gesture which was part of the "tendency of history to blur the reality of their suffering" (Gelman 18-19).

The symbolism remains crucial for Jews. At a time when notorious Nazi executioners like Josef Mengele are still at large and terrorist attacks on Jewish communities are once again making headlines, they are profoundly mistrustful of any move to inter the cautionary reconciliation of the past (Gelman 18-19)


Another audience concerned with Reagan's visit to Bitburg was the American veterans and their families. The concerns of this group were not a result of the presence of graves of SS soldiers but, rather, with the fact that many of the remaining soldiers buried at Bitburg were involved in the American massacre at the Battle of the Bulge (Haeger 26). As one U.S. diplomat observed, "I never thought I'd see the day when Ronald Reagan could get the American Legion angry with him, by God, we've done it" (Magnuson 19).

Constraints constitute the third and final component of a rhetorical situation. As defined by Bitzer, "constraints are made up of persons, events, objects, and relations which are part of the situation because they have the power to constraint decision needed to modify the exigence" (Rhetorical Situation 8). Carroll Arnold further adds that constraints are both limitations and opportunities. The rhetor must beneficially use or overcome these constraints in order to invoke change (Bitzer, Functional Communication 24).

Initially, the number of distinct audiences confronting President Reagan was a constraint. Attitudes toward the presence of SS graves differed among the various groups. The German people sought freedom from the guilt perpetrated by their predecessors; The Jewish population, however, did not want the atrocities to be forgotten. If Reagan failed to meet the concerns and wishes of the German people, the American veterans, and the Jewish community, he would be unable to bury the hatchet without opening old wounds.

Reagan was further limited by the Kohl government and its leadership. A withdrawal from the visit would have hurt Kohl's "crusade" to establish West Germany's role in the Western democratic alliance. Even when Reagan was receiving vehement criticism, Kohl would not alter his position. Such an action might have subjected him to the charge of weak leadership (Doerner 18). As far as the Chancellor was concerned, the Bitburg visit was vital for U.S.-West German relations: "I will not give up the idea. I suggest it. I stick to it" (Church 13).

A final limitation was the Reagan cabinet and the preparations for the visit. Some analysts believe the controversy was aggravated by a shift in White House operating style when Donald Regan replaced James Baker as chief of staff. The Bitburg visit was firmed up in February by White House Aide Michael Deaver. When Deaver visited the cemetery, the graves were covered by snow. The German government did not mention the SS graves, and Deaver did not ask (Haeger 26). "People are starting to look at this Reagan's team," said one aide. "Are they incompetent? To a certain extent, we probably can't take the scrutiny right now" (Powell 24).

One positive constraint was the pro-American attitude of the German people. In the 1983 elections, for example, the overwhelming victory of the Kohl government indicated strong support for Reagan's nuclear strategy. One poll indicated that 83 percent of West Germans wanted closer ties to the United States (Powell 25). This positive attitude was beneficial to Reagan. Because German interest and feelings closely corresponded with Reagan's interest as a rhetor, he had the opportunity to focus more on domestic audiences of the U.S.

Finally, the 40th Anniversary of V-E Day provided an historical event which added significance to his discourse. Furthermore, the reconciliation between Kohl and Mitterand established a precedent. An historical occasion was an opportune time for Reagan to partake in a similar reconciliation and for the world to reconcile and forgive.

This reconciliation and forgiveness, however, could not have occurred without Reagan's discourse. Reagan's message was tempered and designed in such a way as to achieve balance between the various interests. Reagan directly addressed each of the audiences. He acknowledged their conflicting interests in his opening remarks. "This visit has stirred many emotions in the American and German people Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much because this should be a time for healing" (Reagan 587). Reagan first addressed the audience of American veterans and their families.

Our gesture of reconciliation with the German people today in no way minimizes our love and honor for those who fought and died for our country. They gave their lives to rescue freedom in its darkest hour the alliance of democratic nations that guards the freedom of millions in Europe and America today stands as a living testimony that their noble sacrifice was not in vain (Reagan 587).


Reagan also commented on two war heroes, one American and one German, who met at the cemetery and shook hands in peace (Reagan 587). After addressing the veterans' concerns, Reagan asked this audience to join the two war heroes in reconciliation. In addressing the interests of the German audience, Reagan stressed the good nature of the German people, while attacking the idea of collective guilt. It is impossible to determine who was a follower of Hitler and his ideas and who was merely a conscript. "There were thousands of such soldiers to whom Nazism meant no more than a brutal end to a short life. We do not believe in collective guilt" (Reagan 588).

Reagan further argued that the German people also suffered in the war.

The war against the totalitarian dictatorship was not like other wars. The evil war of Nazism turned all values upsidedown. Nevertheless, we can mourn the German war dead as human beings crushed by a vicious ideology (Reagan 588).


In his attempt to demonstrate the goodwill of the German people, Reagan used an anecdote about a German woman and her son. During the Battle of the Bulge, three young American soldiers arrived at the cottage of a German mother and son. Lost behind enemy lines, all were frostbitten and one was badly wounded. Even though taking them in was punishable by death, she sheltered them and made a meal out of the last of her food. Then, a knock was heard at the door; four German soldiers had arrived. The woman was afraid but she said, "There will be no shooting here." The soldiers laid down their weapons, said grace, and shared the meal. One of the German soldiers was a medic and tended to the wounded American. In the morning the Germans showed the Americans how to get back behind the line. They all shook hands and parted. Those boys reconciled briefly in the midst of war. Surely we allies in peacetime should honor the reconciliation of the last 40 years" (Reagan 588-89).

Reagan acknowledged the Jewish viewpoint and its concerns in an attempt to diffuse criticism.

Your terrible suffering had made you ever vigilant against evil. Many of you are worried that reconciliation means forgetting. Well, I promise you, we will never forget, and we say with the victims of that Holocaust: never again (Reagan 587-88).


Rhetorically, to add impact to his speech, Reagan sought to separate the past from the present. First of all, he used light/dark metaphors to distinguish the past from the present, good from evil:

Four decades ago we waged a great war to lift the darkness of evil from the world, to let men and women in this country and in every country live in the sunshine of liberty.... But the struggle for freedom is not complete, for today much of the world is still cast in totalitarian darkness (589).


Through the use of light/dark metaphors, a distinction was made from the Germany of the past and the Germany of today. Further, the light/dark metaphors created good and evil connotations. A distinction was made between democracy and totalitarianism, both past and present. Germany was thus acknowledged as a leader in Western democracy. Reagan concluded, "The light from that dawn is growing stronger. Together, let us gather in that light and walk out of the shadow. Let us live in peace.' (588).

Reagan further distinguished the past from the present through the use of antithetical contrasts. He stressed the theme of hope from suffering. From the ashes has come hope and that from the terror of the past we have built 40 years of peace, freedom and reconciliation among our nations" (Reagan 587).

Finally, Reagan made use of the goodwill shown towards John F. Kennedy during and following his speech "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)."

Today freedom-loving people around the world must say: I am a Berliner, I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism, I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag, I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam, I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban, and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism (589).


Reagan contrasted the free world with the repressive world. Kennedy's phrase "I am a Berliner" indicates that the entire world suffered in World War II. Reagan expounded on the idea by pointing out that even free citizens are bound to the suffering of the rest of the human world.

After examining the Bitburg incident and Reagan's discourse which resulted, one question remains unanswered: how effective was Reagan in handling the situation? Analysts generally agree that Reagan made the most of a bad situation. The President even received praise from a press which often attacked his past policies and actions (Chaze 28). Italy's Corriere Della Sera, for example, wrote, Reagan emerged with dignity from an embarrassing situation.... He didn't evade the problems but faced them directly, succeeding at times to reach moments of real emotion" (Chaze 29).

Nevertheless, American Jews and some veterans remained critical of the visit (Chaze 26). Questions were also raised regarding Kohl's ability as a crisis manager and the performance of Reagan's Cabinet (Doerner 19). Yet aides and politicians from both major political parties felt that such questions and the Bitburg controversy itself would fade as focus shifted to upcoming debates over the budget and tax reform (Chaze 26). To determine whether or not the eventual decrease in attention to this matter resulted from Reagan's discourse is beyond the scope of this paper.

A more appropriate question for this analysis, however, is how fitting was Reagan's response? In order to address this question, Bitzer offers two means of evaluation. Initially, he states that all situations have four stages: origin and development of constituents; maturity; deterioration; and disintegration. A discourse is most likely to modify the exigence in the maturity stage.

A situation is mature when its constituents are present and in a favorable relationship to each other: the exigence is present and perceived, often by speaker and audience; the audience is capable of modifying the exigence and can be easily addressed; operative constraints are available (Bitzer, Functional Communication 34).


The discourse stemming from Bitburg occurred in the maturity stage of the situation. All of the constituents were present. The timing was favorable to Reagan because of the relationship between the nature of his message and the 40th Anniversary of V-E Day. The exigence, both the factual and interest component, was perceived by all. The audience was capable of modifying the exigence because they alone had the ability to bury the hatchet. All the constraints were operative and Reagan overcame the limitations. According to Bitzer's ideas then, it would seem the discourse was indeed successful. Bitzer also argues that a response is fitting when it is a corrective to the situation and/or the situation allows the response to be well-received (Functional Communication 36-7). The situation did allow Reagan's message to be well-received, but was it corrective to the situation.

A rhetorical message is corrective in one or both of two senses. First, a message is corrective if it is needed for a situation to continue. Second, a message is corrective when "messages are invited by situations presenting an actual or potential exigence which the message will correct or positively modify" (Bitzer, Functional Communication 37). Reagan's message was not needed for the situation to continue. The message was, however, invited by the situation. The visit and controversy over Bitburg invited Reagan to respond in an attempt to positively modify the exigence. The evidence suggests that a casual relationship did exist between the discourse and decreased criticism of Reagan following his speech. How much the speech actually modified the exigence is unknown. Nevertheless, any improvement is positive modification of the exigence, and thus, from a rhetorical standpoint, Reagan's message was appropriate.

As a rhetor, Reagan successfully identified the factual and interest components of the exigence, audience, and constraints of the controversy surrounding his visit. The resulting discourse, consequently was fitting and corrective to the situation because of the identification of the constituents of the rhetorical situation. To aid him in his goal as a rhetor and add impact to his speech, Reagan used a variety of rhetorical techniques to promote the reconciliation between the United States and West Germany. But as some people question the actions and motivations of this "Teflon president," rhetoricans will likely agree that, in the Bitburg controversy, the nickname of "great communicator," is truly fitting.



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