Columbia University September 23, 2003
Relations Between the United States
and Sweden over 200 Years
First of all, I would like to say thank you to The Swedish Program of Columbia University for giving me the opportunity to speak here in New York, where I lived and worked as a newscorrespondent in the 1980’s.
The headline is ”Close Friends and Distant”. It may seem a bit puzzling, maybe even contradictory:
How can two countries be close and distant at the same time?
I will try to explain that in this speech. As a matter of fact:
This contradiction, close and distant, is the underlying theme tonight, for it’s impossible to understand Swedish-American relations without constantly keeping this contradiction in mind.
Let me start with an anecdote from my home town, Malmö. A friend from the United States visited Sweden for the first time some years back. We walked around in the city and David, he’s from Washington DC, saw the Macdonald’s and the Burger Kings. He saw the movie theaters that showed features starring Stallone and De Niro. Young people with baseballcaps and sweaters with names of American universities. He stopped in the middle of a square, looked around and said:
”Hey, it’s a clean America!”
That was a pretty good observation. In many ways Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world. And its has been for quite some time; actually, the verb Americanize, ”amerikanisera”, was first recorded in Swedish in 1852.
For example: of 187 movies that premiered in Sweden in 1998, 106 were from the United States. Recently the television show ”West Wing” was a huge success in Sweden.
All of this is, of course, a bit superficial. There are many countries obsessed with American popular culture. But in Sweden it goes deeper.
There are places in Sweden were the two countries come together in a much more profound and solemn way.
At the Baltic port of Karlshamn there’s a statue of Karl Oskar and Kristina, gazing out at the sea. This couple was at the centre of Vilhelm Mobergs beloved and epic novels about the Swedish immigrants in America. Karlshamn was the port were many of them embarked on a dangerous journey. Between 1851 and 1930 almost 1.2 million Swedes, 20-25 percent of the population, left for America.
At the Eastern Cemetary in Malmö there’s a strange monument and two well kept graves. The monument has a airplane propeller fixed to it. When I was young I went there with my parents and my class to learn about the Second World War and American sacrifice. This is the resting place of two Americans, Captain Thomas Campbell and Sergeant Oakley Ragland, who crashed and died in southern Sweden on October 20th 1944.
Forty American airmen died in neutral Sweden during the war, many of them flying planes that had been badly damaged by German anti-aircraft fire. Most of them were brought back to the US or to American military cemeteries after the war, but Campbell and Ragland remained in Malmö in accordance with the wishes of their families.
Well, so much for being close. What about distance and differences?
First of all: the obvious. A huge ocean between us. A big country and a small one. A superpower and a minor power.
But most important is this:
Sweden and the United States are at the extreme ends of Western democracy.
On one side is Sweden with its generous welfare state, high taxes, high level of union membership (around 80 percent) and a tendency to put collective efforts before individual success.
On the other side — the United States, were millions lack health insurance, a country with relatively low taxes and union membership below 20 percent of the workforce. A nation with a tendency to celebrate individual success rather than collective efforts.
Sweden is a democracy were it is almost impossible for politicians or political parties to win elections by promising lower taxes.
The United States is a democracy were it is equally impossible to win elections by suggesting higher taxes.
It has to do with different views of government.
The United States was born out of a rebellion against colonial British taxes: ”No Taxation Without Representation.” Taxes were considered repressive instruments of power. According to some Americans they still are.
The Swedish welfare state was created through government initiatives and financed by taxes that redistributed wealth.
In the American experience the government is something bad; in Sweden it is something good.
Quite a difference.
But then, again, there’s common ground: democracy.
Both countries believe that they are shining examples of democracy. So when Swedes and Americans quarrel about politics they often do it because they are bound together by democratic ideal This difference, or distance, is extremely important to understand s and values. Close and distant at the same time.
Sweden was one of the first countries to recognize the new republic in America. In 1783 Sweden and the United States signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce in Paris. The American signature was written by Benjamin Franklin, American envoy in Paris, soon to be replaced by Thomas Jefferson.
The Swedish king, Gustav III, was fascinated by the American struggle for independence. In 1776 he wrote of the Americans: ”I can’t help but to admire their courage and approve of their boldness.” He encouraged Swedish officers to join the French forces that were fighting together with the Americans.
But Gustav III was also a despotic ruler. In 1772 he had organized a coup that put an end to a period of relative liberty. He’s fascination with America soon ended when he realized the powerful ideas that grew out of the American revolution. He saw American influence behind Finnish ambitions to secure independence from Sweden. In 1792, the same year that Gustav III was murdered, a Swedish newspaper, ”The Patriot” (Patrioten), published the text of the American constitution. The editor was prosecuted. Two years later all references to the American constitution were censored.
From the beginning it became evident that Swedens ruling elite has a divided attitude towards the United States: an inspiring and exciting Republic, yet also dangerous.
Today, leading Swedish politicians and opinionsmakers marvel at the technological and economic successes of American capitalism, but they usually add this: such a system, if implemented in Sweden, would tear apart the egalitarian, social fabric of our society.
The most important process behind the development of Swedish-American relations was, of course, emigration: 1.2 million people.
It started in a small scale in the 1840’s, mainly with religious dissidents. During the 1850’s America began to attract people that we today would call economic refugees, fleeing desperate poverty. After the Homestead Act of 1862 this wave of humans across the Atlantic ocean grew even more and culminated in the 1880’s: half a million Swedes left the country between 1879 and 1893.
This period is interesting. 1879 was the year of one of the first large strikes organized by the Swedish labor movemement: The Sundsvall Strike. Many workers who participated in the strike left for America. In 1881 the founder of Swedish socialism, August Palm, gave his first and now legendary speech in Malmö.
I you were poor in Sweden some 120 years ago and wanted to get a better life you had two options: either you left for America and became an American, or you stayed in Sweden and became a socialist.
Swedes in America were successful as a group. There was a saying: ”Chicago was built by Swedes.” A Swedish architect, Gustaf Hallberg, led the rebuilding of Chicago after a devastating fire in 1871. Railroad tycoon James Hill said: ”Just give me enough Swedes and I’ll build a railroad through hell.”
However, most Swedes were farmers and their methodic efforts inspired a popular poem:
Where once across the Plains they roved
The Indian and the Scout
The Swede with alcoholic breath
sets row of cabbage out.

This was when the American stereotype of the Swede was born: hardworking, honest, stubborn, but a little bit stupid and naive. You can see this ”typical” Swede in countless Westerns produced in Hollywood.
While Swedish influence was felt in America — through the immigrants — American influence was felt in Sweden.
In 1865, after a debate that had lasted for more than thirty years, Sweden decided to replace its medieval system of representation, based on the four estates, with a more modern, two-chamber model inspired by the United States. An important factor behind this reform was the translation to Swedish of Alexis de Tocquevilles ”Democracy in America”. It had an enormous impact in Sweden.
So: Sweden exported people to America, and America exported ideas to Sweden.
The flow of Swedes to America was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One in 1914. The last, big wave of Swedish immigrants reached America in the mid 1920’s. By then Sweden had changed. Universal suffrage was established in 1921. Sweden was well on it’s way to become a leading industrial nation.
But other links between Sweden and the United States developed. In 1936 Marquis Childs, an American journalist, published the book ”Sweden: The Middle Way”. Childs theme was that Sweden — were the Social Democrats came to power in 1932 — had found a middle way between raw capitalism and state socialism. His book was widely read in the United States, also by president Roosevelt, who once held a press conference with Childs book on the table in front of him.
In the progressive New Deal-climate Sweden became an interesting model for reformers in the United States while Swedish politicians on the left were intrigued by Roosevelts economic and social policies.
For example: The American Food Stamps-program originated from a Swedish government report that was translated by the Roosevelt administration in 1938.
In the area of political ideas and aspirations Sweden and the United States have never been closer than during the 1930’s. It’s impossible to talk about this period without mentioning two Swedish intellectuals and social democratic politicians: Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. They travelled to the United States and wrote books and articles about American democracy. Gunnar Myrdal is best known in the United States for his book about race-relations: ”An American Dilemma.”
In Sweden the Myrdals got other intellectuals and politicians interested in the United States in a new way. Before the Myrdals America was a land of materialopportunity. After them America became a land of intellectual and scientific opportunity. They helped lay the foundation for an important transformation in outlook after the Second World War: American science and American universities started to attract young Swedes. The United States became the cultural and intellectual centre of gravity, much like Germany had been earlier. Consequently, English replaced German as the preferred second language in the Swedish educational system.
But it wasn’t just the political and academic establishments that gravitated towards the United States.
Gunnar and Alva Myrdal made this observation:
”The class in Sweden that is most American in its personalitytype is without doubt the working class.”
In Sweden, there’s a phenomenom called ”klassresa”, classtravel: people from the workingclass who rise, ”travel”, to better social positions through hard work and talent.
What is that if not the Swedish version of ”The American Dream”, ”From Rags to Riches?”
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 both Sweden and the United States were neutral. But the United States were drawn into the war. And the American attitude towards neutral Sweden changed.
Sweden had important economic connections with Nazi-Germany. For example, Sweden exported ball-bearings. That led to a crisis between Sweden and the United States in 1944. American bombers were shot to pieces when they tried to hit Swedishbuilt SKF-factories in Germany and the United States demanded that Sweden stop the shipments. Sweden agreed — reluctantly and after intense pressure.
This feeling of distrust didn’t go away when the war ended in 1945. Sweden kept it’s neutral policy when the Cold War started and even tried to convince Denmark and Norway to join Sweden in a Scandinavian Defense Union — just when the United States were trying to build a Western alliance against the Soviet threat. However, the plans for a Scandinavian Defense Union collapsed in 1949 and Denmark and Norway joined Nato.
The situation created a dilemma for both Sweden and the United States.
Sweden, geographically close to the Soviet Union, wanted to remain non-aligned. But at the same time Sweden belonged to the family of western democracies and was dependent on them.
The United States saw Scandinavia as a strategically important region — a northern barrier against Soviet expansion — and wanted to keep Sweden within the western orbit, but couldn’t rely on Sweden as a regular ally.
In other words:
How combine the need for distance between Sweden and the United States while keeping Sweden close to the United States?
This resulted in a series of secret security arrangements that developed and gradually deepened into security guarantees during the course of the Cold War. The process can be traced through US-documents that has been declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
It started with a National Security Council document, NSC28, approved by the Truman administration in September 1948. It dealt with Norway, Denmark and Sweden — in that order of importance. Sweden was singled out for its ”subjective neutrality” and even if the Swedish government got high marks for dealing with domestic communists, Sweden should not be given the same military priority as allied countries. However, NSC28 left open the possibility of American assistance to Sweden in a crisis.
This document was followed by NSC121. There the United States accepted Swedens role outside Nato and Sweden was to be treated as a member of the Western bloc.
In 1960 the Eisenhower administration approved NSC6006/1. It also dealt with Scandinavia as a whole. But the language concerning Sweden was much clearer than before. The United States should ”be prepared to come to the assistance of Sweden” in case of Soviet aggression.
Two years later, the Kennedy administration went even further. In a document, approved in November 1962, that dealt exclusively with Sweden — Guidelines for Policy and Operations: Sweden — it was stated that the United States will ”undertake to come to the assistance” of Sweden.
According to a committee, led by Rolf Ekéus, that investigated Swedens security policy, there’s no evidence that this document from 1962 was fundamentally changed during the 70’s and 80’s. So it seems that Sweden, right up to the end of the Cold War, was in fact protected by the United States.
There’s a debate in Sweden about how much the Swedish leadership knew about this American policy. Maybe the Swedish government wasn’t fully informed, but is clear that Sweden made preparations for receiving military aid from the United States and also Great Britain.
The early 70’s were the most difficult period in the relationship between Sweden and the United States. Prime minister Olof Palme, supported by a large portion of Swedish public opinion, voiced strong criticism of the war in Vietnam. Diplomatic relations were deep-frozen when Palme in December 1972 compared the American bombingraids over North Vietnam with Nazi atrocities during Word War Two, including the deatchcamp Treblinka.
This dramatic episode is often mentioned in discussions about US-Swedish relations.
What is less known is that Palme, who had studied in the US, one day later sent Nixon a telegram where he made clear his admiration for the United States and noted that American democratic ideals had been a source of inspiration for him. Hardly the words of someone who hates America. But that didn’t help. President Nixon was outraged and Sweden’s newly appointed ambassador wasn’t allowed to take up his post in Washington. When the old ambassador left, Nixon refused to say goodbye to him.
Relations between the United States and Sweden weren’t fully restored until the 1980’s. In 1981 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger visited Sweden and in 1987 Ingvar Carlsson, Palmes successor, made an official visit to Washington. Palme never got an invitation.
It’s proof of the fundamentally strong relationship between Sweden and the United States that the differences over Vietnam only had consequences on the diplomatic and political levels. The security arrangements, one-sided or not, remained in place. Economic and scientific cooperation continued. Sweden remained open for American cultural influence.
Close and distant at the same time.
Finally, some remarks about todays relations between Sweden and the United States.
During the 1990’s relations improved steadily. The end of the Cold War made it possible for Sweden to have a more relaxed attitude towards Nato and the United States. Sweden has participated in Natoled operations in the Balkans and is an active member of Natos Partnership for Peace-program. Göran Persson, prime minister since 1996, has a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and has moved Sweden closer to Nato, although he rules out membership in the alliance: polls show that Swedes are against such a move. For example, the Swedish governemnt placed the blame firmly on Slobodan Milosevic when Nato intervened in Kosovo in 1999.
Another important factor behind the good relations in the 90’s was the fact that the United States had a president, Bill Clinton, who Swedes could relate to. It’s my impression that Swedes tend to judge the greatness of American presidents with regard to how close these presidents are to progressive, Swedish values. Clinton came much closer than, say, Ronald Reagan.
If the countries of Europe could vote in American presidential elections, Sweden would be the only state carried by Ted Kennedy.
However, the excellent relations continued when George W Bush became president, even if most Swedes had preferred that the Supreme Court had given the victory to Al Gore after the chaotic election in 2000.
In the summer of 2001, during the Swedish presidency of the European Union, Bush became the first acting US-president to visit Sweden. And when the United States was attacked by terrorists on September 11 that year, Göran Persson did something quite remarkable. He not only placed Sweden side by side with the United States by declaring that the terrorists had attacked all democratic and open societies. He also supported the US response against al Qaida and the Taliban i Afghanistan and stared down critics in his own party. Persson was the first Nordic leader to be invited to the White House after 9/11.
The good relations were also evident whenever Secretary of State Colin Powell met his Swedish counterpart Anna Lindh, who was brutally attacked and killed two weeks ago. They had differences on Middle Eastern issues and Lindh pressed Powell on the subject of Guantanamo, were a Swedish citizen is being held without any formal charges. But it was clear that they had great respect for eac hother and Powell seems to have been devastated by the news of Lindhs death.
Asked what he liked about Sweden, Powell once answered: ”ABBA, Volvo and Anna.” Lindhs reply was: ”Why do I only get third place?”
In 1995 Sweden joined the European Union after a referendum in November 1994. In the EU Sweden has formed a somewhat unholy alliance with strong Natomembers like Great Britain to block efforts by some countries to create a common European defense. Such a defense would, of course, undermine Nato. But it would also force Sweden into a military alliance. And Sweden knows that American involvement in the defense of Europe is vital to Swedish interests.
Then came Iraq. And that leads us to a new and potentially damaging conflict between Sweden and the United States — indeed, between Europe and the United States.
The Swedish government claimed that the US-led attack on Iraq in March was a breach of international law since it wasn’t approved by the UN Security Council. Even the governments of France and Germany hesitated on that point: Iraq was in breach of a large number of UN-resolutions.
The public opinion in Sweden was also opposed to the intervention in Iraq. However, it’s interesting to note that Swedish polls didn’t show quite the same level of antiwar sentiment as in some other European countries. In June, two months after the fall of Baghdad, 41 percent of the Swedes felt that the US and Britain had done the right thing in Iraq, 45 percent were against the operation.
Sweden is a small, non-aligned country that considers the UN extremely important. In Sweden’s view, a strong UN is the best protection for small countries.
Thus, Sweden’s relations with the United States will mirror the relations between the United States and the UN.
After more than 200 years with Swedish-American relations mainly defined by bilateral links and contacts, these relations are now defined by multilateral and global issues.
If that will lead to a closer relationship or greater distance is a matter for the future.
Thank you.
Suggested reading:
* Culture Unbound. Americanization and Everyday Life in Sweden. By Tom O’Dell (Nordic Academic Press)
* Fred och säkerhet. Svensk säkerhetspolitik 1969—1989 (SOU 2002:108)
* Keep Them Strong, Keep Them Friendly. Swedish-American Relations and the Pax Americana, 1948—1952. By Charles Silva (Stockholm University)
* Over There. Banden över Atlanten. By Per T Ohlsson (Timbro)
* The Trans-Atlantic Link. Strategic Yearbook 2002 (Swedish National Defence College)
© Copyright 2003 by Per T. Ohlsson. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.