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Acting Independently: The Vietnam War and the Roots of Sweden’s Foreign Policy

From the mid-1960s until the fall of Saigon in 1975, Sweden publicly opposed the United States’ war in Southeast Asia.

Swedish leader Olof Palme demonstrates against the war with the North Vietnamese ambassador to Moscow during a a torchlight march, February 1968. Source: Public Domain. Arbetarrörelsens arkiv, via WikiCommons.

Image: Swedish leader Olof Palme demonstrates against the war with the North Vietnamese ambassador to Moscow during a a torchlight march, February 1968. Source: Public Domain. Arbetarrörelsens arkiv, via WikiCommons.

From roughly the mid-1960s until the fall of Saigon in 1975, Sweden publicly opposed the United States’ war in Southeast Asia.

The small Nordic kingdom, famous for its neutrality and avoidance of wars since the end of the Napoleonic era, succeeding in establishing an independent foreign policy that managed to break free from the American hegemon in the West as well as its communist counterpart. In the course of a turbulent decade, Sweden paved the path for a largely pro-Western foreign policy that nevertheless still diverged from DC – a path that has influenced how Stockholm has conducted itself internationally ever since.

Much like in the United States, the anti-war movement in Sweden began as a grassroots campaign. It eventually emerged as one of the defining features of Swedish politics during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For the governing Social Democrats, Vietnam was an issue of electoral success. As the war became a more prominent international issue, the Swedish Communist Party began campaigning against the war during the 1966 municipal election.

This left-wing electoral pressure was exacerbated by activists following the creation of Arbetsgruppen för stöd åt FNL (Working Groups for the Support of the NLF, commonly referred to as FNL-Groups) in September 1965, which helped lead public awareness campaigns as well organize anti-war demonstrations.[1] Even US State Department officials warned that the Social Democrats would probably be forced to oppose the war due to fear of electoral marginalization.[2]

Initially, the Swedish government’s public statements on the war were significantly toned down when not addressing a Swedish – and more specifically left-wing – audience. In 1965, the United States’ Mission to the United Nations noted that Swedish Foreign Minister Torsten Nilsson’s critique of Operation Rolling Thunder, the US bombing campaign against North Vietnam, was considerably less harsh in New York than during his previous remarks in Stockholm.[3]

However, once public criticisms of the war began mounting, the Swedish government became increasingly committed to maintaining a strong anti-war position which was largely absent throughout Western Europe, even among those that were officially opposed to the conflict such as France under Charles de Gaulle. In July 1965, Olof Palme, minister without portfolio at the time and future prime minister, refrained from directly condemning the United States and simply said that it was “an illusion to believe that demands for social justice can be put down by military force” in Indochina. But by 1968, he was openly demonstrating against the war with the North Vietnamese ambassador to Moscow in a torchlight march.[4]

What had initially begun as an attempt to rein in initially fringe elements of the left quickly became the sincerely held position of the government.

The decision to formally recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was an attempted balancing act whereby the government sought to placate its domestic electoral base without harming relations with the United States too much. This latter component consisted of timing the announcement to the final month of the Johnson presidency, with the hope that the outgoing administration would not care too much about it while the incoming Nixon administration would miss it.

Yet, by recognizing North Vietnam, the Swedish government encouraged the inevitable demand by NLF Groups and their allies for the recognition of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), i.e. the political arm of the South Vietnamese communist fighters. It was under such conditions that the Social Democratic Party invited a chief PRG negotiator to speak at the May Day rally in Stockholm in 1972 following the renewal of the American bombing of North Vietnam.[5] Similarly, the party invited PRG Foreign Minister Madame Thi Binh to the October 1972 Party Congress, during which the Congress completely accepted the PRG Peace Plan and condemned the American war effort as a “human rights violation.”[6]

Sweden’s recognition of North Vietnam would come to define Swedish foreign policy for the coming decades, as the country sought to make diplomatic inroads in countries otherwise isolated from the West. Three years following its diplomatic initiative in Southeast Asia, the Swedish parliament called for the recognition of East Germany.[7] A year later, it did the same in regard to North Korea.[8] Decades later, Sweden became the first EU country to recognize Palestine under yet another Social Democratic government in 2014.[9]

The Vietnam War did not just mark the start of the opening of embassies, but also a more active policy of engagement, particularly in the Third World. During its time on the United Nations Security Council (1975-76), Sweden voted against the United States and in favor of the Third World on multiple occasions, such as supporting a weapons embargo on South Africa, voting in favor of the Angolan government, and calling for PLO participation at the UN.[10]

At the same time, Swedish neutrality enabled Palme, as prime minister, to not simply have meetings with heads of states like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, but also leaders of various national liberation movements, such as Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress and Agostinho Neto of Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola.[11]

Quite coincidentally, the Vietnam War initiated the development of an increasingly independent Swedish worldview. The country’s foreign policy during the last 50 years should not be seen as a series of ad hoc decisions but rather as a natural development that stems from the conflict in Southeast Asia. The absence of this initial motivating cause partially explains the lack of similar policies in other small European states.

[1] Carl-Gustaf Scott, Swedish Social Democracy and the Vietnam War, Stockholm: Elanders, 2017 p. 56

[2] 27 Aug. 1966. J. Graham Parsons. Telegram to State. Subject Numeric Files 1964–1966. Political and Defense. Sweden.

[3] ‘The Situation In South Vietnam, Weekly Report’ (13 October 1965)

[4] Palme as cited in UD, Utrikesfrågor 1965 (Stockholm: UD, 1965) 42–47

[5] Scott, Swedish Social Democracy and the Vietnam War, p. 225

[6] Ibid.

[7] Utrikesutskottets betänkande 1972:UU16 - Riksdag

[8] ‘Recognition of North Korea Is Announced by Sweden’ New York Times, 7 April 1973

[9] ‘Sweden Gives Recognition to Palestinians’ New York Times, 30 October 2014

[10] Kjell Östberg, När vinden vände: Olof Palme 1969-1986, Leopard Förlag, 2009, p. 114

[11] Ibid. p. 108

About the Author

Naman Habtom-Desta

University of Cambridge
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