"The Letter from America", an 1881 painting by
Jacob Kulle, depicts a fairly common experience of
Swedish households during the late 19th century


Sweden was the first neutral country to officially recognize the United States when that country was founded over 200 years ago. Since then, attitudes toward the emerging superpower have generally been quite positive, and affections deepened with the mass emigration that reached its height during the latter part of the 19th century. The ”dream of America” was and is a common experience: The most popular novel-and-film of the last century-- Sweden's Gone with the Wind-- is a saga of emigration to the new land.

The gravitational attraction of the United States continued to grow after World War II, partly as a natural consequence of the war's outcome, and perhaps even more so as a well-orchestrated by-product of American popular culture. Although Sweden continued to observe the official neutrality it had maintained for over a century, its economic and cultural ties placed it squarely within the sphere of what is often referred to as western civilization. During the early years of the Cold War, relatively few Swedes displayed any apparent difficulty with the notion of the U.S. as the ”leader of the free world”.

Shocking young man

It therefore came as a rude shock in the Home of the Brave when a young Social Democratic leader named Olof Palme began in the 1960s to loudly and persistently condemn its protracted rape of Indochina. If anything, the sense of outrage was even greater among the United States' many rabid devotees in Sweden who felt that, if the U.S. had decided to kill a few million little yellow people somewhere on the other side of the globe, there must be a good reason for it-- stopping the spread of communism, for example.

Thus began a period of roughly two decades during which the governments of the United States and Sweden were often deeply at odds. For many Swedes, it was a time of disillusionment-- the dream of America turned into a nightmare as the horror of the Vietnam War dragged on, and the festering legacy of slavery finally erupted in the Land of the Free.

This dramatic shift in perspective was to a large extent the work of one man, Olof Palme, whose eloquent and forceful leadership had an impact far beyond the borders of his own country. ”He was a beacon of plain truth and courage to us,” is the fairly widespread assessment by a former head of the 1985 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Palme and Sweden became a rallying point for anti-imperialistic tendencies around the globe, and especially throughout the Third World-- most of which the United States had long ago staked out for control and exploitation. As several Congressional investigations and a steady stream of revelations by defectors from the CIA have attested, the U.S. has frequently conspired to get rid of troublesome foreign leaders for much less.

The unspeakable

The hardly inconceivable notion that the CIA or some similar institution may have been involved in the assassination of Olof Palme is so disturbingly evident that it is almost never referred to in public. It is the probable cause that dare not speak its name, and it is not difficult to understand why: If any prominent Swede were to raise the question of CIA involvement without the evidence of a smoking gun and a video tape, the wrath of the United States and its numerous guard dogs in Sweden would be sure to follow.

The general approach to this loaded question hanging in the air is perhaps best illustrated by the bumbling policemen who, despite clear indications that some of their brethren may have been involved in the assassination, have been entrusted with the task of investigating it. The method they employed to deal with suspicions concerning the CIA was to call up the FBI in Washington and ask it to look into the matter. The FBI assured their Swedish colleagues that no official of the United States was involved.

That may even be the case, although it is unlikely that the truth will ever be known. In any event, Palme is no longer around to stir up trouble, and the wing of the Social Democratic Party that he represented has been marginalized. It has been replaced in the leadership by a neo-liberal minority which, according to most estimates, represents no more than one-third of formerly loyal voters, many of whom have already departed. During the fifteen years since Palme's assassination, support for the Social Democrats has plunged from just under fifty percent to just over thirty percent of the voting public.

A kind of peace

The current leadership has exerted itself to patch up the temporarily strained relationship with the United States, demonstrating its fealty to Pax Americana in every possible way. Among other things, it has ”regrettably understood” unprovoked bombing attacks by the U.S. on Sudan and Afghanistan, and has supported the Kosovo catastrophe-- even to the point of lending its voice to U.S./NATO war propaganda. If the Vietnam War were to occur today, it is very likely that the current Social Democratic leadership would hold its tongue and go along. It would probably even try to explain why dropping all those bombs and all that napalm was necessary from a humanitarian standpoint.

It is not clear how this transformation has taken place. To some extent, it may simply be a sign of old age: All organizations, no matter how successful, tend to wither and decay. They are often founded by deeply committed individuals, who are eventually succeeded by uninspired caretakers and opportunists. This is a fairly well-established pattern, and there are clear indications of such a development within the labour movement and the Social Democratic Party.

But there can be no doubt that the United States has, with characteristic enterprise, laboured to prevent the emergence of another Palme. In a country like Sweden, this need not necessarily require direct intervention: The sophisticated, and far more effective, way to produce the desired result is to create conditions which ensure that most key positions in society are occupied by individuals who can be relied upon to say and do the right thing out of personal conviction and/or self-interest.

For this purpose, a favourable climate of opinion is essential. That is a commodity routinely delivered by the dominant mass media, which for the most part function as reliable cogs in the United States' global propaganda apparatus (see “The Word from the White House”). ”Winning the Cold War” was a big help, of course. Nearly everyone loves a winner, even in Sweden.

Lack of experience

Furthermore, several centuries have elapsed since Sweden was a regional superpower, and it seems to be difficult for most of its citizens to imagine that powerful men and perhaps a few women in Washington could actually presume to influence the fate of ”little Sweden” and other distant nations. This lack of recent experience in the exercise of realpolitik, in combination with the reservoir of good will noted above, renders the average Swede an easy mark for the manipulations of the United States.

Naive or wilful ignorance of superpower behaviour appears to be widespread even among the so-called intellectual elite. Far from analysing the effects of superpower power on their own society, they have almost entirely ignored it, allowing their attention to be diverted instead to priorities set and catastrophes created by the United States. The psychological mechanisms of this syndrome are, in themselves, an eminently worthy subject of study.

One consequence is that the most powerful single political force affecting Sweden and many other countries is freely granted the protection of invisibility as it goes about the business of world domination. This means, for example, that the influential news programmes of Swedish state television can broadcast lengthy reports on the recent history of Nicaragua or East Timor without once mentioning the United States, whose tragic impact on those two little countries is well documented.
As a result of these and related tendencies, Swedish society at the start of the 21st century is permeated by images and messages whose effect, if not always whose intent, is to legitimate U.S. dominion over the planet. One fairly typical example, a page-length advertisement for SAS airlines, is partially reproduced to the right.

Accordingly, in the year 2000 a high official of the United States could with evident satisfaction observe that, ”Nowadays, we have no problems at all with Sweden.” At least for the time being, the country has been safely incorporated into the new world order of the United States-- a seemingly loose but nonetheless effective hegemony based on neo-liberal ideology, control of international financial institutions and the mainstream news, and the periodical demonstration of overwhelming military power.

The significance of the latter has been underlined by the chief ideologue of the New York Times, the unofficial official voice of the U.S. empire: ”For globalization to work, America cannot be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is. . . . The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist-- McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

Continue. . .