• Sweden edition
 
'Olof Palme was more American than Swedish'

'Olof Palme was more American than Swedish'

Published: 18 Sep 2012 15:43 GMT+02:00
Updated: 18 Sep 2012 15:43 GMT+02:00

More than two decades after his death, the life and career of Olof Palme (1927-1986) haunt and intrigue Sweden’s national psyche.

He was Social Democratic Prime Minister between 1969-1976, and from 1982 until he was shot dead in 1986. The fact that his murder is still unsolved helped create a legend that has made Palme a secular Swedish saint.

He is the closest thing Sweden has ever had to a US president. A telling detail is that one still needs permission from the Palme family to access his papers.

Olof Palme is intriguing in many ways and not just because of his tragic death.

His public career lasted for almost four decades and he was a politician that could stir up emotions. According to former Social Democrat party leader Mona Sahlin, when she joined the party she did not become just a member of the Social Democrats, she “joined Olof Palme”.

On the other hand Ulf Adelsohn, who was leader of the rival Moderate Party from 1981-1986, has said of Palme that "no-one could make me so angry".

This divisive mode is captured in the title of the new documentary chronicling his life: "Olof Palme: alskad och hatad" ('Olof Palme: loved and hated').

Olof Palme was a feared opponent and a formidable friend. He is famous for his aggressive and arrogant oratory. It is said that when he lost the 1976 election it was as a result of debating with the leader of the agrarian Centre Party, Thorbjörn Fälldin, who succeeded him as Prime Minister.

Fälldin was the opposite of Palme and he realized that he could not keep up with his opponent’s rhetorical skills. His strategy was instead to make Palme angry and frustrated by speaking slowly and appearing clumsy.

It worked.

The debate was held in the Scandinavium sports stadium in Gothenburg and those who attended the debate live voted for Palme, while those that saw it on TV and heard it on radio opted for Fälldin.

On TV, Palme often appeared aggressive and condescending, while those who heard him live found the experience unforgettable.

He was not a normal Swedish politician since, despite having aristocratic roots and being educated in the US, he chose to become a Social Democrat.

And this is also where the key to understanding Palme lies: in many ways, he was more an American than a Swedish politician.

The journey began at Kenyon College in Ohio in the Midwestern United States. It is a small private liberal arts college founded in 1824. Among its alumni are Rutherford B. Hayes, US president from 1877-1881 and Swedish descendent William Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1986-2005.

In 1947, Palme arrived at Kenyon to study for a Bachelor of Arts Degree and completed the course in less than a year. Most importantly, he took an English course entitled “speech” that was to change his life.

After he finished his degree he travelled through a segregated United States by bus; he would recall his American experience later in speeches and interviews. This experience created the Anglo-Saxon politician Olof Palme.

It also made him a modern progressive man to the extent that the British talk show host David Frost interviewed him when he was about to become Prime Minister in 1969, making him the only Swedish politician besides Carl Bildt to interviewed by Frost.

When Palme became Prime Minister he maintained his connection to the Anglo-American world. In his archive, there are letters from the historian and John F. Kennedy adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, among others.

Despite a speech in which Palme likened the 1972 Christmas US bombings of Hanoi to atrocities committed under the Nazis – a speech that led to the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador from Washington – US statesman Henry Kissinger nevertheless said that there were only two Swedes you could talk to: Olof Palme and Pehr G. Gyllenhammar.

The latter was the long-serving CEO of Volvo, and together, he and Palme represented politics and capital. They became the symbol of what was called “the Swedish model”. It's no coincidence that they both had spent a long time in the US: Palme as a student and Gyllenhammar working for a New York law firm.

If Kenyon College made Palme, Harvard University nearly destroyed him at the end of his career. In 1985, he won re-election as Prime Minister and was invited to deliver a lecture at Harvard. But instead of accepting payment for the lecture it was arranged that one of his sons could attend there for a term without paying any fees.

This clear case of nepotism caught the eyes of the Swedish media, as Palme forgot to include the arrangement in his official tax return. The non-fee agreement was a form of payment, and should therefore have been taken into account when declaring income.

The conservative opposition used the fact that not even the Prime Minister understood the Swedish tax structure as proof of an overregulated nanny state. It was also an attack on Palme personally since he previously had not minced words when attacking his opponents.

He was in many ways the master of insults. For example, when leader of the Folkpartiet (Liberal Party) Bengt Westerberg in 1985 tried to become leader of the opposition, Palme compared him to former US president Richard Nixon’s chief of staff General Alexander Haig: the man who during the Watergate scandal which eventually toppled Nixon declared: “I am in charge”.

Ironically, the same Anglo-Saxon world that so shaped Palme as a politician also spawned the powerful weapon of free market neoliberal ideas which became Palme's most formidable foe.

In the 1970s he saw the threat of what he called “the crazy monetarists” and called Margaret Thatcher “a true extremist”. But by the 1980s, the international trends in economic thinking armed the opposition with weapons to fight Palme.

It is also one of the reasons that the second part of history professor Kjell Östberg’s biography of Palme has the subtitle: “when the tide turned.” Palme lived to see the shift and might, had he lived, have lost the 1988 election.

In conclusion, one could say that, at least for a couple of years, Sweden had its own Kennedy-esque Camelot. But while John F. Kennedy did not live long enough to be unmasked, Palme did.

Today, his legacy is viewed with ambivalence, which is a shame. He is perceived as either a hero or a villain, although I would argue that he was both.

What makes him unique is that he was, and so far remains, Sweden's most international Prime Minister, and the only one who was educated outside of Sweden.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King’s College London and served as acting political editor for Länstidningen in Södertälje for the summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @davidlinden1.

Your comments about this article

04:54 September 19, 2012 by Smiling Canuk
No truth to this at all. Palme was very much left of center and nothing like the American politicians of the time.

He had a lot in common with Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. They were actually even friends. Both men had a very international vision for a pair of relatively small countries and were both anti-Viet Nam war and both dedicated to a social democratic society. A Canada/Sweden political comparison of that era is a lot more accurate than this weak argument comparing him with the American politicians.

Wishful thinking on the part of Linden.
18:01 September 21, 2012 by Claudius Nero
I totally agree with Smiling Canuk.

Palme was more of a social reformer than a politician. As if labelling him a politician was not insulting enough Linden goes ahead and sprinkles more salt in the wounds calling him american. If anything, he was anti american policies.
21:22 September 21, 2012 by rsmehdihasan
Great man...full of respect..he had some vision..and contributed strongly to make Sweden a social country!
01:17 September 22, 2012 by acidcritic
David Linden. " In Spain we say : "The dress does not make the priests" Thát´s to say, you can dress as a priest but that in no way means that you are a priest. To be a priest you has to behave as a priest in all circunstances. The dress is not enough. You need much more than that. .

In your case, you have a swedish name,but you are not a swede. In the first place becouse you don´t know Sweden´s history at all . To say that Olof Palme was more an american than a swede is quite false and an stupid expression.
08:10 September 22, 2012 by Zedman
Well said Smiling Canuk,
14:30 September 23, 2012 by Hamsterdam
Davis Linden.... The epitome of journalism on The Local.
19:25 September 28, 2012 by Hisingen
Why anyone would want to see a film about Palme beats me. A champagne socialist who was far from pleasant in his attitude, and as sarcastic as hell to those who were 'beneath' him. Thank goodness I never was in a position to vote for him. As to seeing a film about him, there are much more pleasant things to be done.
07:29 September 29, 2012 by csence
How can the word saint even be in the same article as Palme? Devil, evil, corrupt perhaps...much like obama...boy was it miserable in sweden when he was around.
21:12 September 30, 2012 by richtig623
Re: "General Alexander Haig: the man who during the Watergate scandal which eventually toppled Nixon declared: "I am in charge"."

Incorrect. Haig's actual "I am in control here" statement to reporters was made immediately after the Reagan assassination attempt in March, 1981.
Today's headlines
Neo-Nazi attacks
Neo-Nazis cleared of knife attack on Nigerian
Police intervene after neo-Nazis attack an anti-Nazi rally in Kärrtorp, December 2013. Photo: Hampus Andersson/TT

Neo-Nazis cleared of knife attack on Nigerian

A Stockholm court has cleared three neo-Nazis of stabbing a Nigerian man in an unprovoked attack. But two of the men will face jail after they were convicted of racial agitation at a riot. READ  

Julian Assange
Assange court ruling expected on Monday
Julian Assange at Ecuador's embassy in the UK. Photo: Anthony Devlin

Assange court ruling expected on Monday

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can expect the next court ruling on his case to take place on Monday October 27th in Stockholm. READ  

Stockholm 'sub hunt'
Sweden calls off suspect submarine search
Ships are returning to shore in Sweden. Photo: TT

Sweden calls off suspect submarine search

The core search for a suspected foreign vessel in Swedish waters has been called off. The armed forces said they remained convinced foreign underwater activity had taken place but had not identified an intruder. READ  

Diplomacy
US to get first female ambassador in Sweden
File photo: Athena Center for Leadership Studies

US to get first female ambassador in Sweden

The United States Embassy in Stockholm is set to get its first female ambassador after the White House announced it was nominating the Iranian-American ex-investment banker Azita Raji to take over from Mark Brzezinski. READ  

Politics
Sweden to get EU 'Christmas present'
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at an EU summit in Brussels this week. Photo: TT

Sweden to get EU 'Christmas present'

Sweden is set to get 1.2 billion kronor ($168 million) back from the EU on December 1st, according to leaked EU documents which suggest that other European countries will have to make large top-up payments this year. READ  

Science
Asteroids leave mark on Sweden
Astroids can leave marks like these. Photo: TT

Asteroids leave mark on Sweden

Some 458 million years ago, Earth was whacked in a double asteroid strike, leaving craters visible in Sweden today, space scientists have reported. READ  

New coalition
New coalition reveals 'compromise' budget
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Green Party leader Åsa Romson. Photo: TT

New coalition reveals 'compromise' budget

UPDATED: Prime Minister Stefan Löfven's Social Democrat-led coalition has revealed its first budget proposal, listing plans to spend more than 20 billion kronor. READ  

Royal family
Swedish royal couple set wedding date
The couple pictured in the summer. Photo: TT

Swedish royal couple set wedding date

Sweden's Prince Carl Philip and Sofia Hellqvist, who got engaged earlier this year, have announced they will marry next June. READ  

Analysis
Sweden Democrat threats 'just a show'
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: TT

Sweden Democrat threats 'just a show'

There is talk that the nationalist Sweden Democrats could trigger a fresh election, by rejecting the new coalition's budget. But leading Political Scientist Li Bennich Björkman tells The Local that the party is just game-playing and should be focusing on getting its fatigued leader back. READ  

Lifestyle
What's On in Sweden: October 24th - 31st
Chocolate and liquorice are on the menu in Gothenburg this weekend. Photo: Shutterstock

What's On in Sweden: October 24th - 31st

A secret gig in Stockholm, a short film festival in Uppsala and a gastronomy event in Gothenburg have caught our eye this week. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
People-watching: October 22nd
Gallery
In Pictures: Prince Carl Philip and Sofia Hellqvist
Lifestyle
Eight things to love about renting a Swedish apartment
National
Vasa ship cannon blasted in Sweden
National
Sub hunt: Day-by-day
Blog updates

24 October

Editor’s blog, October 24th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hi readers, Get ready to read our weekly digest of Swedish news in less than 60 seconds. The..." READ »

 

24 October

Is darkness weather? (Blogweiser) »

"I try very hard not to talk about the weather. This has come after a decade..." READ »

 
 
 
National
Sub hunt: Stockholm islanders share their fears with The Local
Sponsored Article
The best options for oversea transfers
National
Get 20% off unique Swedish homeware
National
Dentist gives free care to Roma beggars
Business & Money
Get your own office in Gothenburg or Stockholm - free for a day
Gallery
Property of the week: Malmö
Gallery
PHOTOS: 'Foreign activity' in Swedish waters
Gallery
People-watching: October 19th
TT
Society
QUIZ: How good is your Swedish?
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden: October 17th - 24th
Society
The nudity... and nine other things expat men notice in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 15th
Gallery
Your views: Should outdoor smoking be banned in Sweden?
Business & Money
Sweden has 'large hole' in finances
Sponsored Article
Introducing... Finding a job in Stockholm
Society
Monster salmon caught in northern Sweden
Gallery
Property of the week: Lorensberg
National
Scandinavia's child bride
National
Ebola crisis: How is Sweden preparing?
Business & Money
How Sweden is becoming a cashless society
Gallery
Stockholm Burlesque Festival 2014
National
How a little red horse became a symbol for Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 12th
Business & Money
The hottest start-ups from southern Sweden
National
What's on in Sweden: October 10th - 17th
National
Stockholm is 'best' region for well-being
Gallery
People-watching: October 8th
National
Five facts to know about Patrick Modiano
Society
My Swedish Career: A French fashionista in Sweden
Society
Swede's anti-bully Facebook tale goes viral
Society
Have you seen Sweden's viral subway cancer campaign?
National
Isis: Swedes linked to Turkish prisoner swap
National
Should Swedes be banned from buying sex abroad?
Gallery
Fredrik Reinfeldt's leaving presents
National
Five Swedish TV shows you shouldn't miss
Gallery
A tool belt, a casserole, and a book. Fredrik Reinfeldt's parliament gifts
TT
Lifestyle
Top five winter festivals in Sweden
TT
National
Sami reindeer herders win mine reprieve
Gallery
Property of the Week: Gamla Enskede
Sponsored Article
How to catch the first lobster of the year
Politics
Ten new minister faces you should know
Team SCA
Sponsored Article
All-female SCA team takes off on Volvo Ocean Race
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

979
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
http://psdmedia.se
If you want to drink, that’s your business.
If you want to stop, we can help.

Learn more about English-language Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. No dues. No fees. Confidentiality assured.
AA-EUROPE.ORG/SWEDEN