Utrikesminister Östen Undén – realpolitikern!

Karl Molin

Vi återger här en värdefull text av historieprofessorn Karl Molin, Östen Undén, the Soviet Peace Offensive and the Swedish Foreign Policy Debate. Texten ger många exempel på hur Sveriges dåvarande utrikesminister under Chrusjtjov-eran hanterade Sveriges grannlaga relationer till stormakterna, i synnerhet Sovjetunionen. Karl Molin har skrivit flera betydande verk om det kalla krigets period, bland annat Omstridd neutralitet. Experternas kritik av svensk utrikespolitik (1991) och (som medförfattare) Sveriges säkerhet och världens fred: Svensk utrikespolitik under kalla kriget (2008).

Östen Undén, the Soviet Peace Offensive and the Swedish Foreign Policy Debate av Karl Molin


Östen Undén, Swedish Foreign Minister 1945–1962, is often referred to as the founding father of Sweden’s policy of neutrality. As this policy was, it seems, unanimously supported by all major political parties, one might expect Undén himself to have been beyond criticism. This, however, was far from being the case. His long experience in working on international missions, starting with the League of Nations in the midtwenties, did ensure him great esteem in all circles, as did his academic career as a professor of law and ultimately as chancellor of the Swedish universities. But his public appearances were often vehemently criticized, at least by the right-wing press. In the following, I will present a few factors that might help us understand why Undén was controversial. After a brief outline of some general features of the Social Democratic debate on international relations in the 1950s, and a discussion of several structural aspects of the political discourse of the 1950s, I will analyze Undén’s understanding of his own role as Foreign Minister.

  1. Modes of thought in the Swedish foreign policy debate

In the following three lines of thought will be summarized. They were pervasive in the Social Democratic political environment to which Undén belonged.

A balance of power perspective

At the end of the Second World War, a benevolent and optimistic view of the Soviet Union was rather pervasive in Sweden, especially in Social Democratic circles. Östen Undén, then newly-appointed Foreign Minister, was no exception when he claimed that the Soviet Union, if treated like any other great power, would respond with constructive contributions to peace. 2 As in the rest of the Western world, such ideas soon lost ground to an entirely different conception of the nature of Soviet power. This development can readily be observed in Tiden, the Social Democratic journal of ideological debate. From the late 1940s and onwards, Tiden mirrored a growing fear of Sweden’s neighbouring great power. Anxiety reached its peak during the Korean War, when the Soviet Union was described as an expansive, ‘unfettered giant’, ready to strike in all directions. When Aneurin Bevan was debarred from the British government in April 1951 and made a speech attacking British rearmament, Tiden sided with his adversaries. It protested when Bevan argued that the Communist threat in Asia should be met with foreign aid, not arms. The idea might hold in theory, but it could not divert the short-term Communist threat. However, this pessimistic view of Soviet foreign policy was not based on the assumption that Communist aggression was inevitable and permanent. Rather, Tiden defined the problem as Western military and political weakness, which had caused an imbalance. The remedy – rearmament and political toughness – was not described in terms of ideological crusading, but as Realpolitik. This view entailed a fundamental acceptance of the US’s military and political presence on the European scene, but it did not rule out rather severe criticism of America’s lack of political dexterity. There was concern about America’s ‘lack of political maturity’ and ‘irrational sentiments’. Tiden argued that the US political scene was volatile and that the ‘reason, generosity and flexibility’ which had so far dominated it could easily be replaced by ‘hysteria, narrow-mindedness and conservatism’.

Different groups perceived the Soviet peace offensive differently. To Sweden’s military establishment, Soviet talk of détente and peaceful coexistence was nothing but a tactical ruse, and it was feared that public opinion would start to demand arms reductions. Dagens Nyheter, the largest morning paper, shared this view and called détente an illusion. Tiden, on the other hand, was immediately taken with the new signals from Moscow. The Soviet Union was perceived not as an expansionist but as a status-quo power, which was an important new feature in Tiden‘s analysis. The creation of a strong Western defense system and the implementation of a firm policy towards the Communist bloc had, the journal reasoned, created a balance of power. According to Tiden, the risk of war was decreasing. A year after Stalin’s death, Tiden presumed that within a foreseeable future there would be no immediate threat of Soviet military aggression. As Tiden changed its view on Soviet foreign policy, it blamed Washington for being unwilling to negotiate. It saw the Republican rhetoric of liberation as an obstacle to a policy of conciliation and rapprochement. The Western policy, it argued, should be to preserve a strong military position while taking every opportunity to negotiate partial agreements with the Soviets. Such a policy would stabilise peace and further reduce tension.

Peace as the highest priority

As the Cold War developed, most Swedish commentators adopted a proWestern outlook. Starting in early 1948, Dagens Nyheter advocated Swedish membership in the projected Western military alliance. The newspaper defined the Cold War as a fight between good and evil, freedom and oppression, and argued that a firm stance in favour of the values represented by the Western powers was a moral obligation. Social Democratic newspapers defended the policy of neutrality and argued that one should prioritize the preservation of peace, rather than jump on the Cold War bandwagon: they approved of the Western powers’ development of a common defense strategy and supported the strengthening of Swedish defense forces, but believed that peace and stability in the North was best preserved by Sweden remaining un-aligned.

It might seem superfluous to ask whether contemporary actors prioritized peace or freedom, for everyone wanted both. But, judging from recent studies, the Social Democrats were mostly concerned with securing world peace. This they perceived as the most immediate problem. Others, on the other hand, were more concerned about preparing a defense against an aggressor.

The invincible development of democracy

On 31 October 1956, Prime Minister Tage Erlander made a public statement about the Polish and Hungarian revolts. According to Erlander, these rebellions showed that people’s determination to gain civil rights and national freedom had not been stifled during the years of oppression. In this he saw a confirmation of the democratic doctrine that dictatorships, however strong they may look from the outside, and however effectively they may organize the surveillance and oppression of their citizens, always carry the seed of their own destruction within them. This belief in man’s natural struggle for individual freedoms and equal rights is an integrated part of a long-standing, liberal-democratic mode of thought. For commentators in a small, peripheral democracy, witnessing the upheavals that were taking place on the international arena, it might have offered some comfort. Democracy would eventually win out, and this would happen not because of foreign intervention but through an inherent domestic process of democratization. It is, in this context, important to note that a firm belief in the eventual victory of democracy seems to imply a non-martial outlook, for it makes the intervention of foreign military forces appear unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. It is probably impossible to assess how widespread this line of thought was. It appeared in Social Democratic newspapers before and during the Second World War, as well as in other of the Swedish Prime Minister’s statements during the Cold War. I would assume that this idea primarily informed the social-democratic/liberal worldview and that, despite being both vague and distant, it played a role in the Cold War debate that should not be neglected.

  1. Structural characteristics of the Swedish foreign policy debate

Naturally, opposition – total or partial – to these ideas explains the controversies Undén stirred up. It is, however, my belief that a more thorough understanding of the political climate of the time is essential for an appreciation of the real significance of these controversies. The following three points may contribute to an understanding of why the foreign minister met with such opposition.

Soviet Communism as the secret ally of the Social Democrats

In Sweden, as in many other European countries, fear of Communism had, since the October Revolution, been a major incentive for political and social reform. When, in 1918, the Swedish Conservatives conceded to demands for complete political democracy, their resistance to the reform had, in part, been undermined by the perceived risk of radical, Communist-inspired rebellion. In the 1920s, industrialists sensed a relation between the neglect of the workers’ social conditions and the growth of communism, and concluded that the progress of Bolshevism could only be halted if ordinary workers felt they were being treated with respect and consideration. If the industrial management provided safety and prosperity, hatred and bitterness would fade away and Communism would lose its followers. A brutal and ruthless attitude, on the other hand, would make Communism flourish. Such insights surely helped create a fairly broad acceptance of the Social Democratic social reform policy that was initiated during the 1930s. After the Second World War, Social Democrats would argue that social reform and Keynesian financial policies were the only effective means of providing workers with jobs and security and, consequently, of keeping the communists at bay. Leaders of the Swedish Communist Party were acutely aware of the connection between progressive reforms and their own political fate. In an internal debate in 1943, one of the Communist leaders remarked that the rise in the standard of living which Swedish workers had experienced during the past few years had pacified them. Only a serious economic crisis, he complained, would spur them into action.

Being the party in power, the Social Democrats were constantly accused of not fighting subversive communist activities with sufficient determination. Surely they could answer that they had always been in the forefront when it came to combating Bolshevism – true enough, and quite naturally so, for they would be the first to be harmed by Communist electoral gains. But that did not prevent others from suspecting Social Democrats of not wanting to settle accounts with the communists, once and for all. An unspoken reason for that suspicion was, I would argue, the fact that the communist threat helped legitimize the Social Democrats’ construction of the welfare state. A policy of redistribution of common assets and an interventionist financial policy aiming at easing the effects of economic recessions were both corner stones in this policy, and an effective means of disarming the Communist Party. The communist threat legitimized Social Democratic policies. To those who were against high taxes, state intervention, collective insurance schemes etc., communism might thus appear as the secret ally of the Social Democrats, or rather, as an enemy they would rather not do without.

The demand for consensus

During the 1950s, anti-communism was the dominant ideological concept. It was embraced by practically everyone on the Swedish public arena. With few exceptions, participants in the public debate agreed that communism was a major threat to national independence and democratic values. As Alf W. Johansson has argued, this consensus contained a certain amount of coercion. You were expected to repeat these fundamental truths at all and any imaginable occasions. Those who seemed to lack persistence in declaring their allegiance to the anticommunist creed ran the risk of being singled out as unreliable or even labeled ‘fellow travellers’. The essence of this analysis seems to be that assertions about a person’s reliability in relation to consensual values can be used as instruments of power. When a public figure is accused of this type of unreliability, his political or social position is undermined. From this point of view, Swedish foreign policy debate during the 1950s underwent an interesting change. At the beginning of the decade, anti-Communism was a consensual value used to exclude the politically unreliable. By the decade’s end, the concept of neutrality was being used in the same politically exclusionary manner. Evidently, every era has its own dominant discourse, one to which you must swear allegiance if you care about your political standing.

The Russian mind

The third structural characteristic in the debate on Soviet political intentions consisted of stereotypical images of the ‘timeless Russian’. In diplomatic reports from the inter-war period, allusions to the Russian mentality are common. The Russian way of thinking is depicted as belonging to a category of its own, completely different from Western standards. The Russian is governed by emotional impulses, while the Westerner is rational. The Russian mind is imaginative and creative, but lacks contact with reality. Analyses of the Swedish debate, inspired by Edward Said and his followers, confirm that images of Russians as ‘the Other’ were common in Swedish diplomatic reports, as well as in the public debate during the interwar period. There are at least some instances of these attitudes being expressed in the 1950s.

Even though it is difficult to assess the importance of these ideas concerning the ‘Russian mind’, it seems reasonable to assume that they help explain the constant allusions to the unpredictability and unreliability of the Soviet leadership.


The essence of the points mentioned above is that any Social Democrat who economized on anti-Communist statements and who, further, held Russians and Westerners to be mentally similar and equal, was bound to incur suspicion and disfavour.


  1. Undén’s perception of his role

Besides these structural factors, some of Undén’s personal ideas of how a Swedish foreign minister should act may, in my opinion, help us understand the discord between him and his numerous critics.

Objective analysis

In his speech during the Swedish Parliament’s foreign policy debate in 1955 discussing President Eisenhower’s address to Congress, Östen Undén listed a number of signs that indicated a relaxation in international relations. He mentioned that the Eastern bloc, and especially the Soviet Union, had expressed the wish for improved relations with the Western countries. The concept of peaceful co-existence had been strongly emphasized. He noted, as a sign of this inclination to cooperate, that the Soviet Union had offered to put technical information about its first nuclear plant at the UN’s disposal by January of that year. He went on to remark that observers outside the Eastern bloc had not interpreted the new signals from Moscow as signs of a permanent or profound change in Moscow’s policy. During the past year, a number of Western countries bordering the Eastern bloc had concluded military alliances. The encirclement of the Eastern bloc had tightened more and more. He added that this encirclement, and especially West Germany’s projected rearmament and admission to NATO, had, without doubt, caused great anxiety in both Moscow and Beijing.

Professor Bertil Ohlin, leader of the Liberal Party, remarked in his speech that the Foreign Minister seemed to be ‘mildly surprised’ that the Western powers did not appear to regard the new signals as expressions of a permanent and profound change. In his own mind, there was little foundation for an optimistic conclusion. Ohlin mentioned a number of instances of continued or growing Soviet dominance in Central and Eastern Europe. These led him to draw a far more pessimistic conclusion. One should not speak of the encirclement of the Communist countries while neglecting to mention that it was they who had forced the Western powers to take these measures. The Foreign Minister’s presentation was, to say the least, one-sided.  Jarl Hjalmarsson, leader of the Conservative Party, opposed the very idea of peaceful co-existence, arguing that the Soviet system lacked freedom and had an inclination to violence, which made free spiritual exchange on the individual and human level impossible. With reference to recent signs of Soviet concessions on the German issue, he added, ‘pleasant words, coming too late, are nothing but words…’ Undén understood these objections as directed both against the style of his presentation and the purpose of a general debate on international relations as he understood it. ‘I thought, he said, that my personal views on one or other of the great powers and its activities were of little interest. I thought a presentation of how the various powers view each other and how they react to each other’s policies would be more interesting’. 7 Undén refuted those who demanded that a matter-of-fact presentation always be accompanied by a moral judgment or a moralizing statement about who was responsible for the present situation or who was to be blamed for current controversies. Emotional or moralizing judgments would merely obscure the real issues. ‘Only those who put moralizing above the political result would talk about concessions as coming too late, he remarked. If you want to promote a development in the interest of peace, it does not make sense to tell someone that his concessions should have come earlier.’

Undén did not explicitly reply to the open criticism of his objectivity argument, namely that one’s selection of facts never could be void of values.  But his general reasoning, as briefly summarized above, seems to imply that the selection he himself had made was designed to contribute to a discussion on how to diminish mutual distrust and pave the way towards peaceful settlements of outstanding issues. The day after the debate, he wrote an irritated remark in his diary. According to right-wing newspapers, his presentation to the Parliament had been dull, plain, void of emotions and even East-oriented. His comment was bitter: ‘Swedish politicians are like little children, they want an emotional approach. Had I here and there added a few words of abuse of the Soviets, I would have received nothing but praise.’  Thus Undén declined to comment on who should be blamed for the strengthening of military alliances. Likewise, he avoided expressing an opinion on the true nature of the Soviet peace offensive. In a statement made in Parliament in 1954, he pointed out that some people regarded the peace offensive as nothing more than Soviet tactical maneuvers. Others took into account the possibility that enlightened self-interest might have prompted the Soviet Union towards a durable rapprochement between the blocs. Undén himself questioned whether it was really worthwhile to try to make such distinctions. ‘This is’, he said, ‘a question which, to an outside observer, seems impossible to answer and which is perhaps not a practical problem to the Soviet leaders themselves.’ If, however, the Soviet leaders were not prepared to make concessions, the thaw was bound to be temporary.

On the other hand, the outcome of the new Soviet attitude depended partly on conditions outside of Soviet control, ‘including the repercussions caused by Soviet policy in other countries and the reactions which that policy produces’.  In later debates, Undén dismissed the ‘tactics-or-honesty issue’ and repeated that the important point was how the Great Powers perceived the other side’s intentions and activities. He did, however, when prompted by critics, admit that he shared the Western powers’ assessment of Soviet policy as not having undergone any permanent or profound change (during a speech in a 1955 session of Parliament).  He also declared that the new Soviet policy did not change his view of the overall aims of the Communist regime. It still wanted to strengthen the position of world communism. The Soviets would, however, not try to achieve these aims by means of war. Did that mean that the new regime was peaceful at heart? His analysis seems to lead to this conclusion, but, on the other hand, he repeatedly warned against letting the new situation motivate a reduction in armaments.

Diplomatic advice

In conversations with foreign diplomats and politicians, Undén generally adopted a low profile. When asked about his views on current issues in international politics, he often replied that the Swedish government had no reason to take a standpoint, as it was not directly involved. He would sometimes add that he himself was not sufficiently informed to form an opinion.  After these preliminaries he would, nonetheless, sometimes express quite definite opinions on current international issues. An example of this is a conversation in July 1953 with the American ambassador to Stockholm, Mr. Butterworth. One of the issues they discussed was the exchange of notes between the Soviet Union and the Western powers on the German question. The ambassador reminded Undén that he had suggested, some time ago, that this exchange should not be regarded as finished. Rather, it should be seen as a point of departure for new proposals. The ambassador asked for advice. ‘’What do you think we should do?’ he asked. Undén answered: ‘Draw up a specified proposal for guarantees of free elections (in all of Germany) and demand that the Soviets answer it.’’ A conversation in June 1955 offers another example. Östen Undén had received the British ambassador, and they were discussing the approaching summit meeting in Geneva. ‘I expressed a hope that they (the British) would respond with interest and sympathy to the Soviet approaches which had undoubtedly been made and that they would not display too much distrust and fear. If not (met with some sympathy), the Russians might once again withdraw.’ The ambassador replied that this was indeed the British position, and that they were trying to get the Americans to think along the same lines.  A few months later, Soviet ambassador Rodionov expressed his frustration with the vicious circle of distrust that hampered the disarmament negotiations: no disarmament was possible without trust, but trust could be achieved only through disarmament. Undén replied that concessions in other fields would help solve the problem and referred to the recent return of the Finnish naval base of Porkala as a case in point. More of the same, he seemed to imply, would do the trick. Rodionov complained, however, that some people in Moscow argued that concessions would only be perceived as a sign of weakness.  In June 1956, the British Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd, who was on a visit to Stockholm, had a long conversation with Undén. They discussed Soviet policies and attitudes at some length. Undén recorded this: ‘I mentioned some groups’ tendency to belittle both the recently proclaimed Russian disarmament and various moves to normalize relations between the Soviet Union and the non-communist countries. In my opinion this tendency was definitely inappropriate. Lloyd agreed and informed me that Eden had let (Moscow) know his gratitude for their decision to (undertake) unilateral disarmament.’

Diplomatic criticism

Undén rarely offered advice during his conversations with foreign diplomats; he resorted to outspoken criticism still more infrequently. But it did occasionally happen. One well-known instance of this was during his meeting with Soviet ambassador Rodionov on 1 June 1954. Rodionov presented a note in which the Soviets protested against alleged Swedish participation in the construction of a naval base in the Norwegian city of Trondheim. The Soviet ambassador received a very blunt reply: the Soviet government was spreading lies and interfering in internal Swedish affairs. Sweden wanted to improve communications with a neighbouring country and that was no concern of the Soviet government. What would they say if Sweden meddled in Russian negotiations with China or Persia regarding improved road connections between the countries? Undén was evidently upset, but the important point, here, is that he did not air his irritation in public. On the contrary, he was anxious to minimize publicity around the whole affair.

The intervention of the Red Army in Hungary in October 1956 was, of course, met with sharp criticism from the Foreign Minister, as well as from the Prime Minister and the Social Democratic Party executive – in statements approved by Undén. Undén restated his criticism during the United Nation’s November session. After that, he made no public statements on the subject until the Swedish Parliament’s foreign policy debate in March 1957. On this occasion, he once again claimed that the Soviets had made a ‘dogmatic mistake’ when they intervened in Hungary. If left alone, the Hungarian people would have followed the same road towards democracy and neutrality as Austria had, and would in no way have jeopardized Soviet security.  Undén’s general policy seems to have been to show reticence with respect to public criticism in order promote a normalization of relations. But he expanded on his criticism in private conversations. Shortly before Christmas 1956, Ambassador Rodionov learned that there was a public opinion uproar over the way that the Soviets had treated Hungary as if it were their own territory; public opinion had demanded that a Hungarian government be installed that enjoyed the nation’s trust.

When the Hungarian Minister to Stockholm in November 1957 presented Undén with his government’s white paper on the events of October 1956, Undén once again picked up the controversy. The Minister explained that the book was about the ‘counter-revolutionary uprising’. Undén interrupted him and corrected his choice of words: it should be termed ‘revolutionary movement’. A long discussion followed, and Undén repeated his views. An instance of ‘private’ criticism directed towards the other side can be found in a conversation with the American ambassador, who paid Undén a visit in January 1958. A current Russian proposal for a summit was, the ambassador intimated, no more than propaganda. The Russians did not honestly desire concrete results. Undén evidently reacted strongly. One should not take it for granted that the Soviet government was indifferent to whether tension eased or increased, and neither should one reject the possibility that the Soviet government had a strong interest in détente and that the most recent developments had alarmed it seriously. A fear that the establishment of military bases around the Soviet Union could cause incidents was not an instance of exaggerated apprehension. Undén, of course, had made public statements in which he had stressed, in general terms, that détente required that both parties be willing to listen to each other. But he had never, as far as I know, openly criticized anyone for not showing such willingness. This seems to be in accordance with a general policy of confining criticism to private discussions.


Östen Undén’s policy of differentiating between public and private appearances was very far removed from the policy that was to follow in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Olof Palme dominated the scene. Undén never tried to make politics by mobilizing public opinion. His public speeches were reminiscent of university lectures, and he was of the opinion that the UN was the only natural arena for presenting more farreaching proposals. He certainly held strong views on current issues, but in most cases he preferred to express them in private conversations. In my view, it is possible, from his speeches and activities, to discern his conception, which was quite clear, of the proper role for a Swedish Foreign Minister who wanted to preserve his country’s security and help prevent a war that might mean the end of human civilization. His problem was that this role, as he perceived it, was not generally accepted – if indeed understood – by his critics. He and his critics were moving in two different political discourses.


Karl Molins text är ett kapitel hämtat från boken Peaceful coexistence? Soviet Union and Sweden in the Khrushchev era, redigerad av Helene Carlbäck, Alexey Komarov och Karl Molin, 2010. Boken kan laddas ner här.

Den som vill läsa mer om eller av Östen Undén på denna sajt rekommenderas bland annat artikel av Sven Hirdman.


Utgivarna: Professor Karl Molin ingick i det stora forskningsprojektet Sverige under andra världskriget (SUAV) och skrev sin doktorsavhandling om socialdemokratin och försvarspolitiken. Han följde upp denna med en bok om svenska krigsmaktens hantering av kommunister under detta krig. I olika skrifter har han behandlat den svenska neutralitetspolitikens och alliansfrihetens problem. Han var en av forskningsledarna för projektet Sverige under kalla kriget (SUKK) och har gett ut Östen Undéns dagboksanteckningar från 1918 till 1966. Tillsammans med framlidne historikerkollegan Klaus Misgeld har han studerat det svenska stödet till demokratirörelsen i Polen under 1980-talet.