Defence policy during the Cold War
Security and defence were central elements of the overall atmosphere in society during the 20th century. It is for this reason an important mission of cultural history for the Swedish Museums of Military History (SFHM) – the systematic cultural preservation of the most central elements for coming generations.
This mission is particularly important during a period in which the Swedish defence forces are being restructured, reduced, and to a certain extent, dismantled, and it is a task that the Swedish parliament has laid onto SFHM. This document attempts to provide a summary of Sweden’s adaptation to the conditions of the Cold War, in order to provide a background for SFHM’s mission.
Important developments during the 20th century
In Sweden, as in major parts of the rest of Europe, the 20th century saw the final breakthrough of democracy, with universal suffrage, secret voting and freedom of opinion. This process, however, was accompanied in many countries by delay and frustration. A second major trend, partially coupled to the process of democratisation, was nearly explosive economic development, which both deepened and broadened prosperity. In contrast, the 20th century was also characterised by fundamental tension in security policy, and by both open wars and “cold” wars – more than any previous century. The first decade of the century, together with the 1920s and the 1990s, can be seen as exceptions compared with the other 70 years, with their more or less imminent threats. The first use of nuclear weapons in 1945 added a new, existential, dimension – which is indeed still present, although now hardly overhanging – to the overall threat. The “breakout” of the Cold War around 1948 would profoundly affect Sweden right up until the fall on the Berlin Wall in 1989.
All of this affected individuals and society deeply: intellectually, emotionally, economically and in terms of organisation. It may also be argued that in a country such as Sweden, issues of security and defence permeated all aspects of society and the life of the individual citizen. An adult citizen may be called up for defence duty at a moment’s notice in an acute situation, thus disrupting everyday life completely.
The threats and the corresponding responses to them must therefore have a clear place in any broad cultural historical depiction – a museal depiction – of these years, alongside depiction of the development of democracy, the growth of prosperity, the extension of infrastructure, etc. A vital presentation through the new network of museums will enable our children and grandchildren, and us, to view the century that has just closed in a complete perspective.
Deep ideological and political tensions
It is fair to claim that most of the 20th century was characterised by deeper ideological
con-frontations that many earlier epochs. Both of the dominating dictatorships that grew after the 1930s had global ambitions, and Nazi Germany in addition had an expressed aim of expanding in Europe. There was a clear divide between the dictatorships and the major democracies of Great Britain and France, although the latter countries initially followed very indecisive policies. Sweden and some other small countries placed themselves unambiguously on the side of democracy, while other small countries held a position in the middle.
Enormous armaments and high preparedness
The atmosphere that war was an imminent threat grew evermore clear from the middle of the 1930s. The whole of the Second World War (WWII) and the first 15-20 year of the Cold War were characterised by an overhanging threat of war not only in Sweden but also in most of Europe, based on genuine uncertainty of the intentions of dictatorships and the existence of enormous military stockpiles. Sweden was located in the centre of a war theatre during WWII, and it lay in the boundary between West and East during the Cold War. It was, therefore, for many years a requirement for us that the major part of our defence forces would be ready for immediate action following rapid mobilisation – a requirement that today appears to have been difficult to justify.
The threat of nuclear weapons
In addition to this, there was the threat of nuclear weapons. Even if nuclear weapons just
happened to be used against Sweden “incidentally”, as part of a major war, the destruction would be enormous, and it was not possible to take any effective countermeasures. It was totally impossible for Sweden to build up its own nuclear deterrent, in the way and to the same extent that the major powers did.
Gradually changing perspectives
The Cold War entered a less intensive phase after the 1960s (from around the time of the Cuba Crisis). The threat of war was now no longer experienced as acute, even if the military resources of the major powers increased continuously, and their preparedness was maintained at an extremely high level. (Never before in the field of human conflict have so large states maintained so high a preparedness for so long a period!) The actual Swedish readiness for conflict was reduced gradually throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in many respects, not least as a result of decreasing recall for compulsory national service in the army.
The international environment and the threat that Sweden felt required major national sacrifice after the middle of the 1930s in order to ensure security as much as possible. During this period, there was an accord in principal concerning defence policy, although there were dis-agreements concerning our role relative to NATO, Swedish nuclear arms, and the defence budget.
“Be aware – believe in the community”
“Be aware – believe in the community” was an important watchword that stimulated the
general public to participate in promoting interests of national security. This was achieved,
however, at the price of a severe conformity within the framework of which freedom of opinion and freedom of expression were compromised to a certain extent (WW II), while an extensive personal monitoring was carried out by the authorities.
Everyone is involved
It was made clear that everyone must be involved, and this was underlined by expressions such as “defence of the people” and “total national defence”. It was emphasized that “de-fence” as a concept involved pretty much the whole of society.
Strategic concepts were formulated in such terms as “robust defence”, “defence while waiting for aid”, and “making an attack unprofitable”. These concepts in military terms were ex-pressed as “preventing an attacker from obtaining a bridgehead on Swedish territory”, and as “a robust defence in depth”.
Large defence and peace-focused organisations
The measures taken could, during the 1950s and 1960s, be based on ever-healthier public
finances. Large defence and peacefocused organisations could be maintained during this
period, and these even underwent extensive increases in quality. However, the complete organisation started to go through reduction, starting around 1970.
A national defence materiel industry
At the start of WW II, Sweden had access only to isolated components of a quality defence industry, and it was necessary to import much of the materiel required. This gave rise to a powerful movement to ensure that the country was as independent as possible with respect to defence materiel. As the Cold War went on, it became possible to supply evermore advanced equipment, while retaining the principle of “high-low-mix” within units and their equipment.
There was also a powerful ambition to be self-sufficient with respect to economic defence. This was expressed in, among other measures, a major investment in electricity supply, extensive stores of coal and oil, and the storage of vital supplies for agriculture, all within the framework of an extensive and systematic planning for supply. The early stages of the Swedish nuclear energy programme during the 1950s and 1960s (known in Sweden as the “Swedish principle”) can be seen, to a certain extent, as an expression of this ambition to be self-sufficient. The Swedish principle, however, was also a component of Swedish ambitions within nuclear arms.
The aim of the civil defence was to protect civilians in a war, primarily by the construction of a large quantity of shelters of various types. This construction work continued right up until the 1990s. There were also very detailed evacuation plans during the early part of the Cold War, which were intended to make it possible to empty large towns and cities when bombing was threatened.
Much attention was paid to preparing the media (Sveriges Radio and the national newspapers) for a war situation. Information was also designed for distribution directly to the general pub-lic with brochures such as “Om kriget kommer” (“In a crisis situation”) and information in the telephone catalogues.
Sweden – Swiss cheese
Sweden’s defence was also supported by a very large number of fortresses for various pur-poses: command posts, public shelters, oil dumps, complete industrial sites, and defensive posts. Sweden had become a Swiss cheese.
“Everyone” is involved – a military-industrial-administrative ensemble
It was claimed that Sweden’s “complete defence” at the beginning of the 1980s would have encompassed 2.8 million persons in the event of mobilisation. This required, naturally,
enormous resources for personnel planning, which were provided by a combination of compulsory service and voluntary service. There was compulsory national service for all men aged 18-47, and a corresponding system for women and men within civil defence, in some cases up to an age of 70. A system of officer training within the reserve officer corps was also in place. Reserve officers were placed in a very large number of functions within industry and public administration for at least the first 30 years after WW II. This meant that Sweden to a large extent did not just possess a military-industrial-administrative ensemble: it was one.
Swedish nuclear arms
One special aspect of Swedish defence – both conceptually and in practice – were plans to develop Swedish nuclear arms. These plans were current during the 1950s and 1960s, and then gradually waned. This issue, naturally, had a large number of dimensions: general politi-cal aspects and aspects of defence policy and defence strategy, in addition to its influence on important parts of Swedish energy policy.
Memories of the Cold War
It is, of course, not possible to depict all aspects of defence during the Cold War. The Swedish Museums of Military History and the Swedish National Maritime Museums are, however, attempting to illuminate important aspects of the military defence, and to preserve these for the future. If you don’t know where you come from, how can you know where you’re going?