A person in a suit and tie giving a peace sign

Description automatically generated
[Source: washingtonpost.com]

A Noted Swedish Historian Interviews the Author of a New Book on Palme

In October of 1972, National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger reached a tentative peace agreement with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho. No matter that this agreement would become official the following January, President Richard M. Nixon ordered the Christmas Bombings of the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. The Christmas Bombings, which lasted from December 18th to December 29th, included a 36-hour truce as a Yuletide gift, still leaving more than 1,600 people dead.

Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme surveyed these events from Stockholm with outrage. Particularly offensive to Palme was the destruction of Hanoi’s Bach Mai hospital, for the Scandinavian country had contributed a great deal of aid to it.

After consulting with his Social Democratic counterparts in West Germany and Austria, Willy Brandt and Bruno Kreisky, respectively, Palme wrote a speech on his kitchen table. On December 23, 1972, Palme recorded a speech that was first broadcast on Swedish radio, and then textually transmitted to international media. He also performed an encore for Swedish television. “We should call things by their proper names,” Palme began:

“What is going on in Vietnam today is a form of torture. There cannot be any military justification for the bombing. Military spokesmen in Saigon have denied that there is any evidence of North Vietnamese escalation. Nor can the bombings be a response to North Vietnamese obstinacy at the negotiating table. The resistance to the October agreement comes—as The New York Times has pointed out—mainly from President Thieu in Saigon. People are being punished, a nation is being punished in order to humiliate it, to force it to submit it to force. That is why the bombings are despicable. Many such atrocities have been perpetrated in recent history. They are often associated with a name: Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka. Violence triumphed. But posterity condemned the perpetrators. Now a new name will be added to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.”

The 1940 Soviet execution of Polish officers in Katyn Forest, and the 1960 massacre of South African blacks in Sharpeville, both count among the foul crimes of modern history. Yet, Palme’s references to Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, and Lidice would strike a nerve, for they were all the sites of Nazi crimes. In tandem with Italian fascists, the Germans had bombed the doomed Spanish town of Guernica in 1937. As acts of reprisal, German forces had destroyed the Czech village of Lidice in 1942, and the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane two years later. Babi Yar was the site of the massacre of over 30,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1941. Treblinka, the death camp in German-occupied Poland, killed nearly one million Jews and two thousand Roma in 1942-1943.

As a result, the Nixon administration terminated diplomatic relations with Sweden at the ambassadorial level. This diplomatic freeze would last until the spring of 1974, when the two countries would finally exchange new ambassadors.

Olof Palme served as prime minister from 1969 to 1976, and then from 1982 until his assassination on February 28, 1986. In spite of his country’s reconciliation with the United States, he never received an invitation to the White House after the Vietnam War.

Lubna Z. Qureshi is the author of Olof Palme, Sweden, and the Vietnam War: A Diplomatic History (Lexington Books, 2023). Her first book was the 2008 Nixon, Kissinger, and Allende: U.S. Involvement in the 1973 Coup in Chile, also published by Lexington Books. Born and educated in the United States, she moved to Sweden in 2011.

Her interlocutor, Håkan Blomqvist, is professor emeritus at the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University in Sweden. He is the author of Socialism in Yiddish – The Jewish Labor Bund in Sweden (Södertörn University, 2022), and Myten on judebolsjevismen: antisemitism och kontrarevolution in svenska ögon The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism: Anti-Semitism and Counterrevolution in Swedish Eyes (Carlsson, 2013).

Prominent work in journalism preceded Blomqvist’s career in historical scholarship. As publisher of the Socialist newspaper Internationalen, Blomqvist explored the possibility of police involvement in the Palme assassination. In its December 3, 1987 issue, Internationalen ran the names and photographs of four Swedish police officers whom the newspaper regarded with suspicion. As a consequence, a Swedish court convicted the publisher in 1989 of libel, requiring him to pay 40,000 Swedish kronor (approximately $8,389.54 in today’s U.S. currency). Today, Blomqvist still regards the Palme case as unsolved.

Qureshi, for her part, believes that Palme fell victim to a right-wing loner rather than a right-wing conspiracy. She agrees with journalist Thomas Pettersson’s 2018 conclusion that Stig Engström was the assassin. In 2020, Swedish prosecutor Krister Pettersson also fingered Engström in an official investigation.

Thomas Pettersson’s book, Den osannolika mördaren: Skandiamannen och mordet på Olof Palme (The Unlikely Murderer: The Skandia Man and the Murder of Olof Palme), has not been translated into English. The dramatized adaptation of The Unlikely Murderer can be viewed with English subtitles on Netflix.

Blomqvist: “First, I would like to thank you for sharing your informative and dramatic portrayal of a key, but in Sweden nearly forgotten, chapter in our history. Will you explain why you took on such a great task? Why was it important to you? How did you deal with so many sources, including archives and interviews? How long did this work take, and where in the world did it lead you?”

Qureshi: “By training, I am historian of U.S. foreign policy. After publishing my book on the Nixon administration and Chile, I grew bored with Washington policymakers, who have a very blinkered view of the world. I had no interest in writing U.S. Foreign Policy Sucks: Volume II. Olof Palme was a refreshing contrast to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Although I knew little about Palme beyond his Christmas Bombing speech when I was still living in the United States, I thought that my fellow Americans could learn something from him.

I began work on the project in September of 2011. I examined documents from the Swedish Foreign Ministry collection, which are kept at the National Archives (Riksarkivet) in Sweden. I also consulted Palme’s personal papers, which are kept at the Labour Movement Archive. Supplementing my archival research were interviews with Swedish diplomats such as Jan Eliasson and Rolf Ekéus, State Department veteran Thomas Pickering, antiwar activist Richard Falk, and members of the American POW community. I was critical of the American intervention in Vietnam, but I took care to include the American perspective by visiting the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

My project took more than eleven years, but I did not work in stages. As soon as I commenced my research, I began writing.”

Cover Image
[Source: rowman.com]

Blomqvist: “I understand that your study is a powerful defense of Olof Palme and Swedish foreign policy during the Vietnam War. Palme has been criticized, both during his lifetime and afterward, with the claim that he was not sincerely committed. Instead, he was a cunning tactician who spoke with a ‘forked tongue.’ At the same time, Palme was keen that Swedish military collaboration with the United States should not be jeopardized. Your book includes accusations that Swedish industry contributed arsenic for herbicidal warfare against Vietnam’s ecosystem.”

Qureshi: “Palme’s opposition to the Vietnam War went far beyond rhetoric. Granted, North Vietnam was first recognized by the government of Prime Minister Tage Erlander in 1969, shortly before Palme, his successor, took office. In fact, Palme did not maintain diplomatic relations with Hanoi as a mere nicety, however. His government established an embassy in Hanoi in 1970. During the Vietnam War, Sweden was the only Western country to have an embassy in Hanoi. When North Vietnam denied information about American prisoners-of-war to their loved ones, Stockholm helped the families. In part, the Swedish government assisted the POW families in order to defuse an intensely political issue that the Nixon administration was exploiting for its own purposes.

In addition, economic aid was a key component of Sweden’s Vietnam policy. Prime Minister Erlander had originated the aid program, but it increased dramatically under Palme, his protégé. At the end of the Erlander government, the yearly disbursements were less than $1 million, and then leaped to $4.66 million in 1971. Between 1967 and 2013, Sweden provided Vietnam with over $1.8 billion in official development assistance, commonly known as ODA. Stockholm’s generosity contrasted sharply with American stinginess. In the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the United States had promised to provide Vietnam with reconstruction aid. That aid never came.

Yes, I was disappointed to learn of Sweden’s secret military collaboration with the United States, but that collaboration was directed against the Soviet Union, not Southeast Asia. Stockholm regarded Moscow with unease, and Moscow reciprocated that attitude with strong distrust. Tensions between Sweden and Russia long predated the Cold War, nevertheless. Until I moved to Stockholm, I did not fully realize that Sweden was a Baltic nation!

This does not mean that Swedish non-alignment was a complete illusion. It was Sweden’s official position of neutrality that afforded Palme the freedom to challenge the American intervention in Vietnam. Willy Brandt probably detested the Christmas Bombings as much as Palme did, but West Germany’s membership in NATO compelled the chancellor to remain publicly silent.

A person walking down a sidewalk

Description automatically generated
Wily Brandt. He detested the Christmas bombing as much as Palme but stayed silent because of West Germany’s membership in NATO. [Source: ber.berlin-airport.de]

Swedish collaboration with the United States mainly involved the exchange of military technology, but Swedish criticism of the Vietnam War threatened that collaboration. Washington purposely delayed the delivery of Redeye air defense missiles, and then made things difficult after their shipment.

I am glad that you mentioned herbicidal warfare against Vietnam. Americans have long been familiar with Agent Orange, the dioxin-based herbicide that devastated the health of U.S. servicemen and veterans. Agent Orange targeted vegetation in South Vietnam.

Another herbicide, Agent Blue, targeted the rice crops of South Vietnam. The United States employed arsenic in the war from 1962 to 1971. Unlike Agent Orange, the active ingredient in Agent Blue was arsenic.

Buckingblue, Agent Blue Illustration. [Source: asiatimes.com]

In June of 1972, Palme condemned the use of military herbicides before the UN Conference on the Human Environment, which was held in Stockholm. The Nixon administration reacted angrily.

Two days after Palme’s herbicide speech, the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet reported that the Swedish corporation Boliden had recently sold arsenic to the Ansul Company, the Agent Blue manufacturer based in Wisconsin. I wrote to both Johnson Controls, which has been the parent company of Ansul since 2016, and Boliden to confirm this reported sale, but both firms claimed to have no records from the period. If any readers of Covert Action Magazine out there can positively confirm the sale for me, I would gratefully update the paperback version of my book!

I should point out that the United States had stopped using arsenic by the time of Palme’s speech at the UN conference. Shortly afterward, the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm ordered the Swedish embassy in Washington to investigate the matter, which suggests that the Swedish government had not known beforehand about the possible use of Swedish arsenic. Afterward, Palme did consult with environmental scientists about the effects of military herbicides. The scientists were impressed with his concern and effort to educate himself. Three years before the UN Conference, the Swedish government had begun a campaign to internationally criminalize the military use of herbicides.

Until I can confirm the use of Swedish arsenic in the manufacture of Agent Blue, I would prefer to reserve judgment.”

Blomqvist: “You describe Palme’s ‘Kitchen Table Speech’ against the Christmas Bombings in 1972 as a triumph. In what way? Did the speech not damage confidence in his peace initiatives to compare the Nazi death camp Treblinka, and the Holocaust as a whole, with the American war effort in Vietnam?”

Qureshi: “Palme’s Christmas Bombing speech was a rhetorical triumph, in the same way that President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a rhetorical triumph. The Christmas Bombing speech may not have stopped the Vietnam War any more than the Gettysburg Address had guaranteed a Union victory. Nonetheless, both speeches have personally inspired me. Among the Foreign Ministry collection, I found letters written by Americans after the Christmas Bombing speech. Apart from a few missives from crackpots, the letters were overwhelmingly positive.

By the time that Palme delivered his Christmas Bombing speech, there were no peace initiatives to damage. When Erlander was prime minister in the late 1960s, Sweden engaged in Operation Aspen, a mediation effort that involved the Swedish ambassador to Peking. Remember, Stockholm did not even have official diplomatic relations with Hanoi at this point. The Johnson administration in Washington dismissed Operation Aspen. I believe Palme made that speech out of sheer frustration in 1972. He acted impulsively, not even bothering to consult his own Foreign Ministry beforehand.

I think the Nazi comparison was appropriate. Atrocities are atrocities. To be sure, the Nazis waged a campaign of total extermination of the Jewish people, and Nixon did not intend to do the same with the Vietnamese people. At the same time, Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide clearly states that “genocide means…acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Palme was not only addressing the Christmas Bombings; his speech was the ultimate reaction to a long war that would ultimately kill two million civilians. Two instances of genocide need not be identical to be comparable. When Nixon bombed the highly populated cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, he knew what he was doing.”

People walking in a destroyed city

Description automatically generated with medium confidence
North Vietnam after Nixon’s Christmas bombing. [Source: salon.com]

Blomqvist: “You write about Palme’s sympathy with American youth, and his fears that the Vietnam War would undermine American democracy. Yet, after the war, Palme became personal friends with Henry Kissinger, whom you consider a war criminal. Was Palme’s antiwar activism due to his love for the United States, or to his feelings of solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation?”

Qureshi: “Palme had a profound affinity for the United States. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Kenyon College in Ohio, Palme retained a lifelong admiration for American ideals. Simultaneously, Palme empathized with countries struggling for national liberation, such as Vietnam. As he often pointed out, Sweden was a small country, too. Like Vietnam, Sweden had to struggle to assert itself against the great powers.

Obviously, I am no fan of Kissinger. When both men were still in office, it was a necessity for them to deal with each other. Public officials are obligated to deal with all types. What I question is the personal friendship that developed once both men were out of office. Palme should have seen through Kissinger, but so should have many principled Americans who were won over by Kissinger’s alleged charm. Kissinger, who liked Palme to some extent, probably never forgave Palme for the Christmas Bombing speech. A notoriously thin-skinned man, Kissinger cannot handle criticism about anything.”

Blomqvist: “Today, Palme’s political preaching and message are nearly forgotten, or at least rarely referred to in Swedish political life, not even within the Social Democratic party? How has this come about?”

Qureshi: “I defer to your expertise on Swedish domestic politics, so I assume you can answer your own question better than I can. Within the academic discipline of international relations, however, I would argue that Palme had not been forgotten. Whether scholars of international history and theorists of international relations like or dislike Palme, they cannot let go of him.

One Swedish IR theorist I greatly admire is Ann-Marie Ekengren of the University of Gothenburg. Some of her work has been published in English. When she spoke in Stockholm recently, I asked her how Palme would have reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ekengren replied that Palme would have strongly condemned it. She didn’t say that Palme would have suddenly endorsed Swedish membership in NATO, I should add. In a recent article in the journal European Security, Ekengren and two colleauges argue that the invasion of Ukraine was decisive in Sweden’s NATO application. As much as I agree with that argument, I strongly disagree with their convention that the situation in Ukraine made the NATO application inevitable. Sweden could have maintained its traditional stance. As a neutral power, Sweden could have played a mediating role in Ukraine.”

Blomqvist: “You end your book with the words, ‘The lessons of Vietnam remain relevant today, and Washington has still not fully comprehended the warnings of Olof Palme.’ Which warnings apply to the Russian war against Ukraine, and the Israeli war against Gaza? Have not the world and the United States both changed?”

Qureshi: “I do not think that U.S. foreign policy has fundamentally changed since the fall of Saigon. Olof Palme warned the United States about the dangers of an aggressive, militaristic approach to rest of the world. Had we learned anything from the Vietnam War, we never would have invaded Iraq.

There was no justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even so, there is plenty of blame to go around. Russia correctly viewed the eastward expansion of NATO as a deliberately provocative act. NATO, after all, is an instrument of American power.

As far as Gaza is concerned, the Israeli war is not just an Israeli war. It is an Israeli war sponsored by the United States.”

CovertAction Magazine is made possible by subscriptionsorders and donations from readers like you.

Blow the Whistle on U.S. Imperialism

Click the whistle and donate

When you donate to CovertAction Magazine, you are supporting investigative journalism. Your contributions go directly to supporting the development, production, editing, and dissemination of the Magazine.

CovertAction Magazine does not receive corporate or government sponsorship. Yet, we hold a steadfast commitment to providing compensation for writers, editorial and technical support. Your support helps facilitate this compensation as well as increase the caliber of this work.

Please make a donation by clicking on the donate logo above and enter the amount and your credit or debit card information.

CovertAction Institute, Inc. (CAI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and your gift is tax-deductible for federal income purposes. CAI’s tax-exempt ID number is 87-2461683.

We sincerely thank you for your support.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s). CovertAction Institute, Inc. (CAI), including its Board of Directors (BD), Editorial Board (EB), Advisory Board (AB), staff, volunteers and its projects (including CovertAction Magazine) are not responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article. This article also does not necessarily represent the views the BD, the EB, the AB, staff, volunteers, or any members of its projects.

Differing viewpoints: CAM publishes articles with differing viewpoints in an effort to nurture vibrant debate and thoughtful critical analysis. Feel free to comment on the articles in the comment section and/or send your letters to the Editors, which we will publish in the Letters column.

Copyrighted Material: This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. As a not-for-profit charitable organization incorporated in the State of New York, we are making such material available in an effort to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. You can read more about ‘fair use’ and US Copyright Law at the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.

Republishing: CovertAction Magazine (CAM) grants permission to cross-post CAM articles on not-for-profit community internet sites as long as the source is acknowledged together with a hyperlink to the original CovertAction Magazine article. Also, kindly let us know at info@CovertActionMagazine.com. For publication of CAM articles in print or other forms including commercial internet sites, contact: info@CovertActionMagazine.com.

By using this site, you agree to these terms above.

About the Author


  1. Calling Katyń a Soviet Crime is ahistorical, it doesn’t resonate with reality or even with the findings of the Nürnberg trials, who blamed it on Göring.

  2. According to an article in Time Magazine, Olaf Palme was inconsistent in his condemnation of World Tyrants and dictators. Here is a portion of the article:

    In a joint statement with Castro, Palme claimed that the two men were united in all the areas they had discussed. They even confirmed their happiness that the struggles for freedom of “the Vietnamese and Cambodian peoples have been crowned with victory.” This was said in the summer of 1975, two months after Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge embarked on a genocide that killed two million of the country’s seven million people.

    Was Olof Palme unaware of Pol Pot’s massacres? Newspapers in almost all democracies, including Sweden, were informing us of the Cambodian horrors. Palme, however, thought it more important to present a united front with Cuba’s tyrant than to worry about atrocities committed by Communists in Indochina. Palme, indeed, seldom condemned oppression in Third World countries. He constantly condemned apartheid in South Africa, yet he never criticized Mao’s China, the most murderous regime to arise after World War II.

    This double standard was particularly pernicious in the Middle East, where Palme never censured an Arab country, regardless of its corruption or cruelty. The only nation in that region he repeatedly attacked was its only democracy, Israel. He even equated the Israelis with the Nazis.

  3. In the fifth paragraph, I stated that the mass executions at Katyn were a Soviet crime. In the following sentence, Katyn was listed with Nazi atrocities, but that was just a typo.

  4. I’m no fan of Kissinger, and Olaf Palme should not have been assassinated. He should have lived to be tried for treason and genocide by implementing multiculturalism in Sweden.
    As for “Palme’s references to Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, and Lidice would strike a nerve, for they were all the sites of Nazi crimes.” The Soviets did Katyn; there is no forensic evidence that Babi Yar happened; and Lidice only became a war crime at the Kangaroo Court/Stalinist show trials at Nuremberg, when executing non-uniformed combatants and those who aided and abetted were criminalized under the “London Charter” for the IMT. I would note that the Communists in Spain slaughtered nuns in convents, and priest in monasteries but apparently those are not “war crimes”, nor was the carpet bombing of German civilians and French towns and villages in Normandy, where the Allies killed more French while “liberating” them (from their lucrative supplying of food to Germany) than occurred during the entire German occupation. Lets not talk about the 95,000 of the 100,000 Germans who did not survive surrendering at Stalingrad.
    War is hell and bad things happen. Atrocities are committed by both sides, but only the victor gets to tell the tale. There is a reason Napoleon said that history was the agreed upon lies of the victor.

Leave a Reply