A Small/Medium-sized Great Power in the North Swedish Neutrality During the Cold War Through the Geostrategic Lens

Hans Weinberger 

A question of geography

At the end of 1947, the American bio geographer Paul A. Siple of the U.S. Army wrote a letter to his superior, major general H.S. Aurand. He wanted to draw attention to the Polar Regions strategic importance for the USA. Siple’s mental picture of ice, snow and an impenetrable landscape was replaced by another picture during a long flight over the Arctic. He saw more than 5000 square miles of a snow and ice-free tundra, reminding him of the terrain found in the southwestern parts of the United States. Siple suggested a scenario, unlikely he admitted, but also deeply troubling. With a relatively small force, the Soviet Union would be able to conduct a surprise attack on the US from the north and so make possible a greater invasion over the Atlantic. Siple especially pointed to the area west of Hudson Bay, which was something of a blind spot for the air force. In that area, the Soviet Union could deploy a larger force, and with radar and radio silence and some luck be able to remain undetected. Siple suggested a reinforcement of supervision of the area, recognizing that the Artic was of strategic importance. The shortest rout between the US and the Soviet Union was over Northern Greenland, but according to Siple nobody seemed to have taken specific notice. Siple ended his letter by rotating the map: “Our thinking has been like Mercator projections with Arctic lying in infinity. We must realize that in reality the Arctic Ocean is a Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the populated land masses of the northern hemisphere”.[1]

            The upgrading of the Arctic region for US war plans was obvious when general Curtis LeMay, head of SAC, in 1949, before the congressional Vinson Committee, detailed US strategy and future plans. The objective of the committee was to investigate SAC strategy from political and economical viewpoints. LeMay’s strategy was based on high technology. In his lengthy written statement he juxtaposed his newer bombers – B36s – with older, already existing aircraft. The B36 would make possible a sudden and direct atomic attack on the Soviet Union within a matter of hours. Against this scenario he put the logistical inferno that would break lose when older American bomber aircraft first had to be transferred to European, i.e. British bases, and then applied with atomic bombs after sea transportation over the Atlantic.[2]

            One of LeMay’s subordinates in detail outlined an atomic attack on the Soviet Union with the B36 aircraft. From Goose Bay air base in Labrador, Canada, the airplane would fly over Greenland and Island on rather low altitude and with low speed. “On reaching the Scandinavian Coast, a climb to 40,000 feet would be made. Moscow would be attacked at 40,000 feet at a speed between 345 and 365 miles per hour, determined by the airplane commander. After bombs away, the aircraft would remain at 40,000 feet until reaching Scandinavia.”[3] Altitude and speed was seen as of the essence by LeMay, since only 20 percent of the Soviet air fleet was able to reach those altitudes, and high speed made attack more problematic.

            The scenario was according to LeMay “a typical mission” and supposed to be part of the strategy which the United States would use against the Soviet Union in case of war during the first part of the 1950s. LeMay talked about a “one-two punch” to defeat the enemy. First there would be a distributed attack from Northern Canada, reaching not only Moscow and Leningrad but also a number of industrial cities, among them Riga. The objective was to destroy as much as possible and create confusion within Russia. A second wave of attacks would then follow from the European continent and the British Isles. This strategic air-attack would be carried through first with all available atomic capacity and then continued with conventional means. The objective was to wage war until the opponent had lost the will and capacity to resist.

Geostrategy and Swedish cooperation with the West

A map of the polar regions show the Nordic countries vicinity to the Soviet Union, but also that these countries form a wedge between the closest distance between the populated parts of the Soviet Union and the eastern parts of the North American continent. As aviation technology developed it was rather a question of time before military interest would turn to the Polar Regions, the High North and the Nordic countries. In the perspective of American thinking, Scandinavia soon became a region to cross in the event of nuclear strategic bombing of the Soviet Union. Curtis LeMay illustrated this thinking in his testimony for the congressional Vinson Committee.

            The geographical closeness to the Soviet Union was a determining factor for the fate of Sweden during the cold war. The Soviet Union was the only thinkable aggressor from a Swedish point of view. The strategic situation had changed since the second world war, when Sweden, like the other Nordic countries were at the intersection of the strategic interests of Germany, Great Britain and Russia. Now the situation was reduced to a bipolar conflict in which the potentially dangerous superpower was just across the Baltic Sea. In geostrategic situations like this, small nations close to a superpower are forced to develop a policy of deference or to align themselves with a rival superpower. [4] In the Nordic case, Finland had to implement a policy of deference towards the Soviet Union and Denmark and Norway chose to align themselves with a rival superpower. 

            The case of Sweden during the cold war would, if the official policy of neutrality where taking literally, be an example of something different, namely how a small nation could manage to stay out of the deference role of a close, and potentially dangerous superpower and be non-aligned to the only rival superpower. In this paper I will argue that this was not the case. Sweden was not able to stay aloof in the bipolar conflict but was, by geostrategic factors, de facto compelled to join the Western alliance in an informal but still very real way.[5]

I take it for granted that there existed a substantial military cooperation between Sweden and the West, foremost Denmark, Norway, the UK and the US. The amount of scholarly work is large enough to conclude that there existed real cooperation. Whether this cooperation is to be characterized as a Swedish semi membership in NATO or not is an interesting question. My answer is yes, but it is perhaps an uninteresting question from a geostrategic point of view.

In short, my argument could be summarized like this. Strategic considerations concerning the defence of Scandinavia clearly showed that at least Norway and Sweden had to be looked upon as one military area. These considerations were expressed clearly during the SDP negotiations both by the Scandinavian military and the UK and US. As Sweden returned to neutrality these considerations formed the backbone of the thereafter secret but rather substantial military cooperation. The West supported a strong Swedish military build-up, since the country was considered a first line of defence (part of the defensive strategy of NATO). At the same time, it was considered vital that Sweden would not turn this military capacity against NATO in case of war. NATO and US needed access to Swedish territory in order to conduct the counter-offensive (part of the offensive strategy of NATO). The second leg of Swedish neutrality, a strong defence force, paradoxically accelerated the historical process in which Sweden became attached to the West. The objective to build a strong defence force in order to be able to maintain neutrality in the event of war undermined Swedish ability to remain neutral. The relatively strong Swedish defence forces became a factor in the strategic and operational war planning of the West, a process which was based on geostrategic reasoning of how to best defend and conduct war on the northern flank of Europe.

Scandinavian Defence Union

The negotiations concerning a Scandinavian Defence Union (SDU) ended in early 1949, and Norway and Denmark became members of NATO while Sweden returned to its traditional policy of neutrality and non-alignment. The history of these negotiations is fairly well known, and here only the strategic discussions of the military part of the investigation will be at issue.

            All three countries were convinced that the only threat was a Soviet attack on one or more of the Scandinavian countries, presumably in connection with a major war in Europe. None of them would be able to withstand such an attack for any longer period of time, and therefore outside help was deemed critical. An attack against Scandinavia would be conducted both in the South and North. The reason for such an attack was both defensive and offensive. In defensive terms, the access to Scandinavia would enhance Soviet early warning possibilities and give more time for air defence. In offensive terms, the Soviet Union could establish bases for sea- and air operations against western sea lines of communication and possibly air warfare against Britain.

            Military cooperation in the defence of Scandinavia was seen as essential. Since western help was a prerequisite, any plans would have be designed to keep the lines of communication to the West open, which basically meant that some areas was viewed as extremely vital to defend. The investigation pointed out a series of geographical areas in which cooperation could be conducted and also pointed to cooperation between the services. Air defence, and air command and control systems could be coordinated, or even linked together, as could weather services and air rescue.

            Both direct and indirect help from the West was discussed. Indirect help basically meant western attacks on Soviet air, naval and robot bases from which the assault was launched. Direct military help basically meant reinforcements of the services, foremost the air forces and the navies. Air support from the West called for developed air defence and command systems, adjusted to western standards. On the naval side, western anti-submarine warfare in Skagerack and Kattegatt were envisioned, as also naval presence outside the Norwegian coast.

            The basic impression following these military considerations is that there evolved a rather substantial degree of consensus regarding overall strategy for Scandinavia. At the same time, there was a certain degree of myopia present. While a Soviet attack was considered likely only as part of a major war, neither the likely outcome of a Soviet attack on continental Europe nor the western response to it was raised.

In the military-diplomatic discussions at the time of the negotiations concerning a Scandinavian defence union, the options were carefully judged against each other. From a British perspective, it was not all obvious that a Norwegian and Danish membership, from a military point of view, in all matters were to be preferred in relation to a defence pact. The main strategic requirement of the British was the denial of Scandinavian strategic facilities to the enemy and the right to use Greenland and the Faroes. Iceland was another factor of concern, since that country perhaps might follow the other Scandinavian countries in a neutralistic stance if the SDU became a reality. With SDU and without specific arrangements for the Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes the British saw it as a necessity to occupy these areas and this would be a clear casus belli for the Scandinavian countries, which in its turn could be an excuse for Soviet intervention.

The British military considerations concerning the possibility to defend the area corresponded with the views expressed by the Scandinavians. ”The defence of Norway, Sweden and part of Denmark including its capital [Zealand] could only be practicable if all three Scandinavian countries were to follow a firm and co-ordinated defence policy […].”[6] In particular this applied to the closeness of Sweden and Norway. “If Sweden were occupied by the enemy the defence of Norway would not be practicable.”[7]

In the discussions dealing with the advantages and disadvantages of a neutral Scandinavian defence union on the one side and a Danish and Norwegian membership in NATO with a neutral Sweden on the other, the conclusions was that Scandinavia had to be defended as a whole regardless of what option were to become reality, and that they also had to have assistance from the Western Powers in equipment and training in order to be able to defend themselves. In particular, the membership of Denmark and Norway in NATO with a neutral Sweden unwilling to have at least independent military arrangements with them had certain disadvantages. “We should be obliged to give Norway and Denmark appreciable military equipment which could only be at the expense of Western Union. Furthermore, the provision of assistance would not help us in war, as without Sweden the resistance of the two countries is bound to be ineffective however much equipment they have been given.”[8]

In the overall war effort the access to Scandinavian territory was deemed as important for the air offensive.” The Allied air offensive would be materially assisted in that the ability to over fly Scandinavia without encountering Russian air defences would greatly facilitate our air attack from the Northern flank on vital Russian targets.”[9] Again, both defensive and offensive considerations made Scandinavia an asset. The conclusion drawn was perhaps unavoidable: “On balance the Scandinavian Defence Pact appears to have certain advantages over Norway and Denmark joining the Atlantic Pact from the military point of view”. [10] The military was of course completely aware that political judgement could advise differently. [11]    


The American view at the time was a bit different. It was not reasonable to suppose that a neutral Scandinavia would be able to maintain its neutrality in case of Soviet pressure. US bases in Scandinavia would have to be obtained by force and “the United States would be denied the right to over fly Scandinavian territory, a factor seriously detrimental to our strategic air potential.”[12] In general the Americans judged the SDU as serious drawback to the idea of a contained Soviet Union. The United States clearly favoured Norwegian and Danish membership in NATO over any sort of defence union, and especially a neutral one.

            The basic underlying strategic deliberations of the US in relation to Scandinavia did not, though, differ dramatically from the British one. In 1949, a committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared an extensive plan for a possible war against the Soviet Union. This plan, called Dropshot, was only one in a series of war plans. The plan was in all likelihood started before the issue of Norwegian and Danish membership in NATO was settled but completed afterwards. The overall objective of Dropshot was to destroy the USSR’s will and capacity to wage war. The starting point of the scenarios described in the plan was that the Soviet Union had launched an attack on continental Europe, going through the western parts of Germany, over the Rhine, and into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In reality only the UK was still free from Soviet influence at this stage. In connection with Scandinavia, the planners in Washington estimated a Soviet invasion of Denmark from the south using ‘5 line divisions and 400 combat aircraft’ defeating and occupying Denmark within 14 days, and then making a ‘subsequent attack against southern Sweden’. The invasion of Sweden and Norway would commence about 90 days after the beginning of the attack on continental Europe, the using approximately ’13 line divisions and 600-900 tactical aircraft’ and having the capacity to ‘triple the initial number of divisions and build up more than 2000 combat aircraft if required’.

            In a section on military alternatives, the Dropshot planners discussed Scandinavia in two separate scenarios, one concerning Norway and Sweden and the other concerning Denmark. The reason for this was that Sweden’s neutrality precluded a combined defence of Scandinavia. Denmark, because of its topography, was said to be ‘virtually indefensible’ […] Norway and Sweden were seen as strategically significant from both offensive and defensive standpoints. They could provide air bases 500-700 miles closer to the Soviet Union than those on the British Isles. In addition, holding Norway and Sweden would deny the Soviets free use of the Baltic Sea. Maintaining control over Swedish and Norwegian territory would deny the Soviet Union a base area for air and naval operations in the North Sea and constitute a threat to the Soviet northern flank in continental Europe. If the Soviet Union occupied Norway and Sweden, it would be able to establish bases for air and naval operations against England and the North Atlantic.

In a section titled ‘selection of allied courses of action’, defending Central Europe was assigned the utmost importance. The alternative of holding Norway and Sweden was briefly touched upon, but Sweden’s neutrality was seen as a factor hindering any effective help. The planners concluded: 

The provision of the required aid would be justified only in the event it develops that there is reasonable assurance that Sweden would join with Norway and Denmark in a concerted defense of Scandinavia in the event that Soviets elect to exercise their capabilities against any of the three Scandinavian countries. […] Based upon the above considerations, the course of action “Hold Norway and Denmark” is rejected’. “[13] 

The basic reason for rejecting the option of holding Norway and Sweden with reference to Swedish neutrality was the imbalance of military power between the countries. 12 Swedish divisions and 1300 aircraft would oppose the Soviet attack in contrast to 1 Norwegian division and 100 combat aircraft. Norway would also be able to mobilize an additional division after 3 month of the outbreak of the war.[14]

            Again, the judgement of the Americans was not very different from the views held by the Scandinavians concerning the need for cooperation between especially Norway and Sweden. The grave imbalance in military power underlined the problem.


The formal result of the negotiations for a Scandinavian Defence Union was a complete division of future security policies for the three countries. While Norway and Denmark became members of the most powerful military alliance in history, Sweden chose neutrality and isolation. Soon afterwards, the Swedish neutrality policy underwent something that resembles a bifurcation. It’s a geographical term to describe how a river divides into two streams that go off in different directions. In this case the bifurcation is a metaphor for the division between the official policy of neutrality – represented by some politicians and diplomats – and the operational policy – represented by other politicians, diplomats and the military.

            After the breakdown of the negotiations, Swedish leading officers continued to have talks with Denmark and Norway concerning cooperation and planning. The Swedish military soon proposed concrete action and was given a governmental go-ahead in some substantial areas of preparation such as air defence and air command and control. This was to open the avenue for further cooperation with Denmark and Norway. The two NATO countries also carried the Swedish military point of view into NATO talks. They both underlined the conclusions reached at the SDU negotiations and tried to lobby the US to sell Sweden much needed radar equipment.[15] They provided Great Britain and the US with information concerning the Swedish defence forces and their possibilities. Through Norway and Denmark, Swedish arguments were present in the inner workings of NATO, much so because of the mutual overlapping interests of the Scandinavian countries. But information also flowed the other way, i.e. Norway and Denmark informed Sweden on the development within NATO.

            The close cooperation with Denmark and Norway was also paralleled by growing cooperation with Great Britain and the United States. The rather hostile attitude of the Americans soon gave way to a more sympathetic view of Swedish neutrality, presumably because the policy seemed to be able to absorb a substantial amount of pragmatism. 

            There can be no doubt that the Swedish military saw Norwegian and Danish NATO membership as a sound decision. One important aspect of Swedish ability to prepare itself for Soviet aggression was access to military technology from the US and the UK. If an attack became reality, Sweden hoped for Western help. If the “real thing” was the link to the western Great Powers, then surely Denmark and Norway took the only logical step in the eyes of the Swedish military. The supreme commander Helge Jung commented on the SDU-negotiations that Swedish ability to help Norwegian and Danish rearmament was limited indeed and that they had to rely on the western powers, as had Sweden.[16]

            This is not the place to outline the continued cooperation between the Scandinavian countries and Sweden and Great Britain and the US. This has been done in several accounts already, starting with the Commission of 1994 dealing with Swedish preparations for military assistance during the cold war.

            The shift in the US attitude towards Sweden meant a radically more privileged situation in getting access to war equipment. In 1951 an agreement was closed that made military assistance available to Sweden. This shift in attitude was based on strategic considerations and the view of Sweden as a first line of defence against the Soviet Union.[17] The new evaluation of the Swedish situation was in most part an adherence to the British view on Sweden, which saw a strong Swedish defence as an asset in the North.

            In 1951 British requested permission by the USAF to release to Sweden a film “B-29 Versus Jet Air Craft”, a request eventually granted by the USAF. The Swedes wished to examine their own operational and tactical doctrine. The British in their letter to the USAF stressed that the Swedish Air Force had no practice in fighting heavy bomber formations. “It would be of obvious advantage to the N.A.T.O. organization if the Swedes were able to defend themselves from this form of attack”.[18]

This western benevolence, based on the defensive value of the region, made it possible for Sweden to build up a strong defence and not least an advanced air force.

“Peripheral strategy” and “Forward defence”

The main Soviet threat to Europe was its conventional superiority and the capacity to overrun Central Europe. In conventional figures the balance of power was something of close to 10:1 in favour of the Soviet Union during most of the period 1948-1962.[19] As a result, the NATO strategy in the early 1950s was far from clear-cut and was basically a continuation of the internal debate between the services in the US. The result was a compromise between forward defence and peripheral strategy, balanced towards forward strategy but with influential parts of peripheral strategy incorporated. Forward strategy meant the objective to defend Europe as far east as possible, a view put forward by the US Army and the Navy despite the large Soviet conventional advantage. Peripheral strategy relied heavily on air and naval power and was championed by the Air Force. The latter strategy also considered a withdrawal from the continent a necessity in the event of a prolonged and successful Soviet attack.  In political terms it soon became apparent that peripheral strategy was impossible.[20] Nobody could officially argue that Continental Europe first had to be abandoned and the recaptured after a longer period of mobilization. But the underlying structural differences between the Allied forces and technologies and the conventional superiority of the Soviets made important parts of the peripheral strategy concept survive, not least the strong reliance on nuclear weapons. The difference between the strategies also had effects on geographical judgements concerning how to fight the war. In peripheral strategy it was of main importance, at least in the beginning, to hold the British Isles as a bridgehead in the North Sea since that would at least partly secure sea lines of communication and provide bases for a strategic attack on the Soviet Union. Forward defence assigned great importance to a conventional build-up. In military terms it also made sense to try to keep at least a bridgehead on the continent, since a second Normandy was contemplated as impossible. The defence of the Western European Region was deemed as being of “overriding importance” since “its defence would cost less than its reconquest”.[21] This didn’t mean though, that the southern and northern flanks of Europe were seen as less important. The first NATO commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower took a middle position between forward strategy and peripheral strategy. In a meeting in the White House in 1951, Eisenhower compared Europe with a bottleneck constituted of Russia as the bottle and Western Europe as the neck with Spain as the head.

On either side of this neck are bodies of water that we control, with land on the far side of the water which is good for air bases. The North Sea with England behind it, is on one side and the Mediterranean with the Near East and North Africa is on the other. We must apply great air and sea power on both these sides and we must rely on land forces in the center. “I want to build a great combination of sea and air strength in the North Sea”, Eisenhower said. “I’d make Denmark and Holland a great ‘hedgehog’ and I’d put 500 or 600 fighters behind them and heavy naval support in the North Sea. I’d do the same sort of thing in the Mediterranean, I’d put a great fleet of air and sea power in the Mediterranean and I’d give arms to Turkey and the ‘Jugs’.” “Then,” Eisenhower went on, “if the Russians tried to move ahead in the center, I’d hit them awfully hard from both flanks. I think if we build up the kind of force I want, the center will hold and they’ll have to pull back.”[22] 

The importance of the flanks lied basically in their offensive value. As NATO strategy evolved into massive retaliation, this value increased further. In MC 14/1 from December 1952 the overall strategic aim, if war came, was to defeat the Soviet by “means of an air offensive”.[23]  If the Soviet Union took control of the Scandinavian territory this would mean free passage from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic, an increased capacity to attack sea lines of communication in the North Sea and an ability to launch attacks on strategic bases on the British Isles. The capture of Scandinavia would increase the offensive capacity of the Soviet Union, but it would also mean a stronger air defence of Soviet territory since it would enable the establishment of a forward warning system. “Conversely, the value of Scandinavia to the Allies lies in the strategic cover its possession affords, and the possibilities it offers for counter-offensive naval and air operations.”[24] In the following paragraphs of MC 14/1, the extension of Soviet air warning “in a vital direction” was deemed as a strong factor of strategic considerations by the Soviets.

NATO strategy

It is important to discuss the Swedish geostrategic position both from defensive and offensive terms. Sweden was a first line of defence towards a Soviet attack on Scandinavia and a bridgehead for a counter-offensive. In defensive terms the Swedish military strength, and in particular her strong air force, was considered a valuable geostrategic asset by the Western powers, both in American and NATO war planning. In defensive terms the closeness to Norway and Denmark made cooperation with Sweden a necessity if the Soviet Union choose to attack Scandinavia. In all NATO policy papers the cooperation in defence planning between all the Scandinavian countries were characterized as “a factor of considerable importance”.[25]

NATO war planning formally elaborated on two scenarios concerning Scandinavia, one was a Soviet attack on Norway and Denmark circumventing Sweden and the second a concerted attack on all three countries. In both cases the main attack was to follow from the South through Denmark. A second front were to be opened in the North as an attack on Northern Norway. There can be no doubt however, that the main scenario was an attack on all three countries at once. In 1950 the assumption was that the Soviet Union would benefit from the encirclement of Sweden but that they also in their planning had to “take into consideration the possibility that Sweden may not remain inactive while her encirclement is being completed.”[26] This Second World War-like situation would have grave implications, as the planners wrote in 1950. The same conclusion was drawn in 1952, “Russia cannot ignore the possibility of Sweden joining the Allies should another Scandinavian country be attacked.”[27] This was repeated almost verbatim in 1957.[28]

Other documents underline this assumption. In 1952 the British believed that Sweden would be attacked in the North through Finland and in the South in the Malmö area. There was also the possibility of an amphibious operation across the Baltic against Stockholm. A Soviet amphibious operation from Denmark to Norway across Skagerak, as the German operation against Norway in 1940 was considered as unlikely. “We believe that the Russians would consider an amphibious operation across the Skagerak to hazardous, and would favour a shorter crossing which would give their land forces fuller play. In this event Sweden would receive the brunt of the invasion of Scandinavia and it is unlikely that Norway would be invaded until resistance in Sweden had been largely overcome.”[29] The British did again in 1955 consider a Soviet attack on Scandinavia to be likely at about the same time as the general attack in Western Europe.[30]

In the likely event of a Soviet aggression against Sweden, the country would fall down on the Western side and fight with the Allies. Several documents stress how the regional defence planning would be improved if Sweden could be part of the process. This was so in the “Capabilities Plan of the Allied Command Europe 1957”, which was prepared during the latter half of 1953 and early parts of 1954. The plan assumed “that Sweden and Switzerland would fight with the West if attacked”.[31] It was also assumed that the Soviets would attack Sweden in conjunction with an attack on Denmark and Norway.[32] 

The plan rested on the premise that atomic weapons had to be used, strategically and tactically, without delay, by the Allies, regardless of Soviet nuclear use or not. This nuclear supposition was in its turn based on a decreased military build-up by some member nations. Readjustments to atomic war were seen as necessary. Surprise would form the keystone to the Soviet attack and they would initialise a strategic air and naval offensive against the US, UK and Canada and their overseas bases and lines of communication. The main objective of the Allies was to meet the Soviet threat with adequate force, i.e. provide minimum essential protection and control of areas and lines of communication judged to be of vital importance. The first phase of the war would be short (approximately 30 days) with an intensive exchange of atomic strikes and it was judged essential that the Allied came out of this period with the best possible ability for the second phase.

The war on the northern flank was outlined in a number of scenarios covering Soviet land advances in Denmark and Norway and naval war in the Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic Area. To be able to fulfil his task, SACEUR would become what was called external support from the Allied Strategic Air Forces. SAC would strike targets designated by SACEUR and after a period SACLANT would have a carrier task force with nuclear capacity in the Eastern Atlantic. “A major portion of the capability of these forces will be made available for direct support of SACEUR in the Northern European/Baltic area.”[33]

 An important dimension of the war against the Soviet Union was to try to minimize Soviet access to the sea in order to protect lines of communication and naval forces. Mining and Anti-Submarine Warfare would be employed to prevent the Soviets from breaking out of the Baltic Sea. Should the Soviets be able to establish any bases in the North Sea area, they would become subject to atomic and conventional attack by the Allies. Soviet naval bases in the Baltic Sea would be attacked by Allied air forces and partly by external support, i.e. SAC and SACLANT.[34] Holding the Baltic was basically the same thing as holding Denmark. Should the Soviets be able to seize Zealand they would be able to pass submarines through the straits, “although only at great hazard if Norwegian, and possibly Swedish efforts continue.”[35]

            All estimates of Soviet capability and order of battle presupposed a Swedish involvement in the war. Soviet land forces against the Oslo area totalled 4 divisions (one of the mechanized) coming from Southern Sweden. This threat from Southern Sweden was thought to begin at D+50 and then only if Zealand and Southern Sweden had been seized. The Air Force capacity of the Soviets, based on intelligence, “against the entire Northern sector (including Sweden)” was estimated to be 500 light bombers, 600 fighters, 50 ground attack and 150 reconnaissance air craft.

In order to halt the Soviet campaign, atomic support would be provided. “As atomic capabilities of SACLANT carrier forces, supporting SACEUR, become available from their initial preplanned, counter-air and naval targets these will supplement the effort on interdiction and close support in Norway, Sweden and/or Denmark depending on the criticality of the situation.”[36] The initial situation in Northern Norway was supposed to independent on whether Sweden was attacked or not. In the longer perspective, “with a co-belligerent Sweden on the sides of the Allies” and an invasion of Sweden there would be an additional threat against Northern Norway with Soviets troops through Finland and Northern Sweden.

            In the south, the threat would come from Southern Sweden from D+50 and onwards if the Soviets had been able to establish strong forces there. The planned operations were to hold the Narvik-Bodö-Troms-area, Trondheim, the Oslo area, ports and airfields in South Norway and maintain LOC:s between different parts of the country. In the analysis of the campaign the actual operations of the Norwegian air force depended on Scandinavian cooperation: “The composition and deployment of Norwegian air forces must take into account that of Swedish forces in view of the high probability of combined action in the event of war. In this respect current programmes seem adequate.”[37] The reference to “current programmes” most likely referred to the established cooperation division of labour between the Norwegian and Swedish air force that had been established according to British sources.

            This roughly outlines the defensive measurements relating to Scandinavia. The basic offensive measures were less explicitly detailed in the plan. Actually, in an enclosure analysing SACEUR’s wartime mission it was clearly stated that the offensive phase “has never been defined by higher authority”.[38] It was however clear that the anticipated Soviet atomic attack would be answered with an “immediate all-out counter-attack” by forces specially trained for these mission, i.e. SAC, BC and naval forces.[39] Air superiority was vital in all areas, and the goal was the destruction of the Soviet air complex. Supplementing the atomic delivery forces were strike forces for fighter sweeps, escorts and reconnaissance.[40] Since the plan assumed external help for the offensive, there was almost no outline of SAC and BC plans.

In 1957 in MC 14/2 the strategic importance of Scandinavia was construed as a landmass that “dominates to the westward on of the sea areas from which the Allies most likely operate their sea based nuclear striking power.”[41] Again Soviet access to Scandinavia would enhance his ability to defend his homeland.

We know less about the offensive planning of the Allied than we do about their defensive planning. As indicated above, in 1954, the offensive planning of SACEUR was less than well developed, and major parts were to be conducted by forces external to him, such as SAC and Bomber Command.

As mentioned in the introduction, SAC anticipated flying over Swedish territory in case of global war. The Swedes were aware of this and actually invited an intelligence officer of SAC for informal talks.[42] What capacity SAC had during the early phases of its existence is unclear, but it expanded rapidly.[43] In 1954 SAC’s plan included the use of 735 bombers to attack the Soviet Union at one instance.[44] In 1952, the Americans and the Norwegians reached an agreement concerning the wartime use for SAC of two air bases in Norway. The central issue was intermediate landing for escorts and reconnaissance before and after their missions and emergency landing for bombers after completed mission. The number of aircraft were approximately somewhere between 150 and 200 aircraft, bombers uncounted.[45] We might assume that these air craft would have used Swedish territory on their way back and forth to the Soviet Union, at least if we take a look at the map and interpolate from the missions described by SAC and later by Bomber Command. SACs involvement in Norway gradually expired during the late 1950s as new bomber aircraft – B47 and B52 – made escorts unnecessary.

We now know that the Norwegian air force during a period from the 1950s to the middle of the 1970s was assigned a concrete mission as part of the allied atomic offensive.[46] During a period from 1958 to the end of the 1960s it was a prime task to support SACEUR:s nuclear attack on the Soviet Union by functioning as a conventional “door opener”. The mission was to hit anti-air and radar installations. An important aspect was to “saturate” the Soviet air defence in order to make it impossible for it to distinguish between conventional and nuclear missions.[47] The targets were located on the Kola Peninsula, along the Baltic Sea all the way down to East Germany. The Norwegian air force would fly over Sweden to reach targets in the Baltic. Targets in the south could be reached by flying along the Swedish coast or flying over Sweden directly. The missions were on or close to the limit of their operational radii – deviation from the planned course or air combat was not possible, which meant that these missions in practice were one-way missions. The planners envisaged possible emergency landings in Sweden on the way back.

British war plans from the late 1970s and early 1980s assumed the massive use of Swedish air territory. British Vulcans and Buccaneers and US F111s and B52s would start from bases in the UK and fly through the Skagerrak straits north of Denmark and then continue over Gothenborg, crossing Sweden towards the Baltic area and Russia. Reaching the northern tip of Denmark they would have to receive a second, confirming order to continue – a so-called fail-safe line at the 8 degrees east latitude. The aircraft would then drop to levels of 70 to 170 meters and cross Sweden on their way to their Baltic destinations. The pilots of these missions were also trained for a recovery procedure to return to Norwegian, Danish and Swedish bases.[48] The reason for going over Sweden was to avoid the well defended central front and also to be out of Soviet radar coverage as long as possible.

In all this, we don’t know if and to what extend the Swedes were informed. The overall picture is of course that Swedish territory would have been filled with airplanes in all direction in a war situation. We do know that the Swedes made technical preparations to be able to discriminate between NATO aircraft and other aircraft by purchasing NATO-standard IFF and we do know that the Swedish military and diplomats on several occasions assured the West that they would not shot down their planes. A conclusion would be that the Swedes were informed about these planes and had acted to make additional, adjusted Swedish plans. Circumstantial evidence in the same direction is of course that CINCNORTH hade also been given directive from SACEUR to make provision, a least from 1958 and onwards, to include Sweden in the command in the event of war.[49] We also know that NATO in 1954 assumed a combined action of the Norwegian and Swedish air forces in the event of war.

A Great Power in the North

Sweden is by virtue of its larger population, geographical size and industrial capacity a small great power in the North. During the cold war, the relatively large Swedish defence force contributed to this position among the Nordic countries. The air force counted as one of the strongest in Europe. While the security positions of Denmark, Norway and Finland were solved by adherence to either of the two blocks, Sweden chose to try to follow a line of neutrality. One important aspect of that neutrality was a strong defence force, capable of defending the country from (any) outside aggression. In reality of course, the only conceivable threat came from a Soviet invasion, but then again from three different directions – east, north and south.

            The strong Swedish defence came eventually to be seen as a first line of defence in the western alliance in the North and especially in relation to Norway. Then again, the Scandinavian Peninsula was seen as inseparable military are by all who took a military look at the conditions for a successful defence. If any of the two countries were invaded by the Soviets, the other would be virtually indefensible if further aggression followed. A Soviet occupation of Sweden, Norway or both would have grave implications for the western alliance. It would have foremost given the Soviets a forward position towards the Atlantic and threatened the sea lines of communication and provided areas for further air and naval operations against the continent and the British Isles. It would also have provided the Soviets with the industrial capacity of Sweden. It was therefore of western interest to help Sweden to increase its military potential. And, as we have seen, the West deemed a Soviet attack on Sweden as a likely outcome in the event of general war in Europe. The official Swedish policy of neutrality in this case provided good internal arguments for the rather substantial percentage of defence spending during the first phases of the cold war.

            In defensive terms, there was every reason to provide the Swedes with crucial military technology. But that defensive capacity could potentially prove to be counter-productive if it was turned against the West in its use of Scandinavia for offensive purposes. Most of the western war planning assumed that Sweden would remain passive in the event of a major western attack on the Soviet Union. In military and diplomatic relations with the West this aspect of Swedish conduct played an important role – it surfaces again and again in the discussions. A case in point is the statement by the Swedish defence minister at the beginning of the cold war that Sweden would shot down all foreign aircraft in the event of war. This statement produced a series of damage control action by the Swedish military and diplomats. And the factor grew in importance with the development of the Swedish defence forces. As the jet fighter Draken became operational in the late 1950s, early 1960s it had an extraordinary capacity to intercept high-altitude strategic bombers, a capacity that had to be dealt with by the West. The same thing applies to the selling of American robot systems to Sweden in the late 1950s. Again, the overshadowing question was to convince the Americans that these weapons would not be turned against the West.

            The real issue is however not to portray the close military cooperation as an outcome of contingency. The overall war planning of the West precluded real Swedish neutrality – it never became a real option and it never was a real option. In a discussion in 1949 between the head of the British Air Staff, and a representative of the Foreign Office, on the political and military aspects of a Scandinavian defence union, the Foreign Office expressed doubts if neither the Soviet Union nor the Allies could respect Scandinavian neutrality, “on account of geographical considerations”. The head of the British Air Staff agreed. He was “inclined to agree with the argument that the Allies and the Russians would, in the event of war, find it difficult to respect the neutrality of Scandinavia particularly in the air”.[50]

In short it seems to be an unrealistic assumption that NATO and US war planning over an extended period of time planned to use Swedish territory without knowing that the Swedes would not attack them. And all empirical evidence so far indicates Swedish benevolence in this respect. There can be no doubt of the seriousness of the Swedish situation in case of war. Even if the Swedish leadership were hoping for a late option to stay out of the war and try to declare neutrality as a last hope, the war planning of the West clearly shows this to be a non-viable option. There was simply no room for Swedish neutrality at that stage of the global conflict. 

[1] Memorandum, Paul A Siple, Department of the Army to Major General H.S. Aurand 10.10.1947. Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, 1946-1956, RG 341, National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).

[2] LeMay at the same time ruled out air fueling as too technically complicated and military dangereous.

[3] “Strategic Air Command Testimony Before the Vinson Committee, DS-49-782, no date, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, 1946-1956, RG 341, NARA, USA.

[4] Ola Tunander, Cold Water Politics: The Maritime Strategy and Geopolitics of the Northern Front (London: SAGE Publications, 1989), 11.

[5] Hans Weinberger, “The Neutrality Flagpole: Swedish Neutrality Policy and Technological Alliances, 1945-1970”, Technologies of Power, eds. Michael Thad Allen and Gabrielle Hecht (MIT Press, 2001), 295-331.

[6] Annex to Telegram [No. 786] from Washington to Foreign Office, 8 February 1949, Records of the Cabinet Office, “NATO: defence of Scandinavia”, CAB 21/3537, Public Record Office.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Annex to Telegram [No. 786] from Washington to Foreign Office, 8 February 1949, Records of the Cabinet Office, “NATO: defence of Scandinavia”, CAB 21/3537, Public Record Office.

[9] Chies of Staff Committee, Joint Planing Staff, “North Atlantic Pact”, Report by the Joint Planning Staff, JP(49) 14 (Final), 9 February 1949, Annex: “Brief for use of the U.K. Representative to the Five Power Military Committee on the Participation of Scandinavia in the Atlantic Pact”. Records of the Cabinet Office, “NATO: defence of Scandinavia”, CAB 21/3537, Public Record Office.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Letter from L.C. Hollis to Minister, 10 February 1949. Records of the Cabinet Office, “NATO: defence of Scandinavia”, CAB 21/3537, Public Record Office.

[12] Telegram from Washington, Coleridge to Ministry of Defence, London, Price, 10 February 1949. Records of the Cabinet Office, “NATO: defence of Scandinavia”, CAB 21/3537, Public Record Office.

[13] Dropshot: The United States Plan for War with the Soviet Unionen in 1957, Anthony Cave Brown, ed (New York, 1978), 180.

[14] Dropshot, 118.

[15] Nils Swedlunds dagbok, ”Ant från besök i Oslo, 7/11 49”, Nils Swedlund’s Archive, volume 1.

[16] Överbefälhavarens yttrande över den skandinaviska förvarskommitténs betänkande, Om kriget kommmit: Förberedelser för mottagande av militärt bistånd 1949-1969, Betänkande av Neutralitetspolitikkommissionen, SOU 1994:11, Bilagor.

[17] Jussi M. Hanhimäki, “The First Line of Defence or a Springboard för Disintegration? European Neutrals in American Foreign Policy, 1945-1961” Diplomacy and Statecraft, vol 7, No 2 (July 1996), 388.

[18] Capers A. Holmes, Memo for Record, 18 June 1952. Enclosure to “British Request for Permission to Release Information to a Third Nation”, Foreign Liasion Branch, Collection Division, Directorate of Intelligence, DCS/O. Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Entry 335, Box 235.

[19] Phillip A. Karber and Jerald A. Combs, “The United States, NATO, and the Soviet Threat to Western Europe: Military Estimates and Policy Options, 1945-1963”, Diplomatic History 22 (1998), 399-429. These figures were estimates based on limited information and would have changed significantly in the event of mutual mobilization. Still, the conventional superiorty of the Soviet Union, few disputed.

[20] Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Pinceton, 1999).

[21] DC 13, page 42.

[22] Notes on a meeting at the White House, 31 January 1951. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1951 series, vol. 3, part 1 (Washington, 1981), page 454. Cited from Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton, 1991), 160.

[23] MC 14/1, page 10.

[24] MC 14/1, page 18.

[25] D.C. 13, page 48. 

[26] “North Atlantic Defense Committee, Decision on D.C. 13, A Report by the Military Committee on North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Medium Term Plan”, D.C. 13, 1 April 1950, page 38. NATO Archive, Brussels; “Defence and Foreign Policy of Sweden and Finland”, D-D(52)38: “NATO appreciations consider an attack on Sweden timed to coincide with the attack on Denmark and Norway the most likely contingency”.

[27] “North Atlantic Military Committee, Decision on M.C. 14/1, A Report by the Standing Group on Strategic Guidance”, M.C. 14/1 (FINAL), 9 December 1952,page 19. NATO Arcives, Brussels.

[28] “North Atlantic Military Committee, Final Decision on MC 14/2 (Revised), A Report by the Military Committee on Overall Strategic Concept for the Defence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Area”, M.C. 14/2 (Revised( (Final Decision), 23 May 1957, page 20. NATO Archive, Brussels.

[29] Chiefs of Staff Committee, Joint Planning Staff, Annex to J.P.(52)60 (Revised Final): “Brief on Swedish Defence”. CAB 21/3527, Public Record Office.

[30] A view passed to the Swedish military authorities. “Visit to U.K. of Lt. General General Jungdahl [sic], CBE, C.-in-C. Royal Swedish Air Force. 20-26th February 1955”, From A.C.A.S. (C.E. Chilton) to C.A.S., 7 December 1954. Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence: Department of the Chief of the Air Staff: Registered Files, “Visit of Commander-in-Chief Royal Swedish Air Force February 1955”. AIR 8/1885. Public Record Office.

[31] SGM 600-54, page 5.

[32] SGM 600-54, Major Campaign No. 5, page 3.

[33] “Capabilities Plan Allied Command Europe 1957 (Standing Group Modified)”, SGM 600-54, 1 July 1954, page 7.NATO Archives, Brussels

[34] SGM 600-54, Major Campaign No. 13.

[35] SGM 600-54, Major Campaign No. 5, page 2.

[36] SGM 600-54, Major Campaign No. 6, page 1.

[37] SGM 600-54, Major Campaigne No. 6, page 7.

[38] SGM 600-54, Enclosure K to SHAPE 330/54, page 1.

[39] SGM 600-54, Major Campaigne No. 1, page 1.

[40] SGM 600-54, Major Campaign No. 1, page 9.

[41] MC 14/2, page 19.

[42] Telephone memorandum, Sept. 20, 1948. Colonel Sheply and Benjamin H. Hulley, Chief, NOE, State Department. Records of the Office of British Commonwealth and Northern European Affairs, 1941-1953. Records of the State Department, RG 59, Subject Files 1941-1953. NARA.

[43] Harry B. Borowski, A Hollow Threat: Strategic Air Power and Containment before Korea (Greenwood press, 1982).

[44] David Alan Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapon and American Strategy, 1945-1960”, International Security 7 (Spring 1983), 35.

[45] Kjetil Skogrand og Rolf Tamnes, Fryktens likevekt: Atombomben, Norge og verden (Tiden Norsk Forlag, 2001), 81.

[46] Skogrand/Tamnes, 197-206.

[47] Skogrand/Tamnes.

[48] Duncan Campbell, “The ‘deterent’ goes to war”, New Statesman, 1 May 1981, 8-9 and 13.

[49] Command Organization in the Northern European Command, Enclosure 1 to Standing Group Memorandum, 2 October 1958, SGM-587-58. NATO Archives, Brussels.

[50] Extract from COS (49) 22nd Meeting held 10.2.49. CAB 21/3527. Public Record Office.