September 26, 2012
By Elizabeth Pond
Now I understand why I was never allowed to bicycle on the Baltic islet of Fårö during the Cold War. Swedes could backpack there. Ingmar Bergman could have his summer hideaway there. But as a foreigner, I was barred. I never made it to idyllic Fårö, but had to settle instead for laying out my sleeping bag—and being awakened by grazing sheep at dawn—on the no-less-magical fossil beaches of its parent, Gotland island.
Clearly, the reason for my exclusion was the best-kept secret of the time: Neutral Sweden and Finland weren’t so neutral after all. Despite American cold warriors’ condemnation of “Finlandization” as kowtowing to Moscow—and despite Sweden’s profession of non-alignment and very public censure of Washington’s war in Vietnam—Stockholm formally and Helsinki informally were secret allies of NATO, linked by agreements with NATO’s two Scandinavian members of Norway and Denmark. The only potential threat lay in the Soviet east, not in the democratic west, all the Scandinavians acknowledged. Their only possible defense was to hold out against any Soviet attack for the week it would take until NATO could fulfill its quiet security guarantee and fly to their aid in the northern air corridor reserved for such a Mayday.
Therefore, all non-Swedes had to be deflected from the Fårö ferry, lest they trip over SIGINT antennas facing the Soviet Lithuanian coast 100 kilometers away—just as all foreign journalists and indeed the whole Lithuanian population were banned far more flamboyantly from virtually the entire Lithuanian coastline. Only rare hints of the cat-and-mouse games played by Swedish, Soviet, and American subs surfaced to public view—as when the unfortunate Soviet Whiskey-class submarine impaled itself on Swedish skerries in 1981, earned the nickname “Whiskey on the Rocks” and inspired the 1984 Tom Clancy thriller The Hunt for the Red October.
To be sure, bits and pieces of the Scandinavians’ formal agreements with NATO until 1969 and informal understandings thereafter have been seeping out in the 23 years since the Cold War ended. But only recently has Mikael Holmström, defense and security correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet, written an exhaustive 656-page narrative of the alliance (for which he won a 2012 Golden Spade prize from the Association of Investigative Reporters and Editors).
Among other tidbits, the book reveals that Stockholm’s Viggen and Draken jets were packed with state-of-the-art American electronics. There were contingency plans for deploying US Marines in the far south and far north of Sweden. Swedish submarines sometimes violated Soviet waters, and NATO submarines had special peacetime lanes that ran partly in Swedish seas. Swedish officers participated in NATO war games. When Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered on a Stockholm street in 1986, the government came close to activating the contingency plan for establishing a headquarters-in-exile in the United States. And up until “about 2002” a secret movement, Stay Behind, still trained and equipped Swedish and British sappers to resist any foreign occupation of Sweden.
Only 7,300 select Swedish civilians were kept in the loop over the decades, reports Holmström in Den dolda alliansen: Sveriges hemliga NATO-förbindelser (The Hidden Alliance: Sweden’s Secret Ties to NATO). As head of government, Palme approved all the particulars, of course, even if he never shared the knowledge with critical left-wingers in his Social Democratic Party. Ingmar Bergman too, as he filmed Persona and Through a Glass Darkly on Fårö, could hardly have missed all the long-range artillery positions blasted into the rock on what cognoscenti called the “Swiss cheese” islet. “What Bergman may not have seen,” says Holmström today, was a now-disbanded “top secret underground sonar station … concealed under a barn belonging to a farmer [who was] also commander of the local Home Guard Unit.”
Farther afield, senior American officials I interviewed during the Cold War were notably complacent about the neutrality Sweden has claimed ever since it lost out in the Napoleonic wars. Even in the most tense moments, they said placidly that if Sweden’s Viggens could just secure the country’s own airspace, that was already a big contribution to Western deterrence of the 20 Soviet divisions around Berlin.
Ironically, the Kremlin was also in on the secret. It knew all about Stockholm and Helsinki’s NATO links, thanks to that superstar double agent, Swedish Air Force Colonel Stig Wennerström, who first perfected his trade skills by spying for both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in World War II. He was convicted of treason by a Swedish court in 1964 and paroled in 1974. He was still alive as the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 and died in obscurity in 2006 at the age of 99.
So what lessons can be drawn for the present from this still-surprising chapter of the Cold War? That this was a bygone era, in which governments that didn’t face Wikileaks, iPhones, and compulsive 24/7 tweets could successfully hide their core survival strategies from voters for their own good? That once upon a time governments could secretly take wise decisions that would have been reviled by contemporary voters but justified by the next generation’s retrospective gratitude (or indifference)? That America too can hope some day to return from polarization to consensus? That sometimes spies’ betrayal of one’s war plans can actually favor deterrence by averting lethal miscalculation? All’s well that ends well?
If this hidden Scandinavian-NATO alliance—and perhaps even the Soviets’ knowledge of it—helped to prevent the Cold War from escalating into a hot war and thereby produce the longest period of peace in European history, I’m glad. And if the tale now being told prods a new whodunit writer to arise some day and find as much popularity in ferreting out villains on the left as Larsson and Sjowall and Wahloo have found in ferreting out villains on the right, I’ll enjoy reading her.
But I still regret that I never once managed to bluff my way onto Swiss-cheese Fårö past the discreet glances of Gotland ferry hands.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist whose first book, From the Yaroslavsky Station, described the Soviet Union in its twilight decade.
World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond