Rowing in Neutral Waters (or, Why All Swedes Don’t Kill Themselves)

Pictured in September 1975, Senator Hubert Humphrey (left), a former Vice President of the United States, and Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden 1969 – 1976 and 1982 – 1986. As HTBS has noted several times before, since 1953 it has been a tradition that Swedish leaders take foreign dignitaries who are visiting their official summer residence Harpsund near Stockholm out in a boat, the Harpsundsekan, and row on the estate’s lake.

23 June 2022

By Tim Koch

Inspired by a picture of a famous rowing boat, Tim Koch muses on two men who were not in the same boat but who were at least pulling in roughly the same direction.

Hubert Humphrey had served as the 38th Vice President of the United States from 1965 to 1969 and had also been the Democratic contender for President in 1968, running against Richard Nixon with a campaign based on addressing discrimination, poverty and unemployment. Nixon painted a picture of an America in chaos and in need of “law and order”. Nixon’s approach won out, and would dictate the course of American policy for decades. By the time Humphrey met with Prime Minister Olof Palme in Sweden in 1975 and had his outing in the Harpsundsekan, he was only a lowly senator with no obvious political power. There were, however, at least a couple good reasons for the two to meet.

For two years between February 1968 and February 1970, the U.S. had recalled its Ambassador to Sweden after the outspoken Palme, then minister of education, had demonstrated against the Vietnam War alongside the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union. In August 1972, the recall was repeated for a year because then Prime Minister Palme compared America’s ongoing bombings of Hanoi to such actions as Nazi atrocities, the bombing of Guernica and the Sharpeville massacre. The U.S. also took the unusual step of announcing publicly that the new Swedish Ambassador would not be welcome in Washington. The New York Times of 5 September 1973 reported, “Senator Hubert Humphrey has accurately characterised the Administration’s attitude toward Sweden as ‘infantile petulance’.”Palme was, no doubt, grateful for Humphrey’s support.

A wire photo and report on Humphrey and Palme’s row. Another picture is here. Picture:

It was not just Humphrey’s Norwegian mother that caused him to be attracted to countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Particularly in his fourth Senate term (1971 – 1976), he was keen to establish himself as the leader of the liberal cause in U.S. politics, his progressive image having been tarnished by his support for the Vietnam War. 

The famously progressive Scandinavian countries were a potential source of ideas and inspiration to those on the centre left everywhere, including Humphrey who was not only friends with Palme but also with European socialists and social democrats such as West Germany’s Willy Brandt and Portugal’s Mário Soares. However, associating with left-leaning foreigners was a dangerous action for any American politician. 

In the early 1960s for example, the Kennedy Administration had looked at the highly successful Swedish labour and taxation policies but had been careful to call them the products of a “free-enterptise welfare state” and not of some sort of socialism.

Palme and Castro in 1975. Palme’s views and policy of non-alignment earned him many opponents as well as many friends at home and abroad. Internationally, he was a harsh critic of governments of both East and West; he actively opposed nuclear weapons, Franco’s Spain, apartheid South Africa and Pinochet’s Chile; he praised the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Castro’s Cuba.

Palme’s views may have been partly inspired by an unlikely source. In 1947 and 1948, he studied in and hitchhiked around the U.S. According to his Wikipedia entry

In later years, Palme regularly remarked… that the United States had made him a socialist, a remark that often has caused confusion. Within the context of his American experience, it was not that Palme was repelled by what he found in America, but rather that he was inspired by it.

American conservatives (and some liberals) had long had a problem with the Scandinavian countries. Sweden, Norway et al were both wealthy and democratic but (to U.S. eyes at least) also socialist. This was at variance with the idea that only The American Way could produce economically rich and politically free states. Interestingly, the way that the American right dealt with this apparent paradox could be responsible for a very enduring myth about Scandinavia. An academic website explains this in an article titled Is suicide more common in the Nordics?:

Despite regularly ranking high up in global happiness indexes, the image of the Nordic people as extraordinarily suicidal has persisted since the 1960s…

The image of the Nordic people as extraordinarily suicidal did not become internationally commonplace until the 1960s when foreign conservatives, most notably American president Dwight Eisenhower, linked high suicide rates in Sweden and Denmark with the “socialist” directives of the Scandinavian governments. 

The image of droves of Nordic citizens—depressed by gloomy weather, suppressed by tyrannical governments, driven to psychosis by drugs and drink—committing suicide remains a potent one, especially amongst foreign commentators who come to ‘the north’ to seek out the dark effects of socialism. The realities of Nordic suicide rates can thus come as a shock to these prospecting onlookers. As one perplexed reporter for the Wall Street Journal related: “The real question is, why don’t all Swedes kill themselves?” Suicide rates are fairly average in the Nordics. In fact, most studies do not indicate a particularly strong tendency towards suicide in the Nordic region.

League tables should always be treated with suspicion and caution but the United States is 19th in the World Happiness Rankings 2021 while Sweden is 7th (the Nordic countries are all in the top seven). America is 26th in the Economist’s 2021 Democracy Index which classifies it as a “flawed democracy”, ranked just below Chile, but the Nordics are all in the top six. In the World Suicide Rankings, the U.S. is 23rd while Sweden is 28th. Perhaps it is Swedes that should consider Americans a high suicide risk?

Palme rowed his own course. He self-identified as a “progressive.”

A little over ten years after their 1975 row in the Harpsundsekan, both Humphrey and Palme were dead. Humphrey died of cancer in 1978 aged 67. He spent his last weeks calling old political acquaintances, including Richard Nixon, inviting him to his funeral. In one of his last speeches, he delivered what the LA Times called “the liberals’ mantra”:

It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Near the end, Humphrey reflected on his life with few regrets: I didn’t quite make history, but they knew I was there.

Famously, the death of Palme by assination still resonates. Although Prime Minister, he made a point of living as much as possible like an ordinary person and often went out without bodyguards. He was shot and killed in a Stockholm street while returning from a visit to a cinema on 28 February 1986. This would be a shocking event in any country but, in one with no incidence of political murder since 1792 and low rates of domestic killings, the act was difficult for the Swedish people to comprehend. It was a “Kennedy Moment” both in its impact and in the discontent and disbelief that followed when the killer was not found and the investigation botched.

To his countrymen, Palme was more than a politician. “Pivotal and polarising”, as the leader of the Social Democratic Party for sixteen years he had been responsible for many of the policies that people typically associate with Sweden, including high taxes and a robust social welfare system. Palme had come to embody not only the party, but these values, too. He was not universally popular in his native country but, as The Guardian put it: 

To Swedes of all political persuasions, the symbolism of Palme’s assassination was clear: it was as if the killer wanted to destroy the idea of modern Sweden itself.

Sven Olof Joachim Palme, 30 January 1927 – 28 February 1986
Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr, 27 May 1911 – 13 January 1978

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