Good morning, it’s Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, the day the week when I reprise an instructive or inspirational quotation. Today’s comes Vilhelm Moberg, one of the greatest Scandinavian writers of the 20th century. Yes, Moberg was Swedish and he was a novelist, not a historian, and it’s also true that my essays concern U.S. history. But Moberg’s words were put in the mouth of an immigrant to this country, Karl Oskar Nilsson, and they are timeless.
First, though, I’ll point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer an array original material from our own reporters, columnists, and contributors this morning, including the following:
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Will Joe Biden Continue to Compete in the New Space Race? Brandon Weichert warns that China could surpass the U.S., placing satellites at risk, if the Democratic nominee becomes president and continues the Obama era’s lagging support for NASA.
Why the UAE-Israel Deal Spells Trouble for Iran. John Hannah explains in RealClearDefense.
Religious Freedom Is the Antidote to Cancel Culture. In RealClearReligion, Nathan Berkeley and Philip Rexroth argue that faith-based precepts offer a viable way of living together in societies riven by deep disagreement.
A Fix Exists for Transplant Rationing. In RealClearHealth, Gunnar Esiason and Virginia O’Hayer address the hard truth that there are more people who require transplants to stay alive than there are organs to save them.
The Uncertain Transition to “Green” Energy. In RealClearEnergy, Frank Lasee warns that wind and solar are far more expensive, and less reliable, ways to generate electric power compared to fossil fuels.
Churchill’s First Steps Into World War II. In RealClearHistory, Francis Sempa examines the prime minister’s response to Germany’s invasion of Poland 81 years ago.
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Seven years ago today, President Obama was in Stockholm meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, a leader even younger than himself. After their joint press conference, Obama spoke at a ceremony honoring heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, toured an energy plant, and dined with an assortment of Nordic principals.
It was a fitting time for such a visit. Exactly 231 years earlier, Benjamin Franklin, while serving as ambassador to France, commenced negotiations between Sweden and America. On this very date – Sept. 4, 1782 — Franklin wrote a brief note to John Jay informing him that he’d instructed British go-between Richard Oswald that the document that would become the Treaty of Paris must have as its first article “the independence of America.”
That same month, Franklin was made ambassador to Sweden. Although he didn’t travel to Stockholm, Franklin received Swedish envoys eager to formally recognize the United States. They represented the first nation not involved in the Revolutionary War to do so. And so in September 1782, Ben Franklin began drafting the documents that would link Sweden and the United States for the next two centuries.
Although things seem pretty good today, the ensuing 23 decades haven’t always been smooth sailing between Sweden and America.
The U.S., it is often said, has a “special relationship” with Great Britain. That is certainly true, but America has a special relationship with many countries, as befitting our history as a nation of immigrants. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some 1.3 million Swedes emigrated from their homeland. At the time, this represented nearly one-fourth of Sweden’s population, and most of those emigres ended up in the United States. So “relationship” is the right word. But all families have disagreements, some of which devolve into bitter arguments — even if they are ultimately resolved or put aside. So it is with the United States and Sweden.
When post-World War II Americans thought about Sweden, what came to mind besides Saabs, Volvos, and brooding actresses, was gloomy weather, gloomier people, cowardice and capitulation in foreign policy, high taxes, an absurdly generous social safety net, darkly intellectual movies, and two other themes that don’t easily coexist: political correctness and permissive sexual mores.
“I have been reading quite an article on the experiment of almost complete paternalism in a friendly European country,” President Dwight Eisenhower said at a breakfast speech in 1960. “This country has a tremendous record for socialistic operation, following a socialistic philosophy, and the record shows that their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably and I think they were almost the lowest nation in the world for that. Now, they have more than twice our rate. Drunkenness has gone up. Lack of ambition is discernible on all sides.”
Eisenhower didn’t mention Sweden by name, but he didn’t have to. And it was clear from his gratuitous swipe that Ike still blamed Swedes for collaborating with Nazi Germany instead of fighting during World War II.
But Sweden would develop its own grievances against the United States, mainly over the war in Southeast Asia. When Swedes contemplated their Americans cousins, they thought of Fords and Chevy pickup trucks, rock ’n’ roll and Hollywood, yes, but also about a militaristic foreign policy epitomized by Vietnam; a social safety net that seemed mainly orientated toward incarceration; and hard-to-comprehend “cowboy” presidents personified by Lyndon Johnson and, later, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
In the 1960s, America briefly broke off diplomatic relations with Sweden. It wasn’t easy being cousins with a country where leading politicians openly raised money for the Viet Cong, granted asylum to American draft dodgers and U.S Army deserters, and where the prime minister overly compared U.S. bombing campaigns to Nazi war crimes. Thus had Prime Minister Olof Palme paid back Ike’s slander — with interest (as Harry Truman might have said).
Eventually, the Vietnam War ended, and over time the cousins became close again. It took some movement on both sides. Still liberal on social issues, Sweden rediscovered the benefits of free market capitalism. The U.S. elected an African American president and stumbled, belatedly, toward recognition of gay marriage.
Speaking of marriage, 10 years ago a Swedish princess named Madeleine broke off her engagement to a well-connected Swedish lawyer and moved to New York to recover her spirits. There, she fell in love with a handsome banker named Christopher O’Neill, who is half-British and half-American. They wed in June 2013, five years before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry used matrimony to further cement the bonds between their native countries.
I must point out, however, that even when relations between Sweden and the United States were at their nadir, it was mainly elites who nursed grievances. Everyday Americans and Swedes knew they were connected. Americans tourists visiting Sweden in those years would typically be asked the same series of questions. The first two were whether the visitor was against the war in Vietnam and whether he or she had any Swedish relatives. The answer to the first question was an obligatory yes, and the second was almost always in the affirmative as well.
Let’s say our generic tourist hailed from Chicago; the final question was some version of this: “I have a cousin in Oregon — do you know her?”
This reminder of the small size of the Mother Country always struck Americans, but then we have many mother countries, some big, some small. American visitors to Sweden would learn something else: Scandinavians, once you get to know them, are often warm, welcoming, and generous. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Americans visitors would often be given a going-away present from their long-lost relatives or new Swedish friends — Vilhelm Moberg’s four-part “Emigrants” series.
The first novel ends when the small wooden ship carrying Karl Oskar Nilsson, wife Kristina and their children and traveling party anchors in New York harbor. The year is 1850, and
Karl Oskar’s first impression upon stepping off the ship is disorienting:
“The ground under him rolled exactly as the deck had done. Giddiness made him stumble a bit. Never once at sea had he felt this way. Now when he stood on firm land dizziness overtook him and his legs were wobbly. He could not understand it. Perhaps he had forgotten how to walk on solid ground, perhaps he must begin anew, as he must with his whole life. But in this unknown new land, which he now entered, he must stand firmly on his legs. That much he knew.”
And that’s our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics