The War That Did Not Break Out

Last week the kids and I went on a summer holiday trip to south-eastern Sweden to see a friend and his kids. The adults arranged an ambitious schedule for museums and cultural experiences.

One day we drove to Karlskrona to visit the Swedish Naval Museum. Small and good — the museum curators focus on the navy during three decades and make sure that these periods get well covered:
1780s: the sailing navy in Gustav III’s Russian war,
1890s: the building of a state-of-the-art steel-and-steam navy,
1980s: the navy in hot action during the Cold War.

The theme of the 1980s exhibit was the Cold War’s impact on Sweden. Several Soviet submarine incursions in Swedish waters and the ensuing use of live weapons by the navy led to a reassessment of what the Cold War meant to our country. The friend and I were both young men in those days, serving one year each as conscripts in the army and then going to college. Watching interviews with Swedish politicians, policy analysts and navy officers who participated in those stressful events 30 years ago made me remember what I had seen and done then. Memories of a distant past are notoriously selective, so it was illuminating to hear so many eye-witnesses: helicopter pilots who had dropped depth charges, navy commodores who had commanded live-fire operations, ministers who had issued instructions to the military and determined national policies, etc.

There was a close shave in the autumn of 1981, when a Soviet sub stranded on a shallows next to a navy base and the Soviets planned to liberate it by force. However, a combination of a tough stance by the prime minister and some clever stratagems by the local Swedish commanders made them abstain and back down. (The outcome could instead have become a bloody clash between Soviet commandos and Swedish conscripts among the skerries.) The following years saw many unsuccessful submarine hunts in other sensitive areas along Sweden’s Baltic coastline.

After the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989-91, researchers have shown the extent of that tyranny’s state of disrepair in the 1980s. But its pitiful condition had been camouflaged by deception and bluster. When I was in my 20s, the Soviet Union projected a credible impression of being a serious threat to Sweden, and a lot of people in leading positions here acted on that presumption.

Conclusion: The foreign relations stance lies & tough posturing may easily backfire. We are however fortunate to have been spared the consequences of serious misjudgments. Matters could have turned for the worse at several occasions during that decade (see for instance here and here).

A link below to a Swedish TV reconstruction of the beached submarine incident.

U-137 — dilemmat

And here is a pop culture reminder of those years — the fear of nuclear war expressed by Nena and her band in West German TV 1983.

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