Document of the Week: When Sweden Wanted Nukes

A 1963 U.S. intelligence assessment underscores how many countries—even Sweden—were exploring nuclear weapons programs at the height of the Cold War.

At the height of the Cold War, as both Washington and Moscow were amassing their nuclear arsenals, a neutral Scandinavian country was exploring building its own.

“Sweden has long been considered to be a country which might attempt to develop nuclear weapons,” reads a 1963 U.S. intelligence assessment on the plan, the subject of this Document of the Week. 

The assessment, prepared by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in August 1963, analyzes Sweden’s plans to acquire nuclear weapons and provides a glimpse into how smaller countries grappled with the growing specter of nuclear war during the Cold War. The document also highlights lesser-known efforts by smaller countries around the world to develop nuclear weapons—Sweden wasn’t alone. Other countries that either explored acquiring nuclear weapons include Argentina, Italy, Switzerland, South Korea, and South Africa. (South Africa eventually produced, and then voluntarily dismantled, a small nuclear weapons arsenal in 1989.)

Many of the most vexing foreign-policy challenges facing the United States today center on nuclear weapons: roiling tensions with Iran after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear pact, the fate of Cold War-era arms treaties with Russia, and the slog of negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Thanks to decades of diplomacy and successive nonproliferation pacts, only a handful of countries around the world have nuclear weapons today.

Sweden, obviously, is not one of them, despite brief nuclear ambitions in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Unlike neighboring Norway and Denmark, which as members of NATO were protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, neutral Sweden was on its own for defense. Leading figures in the country’s military and conservative political camps began calling on the government to acquire nuclear weapons to deter any threats from the Soviet Union, and the military drew up sophisticated defense plans for when it got the bomb. 

“No one in Sweden has been able to counter the military argument that Swedish conventional defenses will become relatively ineffective in the face of the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal,” the U.S. intelligence assessment reads. 

Beginning in the early 1960s, a groundswell of public backlash against the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons gained ground. Sweden ultimately abandoned the plans and became committed to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, signing onto a raft of nonproliferation treaties. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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