What better way to start a weekend than with a Friday night film. Make it a comedy. After all, prime ministers need to relax, too.
For Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, the evening promised to be especially enjoyable because he and his wife Lisbeth would meet up with one of their three sons and his girlfriend. A family night out in Stockholm.
The Palmes went to a late screening of The Brothers Mozart at the Grand cinema on Sveavågen, a major thoroughfare. It was a little after eleven when the movie ended. The family said their goodbyes and bundled up—the night was cold and blustery on February 28, 1986.
Palme and Lisbeth strolled along Sveavågen. Like other Swedish leaders, the prime minister disliked large entourages. He had dismissed his security detail hours earlier. He and his wife walked alone.
Less than three blocks from the theater, a man stepped up to them and fired two shots, point-blank, from a .357 Magnum revolver, striking Palme in the back and grazing his wife. Other pedestrians ran over to help. Two attempted CPR on Palme as he lay bleeding on the snowy sidewalk. The gunman, meanwhile, fled down a narrow side street.
A taxi driver feverishly radioed for police; a second cabbie nearby heard the transmission and flagged down a patrol car. Palme was rushed to a nearby hospital.
But it was too late. Olof Palme—a much admired, much criticized leader during a turbulent era—was pronounced dead just after midnight. He was fifty-nine.
Palme was known for guiding neutral Sweden in a “middle way'' during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. He assailed South African apartheid, and, at the United Nation's behest, he attempted to mediate the Iran-Iraq war. He stridently criticized American involvement
in the Vietnam War, provoking hostility from the U.S. government and many Americans.
He was also a Kenyon graduate, quite possibly Kenyon's most prominent alumnus on the world stage—a statesman formed in part by a youthful sojourn in the United States, including a year on the Hill. He left Kenyon with lifelong friends and an affection, for both the College and America, that would never flag.
“Lucky to land there”
Palme arrived in Gambier from Sweden at age twenty in the autumn of 1947. He was an unconventional student at an unconventional time in the College's history.
“He had wanted to go to school in the States; he never made entirely clear why,” classmate and longtime friend Henry J. Abraham '48 said in a recent interview. “So he turned to his grandfather, who was a Lutheran bishop in Sweden at the time. His grandfather said he would take care of it, but you have to agree to one condition. You have to go to a Protestant college.”
Palme sought a scholarship through the American Scandinavian Foundation. “Suddenly I received a letter from Kenyon,” he told the Alumni Bulletin in a 1984 interview. “I had never heard of the College, but as it turned out I was lucky, extremely lucky to land there.”
He entered Kenyon fluent in English, French, and German, with extensive academic credit from studies in Sweden. He also had served as a cavalry lieutenant.
At the time, the College was flooded with ex-military men, young American veterans of World War II. Many of them lived in Splinterville, the nickname for a temporary housing complex built to handle the enrollment bulge.
As a resident of the complex's large “T barracks,” Palme met Paul Newman '49; the two would remain friendly throughout their lives. Other friends included William T. Bulger '48, who went on to teach history at Central Michigan University, as well as Abraham, who later taught political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, and served as a College trustee.
The future prime minister, who majored in economics and political science, was a straight-A student. But he found time for soccer, which had just emerged as a varsity sport. Palme wore number 32; Abraham, the team captain, wore number 37.
Palme worked as a dining hall waiter, said Abraham, who had the same job. “He received, as we all did, 47 cents per meal and all we could eat. We put up a sign [reminding the waiters] to wear neckties. And one day he came in with a necktie and no shirt on. When we took him to task, he pointed to the sign and said, ‘All you said was wear a necktie.' ”
Palme spent Christmas of 1947 at the Bulger family home in Flint, Michigan, and later would reminisce about banging on pans with the Bulgers to welcome the New Year.
Meanwhile, he honed his progressive social views by visiting an industrial plant in nearby Mount Vernon. “He spent every weekend exploring the union movement,” Abraham said. “He would go to the plant and talk with people.”
The explorations widened. After graduating in 1948—extensive academic credit from Sweden enabled Palme to finish up at Kenyon in just a year—he hitchhiked through thirty-four states, taking odd jobs when he could.
His American experiences proved to be important. “For the first time, I came out of isolated Sweden,” he said in a 1971 interview. The cross-country trip gave him “a good picture of American society. It gave me strong feelings about social injustices.”
Minister on the rise
Back in Sweden, Palme obtained a law degree and eventually took a job in the prime minister's office. In 1957 he was first elected to the Swedish parliament as a member of the dominant Social Democratic party, the left-leaning architect of the country's famous social-welfare system. He joined the government's cabinet in 1963 as minister without portfolio. His first official duty—grimly ironic in retrospect—was to attend the funeral of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
Sweden maintained a neutral stance in foreign policy, attempting to walk a narrow line between the two Cold War behemoths. Neutrality shouldn't mean aloofness, though, in Palme's view. He joined in a demonstration when the Soviet Union sent troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to repress liberalization. But it was his criticism of America's role in Vietnam that brought him the most publicity.
During the late 1960s, Sweden accepted U.S. military deserters. The country also had given a modest amount of financial assistance to North Vietnam. In 1968, when he was minister of education, Palme participated with a North Vietnamese diplomat in a protest against American involvement in Vietnam.
“The American ambassador (a ranch-owner from Texas) became angry and went home and we had a magnificent internal row here in Sweden,” Palme wrote to Bulger. “The opposition demanded that I resign immediately. But I stayed.”
In another letter, Palme told Bulger, “I am deeply worried, disgusted and almost desperate because of the incredible folly of the Vietnam war. Politically and morally America has lost the war, and it can only drive her into a deeper and deeper isolation. For somebody who loves America, her people and her institutions, this is particularly tragic.”
In the midst of U.S. criticism over his stance, Palme repeatedly spoke of his affection for the United States. He called the United States the “Land of Hope” and said, “I am not anti-American but I am critical of United States policy in Vietnam.”
Palme was elected leader of the Social Democrats in 1969. As his party held the majority in parliament, he became prime minister. At forty-two, he was the youngest chief of government in Swedish history.
A tumultuous Kenyon return
Soon, a letter arrived from Kenyon President William G. Caples, inviting Palme to be the 1970 Commencement speaker and receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Palme told Caples he was unavailable for Commencement because parliament would still be in session. The two agreed that he would visit during Reunion Weekend.
Some alumni and newspapers criticized the invitation. A Columbus Dispatch editorial, for example, said Palme “would dearly love to come back and make an old-grad-makes-good address. We would not recommend it.”
Caples defended the visit: “The premier is young . . . and the students relate to him. His views on the Vietnam War are typical of theirs.” Palme was to speak about freedom, “a timely subject of interest to everyone on campus.”
His speech, on June 6, 1970, came at a volatile moment in American history, little more than a month after President Nixon announced the American and South Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia. Protests erupted, including the confrontation at Kent State University in which Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine.
Tensions ran high at Kenyon. Local and federal authorities put some one hundred uniformed and undercover officers on campus. Two bus-loads of members of the International Longshoremen's Association arrived to protest against Palme. As he spoke to about 1,000 in front of Samuel Mather Hall, the longshoremen hooted and jeered, but there was no violence.
Possibly lost in the hubbub was the content of Palme's speech. Titled “On the Freedom of Men and the Freedom of Nations,” it didn't mention Vietnam at all.
“Freedom is really a hope, a feeling of confidence in the future,” Palme told his audience. He spoke about pollution, unsafe working conditions, education and worker training, growing military spending, gaps between rich and poor. “But these issues cannot be resolved by politicians alone. They can only be overcome with the organized help of the people . . . Democratic action rests on the awareness that stability can never be attained by standing still . . . . To defend the status quo means to regress from bad to worse. Stability can be gained only by social change.”
During his visit, Palme held impromptu discussion sessions with students who had returned to campus for the speech. He casually sat atop a worktable in a lecture hall answering questions. Here was a world figure who, notwithstanding the controversy that sometimes surrounded him, could seem extraordinarily at ease and unassuming.
Who shot Olof Palme?
The Social Democrats lost power in 1976 but regained it in 1982, returning Palme to the premiership. He tried not to let prominence interfere with the pleasures of an ordinary life. News photos over the years showed him horsing around with his boys or riding a bicycle, dressed in tennis shorts and carrying a racquet. He kept his home number in the Stockholm phone directory.
To his American friends, this openness was unimaginable. Abraham, who had taught in Denmark for two years, would return to Scandinavia from time to time, stopping to visit Palme. “The last time I saw him was about a year and a half before he was assassinated,” Abraham recalled. “We had lunch in Parliament, as we always did. He wanted to show me some plans for buildings. As we went downstairs, I asked Olof, ‘Where are your guards?' He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Hank, this is Sweden, not America.' ”
Then came that fateful night in February 1986. And a mystery that persists to this day.
In 1989, police arrested Christer Pettersson, a street thug with a long history of violent crime. Mrs. Palme identified him in a police lineup. He was tried and convicted, but an appeals court overturned the conviction. No murder weapon had been found, no significant motive had been established, and Mrs. Palme's identification was shaky.
Others have been arrested, but the charges always were dropped. Meanwhile, amateur “Palme detectives” have advanced various theories.
Certainly, the prime minister had many potential enemies, ranging from right-wing Swedish police officers to the CIA and the Soviet KGB. Speculation has also included agents from Saddam Hussein's Iraqi secret police, members of Germany's notorious left-wing Red Army Faction, agents of the South African secret police, and radical Kurds.
Abraham recalled once asking Palme what he would do if he were turned out of office. “He said, ‘I'm not going to lose.' But I persisted. He said, ‘All right, I would like to be secretary general of the United Nations.' ”
With Palme approaching sixty, a second career as a global leader was not far-fetched at all. But of course, it was not to be.
Kenyon classmate Bulger put it simply, and wistfully. “I wished that he had a security detail that night.”