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Erik Von Sydow Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Erik Von Sydow

Permanent Delegate and Head of the Swedish Mission to the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, 1949-1953.

Geneva, Switzerland
July 7, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened May 1971
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Erik Von Sydow


Geneva, Switzerland
July 7, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson


WILSON: Well, I very much appreciate your giving me some time to talk about this, and in such pleasant surroundings.

VON SYDOW: Well, isn't it nice, these quarters here? And for me it's practical. I have EFTA [European Free Trade Association] in the house, so I go down to the meetings, and can go to the Secretariat and get documents and information and so on. And we can walk over to the Palais des Nations. It's all very practical, I should say.


WILSON: Since I cannot expect, or really prepare myself, to have you go over day by day your service in those years, my procedure has been to ask for any impressions which you have, and to focus at the beginning on your personal service. I will ask you to describe the role that you played, how you happened to be appointed, and perhaps then that will suggest questions, and you can go from there.

If I may refer to my notes, you were head of a division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the period when the Marshall plan was enunciated.


WILSON: Might you describe your activities in that role?

VON SYDOW: Do you mind if I try to give a general background to it, and then comment on what you want?

WILSON: No, not at all.


VON SYDOW: Well, Mr. Wilson, I would like to say that I certainly very much welcome this opportunity to have a chance to talk about good old days in OEEC. You see, I think it had and it still has an enormous importance -- that American initiative of President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall. Here in Europe we criticize, as you know, the United States, which is sort of inevitable when it's not only a big power, but a superpower. The criticism is either that you intervene too forcefully and try to dictate, as it were, and to intervene in their internal affairs, and what have you. Or, it's very likely the same people might say that you are too isolationist; you want to withdraw within your own walls so to speak.

I think here we really have an initiative that was welcomed very much in Europe, because it had broad perspectives and it was, after all, quite different, if you compare it to what happened after the First World War. Even now, there were of course people who felt that maybe one should


split Germany into provinces and all that, and make them pay for what they have ruined all over Europe. But a broader view prevailed as we know, and the Marshall plan is the best example of it, I feel. It also is important because at a very early stage after the war -- and feelings ran high then so we wouldn't have blamed governments if they had taken a different attitude -- they brought Western Germany into cooperation as an equal member of OEEC.

So, it makes me really very happy to talk a little about it. It also was an open proposition. If the Eastern countries had chosen to cooperate, and be members, I don't know what the results would have been. It may have speeded what we now see as detente in Europe, but it could easily have been the other way around, because we had the cold war. Anyway, we know what happened to Czechoslovakia and, perhaps on balance, it was better to start in Western Europe, with this reconstruction work.


Well, so much for the background as I see it. You also asked about my own role. I was head of a division in the Department of Commercial and Economic Affairs in the Foreign Ministry, Department of State. I was in charge of lots of negotiations with Eastern bloc countries. In a way, in retrospect, they were relatively simple negotiations because there were two parties, and it was hard bargaining, but you know also the odds and you know what you could give, and so on. I don't know why I was picked for this post as head of our mission there. I was rather young at the time, and I believe that the late Dag Hammarskjuld was instrumental in making this appointment. He was, of course, the one who had been the Swedish chief delegate in the preparatory work which led to the convention in '47, the OEEC convention. I'm not ashamed to say that I was rather nervous when I got this news about being appointed, because, first of all, multilateral negotiations was a rather new


thing and it certainly was new to me. It is quite a different proposition than to deal with one country where you know exactly, more or less, what you can do and not do, and the background and so on. Here, you have to take into account so many different things. And you must keep in contact with the Secretariat and with all the major interested countries, and see to it that the Swedish point of view would, at least to some extent, prevail in this connection.

Anyway, Dag Hammarskjtuld had not had a real office in Paris. He had done it as sort of a one-man show -- this preparatory work. After all, he had authority and he didn't need to write long reports and get authorization from his government. He personified the government. He became eventually, as you know, Under Secretary of State and a bit later Cabinet minister in charge of European cooperation. Incidentally, I think unless he had been in on the Marshall plan, he wouldn't have been as internationally known as to


qualify for becoming Secretary General of the United Nations. So that was sort of what you in America would say "a spillover effect of the Marshall plan," and a very happy one, although unfortunately with a tragic end.

I should have said, and when you edit it, you could perhaps say that as the general consideration (I come to think of it now), not only was it good that you gave all European states an incentive to cooperate, but you also saw the necessity of including the North American continent, that is, the United States of America and Canada. We have exactly the same problem now with the European Security Conference, where Sweden has very much supported the idea that a conference be held, but on the condition that the United States and Canada be members.

I said that there wasn't any established office, that Mr. Hammarskjuld did it all by himself. I started out by having a small room, or two rooms, perhaps, with a secretary and a


young man as an assistant. That was all; it was in the quarters of the Swedish Embassy. And we were, I'm afraid, adopted by the Ambassador and his staff, as poor relatives, sort of. No one at that time realized what this meant. They felt this was a new very curious international cooperation: Will it really achieve anything? Is it useful, since we have the ordinary normal diplomatic channels, that can handle matters? What sort of thing is this? It took some time for them to realize it.

As for the OEEC itself, we also had our council meetings in very small and modest quarters. I think we had the French tobacco monopoly's rooms on the Seine. Later on we moved to the Chateau de la Muette, which was splendid, and very nice.

Sweden cooperated, as you know, in a special way. We were not in actual need of dollars, of support for reconstruction, because after all we had managed to remain neutral. That wasn't


actually popular immediately after the war, but was later on recognized as being in the interest of everyone. So we had this famous system of drawing rights, whereby we could, by this medium, give the opportunity for other OEEC countries to purchase, in Sweden, important machinery and so on for reconstruction of their countries. There certainly was a spirit as in the beginning, early beginning, of the American republic, I would say. In the OEEC, really, everyone worked with a purpose and was keen to contribute. Frankly, I was a little afraid, originally and for some time afterward, that it would develop more or less exclusively into a division-of-aid operation, whereby everybody would be for himself and would make a case, and try to grab as much as they could of available Marshall plan funds. Well, to some extent this is, of course, true. I wouldn't say that the countries in Europe are particularly altruistic, but incidentally there again, one always expects the United States, because it's


a world power, to have such rather dark designs.

Few realized this, but I know -- I have lived in America, and I was in Japan when MacArthur and his troops came -- and so I realize that there very often is an ingredient of idealism in American policy. I wouldn't say that you don't look after your national interests; of course, you should, but there is also an element of idealism looking towards the broad vision.

The division-of-aid sessions I remember well. We were sitting late at night at the Chateau de 1a Muette and, of course, there was a lot of competing, but still one managed to solve it in a sensible and dignified way. And parallel with this -- this wasn't a purpose in itself, although it was very important for the reconstruction -- one started to map out a policy for liberalization of trade, and payments. One examined how one could increase the liberalization, and abolish quotas and all that. That was a very difficult proposition because once you have established a position, because of war