(W)Archives: Fighting the Information War in Sweden


Ever since the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government has been struggling to gain an advantageous position in the information environment in the Middle East.   It has tried to counteract the propaganda coming from terrorists and insurgents and struggled to get its own message out in what it has often viewed as biased mainstream media in the Arab world.   It has started its own radio station and a Twitter feed to battle terrorists and reportedly paid to place articles in Arab papers.

These sorts of efforts have a long lineage in the United States, as today’s document shows.  It is an excerpt from a report housed in the National Archives in Washington on information activities by the American naval attaché in Sweden during World War I.  We learn from it that working alongside the Allied Legations in Stockholm, the attaché’s office devoted itself “almost entirely” to what it called “educational work.”  There seemed to be a great need for such work.  Sweden was neutral during World War I but its government and population tended to lean pro-German.  Furthermore, the German government “in every way possible attempted to influence public opinion in favor of Germany and against countries opposed to Germany.”  American officials found that “German and Austrian propaganda films were being shown generally in theaters as they were in most cases furnished free of charge.”  Moreover, news from the United States and the Allied countries was distributed by a Swedish telegraph bureau which was run by a pro-German Swede.  “Many of the most important cables were suppressed and what were not suppressed were in many cases garbled and colored.”  The result was that “allied news [was] being distributed to the press of Sweden as it best suited the interests of Germany.”  The Swedish public was never informed, for instance, of the German defeat at the Battle of the Marne.

All was not lost, however.  The naval attaché discovered that once Swedes had a chance to experience American movies, they preferred them to German ones.  Having demonstrated that there was demand, he arranged to bring American movies into the country, but would only allow theater owners to show them if they signed “agreements which did not allow them to show German-made films in any theaters where American and Allied films were shown and which compelled the purchase and the showing in every afternoon and evening program of our propaganda and educational films.”  Soon American and Allied movies had almost completely captured the market.

To deal with the problem of bias in news reporting, the a strange coalition of “Liberal and Socialist leaders in the … Swedish government and of certain strong financial groups whose interests lay with [the Allies]” to start a news bureau.  After a time, American and Allied news items were making their way into Swedish papers and Swedes were exposed to a set of facts more congenial to American interests.

The similarities to recent American information operations are obvious.  But there is one big difference.  The recent American efforts have been undertaken in countries where the United States was actually at war in a direct effort to support military efforts.  The information operations in the broader region were largely meant to counteract radicalization that could put more fighters onto the battlefield and to retain the tacit cooperation of Arab governments with the American war effort.

Sweden, however, was neutral, and regardless of how pro-German the country may have been, it was not going to enter the war on Germany’s side.  Nor could Sweden do anything to impede American or Allied military operations on the Western Front.  Why then, did the naval attaché do all this work?  The report does not explicitly say.   Sweden was an important provider of mineral ores and wood pulp to Germany.  However, the report does not claim that the American “educational” efforts had the intent or the effect of ending that trade.

One might almost suspect that the efforts in Sweden had their roots in political philosophy rather than strategy.  The United States usually goes to war for what it believes are self-evidently good and moral reasons.  Furthermore, this nation has always viewed itself as exceptional.  As Stephen Walt has noted “most statements of ‘American exceptionalism’ presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration.”  The obvious corollary is that peoples who do not see things the way we do are simply being denied access to the truth.  Perhaps, then, the information operations in Sweden were motivated by an altruistic desire to share with the Swedes the moral and political benefits that would inevitably come from seeing the world the right way, the American way


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.