When New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis went to Hanoi in the early 1970s, a barrage of American bombs greeted his arrival. Lewis took refuge in the Swedish embassy at the invitation of Ambassador Jean-Christopher Oberg. As the sound of explosions filled the air with Lewis wondering why he had left the relative peace of Cambridge, the story has it that Oberg nonchalantly went about his normal activities. In his mid-thirties at the time, the Swedish diplomat was already a veteran of tumultuous Southeast Asia.
Currently on a year-long leave from his country's foreign services as a fellow at the Center for International Affairs (CFIA), he speaks with passion about an area of the world--Asia--where he has spent much of his adult life. His career beginning in 1961. Oberg was assigned, fresh out of law school, to the Swedish mission in Jakarta. He then moved on to Thailand but returned home in 1965 to take charge of the Asian affairs bureau in Stockholm. For the next five years, Oberg helped mediate between the United States and Hanoi. In 1970, he opened the Swedish mission to the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam. He stayed in Vietnam until 1974, a witness to the gradual American withdrawal. After a brief sojourn to Stockholm, Oberg was named ambassador to Thailand. Laos and Singapore--Sweden maintained one post for these three nations--where he served until last year.
Oberg sees U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a tragedy of moral insensitivity and missed opportunities. "leaving aside the question of whether America should have been there in the first place," he says, "there is no doubt the conflict could have been handled in a way that might have allowed the U.S. to retain some say in the area Nixon, for example was elected in part as a reaction against the war. If he had really wanted to, he could have resolved the problem a lot sooner. Instead, by prolonging a lost and immoral cause. Nixon assured the total defeat of the U.S. and the predominance of the Soviet Union in the area."
Today, Oberg believes conciliation is possible and necessary between the United States and Vietnam. On a recent visit to Hanoi, he was told by the Prime Minister "in no uncertain terms that the Vietnamese would welcome normalization. Public opinion is ready to forget the past and look toward the future." And yet, the diplomat understands the complexity of this proposition for Americans. He notes a tradition in U.S. foreign policy to "let bygones be bygones." But as he puts it: "In the case of Vietnam, this is a hard tradition to live up to. After all, the United States was defeated."
Oberg says his interest in foreign service grew under the influence of his father, also a diplomat. Stationed in France during World War II, the Obergs helped Jews flee the Vichy government and its deportation measures. Oberg tells the story of a young Jewish boy who stayed with the Swedish family for several months until arrangements could be made to take him to a safer place. In departing, the youth left some clothes behind, including a pair of long pants given to Jean-Christophe. "Getting your first pair of long pants was a big thing in those days," says Oberg. "It was a sign of manhood. And here I was wearing the pants of another boy who people were trying to prevent from becoming a man. It is a memory that has stayed with me ever since."
A Social Democrat and staunch supporter of Swedish opposition leader Olaf Palme. Oberg is quite outspoken on international affairs and politics in general. He believes the Reagan Administration's policies are counter-productive and points to Central America as an example. In El Salvador and Nicaragua. Oberg claims, the U.S. is making the same type of mistakes it did in Vietnam. While trying to limit the influence of the Soviet Union in these countries, the U.S., with its present actions, is accomplishing the opposite.
"The United States must recognize the strength and legitimacy of nationalist movements in these nations if it wants to have any impact," Oberg says. For him, the bottom fine is pluralism and democracy. "I'm not in favor of communism because I don't think it's democratic. But once a country has gone communist, we have to accept it and live with it. If you believe in pluralism at home, you have to accept it in the international arena as well. And it you believe in democracy, which we must, you have to rely on the strength of democratic forces.
Living in the United States is a dream Oberg says he has had for ages. Oberg says his mind needed refreshing, after serving as an ambassador for 10 years. Indeed, remarks the diplomat, a tendency evolves in any bureaucracy to isolate one self from anything new. Harvard presented a stimulating challenge and the opportunity to "rejuvenate myself at mid career and get new input. "But most important Oberg felt he was losing touch with the younger generation. The father of four children, he knew something was missing in their relationship. A university seemed to him the ideal place to become reacquainted.
"All my expectations have been fulfilled, and twice over at that. The contact with students and faculty has got to be one of the most rewarding experiences I've had And the CHA is a fantastic institution. There is lots of time for discussion and learning and a permanent flow of fascinating people."
Like any other Fellow, Oberg takes courses at Harvard. Two he says he particularly enjoyed were Professor Karl Deutsch's "Peace, Justice and the Processes of Change" and a French poetry class. "What is so marvelous about being back in school is that my arguments are not taken for granted. In a very healthy way, students are short of regard for titles. At Harvard, I am myself, not Mr. Ambassador."
But Oberg does not confine his activities to playing student. He fills the role of teacher as well by offering a seminar at the Institute of Politics entitled "Southeast Asia after 1975: Peace or War?" Most students today don't remember Vietnam." Oberg says, returning to his favorite subject. "Yet it played a tremendous role in the minds of an entire generation. What I am trying to do is look at it from a distance, hopefully as objectively as possible. But the emphasis will be on the future as well. After all, that is where the hope lies."
In addition, Oberg is writing an article on Cambodia that Foreign Affairs might publish and is working on a book about Vietnam. For this diplomat-turned scholar, the days are well-filled.
This summer, Oberg will return to Sweden and go back to work for the foreign service. But his career will have a lot to do with the Social Democrats' success in regaining the power they lost in 1976. Should Palme once again become Prime Minister. Oberg is likely to be made Foreign Minister, one State Department official says. The next election will be held in September and until then. Oberg will do "whatever the foreign ministery say."
Oberg shows as much passion for Swedish politics as he does for international affairs and obviously admires Palme greatly. Both men are international and share somewhat futuristic ideas about what a modern society should look like.
"We want to create a society where private enterprise and social responsibility go hand in hand. In particular, we have to give more participation to the workers. They are the direct producers and must feel a partnership in the productive process.
Already when the Social Democrats were in power seven years ago, they passed legislation to get workers on the factory board and make them full partners in the enterprise. Still, we have a long way to go. Solidarity is not an empty word."
What Palme, Oberg and other Social Democrats are driving at is a move beyond present day ideologies. As Oberg says: "Neither capitalism nor communism has provided what people want. The rate of unemployment in the capitalist world shows this. And the suppression of democracy in Poland and the refusal in the East bloc as a whole to give the true working class its say in society is proof communism doesn't work."
By no means a pessimist, Oberg is nonetheless deeply concerned about the potentially lethal dangers he perceives at an international level. He points in particular to an accelerating arms race and the disparity between rich and poor nations. As a veteran diplomat, he believes above all in talking keeping the lines of communication open between conflicting groups. "What is important," says Oberg, "is that the common dangers people face fare much greater than their differences. The world cannot be seen in terms of we and they. "In truth it is just we."