Like a northern pike rising at a lure, Sweden's ambassador has risen to defend his country against an accusation in a recent column. I welcome the opportunity to amplify the offending remark.

Writing about Raoul Wallenberg, the savior of thousands of Hungarian Jews, who disappeared into Soviet prisons in 1945, I quoted a Swedish official saying that, "We are working on the supposition that Wallenberg is still alive." I said: "Sweden's lethargy concerning the case--lethargy born of cowardice--hardly constitutes 'working.'"

In a letter to The Washington Post, the ambassador calls this "grossly unfair." He admits Sweden believed initial Soviet lies, but he says Sweden "has pursued this matter with a vigor and perseverance that probably exceeds what any government has done for one of its citizens."

Well.

Sweden's statement about its supposition was made when Sweden released documents pertaining to the case. Rep. Tom Lantos (D- Calif.), who as a boy in Budapest was saved by Wallenberg, wrote to The New York Times (May 26, 1982):

"It is both ironic and deplorable that Sweden has waited 20 years to release some 42 volumes of reports and eyewitness accounts. . . . Had the information been made public earlier to those in a position to help Raoul Wallenberg, he may have been able to live his life with dignity-- with his family--instead of in the infamy of the Soviet gulag. For years, the government of Sweden has engaged in ineffective silent diplomacy. . . . Now they tell those of us who have fought so hard for his release that we can finally see their documents. If . . . the Swedish government is now 'working on the supposition that he is still alive,' then it's about time."

Just after the war, Sweden's foreign minister was urged to press the case and disregard the fact that Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinsky said that the Soviet Union did not have Wallenberg. The Swedish minister said: "What! Do you believe that Mr. Vyshinsky is lying?" Vyshinsky, the prosecutor in Stalin's show trials, lie? "Absolutely unheard of," said the minister.

The ambassador's claim that Sweden has done more for Wallenberg than any nation has done for a citizen is refuted by many cases, but especially that of Harald Feller, a Swiss diplomat who was in Budapest when Wallenberg was, doing similar rescue work. He, too, wound up in Soviet hands. But he was released in 1946 because his country arrested six Soviet spies and negotiated a swap.

Although Sweden found neutrality profitable between 1939 and 1945, after the war it discovered morality, and ever since has been urging it on others, especially the United States, which frequently falls shorts of Sweden's exacting standards. Sweden has generally considered swaps beneath its dignity. "Sweden," said a Swedish foreign minister, "does not do such things." By the time (1979) Sweden proposed a swap, the Kremlin reacted with disdain.

Olof Palme, who is again prime minister, and the world's moral tutor (he considers the United States an especially backward student), was prime minister in 1976. When Palme met with Alexi Kosygin, the Wallenberg case was not even on the agenda. Palme's administration dismissed the case in a word: "utagerad" (settled).

Even before the invasion of Afghanistan, Wallenberg's supporters urged Sweden to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Even after the invasion, Sweden did not boycott.

In October 1981, a Soviet submarine ran aground while violating Swedish territorial waters. Wallenberg supporters urged using the submarine for leverage. When the Soviet Union asked for its boat back, Sweden could have said: Boat? What boat? We know nothing of any boat--just as you know nothing of Wallenberg.

But appearing on ABC's "Nightline" (Oct. 30, 1981), the foreign minister was asked if Sweden "might want to propose a trade." He said that "would certainly not serve any useful purpose." Do Swedes wonder why Soviet submarines show such contempt for Sweden's sovereignty? Cringing neutrality has not noticeably immunized Sweden from the aggressive disdain of Soviet submariners.

In her new biography, "Wallenberg," Kati Marton, a Hungarian-born journalist, concludes that Wallenberg fell victim to "Sweden's near- pathological fear of Russia":

"The scorn with which the Kremlin treated Stockholm's queries about Wallenberg was not altogether unjustified given the Swedes' lack of conviction following his imprisonment. The dim memory of an early 19th-century Russian invasion, Sweden's first and last, is not sufficient explanation for the country's spineless behavior on behalf of its captured diplomat."

Marton also says: "At Wallenberg's expense, Sweden has learned a painful lesson: the price demanded to maintain one's neutrality can sometimes be too high." The lesson certainly has been taught to all of Europe; whether it has been learned is increasingly doubtful.