Even though Finland and the Soviet Union concluded numerous treaties during the 1920s and 1930s, including a non-aggression treaty, the relationship between the two countries remained tense. Finland’s fate in the Second World War was tied to the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact made between Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939. In it, Finland was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence, and the Soviet Union subsequently made extensive demands regarding territorial cessions and lease arrangements. Finland rejected the Soviet demands and tried to maintain its neutrality. President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as the Nordic leaders tried to offer a diplomatic solution to the situation, but despite these efforts, the Winter War broke out on November 30, 1939, with the Red Army attacking Finland.
Finland pleaded the U.S. for help, but due to the isolationist sentiment and the strict neutrality acts, the U.S. was not able to provide any military material assistance to Finland. Despite this, Americans sympathized with “brave little Finland” and rushed to offer aid. Former President Herbert Hoover initiated a national effort, the Finnish Relief Fund, to support Finnish civilians. The donor base was very broad. Celebrities auctioned their belongings, labor unions made large donations, 1,400 newspapers promoted the cause and American baseball teams arranged an all-star game with 22 future hall of famers. One of the largest single events was the “Let’s Help Finland” mass meeting in Madison Square Garden on December 20, 1939, that was sponsored by New York City’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. By March 1940, the fund had raised 2,5 million dollars.
The Winter War gained a lot of international attention, as the Second World War had not yet reached global or all-European proportions by then. France and Great Britain made declarations in support of Finland and proposed sending an expeditionary force to her aid through Norway and Sweden. Thousands of Swedes and other nationalities volunteered to fight in the war. Many foreign war correspondents arrived to Finland to cover the events, and the press room at the Hotel Kämp in Helsinki became an important meeting place. One of the most prominent reporters in Finland was the American writer Martha Gellhorn. She and the other reporters conveyed an image of a brave country that fought a justified war against a dictatorship. As Gellhorn wrote, “If people wept in Finland, they would be weeping for the waste and cruelty of this; but they would not be weeping from fear."
Despite the support and the international attention, Finland lost the Winter War. The promised Franco-British expeditionary force failed to materialize, but may have played a part nonetheless in Stalin’s decision to put a speedy end to the war. On March 12, 1940, Finland and the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty. The terms of the treaty were very severe for Finland, but the country remained independent.
On March 13, President Roosevelt sent the following message to Helsinki and Moscow: “The people of Finland, by their unexcelled valor and strong resistance in the face of overwhelming armed forces, have won the moral right to live in everlasting peace and independence in the land they have so bravely defended.” After the war Finland received economic assistance from the U.S. as well as supplies valued at $1 million from the American Red Cross.
Bitterness and resentment towards the Soviet Union, as well as constant pressure from Moscow for further concessions, drove Finland to seek support, first from a defense alliance with Sweden – which the Soviet Union blocked – and then from Germany, still formally an ally of the Soviet Union. As Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Finland joined forces only days later.
Instead of seeing herself as Germany’s ally in the general European war, Finland argued that it was fighting a parallel but separate “continuation war” against the Soviet Union. There was no formal treaty of alliance with Germany. Finland’s war objectives included taking back the territories conceded to the Soviets after the Winter War and pushing the front to more easily defendable lines especially in areas North of the Lake Ladoga. Some Finnish nationalists saw a chance to unify Eastern Karelia with Finland. The distinction between Finnish and German war aims was, however, not always easy to maintain. With the great power relations having turned upside down, soon Finland found itself in a state of war with Great Britain, a U.S. ally after the U.S. had joined the war in the wake of Pearl Harbor. However, no fighting ever took place between Finland and the UK.
The Finnish-U.S. relations started to deteriorate. In January 1942, the U.S. placed travel restrictions on Finnish diplomats, and in July, the U.S. cancelled consular relations with Finland. However, the U.S. never declared war on Finland and made several offers to mediate between Finland and the Soviet Union.
By the spring of 1943, it had become clear to the Finnish leadership that Germany was going to lose the war. Secret peace feelers – including requests to the U.S. to act as an intermediary – were met by demands from Stalin that Finns felt were impossible to accept. In addition, Germany was still strong in the Baltic Sea region, and Finland was dependent on grain and arms deliveries from Germany. Under pressure from Hitler, President Risto Ryti made a commitment not to sue for separate peace with the Soviet Union. This led to the U.S. severing diplomatic relations with Finland. In June, 1944, the Red Army launched a massive offensive in the Karelian Isthmus and Eastern Karelia. Finns were pushed back and only barely managed to stop the advance.
On August 1, President Ryti resigned, and the new President, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, no longer considered Finland bound by Ryti's commitments made to Germany. Mannerheim undertook negotiations to bring about an armistice that was signed in September 1944. Many of the territorial demands were the same as in the March 1940 treaty, and in addition, Finland ceded Petsamo, losing the corridor to the Arctic Ocean. Finland also agreed to demobilize its armed forces while simultaneously pushing a strong German force out of Lapland, as well as to pay $300 million in war reparations to the Soviet Union in the form of commodities over a six-year period.
Helsinki was one of only three capitals of European belligerents that was not occupied by the enemy in the Second World War (the other being London and Moscow) and it survived relatively unscathed. The country itself, however, was impoverished and under heavy strain. Over 400,000 Finns from Karelia had to be resettled, and Lapland needed to be rebuilt after having been destroyed by the Germans as they withdrew from Finland.
In the three-power conferences of Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, the fate of Finland was a minor issue. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to show leniency toward Finland, but broadly speaking it was accepted that Finland would fall in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, the Allied powers decided on peace terms for Finland and the other allies of Germany. Because the U.S. had not been in war against Finland, it was just an observer of the Finland treaty negotiations. The U.S. questioned whether the Finnish economy was strong enough to pay the $300 million in war reparations to the Soviet Union. But in the end, the western Allied powers considered the Soviet Union’s demands and the Moscow armistice fair enough, and did not challenge them.
In Finland, the years 1945-1948 are referred to as the “Years of Peril.” Finland was in a vulnerable position after the war. The Soviet Union had not occupied the country, but it exercised a strong pressure in Finnish domestic and foreign policy. In accordance with the Moscow armistice, Finland had to lease the Porkkala naval base to the Soviet Union, so the Red Army troops were just 19 miles from Helsinki. The crucial question was whether Finland could retain its genuinely democratic, multi-party system.
As a part of the European Recovery Program, the United States offered Marshall Aid to Finland. In the end, Finland refused the aid, citing a policy of neutrality, after it became clear that the Soviet Union opposed it. However, Finland did receive other forms of credit from the U.S. which helped the country to pay back its war reparations to the Soviet Union.
American policy makers treated Finland as an exception during and after the Second World War. This was mainly because the Americans saw Finland as “honest little Finland” that paid its war debts, and as “valiant little Finland” that fought for democracy and defended itself against the Soviet Union during the Winter War. After the war, American politicians hoped that Finland would be able to remain a democratic country which could somehow manage the relations with the Soviet Union, despite the difficult position Finland was left in as post-war Europe became divided again, this time by the Iron Curtain.