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News, 9/20/2017 | Embassy of Finland, Washington

An Appreciation of Finland – On 100 Years of Independence

James Ford Cooper worked at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki during the Cold War. He served in 1976–1979 as Political Counselor and in 1984–1986 as Deputy Chief of Mission. During this time he developed tremendous admiration, respect and deep affection for the Finnish nation and people. The embassy is delighted to publish Mr. Cooper’s essay that he has written in honor of Finland’s centennial.

Foreword by Jaakko Iloniemi, Ambassador of Finland to the U.S. 1977–1983

Jaakko Iloniemi
Jaakko Iloniemi

The author of this note, James Ford Cooper was one of the relatively few foreign diplomats stationed in Helsinki who went to the trouble of learning Finnish. What is even more important, he had good use for that skill. Not that most of his contacts would have had difficulties in communicating with him in English. More importantly he was able to get much closer to the local political scene by knowing the language, understanding the thinking and demonstrating a genuine interest in the host country.

One of the strengths Mr. Cooper had is that he did not only monitor the political scene – he became part of the cast. Knowing well those a diplomat should know and developing a network of key persons, those who themselves had an analytical approach to politics, he was able to draw informed conclusions and interpret the sometimes cryptic Finnish political dialogue. Fortunately Mr. Cooper understood well that although at times the Finnish and the American views failed to coincide there were valid reasons for that. The book he published – On The Finland Watch: An American Diplomat in Finland during the Cold War proves that not only was he well informed but also able to draw the right conclusions on the basis of that information.

An Appreciation of Finland – On 100 Years of Independence

James Ford Cooper
James Ford Cooper

It was my great good fortune as a United States Foreign Service Officer to be posted twice to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki: from 1976–1979 as Political Counselor and from 1984–1986 as Deputy Chief of Mission (deputy ambassador). I was then appointed for two years in Washington as Director of the State Department Office of Northern European Affairs, which included all of the Nordic countries as well as Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Throughout this long period, I was able to observe Finnish affairs closely and to play a senior role in helping to oversee the U.S.-Finnish relationship.

In preparing for these assignments (including 10 months of full-time Finnish language studies) and while carrying out my duties, I developed tremendous admiration, respect and, yes, deep affection for the Finnish nation and people. Those were not easy years for Finland. Indeed, the entire 20th century periodically posed severe challenges to Finland's independence and national identity.

The primary message and reminder I would like to convey to today's Finland is that throughout the long four and a half decade period of the Cold War -- from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union - the remarkably consistent primary United State policy objective in Finland was to support the independence and credible neutrality of a democratic and Western value-oriented Finland.

We knew that this unchanging U.S. policy objective closely paralleled Finland's own national aspirations. However, we were also acutely aware that Finland's overriding national policy imperative - the lesson drawn from its wars with the Soviet Union - was to gain and maintain the confidence and good will of the Soviet Union as a precondition to preserving its independence. This made it awkward if not almost impossible for Finland to acknowledge that it was the Soviet Union itself that constituted the only threat to Finland's independence and neutrality. The fact that the United States was the "other ''superpower and the most influential member of the NATO Alliance again made it awkward for Finland to acknowledge its awareness of U.S. support for Finland's own national interests.

We fully understood that Finland's existential interests were at stake in its relations with the Soviet Union and that the United States was a long distance away; the degree to which we could assist Finland was sharply circumscribed as was the degree to which Finland could appear to seek or welcome U.S. assistance. Moreover, we and our NATO allies had told Finland at the end of the War and at the formation of NATO that Finland was basically on its own in dealing with the Soviet Union. Specifically, Finland was told clearly in September 1950 that in the event of a Soviet attack on Finland it was not anticipated that action would be taken to assist Finland.

So, U.S. support for Finland was largely moral and rhetorical, although more materially, in the immediate post-war period U.S. loans were a very important factor in helping Finland pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union. We also remained a significant trading partner with Finland and a very important market for Finnish goods. Apart from that, the U.S. did what we could on the margins to demonstrate support for Finland's independence and credible neutrality.

For one thing, we always referred to Finland as a "neutral" country. Some will recall that the Soviet references to Finland a few years into the Cold War were to Finland's "aspirations" to be a neutral country, a step short of recognizing Finland's neutrality. In the Embassy we worked hard to develop a wide range of contacts with influential Finns and to arrange leader grant visits to the U.S. We had an active public information program and worked closely with the Finnish media. And we were usually understanding when Finland from time to time took policy positions that appeared to support Soviet concerns, particularly on some security issues. We knew that Finland coming out of its wars had to accept certain constraints on its security policies.

Finland's dilemma as we and others in the West saw it was that to the extent Finland deemed it necessary to reassure Soviet leadership of its good neighborliness, it could be interpreted in the West as detracting from Finland's credibility as a neutral and independent country. But to the extent Finland reassured the West of its Western values and orientation, it could raise doubts among Soviet leadership about Finland's "reliability” as a neighbor.

Concerns in the West increased during the long period of the Urho Kekkonen presidency as Finland's "self-censorship" with respect to Soviet issues and the influence of the Soviet Embassy among Finland's political parties appeared to grow during the 1960s and 70s. The situation began to change markedly with the election of Mauno Koivisto to the presidency in 1982. Although Finland continued, understandably and necessarily, to be very sensitive to Soviet security interests, the degree of self-censorship and Soviet influence among Finnish political parties faded during the Koivisto presidency.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Koivisto moved rapidly to unilaterally undo the various restrictive treaties and protocols that had been imposed by the Soviet Union on Finland. A new period of open relations with its renamed neighbor the Russian Federation dawned. And Finland voted overwhelmingly to join the European Union and has become an integral part of the European family.

There were, as suggested above, occasional differences between the U.S. and Finland over one or another specific foreign policy or security issue during the long Cold War, stemming from our very different world positions and perspectives.  Nevertheless, it was our collective judgment in the U.S. Embassy and in the Department of State that Finland’s post World War II leaders -- J.K. Paasikivi, Urho Kekkonen and Mauno Koivisto -- each in their respective presidential periods were remarkably successful in managing Finland’s post war and Cold War foreign and security policies, particularly with the Soviet Union, in such a way as to maintain Finland’s independence, Western values and a credible neutrality.  As this paper stated at the outset, this indeed was exactly the kind of outcome that the United States also wanted for Finland.  It represented a towering achievement for Finnish statesmanship and stands in marked contrast to what might have been the case, given Finland’s dire situation in 1944.

On The Finland Watch: An American Diplomat in Finland during the Cold War
On The Finland Watch: An American Diplomat in Finland during the Cold War By James Ford Cooper

Any claim I might try to assert of being a close student of Finnish affairs pretty much ended with the publication of my books in 1998–2001, and I make no pretense that l am a qualified analyst of current developments in Europe and the High North. Of one thing, however, I am absolutely certain. The extraordinary heroism, fighting skills, courage and sacrifice of the Finnish armed forces in 1939–1944 without any doubt saved Finland's independence and prevented its incorporation in some way into the Soviet system. That dedication left an indelible impression on the civilian and military leadership of your giant eastern neighbor.

Moreover, Finland's small but dedicated armed forces during the long Cold War and, especially, the extraordinary commitment, training and readiness of its large citizen-soldier reserves, continued to act as a deterrent throughout the Cold War reinforcing Finland's outstanding national leadership. The most recent survey I have only just read indicates that the Finnish people have a higher commitment of support for its military than any other country in Europe.

There has now been another turn of the wheel in your eastern neighbor. Pretensions of authority over neighboring countries have reappeared, backed up by military actions in some, military threat in others. Fortunately, Finland has its own history lessons to guide it and does not appear disposed to give up ANY of its hard-earned and at times barely maintained freedom of action and independence. And this time, Finland is unequivocally an integral part of Europe and has won the active support and commitment of the NATO Alliance. The current political ambiguity and disarray in the United States notwithstanding Finland this time is not alone.

There is every reason to believe as Finland approaches the 100th anniversary of its independence that this brave and talented country will pass this trial with flying colors. After all, look at what it has come through in the past!

Text: James Ford Cooper, U.S. Consul General (Ret)

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Updated 10/4/2017


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