The late 1950s ushered in an optimistic period in the domestic development of Finland. As the building of a Nordic welfare state began to take speed, it also needed to take into account the movement of people from rural to urban areas. Compared to other Western countries, Finland urbanized rather late. In the early 1950s the majority of Finns still lived in the country side, but by 1970 the majority had moved to cities. At the same time, key legislation on social security was passed regarding pension plans, health insurance, unemployment and other areas. As in the other Nordic countries, the social security system was designed to cover the whole of population comprehensively.
In political terms, a key moment for the fifth decade of Finland’s independence was the election of Urho Kekkonen as President of Finland in 1956. Kekkonen had already served as prime minister in five different cabinets between 1950 and 1956, but it was his presidency that had a major impact on Finnish foreign policy. In a turbulent time in Europe at the turn of the decade, President Kekkonen navigated a way for Finland to secure and improve her international position. The Soviet policies towards Finland reflected the increasing East-West tensions, including the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. The most dramatic example was the ensuing "Note Crisis" in October 1961.
The so-called Note Crisis erupted during President Kekkonen’s visit to the U.S. After the official state visit to Washington, D.C., and a warm welcome by President John Kennedy, who showed real appreciation for the way Finland handled its position next to the Soviet Union, President Kekkonen continued to Hawaii for a more relaxed part of the trip. While there, he received information that the Soviet government had sent a note to Finland that called for mutual military consultations according to Article 2 of the 1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance.
This was an alarming move, and President Kekkonen took exceptional measures, including three days with Nikita Khrushchev, to make the Soviets withdraw their demand for military consultations. Solving the Note Crisis was a personal triumph for President Kekkonen, and it cemented his role as a strong leader. At the same time, it illustrated the fact that the Soviets saw the Soviet-Finnish relations in the broader context of their relations with the West.
Finland raised gradually her profile in the international arena with the aim of improving her international standing. It was a delicate matter in the very polarized situation. President Kekkonen addressed the UN General Assembly during his visit to the U.S. in 1961. In his speech, the President used a metaphor of Finland’s neutrality that was long thereafter used to describe Finland’s pragmatic approach in the difficult Cold War framework: “We see ourselves as physicians rather than judges; it is not for us to pass judgement nor to condemn. It is rather to diagnose and to try to cure.”
Finland worked hard to remain in good terms with the Soviet Union while further solidifying the ties with the West. In foreign policy, a more active role was taken in the UN context in promoting peace and peace-keeping, but also in taking initiatives which did not always enjoy universal support. One such initiative was a Nordic Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone that President Kekkonen proposed in 1963 and which was not supported by the U.S. Depending on the view point, one could say that Finnish foreign policy was bridge-building between East and West or walking on a tightrope. The aim was to endure and to increase the room for maneuver for Finland in a difficult environment. The international understanding towards Finland's balancing act grew gradually, but doubts and suspicions also prevailed in the West regarding Finland's relationship with the Soviet Union.
The role of small states in the international order defined by great power rivalry was a constant concern for President Kekkonen, who thought that “small states have little power to influence the course of international events. The Great Powers possessing the means of destroying the world bear the chief responsibility for the maintenance of peace,” but “the smaller states can and must constantly remind them of this responsibility.”
Economically, Finland developed rapidly. Over 70% of Finland’s trade was with the Western countries, including Sweden, the UK, West Germany and the United States. In 1961, Finland joined the European Free Trade Association as an associate member. Each step of the western economic integration posed an opportunity but also a challenge for Finland, since it had to find a way to participate in that integration without provoking a severe reaction on the part of the Soviet Union. Trade relations with the Soviet Union were also developed. Throughout the postwar period, the Soviet Union was Finland’s most important single trading partner accounting for approximately 20–25% of Finland’s total imports and exports.
In 1960, the Finnish company Marimekko gained surprising international recognition when Jacqueline Kennedy bought seven Marimekko dresses all at once. The future First Lady also appeared in her Marimekko summer dress on the cover of the December edition of Sports Illustrated. In the 1960s, Marimekko was regularly featured in international fashion magazines like Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but the boost that Jacqueline Kennedy brought to the company was still extraordinary.
In addition to design, Finnish architecture was admired in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Finnish-American Eero Saarinen was an incredibly productive and visionary architect and designer. TIME’s 1956 cover story proclaimed, “…of the whole U.S. cast of modern architects, none has a better proportioned combination of imagination, versatility and good sense than Eero Saarinen.” Saarinen’s most famous works include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan, the TWA Terminal in New York City, and the Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Another example of American appreciation for Finnish architects was a photographic exhibition of Alvar Aalto’s works that toured the U.S. in 1965–1966 under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Aalto was a friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he was introduced to the American audience already in 1939 when he designed the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair.