Finland in Swedish Security Policy, 1948-19621

Olof Kronvall


What impact did considerations of Finland’s position have on the making of
Sweden’s Cold War security policy? I will discuss some aspects of this question, covering the time period from 1948 – when the Soviet Union and Finland, in a tense international atmosphere signed the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) – until 1962, when the Note Crisis, the worst crisis in the Finnish–Soviet relations so far, had subsided.

What was Finland’s position thought to mean to Sweden? 

Finland was generally considered to have a special position. On the one hand, Finland was regarded as a military vacuum and the Soviet Union had considerable means of imposing its will on Finland. On the other hand, Finland remained a democracy and never became a Russian satellite. Neither were there any Soviet troops in the country, with the exception of the Porkala base which was returned to Finland in 1956. The FCMA treaty of 1948 was thought neither to improve nor worsen Finland’s position. According to the treaty, Finland and the Soviet Union would under certain conditions jointly defend Finnish territory against an attack from Germany and its allies. The treaty formalised Finland’s bond to the Soviet Union, but gave the country greater freedom of action than the treaties between the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.

A drastic increase in Russian influence over Finland was considered to have
several negative consequences for Sweden. Sweden’s already delicate relationship with the Soviet Union would become even more complicated and the Soviet Union would attain improved opportunities for preparations of an attack on Sweden. The actors also believed that the relatively low level of tension in the Nordic region would be drastically increased. Such a development was also considered to increase the risk of Sweden being drawn into a war, something which the government saw as its primary security political goal to prevent. Several high-ranking officers also believed that a sovietization of Finland would increase the likelihood of Sweden being exposed to a so-called isolated attack, i.e. a Russian attack against which the Western powers could or would not give Sweden assistance. This would render the Swedish defence efforts meaningless. However, this line of argument was more controversial with the politicians.

It was generally agreed that Finland was of great importance for the ability of the Swedish armed forces to mobilise on time. Soviet forces were estimated to be able to reach the Swedish border within a few days, but these days were considered crucial for Sweden’s chances of mobilising. For a more systematic attack against Sweden, the Russians were believed to need up to a couple of months for preparations in Finland. As we shall see, the highest-rankning Swedish officers did not believe that these weeks or months were a guarantee for succesful mobilisation, and they consequently emphasised the need for a high state of military readiness even if Finland was not occupied.

Swedish attempts to affect Finland’s position 

There was thus a widespread consensus that the stronger the Soviet hold on Finland, the worse for Sweden. But to what extent and in what way did the actors think that Sweden could prevent Soviet aggression against Finland? And how was this interest balanced against others? I will discuss some aspects of these issues. Firstly, the Finland argument as a motive for Sweden’s non-alignment; secondly, the connection between Sweden’s overall Soviet policy and its interests regarding Finland; thirdly, Sweden’s policy on various contacts with Finland and attempts to influence Finnish policy directly; and fourthly, how Sweden tried to influence  Norwegian and Danish policy in order to ‘protect’ Finland.

The course of the Cold War at the global and European levels (not least
concerning the German question) was considered to have crucial importance for the position of Finland, but the actors thought that Sweden had very little chance of affecting these factors. Instead, they focused on trying to influence the developments in the Nordic-Baltic region. 

An important question is how the actors regarded Sweden’s non-alignment as an instrument of ‘protecting’ Finland in order to strengthen Sweden’s security. Here we touch upon the Finland argument as a motive for Swedish non-alignment. The Finland argument can be broken down into three parts. The first part was that a Swedish membership of NATO would raise the risk of Finland being occupied by the Soviet Union. Most of the actors appear to have believed that this was the case.

The second part was that the disadvantages of such an occupation would cancel the possible advantages of a Swedish NATO membership. Most of the actors seem to have agreed upon this, too. For instance, a membership in itself was not thought to affect significantly the chances of receiving the all-important military support from the West in the event of war. However, most of the actors believed that close military contacts with the Western powers and securing the delivery of American armaments to Sweden were crucial for Swedish defence capability. In 1949, Supreme Commander Helge Jung said that such ties to the West had to be established, even if this led to a more aggressive Soviet policy towards Finland. In the following years, the policy suggested by Jung was pursued with the government’s approval. However, once the connections to the West had been established, it was believed that further advances in the form of a NATO membership would not improve Sweden’s position. As mentioned, it was rather seen to be likely to deteriorate Sweden’s security by exposing Finland to risks.

The third part of the Finland argument was that Sweden, due to the expected disadvantages, should refrain from joining NATO. An interesting question is how important the Finland argument was, compared to other motives, as a reason for Sweden’s non-alignment. Perhaps the best indicator of the actors’ attitudes in this respect is whether or not they thought that Sweden should abandon its non-alignment if the Finland argument was neutralised, i.e. if Finland were occupied despite the fact that Sweden was non-aligned. I will come back to this question.

To a large extent, the Swedish government’s attempts to maintain Finland’s
position can be seen as a manifestation of its general policy towards the Soviet Union. The main aim of this policy was to reduce the risks of a Soviet attack or increased political pressure towards Sweden by convincing the Russians that Sweden had no intention of participating in or supporting an attack by the Western powers against the Soviet Union. The most fundamental component of this policy of reassurance was the decision not to join NATO, but it was also manifested in other ways, for instance in a certain reluctance to criticise the Soviet Union and its policies. The policy of reassurance was supplemented by a policy of deterrence, for instance manifested in the military build-up, and, in certain situations, statements to the Russians that an overly aggressive Russian policycould force Sweden into NATO. Admittedly, the non-socialist opposition and the Western-oriented diplomats and officers supported the non-aligned policy, but they wanted a Soviet policy with less emphasis on reassurance and more on deterrence.

These general features of Swedish policy towards the Soviet Union were also reflected in the attempts to ‘protect’ Finland. The government believed that the more the Soviets trusted Sweden, the less incentive they would have to strengthen their grip on Finland. In a public statement of March, 1948, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Östen Undén went very far in emphasising the credibility of the neutrality policy. He said that a communist coup d’état in Finland would not lead to a reconsideration of Swedish non-alignment. On the other hand, Undén and Sweden’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Rolf Sohlman, went rather far in the direction of deterrence during the FCMA negotiations in April, when they told Soviet diplomats and politicians that too close a Finnish connection to the Soviet Union could force the Swedish government to give up its non-aligned policy. On other occasions, more general decalarations of Sweden’s interest in the fate of Finland were made, which can be seen as a more cautious and less explicit form of deterrence.

In 1958-59, Finland was subject to strong criticism and economic sanctions from the Soviet Union, which forced the Finnish government, whose composition annoyed the Russians, to resign. During this crisis, the so called ‘Night Frost’, the Swedish government’s approach was to emphasise consistently the credibility of Swedish non-alignment. This reassuring policy towards the Soviet Union was also thought to benefit Finland. In 1959, during the debate on foreign policy in parliament, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties criticised the governement for not having made it more clear to the Soviets that strong Soviet pressure on Finland could lead to a reconsideration of Sweden’s non-alignment. The Conservative leader Jarl Hjalmarson also expressed strong criticism against the Russian behaviour towards Finland and said that the government should have condemned it too.

In the autumn of 1961 the Note Crisis occured. The crisis was initiated by the Soviet Union presenting Finland with a note demanding negotiations in accordance with the FCMA treaty. The note referred to the threat of attack from West Germany, which was also said to have extended its influence to the Nordic-Baltic region. The Note Crisis occurred at the same time as the Berlin crisis. Just like during the Night Frost crisis, the Swedish government’s actions were clearly dominated by the policy of reassurance. At an early stage, Prime Minister Tage Erlander declared that Sweden joining NATO could not even be considered, and the government’s subsequent statements conveyed the same message. This time the Conservative and Liberal parties gave much clearer support to the governement line than during the Night Frost. However, in 1962, during the debate on foreign policy in parliament, which was held after the Soviet Union had withdrawn its demand for negotiations and the crisis had subsided, the future Liberal party leader Sven Wedén emphasised that it must not be forgotten that strong Soviet pressure on Finland could still lead to a reconsideration of the non-aligned policy.

The Swedes were also very restrictive regarding various forms of contacts with Finland. There was a general Swedish appreciation, or at least an understanding, of Finland’s security policy orientation, the Paasikivi line. According to the Paasikivi line, Finnish security was best served by a friendly relationship with the Soviet Union, but Finland’s democratic institutions would never be sacrificied in order to acheive this goal. This doctrine was rather similar to the Swedish Soviet policy, even though Sweden had considerably more freedom of action than Finland.

The cautious Paasikivi line meant that contacts with other Western countries had to be limited because of the risk of negative Soviet reactions. Military contacts were naturally the most sensitive ones, but political and economic relations were also problematic. For example, Finland rejected Marshall aid in 1947. From a Finnish perspective, contacts with Sweden were less problematic than those with the US, but even here there were constraints which Sweden had to accept. Many Swedes also shared the opinion that too extensive Swedish-Finnish contacts could lead to a stronger Russian hold on Finland. Within these limits, Sweden nevertheless tried to help integrate Finland with the Nordic community and the rest of the Western world.

There were similar limitations for Sweden’s attempts at directly influencing Finnish policy. Generally, any Swedish behaviour that could be interpreted as giving Finland advice, or in any other way trying to influence Finnish domestic or foreign policies, was avoided. On a few occasions however, from a Swedish perspective, Finnish policy was so questionable that Sweden was forced to divert from this cautious approach. This was the case during the summer of 1952, when Sweden believed that the Finns were considering accepting a Soviet offer of exchanging large areas of Finnish Lapland for parts of Karelia, which Finland had lost to the Soviet Union in World War II. Such an exchange would result in Sweden borderingon the Soviet Union, something which the Swedes, for obvious reasons, were extremely anxious to prevent. In conversations with the Finnish ambassador, Arne Lundberg, under secretary of state for foreign affairs, and Sven Dahlman, head of the politcal department of the Minstry for Foreign Affairs, emphasised that an exchange would have great repercussions in Sweden and Norway, as well as in the great Western powers, and thus greatly increase tensions in the Nordic region.

In Sweden it was also believed that Danish and Norwegian security policy could affect Finland’s situation. At the beginning of 1949, several actors feared that Norway’s joining NATO would lead to Russian demands for bases in Finland. This did not happen, and Sweden established relatively close military ties with Norway. However, most of the actors still believed that allied air bases in Norway would expose Finland to risks. On a couple of occasions during the first part of the 1950s, Sweden expressed its concern over such a development in order to prevent it.

What could Sweden do if Finland’s situation deteriorated?

As mentioned, the actors thought that Finland could become an area for Soviet bases despite Swedish non-alignment. If this would happen, one possible counter-measure would be to abandon non-alignment and join NATO. The actors’ attitudes to such a reconsideration is an important indicator of how important they considered the Finland argument to be as a reason for the non-aligned policy.

Some of the actors, e.g. Supreme Commander Jung and ambassador to the
United States Erik Boheman (1948-58), seem to have regarded the Finland
argument as a decisive reason for Sweden’s non-alignment, at least at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. If the Finland argument was neutralised, there would be no valid reason for non-alignment. At that time they advocated rather categorically that Sweden should join NATO if Finland were occupied by the Soviets. Boheman and Jung seem to have hoped that the value of a NATO membership would increase in a few years’ time as a result of Western military build-up. Therefore, they calculated that the Finland argument would be weakened and the reasons for NATO membership would become stronger. However, they came to accept the Finland argument more permanently, since NATO and Western military capabilities did not develop in the way they had expected. 

Most of the actors saw the Finland argument as one important reason for
non-alignment, but not the only one. This group thought that an occupation of Finland could make the reasons for NATO membership stronger than those for non-alignment, but that this would not necessarily be the case. Prime Minister Tage Erlander held this view, at least from 1949. As late as in 1948 he had been sceptical to the idea of reconsidering non-alignment if the Russians occupied Finland, but in the beginning of 1949 he told the Supreme Commander and the chief of the Defence Staff that it could become necessary to do so. Erlander made similar remarks in a discussion with some of his his government colleagues after the Note Crisis, i. e. almost 15 years later. His greatest reservation against the idea of “automatically” giving up non-alignment if Finland were occupied was probably that he did not want to throw away whatever chances a non-aligned policy might still give Sweden to stay out of war. Erlander’s opinion seems to have been shared by several important cabinet ministers. It was also shared by the Conservative and Liberal party leaders, who tended to be more explicit about this position in their public statements. 

General Nils Swedlund, Jung’s successor as Supreme Commander, belonged to the same group. His greatest reservations against automatically joining NATO if Finland were occupied seem to have differed somewhat from Erlander’s. Swedlund doubted that a NATO membership would compensate for the loss of the Finnish buffer state and feared that Sweden would lose much of its autonomy if the country were integrated into NATO’s command structure. Several other prominent officers shared this view. 

At least one actor, Minister for Foreign Affairs Undén, was categorically opposed to Sweden giving up its non-alignment as a result of a Soviet occupation of Finland. Undén’s public statement about this in 1948 was hardly a slip of the tongue. In fact, he repeated the same opinion during a government discussion after the Note Crisis and was then supported by, among others, the Minister for Finance Gunnar Sträng. Undén was certain that the reasons for non-alignment would still be stronger than the reasons for NATO membership even in a situation where the Finland argument would no longer be valid. Thus, Undén’s support for non-alignment appears not to have been based on the Finland argument but rather on other arguments, the most important one probably being that non-alignment would give Sweden a chance to stay out of war.

However, this does not mean that he didn’t attach any importance to Finland’s fate. This is demonstrated by his attempt of deterrence during the FCMA negotiations. In the already mentioned government discussion in 1962, he also said that it was unnecessary to tell the Russians that reconsideration of non-alignment was out of the question. It seems likely that Undén wanted to prevent a Soviet occupation of Finland by a mix of reassurance and deterrence vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. One reason for this was surely that he believed that such an occupation would impair Sweden’s security by increasing the Soviet threat against Sweden. But the greater danger, according to Undén, was that a sovietisation of Finland could lead to a Swedish NATO membership which, from his perspective meant that all chances of remaining outside war were thrown away. 

Beside joining NATO, other possible counter-measures against an occupation of Finland involved an increase in Sweden’s military strength and an enhancement of military readiness by, for instance, establishing standing military units. Such actions were mainly discussed by the officers. However, they believed that these measures would be very demanding, financially as well as psychologically, for the Swedish people. On several occasions at the end of the 1950s, Supreme Commander Swedlund also said that he doubted that Sweden could afford both a raised level of military readiness and keeping up with the development of military technology which was required in order to maintain the strength of the defence forces. 

As I have already mentioned, the actors agreed that Finland’s status gave the Swedish defence forces an important respite for mobilisation in crises or war.
However, opinions on when and how this respite would be used appear to have been more divided. The officers strongly emphasised the need for mobilisation in a situation where the Soviet Union marched into Finland with the possible intention of also attacking Sweden. They stressed that a fear of provoking the Soviet Union should not make Sweden hesitate to take the decision to mobilise its defence forces. The officers argued that Sweden could not afford to take the chance that Soviet forces, once in Finland, would not attack Sweden. Instead, they argued that every day and every hour must be used to prepare against such an attack. 

The government’s attitude on this issue is not known, but the officers’ scepticism was probably based on the government’s evident restraint in increasing military readiness, which was based on the idea that such actions were likely to raise tensions, rather than lower them. During the Note Crisis, Commander of the Navy Åke Lindemalm, ironically expressed his admiration of the government’s ‘nerves of steel’: Despite the tense world situation the government did not wish to radically augment Sweden’s military readiness. This illustrates, once again, the differences in priorities when balancing reassurance against deterrence.


During the years 1948-1962, Finland’s position was believed to affect the security of Sweden significantly. The security policy actors believed that Soviet control of Finland would make Sweden more vulnerable in a number of ways. It was seen as a Swedish interest of vital importance to prevent such a development. It was generally believed that Sweden’s non-alignment could help achieving this goal. At the same time, military ties to the West were deemed essential, but these could be established without joining the Alliance. The government thought that its overall Soviet policy, which was dominated by reassurance, also helped Finland. This policy was supplemented by a policy of deterrence. The Conservative and Liberal parties put greater emphasis on deterrence, i.e. making it clear to the Russians that a harsher Russian approach to Finland could provoke a Swedish NATO membership. During the Note Crisis, however, the Conservative and Liberal parties clearly supported the government’s policy of reassurance. 

A possible counter-measure against a Soviet occupation of Finland was to join NATO. The willingness of the respective actors to do this is a good indicator of how important the Finland argument was to them. The most common opinion was that it might become necessary to abandon non-alignment in case of a Soviet occupation of Finland, but that this should not happen “automatically”. According to this opinion, the Finland argument was an important reason for non-alignment, but not the only one. Other motives – e.g. to keep Sweden out of war or maintaining military autonomy – could still be strong enough to justify non-alignment, even if the Finland argument was no longer valid. The Minister for Foreign Affairs Undén held another view, as he was categorically opposed to giving up non-alignment in response to a Soviet occupation of Finland. Consquently, the Finland argument can hardly have been a significant motive for Undén´s support for non-alignment. 

The leading officers also discussed the enhancement of Swedish military strength as a counter-measure against a Russian occupation of Finland, but they doubted that this could fully compensate for the loss of security. The officers also attached great importance to the need for a rapid Swedish mobilisation in case of a Soviet invasion of Finland, something which the government seems to have been more hesitant about. This is another example of the tension between deterrence and reassurance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in Finnish matters. 

1 This article is based on my forthcoming Ph D thesis in history, where the argument made here is further substantiated and developed.

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