Hidden help from across the Atlantic
US Army Surplus purchases were a kind of back-door Marshall Aid
By Unto Hämäläinen
The old carbon-copy flimsies are so fragile that they must be handled with great care. One can just about make out from the faded printed texts that the pages are customs declarations on imported goods, made by Finnish officials towards the end of the 1940s.
The first such declarations date from early 1946, and the last are from the summer of 1949.
There are hundreds of pages of them.
The temptation is great to touch them and rummage through them and to hold them up to the light to peer at what is written there.
Up at the top left is a space for the name of the vessel bringing the goods, like Fennia or Kurikka, and the date when she docked.
The customs official has also noted down where the consignment originated from on its journey to Finland. The port of departure in the United States was often New York, NY, but items have been loaded on board frequently from European ports, most prominently Antwerp and Rotterdam.
The papers also reveal that Finland has imported from the United States such items as locomotives, graders for building roads, tractors, food, and - what on earth is this: several DC-3 aircraft (the trusty Dakota or Skytrain), with a full complement of spare parts.
Nearly every week, for several years on end, a ship docked in the harbours of Helsinki, Hanko, Turku, or Rauma with American goods in the cargo hold.
This was different from the American post-war humanitarian aid packages. This flow of goods across the Atlantic was not extensively written up in the Finnish press of the time - and nor was it much spoken about.
As a rule, customs declarations found their way to the incinerator after being stored for eight years. It is the purest coincidence that these carbon-copy sheets have survived to this day.
The papers have been stuffed away for decades in a cupboard in the National Board of Customs archives. They were unearthed only last summer, when customs chief inspector Janne Nokki set about putting the archives into the sort of shape that would allow for some of the older documents to be handed on to the National Archives.
It is fortunate that Nokki just happened to be a history scholar by education. He was not content with simply cataloguing the documents - he actually sat down and started reading them. What he saw was an eyebrow-raising experience.
"I had heard that after the war Finland imported a certain amount of US Army Surplus stuff, but I didn't have the first idea of the scale of it", recalls Nokki.
It is hardly surprising that the subject was new for 35-year-old Nokki. The history of the immediate post-war period has been much researched, but surprisingly little mention can be found from the literature about war surplus sales from the United States to Finland.
All the same, the consensus is that without Western help Finland would not have been able to cope in the years just after the war. Economic historian Erkki Pihkala has estimated that the assistance coming from the West in the years from 1945 to 1948 was roughly equivalent to one year's deliveries of war reparations to the Soviet Union.
Relations between Finland and the United States were pretty much at the zero level at the end of World War II. In the summer of 1944, the US had formally cut off all diplomatic ties to Finland after President Risto Ryti had given a personal guarantee to the Nazis that Finland would not seek a separate peace under his presidency.
It was a year and more before the United States agreed to re-open diplomatic channels with Helsinki in the fall of 1945. By that time Finland was in dire straits.
Already battered by the war, the country was saddled with massive war reparations to be paid to the Soviet Union. The Soviets led the Allied Control Commission, which watched carefully to see that the terms of the Moscow Armistice of September 1944 were fulfilled to the letter and to the last consignment of goods.
In 1945, as much as 70 per cent of Finnish production went in payment of war reparations. In panic, the Finns requested help from the United States.
The initial response was blunt: Finland was a lost cause. From the viewpoint of Washington the Finnish position looked quite hopeless, and the only open question was when the Soviets would swallow the place up.
A State Department diplomat who was responsible for U.S.-Finnish affairs, one Randolph Higgs, went further and asked briskly what right the Finns thought they had to assume that American policy would be to throw good money after bad into a Finnish rat-hole.
For years, the State Department in Washington maintained a very restrained stance. The Americans certainly hoped that Finland would remain in the Western camp, but they had little confidence in these hopes. The fragile Finnish independence was not expected to withstand the pressures from Moscow.
Professor Jussi Hanhimäki, who has written of this period, condenses the immediate post-war American line as follows:
"The United States had to refrain from any and all public statements on the Finnish position, lest the Soviet Union might interpret them as a challenge to the policies it was pursuing in Finland. At the same time, the U.S. nevertheless recognised a need to help Finland invisibly, in other words in economic terms."
The selling of war surplus items to Finland fitted in admirably with this "invisible" approach. And it made sound financial sense.
After the war, the U.S. had a good deal of equipment and materials in the European theatre that were really not worth shipping all the way back over the Atlantic. On the other hand, it was worthwhile to sell them on to countries in Europe, if buyers could be found.
The trade was financed by loans from American banks. The banks issued credits to Finland for the items they bought. Even though this was normal business practice on the surface, it could also be described as assistance. The items were cheap and the terms of payment were quite reasonable.
The goods were supplied by the Office of the Foreign Liquidation Commissioner within the Department of State, and the goods were brought in in small consignments.
The imports did not attract much attention, which was basically just the way everyone wanted it to be. The Soviets knew about the import shipments, but it is unclear whether they grasped the scale and importance of the trade.
The forwarding of the various items was also carried out without any undue ceremony. The then Ministry of Supply passed the goods on to industry, to state authorities, the municipalities, and to the big wholesale and retail trading houses. The then big four of SOK, OTK, Kesko, and Tuko each got their own quota of items that they could pass on to consumers.
The customs officials granted the items relief from any import duties for six-month periods from the date of their arrival.
Just to do things by the book, customs declarations were made on all items, even though no duty was levied.
It is a good thing the bureaucracy was up to its task - even if it was wasted work - because without these carbon-copies of the import declarations we would no longer have any way of clarifying the nature of the American assistance.
Just how big a helping hand was it? Janne Nokki has done some crude sums and has come up with a summary of the liquidated surplus goods acquired. The figures are impressive.
For example, around 2,000 trucks were brought to Finland, and a further 550 Jeeps and other cars, around 3,000 trailers, and 1,400 tons of vehicle spare parts.
This must have been a massive shot in the arm, since statistics show that after the war Finland only had around 17,000 vehicles on the road.
The largest part of the imports was made up of steel, iron, machinery, and motors badly needed by industry. For instance around 900 tons of welding equipment alone was imported.
The welding apparatus was more than welcome, since the Soviet Union's reparation demands called for all kinds of metals industry products that the Finns did not have, and which they had to manufacture.
Finland had also had to surrender to the Soviets much of its transport hardware, such as vessels and locomotives. Fortunately the US surplus items included 24 locomotives, more than a dozen ships, and - astonishingly - even nine aircraft.
Immediately after the war, Finland also received a good deal of medicines, foodstuffs, and clothing. Among the latter category were 200,000 pairs of gauntlets for use in industry.
The items in question were from the Western front in Europe, and had been used in the defeat of Finland's erstwhile co-belligerent Germany.
Janne Nokki has estimated that the aggregate value of the surplus items brought in to Finland would run into the several billions of old markka - measured in the money of that time.
Making any accurate calculations is difficult because of adjustments in exchange rates and the change in the value of money between then and now. It would require some comprehensive research.
What, then, is the significance of this chance discovery in the archives?
"The customs clearance documents indicate that a considerable part of the aid to Finland and the purchases of US surplus goods was intended to help bottlenecks in Finnish industry and transport. In this sense this was not so much humanitarian aid as investment goods and material for the reconstruction of Finnish industry", is the assessment of Juhana Aunesluoma, who has researched Finnish-American relations at the University of Helsinki.
It was in Washington's interests that Finland remained a capitalist country, even if the Americans were rather sceptical that some of the items they were selling to the Finns might end up helping the Soviet Union instead.
Janne Nokki points to the fact that the cargo ships kept coming on a more or less regular basis, even though Finland's position on the superpower chessboard changed several times during the same period.
Nokki is also more than a little bemused at the fact that whilst the Soviet side kept a very close watch on practically everything else, they did not intervene in the import of American war surplus materials.
These imports in all quiet went some way to making up for the fact that Finland was unable to avail itself of more visible forms of post-war aid. In the summer of 1947, Finland - as the only Western country in this position - was obliged to refuse the Marshall Aid offered by the U.S. for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Europe.
The Kremlin insisted that Finland turn down the offer. In the West, this was seen as the beginning of the end for the Finns: pundits speculated over when the final Soviet blow would fall.
At the beginning of the following year, Josef Stalin proposed the signing of the Finnish-Soviet Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (the so-called YYA Treaty that was to last as the basis of Finnish-Soviet relations until 1992).
On April 6th, 1948 the agreement was duly signed. In the United States and elsewhere in the West the event was regarded - yet again - as an unmistakable signal of Finland's slipping into the grip of the Soviet Union.
What is doubly curious, then, is that the customs declarations found by Nokki indicate that Western fears of Finland "going under for the third time" seem to have had little or no impact on the trade dealings.
The shipments kept on coming in a steady flow, regardless of political developments. They were a fragile lifeline for a very poor country.
The aid continued to come after 1949, but the only customs dockets that have survived appear to be from these three or four years.
A few examples will have to suffice: in April 1948 aircraft were flown to Finland from the American Zone in Allied-occupied Germany; in May the S/S Clio brought a highway grader and four aircraft engines, and in the early summer the fishing vessel S/S Volker was towed into Helsinki by a tug.
The customs official on duty conscientiously acknowledged the arrival of the items, wrote out a customs declaration, calculated the duty that was never to be levied, and filed the dockets away in the archives.
And that is where they remained, forgotten, for nearly sixty years.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.12.2006
More on this subject:
Surplus goods supplied to Finland by the US Office of the Foreign Liquidation Commissioner, 1946-1949
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat