Herbert Hoover’s Travels To Finland

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In 1938, Finland had a lot to celebrate. Independence had been declared two decades earlier. It was also the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the first Swedish / Finnish colony in Delaware. These events were excellent reasons to invite former US president Herbert Hoover to visit in March of 1938.

Finland had gained independence in the midst of World War I and then plunged into civil war. The country faced famine, which was averted by the supplies by American Red Cross and American Relief Administration European Children's Fund. The contact person in London was Rudolf Holsti, who later became Finnish Foreign Minister, 1919-1922 and 1936-1938. Herbert Hoover had served as the head of the American Relief Administration following the First World War.

In his welcoming speech, Holsti assured “the entire Finnish nation will never forget the moral greatness of the decision of the associated governments in recognizing the Independence of Finland.” The dinner consisted of Nordic specialties – salmon trout and capercaillie.

The foreign minister found Hoover’s book American individualism, which emphasizes individuals’ responsibility and servitude to others, as a guideline for Finland in her progress toward independence. Holsti was also addressing domestic politics, as his own government had applied social democratic reforms that quickly healed the wounds of the Civil War and made Finland the forth Nordic state.

Hoover shared compliments with his hosts: “The greatness of a people does not lay in its numbers, but in the character and ideals of a people, and Finland has by these qualities made herself great among nations.” Statistics and reports had given an impression of progress, and during his visit Hoover saw it with his own eyes. In his radio speech before the departure, the President emphasized how Finland’s “success strengthens and gives courage and inspiration to all those who believe in freedom […] in a world greatly torn by friction and trouble.”

The next day, the dean of humanistic faculty of the University of Helsinki, professor Arthur Långfors, awarded the President with the Doctor of Philosophy ad honorem. “I, too, have a younger university than this to look upon to which I have a deep attachment,” Hoover replied with gratitude, as for him universities were the sources of human progress.

The visit was not only for reminiscence. International politics in Europe were in flux and coincidentally the German Anschluss of Austria had occurred only few days prior to the visit. Obviously, Finland wanted with the invitation to strengthen ties across the Atlantic. Holsti assured many time common ideals of liberty with the US and they would lead Finland in the future to even greater achievements.

Holsti was forced by German influence to resign in November 1938. In August 1940, with help from Hoover, he was invited to lecture at Stanford University. Holsti continued to criticize Nazi Germany even to an extent that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to cool him down, as Finland was deeply dependent on German trade. Holsti wrote commentaries on past and current international politics until his death in August 1945. Most of his personal archives are now at the Finnish National Archives in Helsinki but some material remains at the Hoover Archives.

A year and a half after Hoover’s visit, in November 1939, Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union. The Finnish government appealed to Hoover, who had promised in Helsinki “I shall never forget your kindness.” He established the Finnish Relief Fund, a charity network, which eventually collected in sum 3.5 million dollars. Its archives are located at the Hoover Archives.

Eight years later, in March 1946, in an official US mission to monitor the food situation in Europe, President Hoover made his second Finnish visit [news reels in Finnish: Presidentti Hoover Suomessa / Presidentti Hoover Suomessa 1946]. After the trip, UNRRA started the relief program to Finland, which continued via UNICEF until 1951. It was well-targeted support, because in the next year Finland started paying to UNICEF.


Pauli Heikkilä PhD Research Fellow, University of Helsinki
Pauli Heikkilä PhD

Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki.

Pauli Heikkilä PhD is a Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki. He stayed the Hoover Institution as Fulbright Scholar in spring 2014, and he is completing his monograph on the Assembly of Captive European Nations. His next project is the biography of journalist and diplomat Urho Toivola. His most recent publication is a chapter on Baltic emigration in East Central European Migrations During the Cold War edited by Anna Mazurkiewicz (De Gruyter 2019).