Four scenes with Paasikivi in 1955

J. K. Paasikivi. Lehtikuva.

Johannes Virolainen, the young rising star of the Agrarian League (present-day Centre Party), became Foreign Minister of Finland in October 1954. As President J.K. Paasikivi together with Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen famously held a tight rein over foreign policy, Virolainen’s notes afford astonishing first-hand descriptions of events that shed light on the attitudes and character of the old president.

As foreign minister, Virolainen met with President Paasikivi in an official capacity on a weekly basis. Virolainen would remember the “Old Man” as a jovial character, although he also had his share of witnessing his famous, choleric outbursts. One such occasion took place on Saturday 12 March 1955, when the president was raging, as Virolainen described it, “like a mad man”.

Paasikivi had completely lost his temper when the conversation had turned to the Finnish tanker ship Aruba, which was taking jet fuel from Constanta in Romania to Communist China. The United States took issue to this, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as the leader of Formosa (Taiwan), which was under US protection, had ordered the ship to be stopped by any means necessary, including military intervention.

While Paasikivi prioritised relations with the East, he had also made great efforts throughout the post-war period to maintain good trade and financial relations with the West. “Why didn’t the government stop the ship from sailing?” the President grilled the foreign minister. Virolainen defended his position by explaining that he had talked with the shipping company as well as with representatives of Western nations.

“Talked and talked. What good is talk. What good is it if we just sit here talking to each other and do nothing. This is idle management of affairs, plain and simple. We must decide whether we will side with the Americans or the Chinese and that decision must be in the papers!”

Paasikivi sternly rebuked the businessmen who had put financial interest ahead of national interest. “We should cancel their credit,” he demanded, recalling his time as the Director of Kansallis-Osake-Pankki, when it was the bankers who decided what shipping companies could or could not do. His voice grew louder and louder, until finally he muttered under his breath: “I know those businessmen. Next thing they will come complaining how politics is overriding morality. I’ll show them who is calling the shots here.”

At this point, the new ambassador of Romania entered the room to present his credentials, and, to Virolainen’s bewilderment, Paasikivi suddenly turned into a picture of friendliness. After the ambassadorial audience, Paasikivi and Virolainen returned to the topic of Aruba, and having calmed down by now, the President was content with the promise that he would receive a full briefing on the matter and the Government’s activities surrounding it.

Shocked by the experience, Virolainen recounted his encounter with Paasikivi at the Foreign Office, but upon hearing about the incident, Kekkonen just laughed it off.  The Prime Minister analysed it by saying: “The Old Man is like two different personas in one.

One minute he is ranting and raving and says deranged things like someone who has taken leave of his senses. If we had a tape recorder at the ready to record what the Old Man says when he gets into this state, people would not believe their ears. And the next minute, he is a changed man. Considerate, witty, reasonable, calm. Making wise decisions on highly significant matters.”

On the same day, during a dinner hosted by the Speaker of the Parliament, Soviet ambassador Viktor Lebedev pointed out that there had been a great number of articles about issues related to the Winter War that should already be laid to rest. Again, the President appeared to be fuming but kept his calm as he explained to the US ambassador Finland’s stance on the matter of Aruba. Virolainen noticed, however, that the President was using the same arguments as he had done earlier during the day. “The Old Man is not too old to learn new tricks.”

The Aruba dispute was eventually resolved, and the tanker turned back in the middle of the Indian Ocean and returned to Constanta. Virolainen underwent an appendectomy in May and remained in hospital to recover for a period of time. While in hospital, he found company in Eino Vuorenlehto, a manager at KOP, who was also a patient in the room next door and who was keen to learn how the foreign minister was getting along with the President. He had already heard some hair-raising stories about the legendary temperament of the former Director of the bank and had also some personal experience of it.

Virolainen praised Paasikivi as a genial and wise man, who treated him in an almost fatherly manner. In his notes, however, he gives a more nuanced description of Paasikivi. Topmost in his mind was the selection of a new Finnish ambassador to Moscow. The Government was unanimously proposing Asko Ivalo, but the President rejected the suggestion.

Paasikivi bluntly said he knew the candidate as well as his father, the famous writer and journalist Santeri Ingman: “Both men are lazy—although the father was quite talented!” To Virolainen, Paasikivi said that he could not see Ivalo being any good for the country in Moscow. The President had taken a dim view of the staff at the foreign office, going back to the early days of the Independence:

“Those career diplomats are good for nothing. I saw in the 1920s that they were of very low standard and I don’t expect anything has changed. They see themselves as civil servants. They sit in their offices and attend parties. None of that matters. They should follow politics and be interested in it. There is no more than one able diplomat to every thousand career diplomats out there.”

Paasikivi’s benchmark in this matter was very close to home. He needed a man in Moscow who was capable of giving advice to Helsinki on how to manage affairs with the Soviets, not unlike himself while an envoy in Moscow in 1940–1941 following the Winter War. The President’s choice for the crucial post was Eero A. Wuori, Director of the Political Department at the foreign office, but the Social Democrats were opposed to this. As their final trump card, the SDP suggested none other than Johannes Virolainen.

Virolainen, however, was hesitant about this new turn in his career and, in fact, could not have gone to Moscow even if he had wanted to. The President had decided to appoint Wuori regardless of the cabinet’s opinion, which he did. Therefore, history will never know how a Karelian refugee and famous teetotaller would have fended for Finland in the diplomatic circles and their cocktail parties and dinners at Moscow.

The foreign office found itself again under fire from the President in July 1955, as he expressed his discontent concerning a press release. “They are a just a waste of space, can they not do anything right? They mostly do nothing and the little that they do is a complete mess. It has been like this for the entire Independence.”

Virolainen was worried that one day the President would have a stroke as a result of his apoplectic rages. Kekkonen, who was more experienced, put his mind to rest by explaining that this was just the Old Man’s way of letting off steam, that he enjoyed it and felt much better for it afterwards. As Virolainen gained more diplomatic experience, it became clear to him that the President’s fits were not necessarily as serious as they would appear. “’This is all of course pure comedy, but one has to do it right!’ the Old Man said.”

The foreign minister had several opportunities to listen to Paasikivi’s views on the international situation. When Virolainen went on to suggest that, since the President was so highly respected by Moscow, perhaps he should step in and have a say in the key issues between Finland and the Soviet Union, Paasikivi launched into a tirade on this favourite topic of his in a way that beggared belief. “Russia has changed,” Paasikivi had said. It is not like it was in the days of Stalin:

“But I don’t think the Russkies will give anything back voluntarily. I know what the Russkies are like. I know the people, and it is not a good people. They are useless and inefficient. What have they given to mankind, nothing. Only Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and a few others have given anything to this world. But the people themselves, they are wretched. They were powerless against the Mongols. Even Lenin was a Mongol.”

“I do not love that nation,” Paasikivi said, as if in defence of his policy of friendship with the Soviet Union and pointed out that neither had Yrjö-Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen, who, after all, was the father of the appeasement policy of the traditional Fennomans. “He was angry at the Russians.” Virolainen watched in confusion as the Old Man pounded his fist into his hand and roared:

“Oh, how I should show them, the whole nation should be wiped out. But we cannot do that. That this big nation is there is a reality and on that reality we must base our politics. It is not easy for me. But it is necessary.”

The President revealed that he had received plenty of rude and hateful correspondence for having accepted the Order of Lenin. But the President had paid no mind to it, “because I do what I think is right”. At that point, nobody knew what the changes in the Soviet leadership meant and what the reasons behind those changes were.

“I think it is pure tactics. They are ruthless and they are capable of anything. They might suddenly give in, which I do not believe yet. We must wait and see what is behind all this. We must carefully consider what we should do for our part. The point of departure must be: the negotiations must improve Finland’s situation—not damage it.”

Paasikivi had long pondered on the questions waiting to be resolved and had discussed them with Kekkonen. The agenda was then eventually also shared with the foreign minister. The most important point concerned the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA Treaty): “It expires in 1958 and we must give our notice of termination in 1957, if we choose not to extend it.” Regarding Karelian territories, it was to be established whether the Soviet Union was prepared to revisit the border agreement. In the President’s view, if no changes were made to the borders, the question of Saimaa Canal became irrelevant. Then there was Porkkala.

“We must broach all these issues during the talks. But we must not take unnecessary risks. We must think carefully whether we should tell the Russians: we will extend the Treaty only if the following conditions are met. The Russians may say yes, or they may say: let’s leave it then! And then, when the right moment comes, they will take all of Finland.”

Paasikivi said he had expected these issues to be raised only after the presidential election in February 1956. Virolainen, however, urged Paasikivi to take the initiative to leverage his good reputation in Moscow. This appeared to flatter the Old Man, who promised to think about it. To conclude the meeting, Paasikivi re-emphasised his knowledge of Russian ways:

“Politics like this does not come easy to me. But since we have no power to wield, we must assure them of our friendship. There simply is no other alternative. It is easy for a superpower to conduct their foreign policy with a million-strong army ready to strike. It is different story for a small nation.”

Virolainen wrote in his notes: “This was the first time the Old Man spoke so candidly to me about the Russians.” The President had “consistently emphasised that he would not agree to anything that would deteriorate Finland’s position. If anything, we should try and improve it.”

Paasikivi had clearly become attracted to the idea that, despite his advanced age, he might continue at the helm of the country for a while longer. His calling to carry responsibility in matters of national interest was as strong as ever. Virolainen enquired about the President’s plans from his wife Alli, who said they had long been packing up their belongings. “But if the duty to our country calls, our Juho could not say no.”

Paasikivi had described how he contemplated from morning till night on world politics and how to secure Finland’s independence. They were matters of life and death and everything depended on them, and yet nobody seemed to be paying much attention to them. The President frequently sought parallels in the history of the early 20th century. He had been a supporter of the appeasement policy adopted by the Fennomans, but he had never been “Bobrikov’s man”, like the Communists in the aftermath of the Continuation War.

After the war, terror seemed “a considerably more significant instrument than we previously imagined and assumed, in the days of passive resistance.” The fate of the Baltic countries stood witness to this, as did the suppression of all opposition in Czechoslovakia, where the people had been subjected utterly to Communist rule.

What particularly puzzled Paasikivi was how Poland “with her great history and a people of 26 million known for their patriotic fervour and national pride had so surrendered to foreign rule and new order”. After the Second World War, the President was increasingly convinced that violence and force would rule the day.

Despite the thaw in international politics that followed the death of Stalin, Paasikivi held a pessimistic view that there might well be a third world war on the horizon. He was led to this conclusion partly by the militarisation of West Germany, which the Western powers allowed in 1954–1955 as part of the core structures of NATO. When the new French ambassador Géraud Jouve presented his credentials to Paasikivi in August 1955, Paasikivi quite undiplomatically questioned him: “What do you think of Germany? What will it do once it has all the arms?”

The ambassador did his best to justify the measures as a way of binding Germany to the European framework. Paasikivi found this to be a magnificent theory that nonetheless would not hold in practice. “There are plenty of those who believe that once Germany has been armed and the attempts to unify the two countries by peaceful means have failed, it will be ready to start a third world war,” the President noted. “But I will no longer be here to see it!” According to Virolainen, Jouve had been “quite baffled ”.

The Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, was about to visit Moscow for talks with the supreme leadership of the Soviet Union. But so was Paasikivi. The issue on the agenda was the return of Porkkala, which had to be “concluded as soon as possible”. However, on the Kremlin’s list of priorities, Adenauer came first. At this point, Paasikivi may have been torn by fears that Germany could in some way undermine Finland’s objectives.

The FRG and the Soviet Union reached a compromise and established diplomatic relations. The President of Finland and his delegation were able to set off for Moscow on 15 September 1955 in pleasant weather conditions. The Presidential delegation was seen off at Seutula Airport by the foreign minister, whose unfortunate lot was to stay home. The Soviet Union had expressed the wish that the President should instead be accompanied by Prime Minister Kekkonen, with whom the matters had already be prepared.

It was only during the departure ceremonies that Kekkonen revealed to Virolainen that they were, in fact, on the way to bring back Porkkala. The press had a field day, making the “most clueless foreign minister in the world” the butt of their jokes: “Maybe he should ask the porter what’s going on in Moscow.” But Virolainen knew his place. In his own statement, he coined the term the “Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine” which was initially met with a wave of protestations, but which stuck in Finnish political parlance until the 1980s, and even later.

And, in all fairness, the foreign minister’s humiliation was mild compared to that of the Social Democrats, who had been completely kept out from the process. The atmosphere in the cabinet meeting of 20 September, where the Prime Minister immediately on his return from Moscow briefed his ministers of the talks held with the Soviet Union, was subdued. When Tyyne Leivo-Larsson, the Social Democrat cabinet minister, vented her frustrations, Kekkonen curtly responded: “The only person with any real reason for discontent is the foreign minister, I’m afraid.”

Virolainen had found himself in an awkward limbo amid the power struggles surrounding him. That he was subsequently given a highly visible role in the celebrations marking the return of Porkkala from Soviet control hack to Finland in 1956, was by no means a small consolation, however. The foreign minister had the opportunity to learn from the best during a time when the Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine yielded its best results.

Mikko Majander, D. Soc.Sc, is an Adjunct Professor in Political History at the University of Helsinki. This article is adapted from an article with the same title published in his collection of essays Paasikivi, Kekkonen ja avaruuskoira (Siltala 2010).