[lit-ideas] On whether to rescue Finland in 1939

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 16 May 2006 09:14:42 -0700

Should France and Great Britain have tried harder to rescue Finland in 1939?


On page 14 of Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau writes that ". . .
political realism takes issue with the 'legalistic-moralistic approach' to
international politics. . ." 


"In 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland.  This action confronted France
and Great Britain with two issues, one legal, the other political.  Did that
action violate the Covenant of the League of Nations and, if it did, what
countermeasures should France and Great Britain take?  The legal question
could easily be answered in the affirmative, for obviously the Soviet Union
had done what was prohibited by the Covenant.  The answer to the political
question depends, first, upon the manner in which the Russian action
affected the interests of France and Great Britain; second upon the existing
distribution of power between France and Great Britain, on the one hand, and
the Soviet Union and other potentially hostile nations, especially Germany,
on the other; and, third, upon the influence that the countermeasures were
likely to have upon the interests of France and Great Britain and the future
distribution of power.  France and Great Britain, as the leading members of
the League of Nations, saw to it that the Soviet Union was expelled from the
League, and they were prevented from joining Finland in the war against the
Soviet Union only by Sweden's refusal to allow their troops to pass through
Swedish territory on their way to Finland.  If this refusal by Sweden had
not saved them, France and Great Britain would shortly have found themselves
at war with the Soviet Union and Germany at the same time.


"The policy of France and Great Britain was a classic example of legalism in
that they allowed the answer to the legal question, legitimate within its
sphere, to determine their political actions.  Instead of asking both
questions, that of the law and that of power, they asked only the question
of law; and the answer they received could have no bearing on the issue that
their very existence might have depended upon."


Comment:  I'm sure Finland would have appreciated Sweden letting French and
British troops come to their aid in 1939, but had they done so it wouldn't
have gone well for France & Great Britain.  The Germans were capable of
generating more harm than they could handle all by themselves.   Morgenthau
is using this example to show that they would have been better off using
Political Realism to evaluate their course of action and that Sweden saved
them from making a terrible mistake. 


Morgenthau wrote, "The main signpost that helps political realism to find
its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of
interest defined in terms of power."  We can see the application of that in
this example.  It wasn't in the best interest of Britain and France to go to
war against German and Great Britain at the same time.  They hadn't the
power to defeat these two nations, but even assuming that they thought they
did (which I doubt), they would be lessening their chances by this course of


This also illustrates what is most unpleasant about Political Realism.  It
subordinates morality and legalism to Political Interest.  It was morally
and legally right for Great Britain and France to come to Finland's aid, but
Morgenthau would say that GB & France were not entitled to risk the
existence of their nations in order to do what was morally and legally
right.  They needed to do what was in the best interest of their nations.  


It is hard to argue against Morgenthau's conclusions, but surely we cannot
discount all our treaties simply because it might put us at risk to meet our


I'm reminded that in David Fromkin's "Europe's Last Summer, Who Started the
Great War in 1914?" he describes Germany making a treaty with Austro-Hungary
because Germany wanted help in fighting against Russia.  Whereas
Austro-Hungary made the treaty because Austro-Hungary wanted to deal with
the Serbs and wanted Germany to keep Russia off their backs while it did so.



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