History Department

HIETA, ERIK: Challenging Isolationism: An Analysis of Opinion and Response on the American West Coast to the Winter War in Finland.

Master's Thesis. 157 pages, 25 appendices.
General History
June 1998

This is a study of the way in which the reporting of the Winter War by the press affected American public opinion regarding involvement in the crisis. Three metropolitan daily newspapers and one Finnish American newspaper on the American West Coast were examined, along with government documents, scholarly research and several personal interviews, as a means of analyzing public awareness and attitude shifts in respect to this initial phase of what would soon expand to become World War II.

An examination of the six month period between October 1939 and April 1940 finds that the newspapers sensationalized the Winter War using extensive rhetoric and hyperbole as a means of trying to resolve the uncertainties and inconsistencies in opinion and action during what was a transitional phase in ideological conceptions about the prospects of isolationism as a valid response to changing international events. There existed on the one hand the desire to both frustrate totalitarian aggression and support an international community based on shared values and on the other hand the desire to retreat into pacifistic withdrawal from any engagement similar to that of the First World War. Finland was found to fit easily into a historical definition of what these shared values were and consequently helped to bridge this ideological gap. The feelings of sympathy which the newspapers helped to galvanize translated readily into an extensive charitable response. This grass-roots sympathy and sharpened public opinion were channeled into a political discourse over the viability of strict neutrality policy. The press acted upon public opinion to the point that it ceased to be adequately reflected in Congress. Though the isolationist legislation was modified, it was not modified in significant enough form to be of immediate benefit to Finland.

The desire to move away from a strictly isolationist position seems to have been stronger according to the size of the metropolitan area and did not reflect a particular political party. The newspapers on the West Coast served not only to bring Finnish Americans more into the mainstream of public opinion, but also to make a hitherto apathetic general public both more aware of and more educated to foreign affairs. The conclusion drawn is that the Winter War produced more than just toothless sympathy without direct political follow﷓through political policy within the United States: it served an initial and essential role as the catalyst for an ideological paradigm shift in matters of foreign policy and helped to enlighten public opinion to the need for the United States to be more active in world affairs. Isolationism as a political force quickly lost much of its leverage as a prime shaper of American foreign policy.