Norway, the West and the Soviet Union, 1944-48

The term ’bridge-building’ is often used to describe Norwegian foreign policy from the tail end of the Second World War until Norway's turn to the West in early 1948. Even though the term is ambiguous at best, it now occupies an established place in Norwegian historiography, and reflects the perceived position of Norway between East and West in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The term points to the Norwegian desire to help maintain a workable post-war relationship between the wartime allies.

Picture of a globe with Norway highlighted and two arrows going east and west
Picture of a globe with Norway highlighted and two arrows going east and west

By the end of 1940, the Norwegian government in exile in London had given up its traditional stand of neutrality under the protection of the British. Instead, the government, led by Johan Nygaardsvold of the dominant Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet), started cooperating closely with the great Western powers, Britain and the United States. The partnership would persist into the post-war era, though for the first few years in a much modified form.

By the end of 1944, Norway had left this explicit association with the West behind, instead embracing the so-called ‘bridge-building’ between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Norway attempted to pursue policies that would not alienate either side, nor increase tension between them during a difficult transitional time from war to peace.

This policy was intended to highlight Norway’s commitment to working for international peace both to a domestic public and to the great powers, taking into consideration both domestic political cleavages and the concerns of the great powers.

The basis for bridge-building

The Norwegian approach rested on a complicated set of assumptions. During the years from 1943 to 1944, it became increasingly clear that, after the war, the great powers would form an intergovernmental organisation with universal membership, the United Nations. The United States would not undermine the UN by entering into close partnerships with Britain or other European states as President Franklin Roosevelt put a premium on continued cooperation with the Soviet Union. Without the United States, Britain lacked the military force to establish a credible Western European alliance, one that could keep Germany under control and the Soviet Union at bay.

The Norwegian government-in-exile then realised it had to rely on the United Nations to guarantee Norwegian security and territorial integrity. Yet, for the United Nations to function successfully as a security organisation, it was necessary for the great powers to maintain a minimum level of cooperation after the war.

The wartime government as well as the subsequent Labour government took the position that Norway could contribute by avoiding policies that might exacerbate great power disagreements and cause Europe to disintegrate into two hostile camps. This was all the more important as the Soviet Union helped to liberate Northern Norway from German occupation, and would become the dominant great power among Norway’s neighbours.

In addition, there was a concern for domestic political consensus over foreign policy. The Communists and the left wing of the Labour Party emerged strengthened from the war, and a pro-Western and potentially anti-Soviet line would cause domestic strife at a time when a foreign policy consensus was considered vital.

Norway’s bridge building falters

Norway’s foreign policy of building bridges between East and West was under pressure from the beginning of 1946. As the great powers increasingly were at loggerheads over a number of international issues, Germany in particular,  they showed ever less understanding towards states that failed to take a stance. The United Nations as a security organisation was in effect paralysed, and the Labour government concluded that it would not be able to guarantee Norway’s security and territorial integrity.

A big hall, where the council is seated in a circl with a wall painting in the background

The artist Per Krogh painted in 1950s the image that adorns the wall in the Security Council’s hall in the UN building. The room was designed by the architect Arnstein Arneberg and was a gift from Norway. Photo:UN Photo, Evan Schneider.

From late 1947, the domestic consensus on the bridge-building approach to foreign policy collapsed. The Marshall Plan mandated a choice between East and West. Choosing the Eastern bloc was unthinkable, and, from the fall of 1947, Norway inched towards the West. A number of international events persuaded the government that bridge-building was no longer feasible: the Soviets enforcing one party Communist regimes in Eastern Europe; the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia; the Soviet Union proposing an agreement on a mutual security agreement with Finland; and, the division of Germany and the Berlin Blockade.

Norway chooses the West

Already in London, the government-in-exile had established a fall-back position to the bridge-building policy. If the preconditions vanished, Norway would once again join the Western powers. This process began in the autumn of 1947 and gathered momentum in spring 1948. The Western powers wanted to bring Norway into the North Atlantic Treaty, and the Soviet Union was hardly surprised that Norway chose the West.

The main challenge was to manage the process in such a way that joining the West would cause the least possible damage to the domestic foreign policy consensus, and caused the least possible damage to Labour Party unity. The ‘reserve position’ had not been publicly announced, as that would have undermined the bridge-building policy. From the summer of 1948 onwards, what mattered was to find the least painful transition. Sweden’s neutrality and Sweden’s absolute opposition to any Scandinavian defence union having any formal link to the Western powers, greatly eased the way for the Labour government to again realign with the West.

Further reading:

  • Helge Pharo, 'Bridgebuilding and Reconstruction: Norway Faces the Marshall Plan'. Scandinavian Journal of History, 1, 1-2, 1976, pp. 125-173.
  • Helge Pharo, 'Scandinavia'. in D. Reynolds (ed.) The Origins of the Cold War in Europe (London, 1974) pp. 194-223.
  • Olav Riste, Norway’s Foreign Relations – A History. (Oslo, 2005).



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