Stuart D. Goldman: The Forgotten Soviet-Japanese War of 1939

Roundup: Talking About History

Stuart D. Goldman is a Russian specialist and a scholar in residence at the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. This article is based on his book, NOMONHAN, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II (U.S. Naval Institute Press).

In the summer of 1939, Soviet and Japanese armies clashed on the Manchurian-Mongolian frontier in a little-known conflict with far-reaching consequences. No mere border clash, this undeclared war raged from May to September 1939 embroiling over 100,000 troops and 1,000 tanks and aircraft. Some 30,000-50,000 men were killed and wounded. In the climactic battle, August 20-31, 1939, the Japanese were crushed. This coincided precisely with the conclusion of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (August 23, 1939) – the green light for Hitler's invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II one week later. These events are connected. This conflict also influenced key decisions in Tokyo and Moscow in 1941 that shaped the conduct and ultimately the outcome of the war.
This conflict (called the Nomonhan Incident by Japanese, the Battle of Khalkhin Gol by Russians) was provoked by a notorious Japanese officer named TSUJI Masanobu, ring-leader of a clique in Japan’s Kwantung Army, which occupied Manchuria. On the other side, Georgy Zhukov, who would later lead the Red Army to victory over Nazi Germany, commanded the Soviet forces. In the first large clash in May 1939, a Japanese punitive attack failed and Soviet/Mongolian forces wiped out a 200-man Japanese unit. Infuriated, Kwantung Army escalated the fighting through June and July, launching a large bombing attack deep inside Mongolian territory and attacking across the border in division strength. As successive Japanese assaults were repulsed by the Red Army, the Japanese continually upped the ante, believing they could force Moscow to back down. Stalin, however, outmaneuvered the Japanese and stunned them with a simultaneous military and diplomatic counter strike.
In August, as Stalin secretly angled for an alliance with Hitler, Zhukov amassed powerful forces near the front. When German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop flew to Moscow to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin unleashed Zhukov. The future Red Army Marshal unveiled the tactics he would later employ with such devastating effect at Stalingrad, Kursk, and elsewhere: a combined arms assault with massed infantry and artillery that fixed the enemy on the central front while powerful armored formations enveloped the enemy’s flanks, encircled, and ultimately crushed him in a battle of annihilation. Over 75 percent of Japan’s ground forces at the front were killed in combat. At the same time, Stalin concluded the pact with Hitler, Japan’s nominal ally, leaving Tokyo diplomatically isolated and militarily humiliated.
The fact that the fighting at Nomonhan coincided with the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was no coincidence...

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