The Forgotten Soviet-Japanese War of 1939
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Forgotten Soviet-Japanese War of 1939


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. While Stalin was openly negotiating with Britain and France for a purported anti-fascist alliance, and secretly negotiating with Hitler for their eventual alliance, he was being attacked by German’s ally and anti-Comintern partner, Japan. By the summer of 1939, it was clear that Europe was sliding toward war. Hitler was determined to move east, against Poland. Stalin’s nightmare, to be avoided at all costs, was a two-front war against Germany and Japan. His ideal outcome would be for the fascist/militarist capitalists (Germany, Italy, and Japan) to fight the bourgeois/democratic capitalists (Britain, France, and perhaps the United States), leaving the Soviet Union on the sidelines, the arbiter of Europe after the capitalists had exhausted themselves. The Nazi-Soviet Pact was Stalin’s attempt to achieve his optimal outcome. Not only did it pit Germany against Britain and France and leave the Soviet Union out of the fight – it gave Stalin the freedom to deal decisively with an isolated Japan, which he did at Nomonhan. This is not merely a hypothesis. The linkage between Nomonhan and the Nazi-Soviet Pact is clear even in the German diplomatic documents published in Washington and London in 1948. Recently revealed Soviet-era documents add confirming details.

Zhukov won his spurs at Nomonhan/Khalkhin Gol – and thereby won Stalin’s confidence to entrust him with the high command in late 1941, just in time to avert disaster. Zhukov was able to halt the German onslaught and turn the tide at the gates of Moscow in early December 1941 (arguably the most decisive week of the Second World War) in part by deploying forces from the Soviet Far East. Many of these were the battle-tested troops he used to crush the Japanese at Nomonhan. The Soviet Far Eastern reserves – 15 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, 1,700 tanks, and 1.500 aircraft – were deployed westward in the autumn of 1941 when Moscow learned that Japan would not attack the Soviet Far East, because it had made an irrevocable decision for southward expansion that would lead to war with the United States.

September 23, 2013 at 02:19

Difficult to know for sure what use A bombs would have been against Germany if this alternate history of Japan deciding to attack Soviets in '41 took place and enabled Germany to finish off Russians.  Dropping A bombs on isolated islands like Japan is a very different prospect then dropping them on Germany locked in central Europe and Hitler also had millions of Europeans under his subjugation he could use as a shield.  Germans could also have threatened to unleash their huge stash of sarin gas on English and other civilian populations.   Bottomline, if Japan did help Germans knock Russians out of war a Germany with conqured lands from the Bay of Biscay to the Urals would have been very difficult to defeat. 

September 2, 2013 at 23:47

The biggest error in US diplomatic history has been restating the Cold War with Russia.   We should have withdrawn from NATO after the wall fell and courted Russia instead of confronting it every chance we had and expanding NATO against Russia’s borders.   

September 2, 2013 at 15:00

Japan may have been alliied with Hitler, but the Japanese hierarchy didn't do its homework. Had they read Mein Kampf, they'd have known that the apple of Hitler's eye was the USSR; it was the key to his Thousand Year Reich because it would provide raw materials and slave labor (he had a very low opinion oif the Slavic nations). Hitler gave Japan a golden opportunity to avenge its 1939 defeat, and the Japanese punted it. But by doing so, they also allowed Stalin to throw everything he had at Hitler — and combined with the Russian weather and Hitler's meglomania, that was just enough to fend off the Nazis.

September 1, 2013 at 08:10

The article didn't specify the armor vs.armor portion of the conflict.  The Soviets had serious tanks while I haven't seen anything from Japan in WW2 that didn't look like a toy.  Atomic bombs would have ended the war irregardless of Soviet Union's survival.  Hamburg and Berlin would have replaced Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

April 14, 2013 at 16:19

The 'Rzhev meat grinder' was important, with heavy losses for the Soviets, because it meant that German forces were tied up there instead of being able to reinforce Stalingrad.

March 1, 2013 at 03:47

Don't forget that Zhukov was severely mauled by Germans in Rhzev, propably the most bloodiest battle even in standart of eastern front. He was far from genius military commander. If he had commanded those Red Army troops which try to cut Finland in Suomussalmi-Raate (Dec39-40Jan) his troops would have been mauled by Finns as Germans did 3 years later in Rhzev (Operation Mars).

February 12, 2013 at 18:57

If China does a Japan and drive south rather than north, it is but logical knowing that Russia and China today are supporting each other these days. There respective stands in global issues being resolved by the UN is a sign that this is so. If china for example makes a provocative move and starts a war with the US, there is a possibility that Russia will again side with China and this war will be to the bitter end for most of the democratic world. But china and Russia can also suffer extensively even if they joined forces as the capability of the US militarily speaking is also extremely effective not to mention other countries that would be supporting the US from many powerful countries in Europe and also Asia. But Russia might not also be willing to risk a disastrous consequence by joining China and this would be favorable to countries for which the US will be fighting for. Together with the US, a war would china would still remain catastrophic but at least they have a fair chance of inflicting incalculable losses to China too from which China might not be able to recover anymore. Indeed if the Spratlys, Scarborough or Senkakus cause the next big war, China will also get be seriously impaired contrary to her most optimistic views that insuch an event she will come out the shining knight. She won't be. She might not even make it past this war.

January 3, 2013 at 12:09

I cannot honestly believe that one could contribute such a ludicrous set of ideas. These actions you refer to are minute militaristic problems compared to the extreme powers of a national military and certainly do not conjure up any opinions regarding the mettle of a nation. China's "growing" navy is so vastly inferior compared to that of the U.S., it is not even a logical argument. Here's just an example, China has 1 Ukraine discarded aircraft carrier,  weighing 58,500 tons which they refurbished, and needless to say not on the cutting edge of military weaponry. The U.S., by contrast has a multitude of cutting edge super-carriers displacing 100,000 tons. Then consider the fact that the U.S. spends more than the next 10 or so countries combined and I have no idea where any signs of weakness could come from.

December 13, 2012 at 09:58

It would be discouraging to think of Manchuria as part of China, but I understand your point is made with reference to whether this article warrants a discussion of current Chinese policy, as Matt suggests. Certainly it does. Chinese territorial claims are massively expansive, and dealing with them requires strategic thinking. Although China claims Manchuria, it would be more helpful, strategically, to take a critical approach to those claims. 

Robert Haggerty
November 29, 2012 at 03:54

The shadow of Nomonhon could have been even greater. Since the battle ended on August 31,939 (the day before the Germans invaded Poland) , it was never widely reported in the west. Had the Germans known how devastatingly effective the Red Army, and a general named Georgi Zhukov, were in this battle they certainly would not have so badly underestimated the fighting capacity of the Red Army. This underestimation would prove fatal  to the Germans in their planning and execution of the invasion of the Soviet Union. 

October 31, 2012 at 06:35

I agree with Matt. Manchuria is part of china. Russia was protecting their own assets when defending against Japan yes, but history is doomed to repeat itself if we don’t study it and figure out why that happened. The aggressive neighbors are never taken advantage of because they are showing their power constantly. Russia has a trading pact with china, but they are not letting them step over that line. How do we know that Russia won’t do the same thing with the USA or china like what they did with nazi germany and turn on them? They’ve done it before. Germany showed their weakness signing that pact with Russia that let them focus on Japan first, then onto Germany. They didn’t want to fight a two-front war and they got what they wanted with a little diplomacy with Germany.

I guess what I’m saying is look at all the variables and see how it stacks up to prior things that have been stated as fact and take your opinion from that. A lot of things from our history as a world are showing up again and people should be spotting it.

September 1, 2012 at 09:08

The reference in this article to the US oil embargo on Japan, and Japan's subsequent push to the Dutch East Indies needs amplification. As usual the US was clueless about the potential of oil diplomacy and strategy. On the eve of WW II, US submarine strategy was a backwater and US torpedoes were a failure, failing even to explode on contact and to interdict shipping in the early phases of the war. By war's end, about 70% of oil shipments to Japan were interdicted. But imagine if more than 90% were interdicted within 18 months of Pearl Harbor? So much for the Big Picture.
Better yet, mines are vastly more cost effective than submarines. They could have been delivered by air, and remained resident for months in waters long out of reach of American control, such as Manilla Bay or the sea of Japan. Perhaps if the navy tested this theory with the same thoroughness as the aircraft carrier or dirigible based biplanes, Japan may have imitated the concept, but never beat the US at it's own game. Ironically, the US was obsessed with early versions of Jap terrorism, such as balloon bombs, but never had a public policy toward sea based mines. The point being, that in any balance of terror regarding mines, it would have been advantage USA. Indeed, there is a robust history of mine warfare during WW II, including a shutdown of the Port of Charleston. But this was a secret war, in which the public duly adhered to the rule: "A slip of the lip can sink a ship".
As with WW II, there is again a mismatch of military strategy and resource strategy. Armies must consider the stakes and costs of resource control and plan battle conflict accordingly. Consider that Operation Desert Freedom and the occupation of Iraq were not really about oil at all. The US could have doubled Iraqi oil production within 5 years of the invasion. Instead, it declined, giving encouragement to Iran and other oil fanatics, who promptly escalated the price of oil more effectively than the 1973 OPEC could have dreamed.
As with Khalkin Gol, timing and a sense of how to map history have been important in Iraq. Iran was truly shocked that the US made such effortless headway in overthrowing Saddam. But this would have meant much more today than then, now that Iran is close to having the Bomb and Ahmadinejad is in charge. So we have boobs like Condaleeza Rice in charge of war diplomacy, the reason why Cheney and the Bushes were so unwelcome at the GOP convention. Perhaps she should pull up an empty chair and pretend she is talking to Obama.

September 1, 2012 at 06:42

Germany and Japan would have lost eventually no matter what. Neither nation has the man power to really control the territory they held let alone if they had ended the USSR. The Nazi still froze their asses off and were having supply difficulties. The Soviets would have fallen back to the Urals and Siberia tightening their supply lines and their front forcing both the Germans and Japanese to overextend to achieve victory. IT would have taken another year maybe two for Japan and Germany to fall, but they still would have.

August 31, 2012 at 09:27

This has got to be one of the better articles from the Diplomat in along time.
Strange how one decision made then cold have effected how the world turned out.  Prior to WWII, Germany was both a power-house in cultural and scientific terms but after the war the Americans and the Soviet Union took in Germany's best scientists and engineers.  Till then, chemists anywhere in the world had to be able to read and write German because the Germans were carrying out the best research in that field.
It could be argued that if Germany had maintained continued dominance in Europe that German today would be learnt as a second language in most of the world's schools and not English.  At the time,  the Russians for obvious geographical, economic and military reasons learnt German,  The Italians and Japanese were allies of Germany, the Chinese were heavily influenced by the Germans in their military, legal system and even beer making, the USA had a large German immigrant community as does Brazil, the Egyptians were supported by Germany in their anti-imperialist battles, and the various German colonies were to be found in Africa and the Pacific at the time. 

[...] in history: August 15. While each claim is rooted in a different set of circumstances, they are all legacies of the end of World War II, an anniversary marked this month. The August 15 commemorations focus on loss, and the territorial [...]

August 30, 2012 at 07:50

Obviously, you haven't look into fact that Moscow was about halfway from Polish border to Ural. And if Japan attacked Soviet Union, first task would have been to control Pacific seaboard and cut communication with USA and then move through Mongolia toward India and then Middle Eastern oil. And in India, many people were fed-up with British dominion. According to US propaganda in 1941, US government was very much concerned about possibility that Axis forces control rest of the world while only Americas stay US allied. So, USA would have been forced to jump into war to avoid such outcome, but beating isolationism would have been much harder without Pearl Harbor.

August 29, 2012 at 22:38

Well Banko,
I forgot to credit you for all of your research and sourcing, really good.
I only agree with that last paragraph, The Chamberlain group, which was succeeding until it failed. History is replete with success up unto the point of defeat and the survivors write the history. I didn't accuse you of propaganda, just that you are reading into your research some things that I don't believe are there. On 1 Sep 1939, all of those you cite didn't matter anymore; not then and not now.
BTW, I don't consider Kissinger an authority on anything.

Leonard R.
August 29, 2012 at 21:38

This was an excellent article about a part of the war I knew very little about. 
Thank you Diplomat for publishing this. 

August 29, 2012 at 14:57

Russian Foreign Intelligence Service declassifies Munich Agreement papers
​MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti's Valery Yarmolenko) – The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR in Russian abbreviation) has declassified archive materials related to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which triggered the most dramatic events of the 20th century.
Head of the SVR press office Sergei Ivanov allowed Yarmolenko to familiarize himself with the declassified documents.
"The declassified intelligence documents reflect the political processes which took place before and after the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, which is also called the 'Munich conspiracy,'" Ivanov explained.
"The documents received after the Munich conspiracy are particularly valuable. They analyze the post-Munich situation in Europe and clearly show that Britain was trying to draw Germany and the Soviet Union into active hostilities," Sotskov emphasized in an interview with RIA Novosti.

Later, on November 25, Grippenberg reported his conversation with a British government member who assured him that Britain and France would not interfere in Germany's eastward expansion.
"Britain's position is as follows: let's wait until Germany and the U.S.S.R. get involved in a big conflict," the document reads…
PM Chou: Originally Western Europe had hoped that Germany
would go eastwards.
Dr. Kissinger: Western Europe.
PM Chou: At Munich.
Dr. Kissinger: Yes, at Munich. Western Europe had very superficial


August 29, 2012 at 13:22

You might as well come tell me U.S invaded Iraq to get rid of weapons of mass destruction.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief