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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.