The Forgotten Soviet-Japanese War of 1939 (Page 2 of 2)

The story of Japan’s road to Pearl Harbor is well-known. A part of that story that is not so well-known is that memories of their defeat at Nomonhan figured in Japan’s decision for war with the United States. And the same Tsuji who played a central role at Nomonhan was also an influential advocate for southward expansion and war with America.

In June 1941, Germany invaded Russia and in the early months of the war inflicted such crushing defeats on the Red Army, many believed the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Germany urged Japan to invade the Soviet Far East, avenge the defeat at Nomonhan, and seize as much Soviet territory as it could swallow. But in July 1941, the United States and Britain had imposed an oil embargo on Japan that threatened to starve the Japanese war machine. To avert this, the Imperial Navy was determined to seize the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. The Netherlands had been conquered a year earlier. Britain was fighting for its life. Only the U.S. Pacific Fleet stood in the way. Many in the Japanese Army, however, were keen to attack the U.S.S.R., as Germany was urging. They wanted to avenge the defeat at Nomonhan while the Red Army was being smashed by the blitzkrieg. Japanese Army and Navy leaders debated this issue at a series of Imperial War Conferences.

In the summer of 1941, Col. Tsuji was a senior operations staff officer at Imperial General Headquarters. Tsuji, a charismatic and forceful spokesman, was one of the Army men who backed the Navy position that led to Pearl Harbor. General Tanaka Ryukichi, Chief of the Army Ministry’s Military Service Bureau in 1941, testified after the war that, “… the most determined single protagonist in favor of war with the United States [was] Tsuji Masanobu.” Tsuji later wrote that his experience of Soviet fire-power at Nomonhan convinced him not to take on the Russians in 1941.

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But what if there had been no Nomonhan Incident, or if it had ended differently, say in a stalemate or a Japanese victory? In that case, the Japanese decision to move south might have turned out very differently. A Japan less impressed with Soviet military capability and faced with choosing between war against the Anglo-American powers or joining Germany in finishing off the U.S.S.R., might have viewed the northern course as the best choice.

If Japan had decided to attack northward in 1941, that could well have changed the course of the war, and of history. Many believe that the Soviet Union could not have survived a two-front war in 1941-1942. The Soviet margin of victory in the Battle of Moscow, and at Stalingrad a year later, was excruciatingly thin. A determined Japanese foe in the east might have tipped the balance in Hitler’s favor. Furthermore, if Japan had moved against the Soviet Union in 1941, it could not also have attacked the United States that year. The United States might not have entered the war until a year later, under circumstances in Europe far more unfavorable than the actual grim reality in the winter of 1941. How then would Nazi domination of Europe been broken?

Nomonhan cast a long shadow.

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).

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