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The Red Army's Victory that Shaped W.W. II

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By Anthony Garavente

This essay is a review of Stuart D. Goldman's Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2012. 228 pp.

This is an account of a Second World War battle between Japan and the Soviet Union that is unknown to most people, even to those interested in that calamity. Has the battle been forgotten or was it deliberately omitted from the historical record? From this reader's study of that monumental disaster, the latter seems to be the case; but for what reason? Who benefitted from the suppression of this story?

The battle of Nomonhan (also know as Khalkhin Gol) was fought in the Mongolian People's Republic from May 11 to September 16, 1939 and was a complete victory for the Soviet Union (USSR). Not only did the Japanese suffer heavy casualties as they were driven from the battlefield, but this setback led them to change their policy of expansion in East Asia. This defeat caused them to abandon their northern strategy, which brought them into conflict with the USSR, for a southern strategy that ultimately led to war with the United States.

Goldman's book correctly notes the connection between this great battle and the signing of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact on August 23, 1939, something that was overlooked even by Alvin D. Coox in his monumental study of the conflict (Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985, 1253 pages), which is primarily a military history. Coox barely mentioned the Nazi-Soviet Pact in his long and detailed account of the battle.

However, Goldman stands the truth on its head when he speaks of that connection. The battle of Nomonhan, coming after five years of conflict along the border between the eastern territories of the USSR, the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR) and Chinese provinces already controlled by Japan, led to the signing of the infamous agreement, not the reverse. Nor did the battle trigger World War II, as Goldman asserts. The Japanese subjugation of the three northeastern provinces of China (also known as Manchuria) did that. As the author understated the situation: "Japan's occupation of Manchuria profoundly altered its relations with the Soviet Union." Profoundly altered, indeed! "Alleged border violations reported by one side or the other for the period 1932 to 1939 number well over one thousand . . ." Goldman noted. Some of those "border violations" were actually real battles in an undeclaredwar.

Moreover, both Japan and the USSR fortified their borders, though the "Japanese probably enjoyed an overall advantage vis-ˆ-vis the USSR until 1937." Nevertheless, in July of that year, Japan temporarily shifted its main attention to the area of China south of the Great Wall, a move that briefly relieved pressure on the USSR. Then, by July 1938, came the bloody battle of Changkufeng (also known as Lake Khasan), an engagement fought on a narrow stretch of land where Siberia came together with Korea and Manchukuo, a Japanese colony and a puppet state respectively. Though relatively unknown in the West, for a long time, "Japan was perceived as the most immediate threat" to the USSR.

By the summer of 1939, it was Stalin who was facing a two-front war, not Hitler. With British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain steadfastly rebuffing the Comintern's call for a collective security agreement to oppose Fascism and imperialism, Germany had little to fear from the "capitalist-democracies" to its west. And, after Chamberlain pointed the Nazi dictator toward the Ukraine (also known as the Ukrainian People's Republic) in 1938, Stalin had good reason to fear that that would be where Hitler would seek his lebensraum. This was the case even after Great Britain and France declared war on Germany (September 3, 1939) because neither of the former was willing to engage the latter on the battlefield, no doubt anticipating the outbreak of conflict between the Germans and the Soviets once their troops came face to face in Poland. Then, Chamberlain calculated, it would be the Soviets who would "bleed" as they grappled with their despised Fascist enemy. Soviet historian Leonid Kutakov stated the issue clearly:

 The formation of the German-Japanese military-political alliance . . . was facilitated by the anti-Soviet policy of the United States, Great Britain and France, which were loath to accept Soviet proposals for collective security, and hoped that Germany and Japan might be turned against the USSR. 

It is difficult to understand how Goldman could believe that Chamberlain, Hitler, and Poland's Joseph Beck "inadvertently strengthened Josef Stalin's hand in the early months of 1939." A year earlier the Munich Conference, directed by Chamberlain, virtually authorized a German invasion of the USSR. That the Germans did not take advantage of this offer was caused by Hitler's fear that Chamberlain might be voted out of office by an anti-Fascist movement that was growing in strength. By that time, it was not only leftists who opposed Hitler and the Nazis; even conservative luminary Winston Churchill favored the united front. Therefore, it seems more likely that Chamberlain was either colluding with Hitler, as some writers have claimed, or was gambling that the Nazi leader would believe he had a free hand in any move against the USSR, and the two "totalitarian" behemoths would slug it out to the ultimate advantage of Great Britain and France. As Goldman himself pointed out:

 The depth of Chamberlain's negative attitude toward Moscow at this time (June-July 1939) is revealed in declassified British documents. On July 2 he wrote confidentially that "I am so skeptical of the value of Russian help that I should not feel our position was greatly worsened if we had to do without them." 

Moreover, the halting pace of Soviet-British negotiations that summer, which could have hastened the formation of a united front, was caused by the British, not the Soviets. The Anglo-French military mission demanded by Foreign Minister Molotov as preliminary to a collective security agreement was proceeding via slow boat and train, so did not arrive in Moscow until August 11 (when it was probably too late). At the time Chamberlain was negotiating with Hitler in 1938, he traveled by airplane to Germany. In 1939, the British were obviously stalling in reaching any kind of agreement with the Soviets. Goldman is right when he says that the battle of Nomonhan "inclined Stalin toward a pact with Hitler," but then he muddies the waters with the following assertion:

 Logic dictates that if Stalin had opted for an anti-fascist alliance with the Western democracies, he would have run a high risk of war against Germany. 

The USSR was at a "high risk of war against Germany" when the Nazis came to power in January 1933, even if Stalin did not realize that right away. However, by the summer of 1935, such an eventuality was crystal clear to him. Stalin agreed to a pact with Germany because he had lost patience (perhaps a bit too soon) with the way Chamberlain was dragging his feet about a united front. Moreover, whatever was said to the contrary at the time, every major political leader in the world knew that the Communists and Fascists would clash. And after the infamous pact was signed nobody, not even Chamberlain, believed that an enduring accord would be maintained by those two "totalitarian states." Surely, none of them had forgotten the brutal street battles throughout post-Versailles Germany between the Free Corps and the Red Front. Knowing that a long-term agreement between them was all but impossible, Chamberlain was sure the next expansion of the fighting would be a big battle in Eastern Europe that could weaken both the USSR and Germany. In fact, he was banking on that happening.

That the Nomonhan battle was greatly effected by the Nazi-Soviet Pact is questionable. The Japanese position along the Khalkhin Gol (Khalkha River to the USSR) had been seriously weakened by Soviet actions before the great surge by Zhukov was initiated on August 20, 1939. That the pact enabled the USSR to avoid a two-front war cannot be denied. The Soviets and Japanese were not in conflict again until the summer of 1945. Of course, the "phony war" (September 3, 1939 to Spring 1940) meant the British and French were not fighting anywhere, much less on two fronts. Instead, they stood by as Poland was overrun by the German invasion and the Soviet occupation, expecting that the two aggressors would come into conflict with each other.

Goldman' s notion that "the Kremlin was embarrassed by the Nomonhan incident" makes little sense. Long ago, Alvin D. Coox made clear that the Japanese suffered a devastating defeat along the Khalkha River and were not anxious to start another fight with the USSR, even after they had strengthened their position in China by 1942 (after the conclusion of the brutal "Three Alls" campaign against the Communist forces in their rear areas). Even when the Soviets were desperately engaged in the great battle of Stalingrad that required reinforcements from their eastern territories, the Japanese declined to attack them, in great part because they were still smarting from the defeat at Nomonhan.

The Red Army's show of strength in that battle was not "unnoticed in the West"; it was disregarded. By disregarding this Soviet victory, Chamberlain and his cohorts could continue doubting the worthiness of the united front strategy. Not only were the Soviets untrustworthy, the British prime minister could proclaim, they were incompetent. He insisted that the Red Army was "rotten through and through." Yes, the results of the encounter were played down, certainly by the Japanese. They did not want it known what a terrible defeat they had suffered. But there were enough listening posts in the greater region where it could be learned what had happened on that remote battleground. Coox brought that out in his thorough study of the battle.

The assertion by Goldman that "Stalin's negotiating posture that summer with the Anglo-French team and the Germans would have been weakened if it were apparent that he had a major fight on his hands with the Japanese" does not make sense either. The fact that the Red Army had thoroughly drubbed the Japanese forces would probably have impressed all three, even if they would not have admitted it out loud. Nomonhan demonstrated that the USSR was not a "paper tiger," as many conservatives were saying. The Soviets did not want to talk about the battle because a neutralized Japan might have been necessary for some time into the future, especially with a strong Germany looming in the west. Reminding the public of what happened on that remote Mongolian battlefield might have seemed like boasting to the Japanese, which could have aroused calls for revenge. By April 1941, only two months before a massive German invasion was unleashed on the Soviets, the USSR wisely concluded a formal nonaggression pact with Japan, an agreement honored by both signatories until the Soviets ended it on August 8, 1945.

Goldman has a "What If . . . ?" section in his concluding chapter which should be addressed, even though many historians might frown on such a question. For example: "If Stalin did not face the immediate danger of a two-front war in the summer of 1939, he would have enjoyed a free hand in Europe." And: "Germany might have been deterred" from its aggressive position. Precisely! In pushing for a united front with the "bourgeois democratic capitalists," Stalin was trying to forge a defense against the threat of the "fascist-militarist capitalists." Though Stalin was motivated by a desire to protect the USSR (not to expand the world revolution still nominally being advocated by the Comintern), he was not being cynical. Such a defensive position not only made sense for the USSR but also for the bourgeois democratic capitalists. However, led by Chamberlain, who wanted the fighting to take place in the east, they stalled. That delaying strategy was not only threatening to the Soviet Union but also seriously undermined their own strength. By June 1940, France, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries all had been subdued at little cost to Germany and only the English Channel and the RAF stood between the British and the Nazi forces. Is it not obvious by now that stalling was a bad idea?

"If Stalin had given the appearance of joining the anti-fascist powers . . . Germany might have been deterred." Aside from the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR), China and Spain, who were the "anti-fascist powers" from 1935 to 1939 that Stalin could have given the appearance of joining? Not even Poland, a country that was situated precariously between Nazi Germany and the USSR, could be called anti-fascist. Right up to the eleventh hour before its doom, the Polish government feared the Communists more than the Nazis. And Stalin had extended aid to the MPR, China and Spain, which was more than the Western democracies had done.

When Stalin stood aside at the time the "fascist-militarist capitalists" and the "bourgeois democratic capitalists" were at war (1939-1941), did he "eventually profit"? Less than six months after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was broken, vanguard units of the German Army were in the outskirts of Moscow, so "eventually" must refer to the end of World War II in 1945, by which time the Soviets had suffered over 27 million dead. What kind of "profit" was that? In short, "standing aside" was obviously as much of a mistake for Stalin as it was for Chamberlain. It would have been much better for both if they had forged an alliance in 1938 when Czechoslovakia was under siege.

Nevertheless, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was not only cynical, it was shortsighted. The Soviets betrayed a still existent (however frayed) worldwide revolutionary movement and weakened their own defenses in the process. The troops they moved forward into Poland in September 1939, that they hoped would stop the Nazi "tiger at the gate" (as the Chinese would say), were unable to accomplish that task, nor were they able to withdraw to the once strong defensive positions in the western region of the USSR, and tactical retreat became a rout. It would have been better for the Soviet cause had those troops remained where they were before Stalin got into bed with Hitler.

Goldman goes on to inform his readers that the Soviet Union was the only one of the five major belligerent powers (Great Britain, Germany, Japan, the USA, and the USSR) that did not fight on two fronts during World War II, which was due to Stalin's "masterful" diplomacy. Of course, Goldman, like most Western writers, confines world War II to the period from September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945, which would discount all the fighting the USSR did in Northeast Asia (including the Nomonhan battle) before that time.

But, so what? In fighting primarily on the Eastern Front, the main theater of action in Europe, the Soviets suffered more casualties than the other four countries combined and a good deal of the USSR was devastated. Did it ever recover from that experience? Isn't that the major reason the USSR collapsed and we now have a Russian Federation representing the people the world once knew as Soviets?

Why was the battle of Nomonhan (Khalkhin Gol) swept under the rug?

The Japanese, as already mentioned, did not want to reveal anything about what was the worse military defeat for them up to that time. The news blackout their modern-day samurai government imposed on the country and its conquered territories made it easier to maintain its reckless strategy in East Asia.

Chamberlain did not want it known because it contradicted his claims that the Soviet Union was a paper tiger, which, in turn, justified his snubbing the united front strategy as long as he did. Hiding news of the battle enabled him to gamble that the Soviets and Nazis would come into conflict before the Western Front was threatened. When the Nazi-Soviet Pact held, he could only rail against Soviet treachery. Then came the Russo-Finnish struggle (also known as the Winter War, November 30, 1939 to March 13, 1940). This encounter initially made the Red Army look incompetent again and gave Chamberlain a brief reprieve from public criticism; though, the Finns were defeated by the Soviets in that three-and-a-half-month war.

Stalin' s reason for squelching information about the battle was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact; i.e., he wanted people to believe that the USSR no longer perceived the Axis powers as an immediate threat. He came to that position once he realized that Chamberlain was going to continue stalling about forming a united front and a pact had been signed with the hated Nazis. There was little reason to inform the public about how the very modern Red Army had handled the decidedly weaker Japanese Imperial Army.

By the time of the Munich Conference in 1938, the advance of what ultimately became the Axis Powers had led to the invasion and occupation of much of China (1931-1938), the conquest of Ethiopia (1935), the re-occupation of the Rhineland (1936), the assault on the Spanish Republic (from 1936), the absorption of Austria into the German nation (1938), and the endangerment of Czechoslovakia (1938). Since August 1935, the USSR had been calling for a united front against this menace to world peace and harmony. This call went unheeded by what Goldman calls the "bourgeois democratic capitalists," who distrusted the intentions of the USSR and doubted the strength of its armed forces.

What if the leader of this opposition, Neville Chamberlain, had accepted a call that would have organized a coalition of the armed forces of Great Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, China, and the USSR against the "fascist-militarist capitalists"? Though it is only conjecture, it probably would have brought the Second World War to an end in 1939 or 1940 and with far less casualties. Munich was the moment of truth; the Nazi-Soviet Pact was the result of that failure. Knowledge of the Nomonhan battle may have countered Chamberlain's claim that the Red Army was "rotten through and through."

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