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Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II by Stuart D Goldman

Western Europeans can get peeved at Americans who give the impression it was the United States that won World War II, as if nothing much happened before December 1941; Russians are similarly annoyed with both when they neglect the events on the Eastern Front. Out here in East Asia, the War is considered to have begun several years earlier than in Europe.

Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II by Stuart D Goldman
Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II, Stuart D Goldman (US Naval Institute Press, April 2012)

Each participant in the War has its own narrative which has tended to obscure the others. As these narratives buffet each other, both in national and international politics as well as scholarly competition, certain events can get shunted aside. Asia, of course, should be well-used to this by now: history has tended to be written by Americans and Western Europeans.

 

Stuart Goldman has identified the key initial event of the Second World War as being the obscure 1939 Battle of Nomonhan. If you haven’t heard of it, you might—possibly—know of it as the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol. For several months in the summer of 1939, Japanese forces and the Red Army clashed over the disputed Manchurian-Mongolian border. As he writes in his new book Nomonhan, 1939, this was no minor skirmish: “nearly 100,000 men and a thousand armored vehicles and aircraft engaged in fierce combat for four months.” The Russian commander was Georgy Zhukov, who went on to defend Moscow, conquer Berlin and become the Soviet Minister of Defense.

Although extensively researched and heavily footnoted, this is not a book merely or even primarily for scholars. Goldman writes very well indeed. The historical arguments are clearly presented, the battles described brilliantly and the personalities evoked through use of primary sources. It helps of course that few readers will be knowledgeable enough to know how the twists and turns in story. Nomonhan, 1939 is, unexpectedly, something of a page-turner.

 

The Japanese were dealt a major defeat which, Goldman argues, had profound consequences for the way the War in Europe and the Pacific played out. He first notes that Japanese aggression coincided with the negotiations for the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. He argues that Stalin could not have afforded a two-front war, hence signing with Germany rather than allying itself with Britain, France and Poland. The Non-Aggression Pact allowed the USSR to concentrate on the threat in the East, which it convincingly did. The Red Army entered Poland the day after the cease-fire took effect at Nomonhan.

Goldman further argues that the defeat at Nomonhan dissuaded the Japanese from any further thought of expansion northwards. They resisted Berlin’s blandishments to join in the attack on the USSR and instead turned their attention south, a strategy which led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entering the War.

“What if,” asks Goldman “there had been no serious Soviet-Japanese conflict in 1939”? Stalin, he muses rather than argues, might have been less inclined to tilt to toward Hitler. Further:

 

If Japanese army leaders in 1941 still held their overoptimistic pre-Nomonhan attitude about the Red Army, things might have been very different. A Japanese decision in July or August 1941 to attack northward would probably have brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.... Furthermore, if Japan moved against the USSR in 1941, she could not have attacked the United States that year. The United States might not have entered the war until a year later...

 

Had the Soviet Union been defeated, had America not entered the War in December 1941, “how then would Nazi domination of Europe been broken?” Goldman then asks, rhetorically perhaps but with no trace of hyperbole, “Would the continent be speaking German today?”

 

Goldman provides considerable background and context; he discusses not just Japanese expansion into China and previous incursions into the Russian Far East, but also pre-War Soviet diplomatic strategy in Europe, touching upon the Spanish Civil War, Anglo-French relations and much besides. The result is, in fact, a very good general introduction to the run-up to the Second World War seen, as it were, from an unconventional Asian perspective and, for this part of the world therefore, an interesting alternative to what otherwise might be considered more traditional texts.

Nomonhan, 1939 should rightly find many potential readers in Asia. As Goldman says, “Nomonhan is, arguably, the most important World War II battle that most people have never heard of.”

Unfortunately, the title won’t ring many bells either. But assuming they come across the book and recognize for what it is, Asian readers may also appreciate both the Asian-centric perspective as well as the irony of Japanese officials pulling out Chinese maps to justify the Japanese position regarding the border territories under occupation.

And of course, border disputes are still with us.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.