My review of “Nomonhan 1939” by Stuart D. Goldman

Nomonhan 1939: The Red Army Victory That Shaped World War II is a very interesting read, and for a military-political history it is easy to dive into and follow along with. Having a basic understanding of the events leading up to World War II is useful, but not necessary. In fact, the basic concept of the book is to add some information to our understanding of the events leading up to WWII.

Specifically, the author states the limited war between the USSR and Japan in 1939 Manchuria contributed to the Non-Aggression Treaty between the USSR and Germany that gave Hitler a green light to invade Poland and start the European side of WWII.

Goldman’s thesis is bolstered by recently released diplomatic records. Stalin maneuvered USSR foreign policy like a maestro conducting an orchestra, always, always, with the idea that war between the democracies, or war between the democracies and the fascist states — war between any of the USSR’s rivals in Europe — was a good thing.

At the same time, Japan and the USSR had a very rough relationship in the Far East. Japan surprised and humiliated the Tsar’s military in 1905, and the island nation sent 70,000 troops — the largest contingent of any nation — into Russian territory to intervene against the Bolsheviks during the Russia Civil War. The military cabal running Japan through the 1930s looked with distaste at the Bolsheviks and they thought little of the Soviet military, especially after Stalin purged most of his experienced leaders.

When Japan took Manchuria from China in 1931, they created the puppet state of Manchukuo that shared a 3,000 mile border with the USSR and its vassal state of Mongolia. This set the stage for a series of border incidents that created tension between the USSR and Japan, something Stalin did not want or need while the prospect of the Soviets going to war in Europe was in play.

But at the same time, Stalin did not want the generals and admirals in Tokyo to get the impression the Soviets would not defend themselves. By playing the democracies and fascists against each other, Stalin got what he wanted while at the same time dealing Japan a crushing defeat at Nomonhan. One clear future benefit of his policy was sending Georgy Zhukov — who would later hand Hitler’s army its first major defeat and lead the Red Army on to Berlin — to oversee the Far East battle.

Much of what Zhukov learned at Nomonhan in 1939, logistics, combined arms operations, use of armor and artillery, would be of direct value in his later offensives against the Germans.

I’ve read quite a bit about World War II, but profess my preference is the European Theater of Operations (ETO). I know the basics about the war in the Pacific, but not much about the early stages. I had not heard of Nomonhan before, or any of the clashes between the Soviets and Japan that preceded it. For me, then, Nomonhan 1939 was a great introduction, presented in a highly readable style. Goldman divides the book between the actual battles and border clashes — which are presented in a clear and forthright manner —  and the diplomatic and political maneuverings in Tokyo, Berlin, London and Moscow.

I enjoyed this book very much, and would recommend it to anyone like me, who may not have known about the limited war in Manchuria and who enjoys learning something new.


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