New Maine Times Book Review: 'Nomonhan, 1939'

Posted Wednesday, January 9, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'Nomonhan, 1939'
by Stuart D. Goldman
Naval Institute Press, 2012
288 pages, $31.95
ISBN 978-1-59114-329-1

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

Many people think that the Spanish Civil War fought from 1936 to 1939 was the real prelude to World War II, and it certainly was a convincing dress rehearsal for that global conflict. However, the Battle of Nomonhan in 1939, fought between the Russians and the Japanese in Manchuria, was “the most important World War II battle that most people never heard of,” according to historian Stuart Goldman.
The Spanish Civil War was a brutal internecine conflict with small units of European proxies (German, Russian, Italian) experimenting with weapons and tactics at the expense of the Spanish civilian population. The Battle of Nomonhan in 1939, however, was no dress rehearsal. It involved more than 100,000 troops, and thousands of tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces, and was fought between two powerful nations squabbling over a border dispute in a semi-arid wasteland.
"Nomonhan, 1939" is Stuart Goldman’s brilliant military and political history of “the first instance in the modern age of limited war between great powers.” Goldman is a history specialist in Russian and Eurasian military affairs, writing lucidly about a little-known and less-understood battle that had a direct connection with the infamous Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1939.
As Goldman relates, the Non-Aggression Pact allowed Hitler to invade Poland and Stalin to successfully confront Japanese expansion in northeast Asia, tacitly permitting each leader to do as he pleased without the worry of a two-front war. Surprisingly, however, the Battle of Nomonhan was the result of a series of military and diplomatic blunders by both the Russians and the Japanese starting back in 1931.
Neither nation sought war in Manchuria, but due to a number of minor border skirmishes, faulty intelligence of each other’s intentions and capabilities, and strident Japanese nationalism and militarism rashly encouraged by mid-level Japanese army officers, the inconsequential little village of Nomonhan in Manchuria became the unwilling site of a huge land battle.
Goldman tells the history of the conflict, from the early days of Japanese expansion into Manchuria and Korea, the Russian expansion into Mongolia, and the years of tense standoff, confrontation, and compromise as each nation tried to outwit and outmaneuver the other for dominance in northeast Asia.
He tells of the rise of Japan’s Kwantung Army, charged with the brutal occupation of northeast Asia and the suppression of Chinese, Korean, and Manchurian influence starting in 1931, and how the Kwantung Army actually had such power and influence that it could ignore orders from Tokyo and do pretty much whatever it pleased. This arrogance was the result of a doctrinal attitude called “gekokujo” or “rule from below” which encouraged junior leadership, defying senior officers and even the emperor. This superior attitude would prove disastrous for the Japanese in the coming battle.
Goldman describes the steps leading up to the battle, including the decisions and blunders by both sides, as well as the ferocious four-month battle that saw human wave assaults by infantry, massed attacks by thousands of tanks, and massive World War I style artillery barrages. Casualties were in the tens of thousands, all for a squalid village nobody really cared about.
The Russians were led by Gen. Georgy Zhukov, an untested general hastily flown in from Minsk. Zhukov turned out to be a most capable commander of large formations, carefully orchestrating infantry, armor, artillery, air power, logistics, and intelligence to produce a stunning victory. As Goldman says, the Japanese were utterly crushed, suffering “the worst military defeat in modern Japanese history up to that time.”

The Russian victory at Nomonhan more than made up for their humiliating defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. And Zhukov went on to greatness as the savior of Moscow in 1941 and the victor at Stalingrad a year later. Several of the leading Japanese figures at Nomonhan would later become well-known in the Pacific War, but for different reasons.

Students of military and political history will find this book to be a valuable resource for their understanding of the dynamics of military and political decisions that directly impacted World War II. And it makes for exciting reading.
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