Stuart D. Goldman, the author of this concise history reminds us that the Soviet Union was the only major belligerent of World War II to avoid fighting on two or more fronts. This is, Goldman argues, largely because of Josef Stalin's crafty statesmanship and the outcome of an always obscure and now largely forgotten battle known to the Soviets as Khalkin Gol and to the Japanese as Nomonhan.
In 1939, the Japanese military largely, but not yet completely, rule Japan. Intense rivalry existed between the Japanese Army and Navy, both of which often acted independently during WWII, and the army itself was factionalized. Since 1905, part of the Japanese Army had been exploiting Asia, beginning with Korea, extending into Manchuria in 1931 and then in outright war with China. Japan's Kwantung Army, which grew to nearly a million men, followed a peculiarly Japanese form of insubordination known as "gekokujo", literally translated as "rule from below". This was a policy of the "usurpation and exercise of authority by in subordinates". Thus, the Army General Staff in Tokyo and even the Emperor could issue directions to Kwantung Army - and were likely to be totally ignored without repercussion.
Japanese occupied Manchuria shared a 3,000 mile long border with Soviet-dominated Outer Mongolia. The Japanese were very anti-Bolshevist and many of its leaders wanted to seize mineral rich Siberia from what they believed was a Soviet Union weakened by massive purges of its military leadership. At the same time, Hitler was looking east toward the invasion of Poland - but he did not want war (yet) with the Soviet Union.
Border clashes between the Japanese and Soviets occurred, but the Soviets were restrained in their response, which the Japanese interpreted as sign of weakness.
Japanese Major Tsuji Masanobu was a firebrand who urged making war on the Soviets.
Stalin was in a difficult position. He did not want war with anyone, though he would have been delighted to have the capitalist countries bleed each other to death. He supported the Spanish Nationalists in the hopes of fanning such a war. He didn't want war with Japan and hoped to distract them by keeping China supplied with weapons and other supplies.
The Japanese provoked an incident at an place in the middle of nowhere, Nomonhan, on the border of Manchuria and Mongolia. This developed into what Goldman describes as the first limited war of the modern era. It involved tens of thousands of troops on both sides and thousands of aircraft. It also gave a young General Georgy Zhukov the opportunity to develop what became a genius for combined arms operations. Nomonhan went on four months in 1939, little noticed by the world at large.
The outcome was a military disaster for Japan and a diplomatic triumph for Stalin. The Japanese decided to expand southward and to launch an attack on United States naval forces at Pearl Harbor.
Is eastern flank secured, Stalin negotiated a non-aggression pact with Hitler, allowing Hitler to invade Poland with the Soviets remaining neutral, while they occupied Polish territory they claimed.
This is a slim, but very well written history. Goldman packs a tremendous amount of detail into about 200 pages. The military action is not described in excruciating detail and the maps are few and crude. Military buffs who thrive on learning every detail of a military encounter will not be pleased. But those who are interested in history will thoroughly enjoy this account.