World War II Breaks Out: Manchuria and Mongolia in the 1930s CE

When dealing with history, as when dealing with many human experiences, simple questions frequently prompt false or misleading answers. Simple answers to such questions all too often betray ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudices, or a hidden agenda.

Even a question as seemingly straightforward as “When did the fighting in World War II start?” is rife with assumptions and potential ambiguities. Some Americans of my parents’ generation would answer that question confidently with “December 7, 1941 [CE], the attack on Pearl Harbor,” ignoring the conflicts in Europe and Asia that had been ongoing for some considerable time before that date.

Others would, like Auden in his masterful poem September 1, 1939, date the outbreak of the Second World War to Germany’s invasion of Poland.

A few less Eurocentric souls might argue for the Marco Polo Bridge [Lugou Qiao] incident near Beijing on July 7, 1937 as the beginning of the fighting.

But the Japanese official histories of the Second World War begin with the invasion of Manchuria in September of 1931, and however doubtful Japanese histories might be about the war’s causes and Japan’s crimes against humanity, I suspect they can be trusted when documenting with pride Japanese aggression.

The history of WWII in the East is often poorly understood in Europe and North America. Even the magnitude of China’s losses, numbering in the tens of millions, is debated.

Russia is generally considered to have made little or no contribution to the Allied effort in the Pacific Theater, but the first decisive victory of the war took place on the Mongolian – Manchurian border, when the Soviet Union’s troops under Zhukov shattered the Japanese Sixth army at Khalkhin Gol in a campaign from May to September, 1939 [the battles are often referred to as part of the Nomonhan Incident in Japanese sources].

The Russian victory was so overwhelming that the Japanese shifted the focus of their activities from expansion in Siberia to conquest of Eastern and Southeastern Asia, dooming Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia, and eventually leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Zhukov at Khalkhin Gol earned a fair claim to being first to fully implement and win a campaign using the coordinated air and tank envelopment attacks popularly known as Blitzkrieg. He is better known for going on to defeat the Germans in the following years.

The patent for the idea of Blitzkrieg, however, should probably be granted to Tukhachevsky, who called it “deep operations.” Tukhachevsky’s strategy was fundamental to many Soviet victories including those of Khalkhin Gol, Stalingrad, and key battles leading to the virtual destruction of Germany’s Army Group Center during the Soviet march to Berlin. Tukhachevsky never saw his theories put into action. He was executed in one of Stalin’s purges in June of 1937.

Just as Russia’s triumphs in World War II began in the East, they ended in the East with the Soviet victory parade liberating Manchuria in August of 1945. The Americans, worried about the possibility of needing to invade the Japanese home islands, had unnecessarily encouraged this effort. The Russians, using skills developed evacuating their factories in the face of advancing Germans, looted Manchuria’s industrial base to the best of their considerable abilities.

Further Reading:

• Alvin Coox’s magisterial study of the Khalkhin Gol conflict, Nomonhan, is usefully supplemented by Stuart Goldman’s discussion of the campaign’s broader implications in Nomonhan, 1939.

• The genesis and early stages of WWII in the East are usefully summarized in Willmott’s The Second World War in the East.

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2 thoughts on “World War II Breaks Out: Manchuria and Mongolia in the 1930s CE

  1. While the conflicts internal to what we call China before and after what we call World War II have some parallels in Europe, Africa, and the middle East, I find the recounting of the reactions to the external aggressors interestingly unified.

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