12/07 – Pearl Harbor

The American USS Shaw explodes in port at Pearl Harbour. (US Navy)

On this day in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The attack – comprised of aerial bombardments on ships at port and the surrounding Army and Marines bases, as well concurrent attacks on US positions elsewhere in the Pacific – was intended as a preemptive strike to knock out the United States’ naval capabilities in the region. The “surprise” nature of the attack shocked and horrified Americans; the following day, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on Japan and subsequently brought the country into WWII. To him, December 7th was “a day that will live in infamy”.

Since the 1931 Japanese Invasion of Manchuria, tensions had been steadily rising in the Pacific. As Japanese troops began expanding their empire in Southeast Asia, the US responded by bulking up its military presence in the Philippines and elsewhere. Japanese threats towards the oil-rich Dutch East Indies and Nationalist China – which was supported by the US – caused further American frustration. Heavy sanctions followed, and the Japanese-American relationship went further south. The Japanese saw a preemptive strike as the only option; their oil reserves were rapidly being wrung dry, and the US Pacific Fleet was making their expansion plans difficult. Both sides pretended to discuss a treaty and exchanged diplomatic communications on November 26th; but by then, it was too late, for the Japanese attacking force was already on its way to Hawaii.

The Japanese plan required a total knockout of American power at Pearl Harbour. But during the battle – in which Japanese planes strafed and bombed US ships and personnel – Japanese command recalled some of their forces. The battle was a brutal blow to the Pacific Fleet, but it wasn’t enough to put the fleet out of action. The Americans had been bloodied, and wanted revenge. The ensuing Pacific Campaign of WWII was incredibly bloody, and resulted in the total defeat (through conventional and nuclear means) of the Japanese Empire. Pearl Harbour also brought with it a declaration of war from Nazy Germany; the American entry into the European theatre of operations proved incredibly significant, if not decisive.

World War II

When: 1939 – 1945

Beginning at the end of the 1930s, WWII was really a series of interconnected regional conflicts. Every human being on earth was touched in some way by the unprecedented carnage of the war, whether on the front lines, at the home front, or in the concentration camps. More so than perhaps any other conflict in recent memory, WWII is easy to define as a struggle between good and evil. Although this is partially due to the fact that (as is always the case) the victors wrote the history of WWII, it’s largely because the losers – the Axis powers – carried out some of the most heinous and well-organized crimes in the history of humankind.

Many argue that WWII was merely a continuation of WWI, and this is (in some ways) true – the unresolved frustrations of the Axis carried on throughout the Interbellum period before being abruptly ended in 1945. But the world of 1939 and 1945 were two very different places: colonial empires, like that of England and France, were hugely diminished by the fighting while younger powers like the United States and the USSR emerged stronger than ever at the war’s end. The experiences of women and African Americans in the war effort galvanized movements that challenged the post-war social order, while the rise of young, newly-independent nations like Indonesia and Vietnam posed new threats to their former colonial overlords.

American GIs at a mass military grave. Entire generations of human beings were wiped out during the conflict. (National WWII Museum)

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Allies (America, the Soviet Union, France, England, the Commonwealth, China, Mexico, and more). They faced off against the Axis (Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and more).
  • Where?  In Asia (the Pacific theatre), Africa, Europe (Mediterranean, Northern, Central, and Eastern), the Americas (parts of Central and South America, as well as the Aleutians), and the high seas.
  • When?  From September 1st 1939 to September 2nd, 1945 – over 6 years. Germany surrendered in spring of 1945 while the Japanese surrendered later. (Note: one of the most significant battles of the war, Khalkhin Gol, took place earlier in 1939. The above date is the common Eurocentric timeline, although many regional conflicts that impacted the overall war began much earlier).
  • What?  Beginning in the late 1930s, a rapid German invasion of Europe (backed by a treaty with the USSR and inspired by Adolf Hitler’s racist nationalism) and Italian military actions in North Africa took the Allies largely by surprise. Japan attacked the United States, and the war grew in scale. Although the Axis made massive territorial gains, a series of Allied victories on all fronts in 1942 and 1943 changed the tide of war. The conflict ended in 1945 after battles in the air, on sea and on land.
  • Why?  Although the “why” of WWII is a complicated question, the events that began the fighting in 1939 were directly tied to the racist nationalist goals of the Axis. Fanatic leadership in the Axis countries, as well as sometimes inept leaders amongst the Allied troops, resulted in the conflict lasting much longer than it would have if more rational people had in charge.
  • Result:  Complete collapse of the Axis powers. Over 75 million people were killed – a majority of them civilians – in camps, crossfire and bombings.

The World at War

The world in June of 1942, at the near-peak of Axis reach. Although the Nazis pushed farther into the USSR, many of the initial Axis gains had been reversed by 1943. Western Allies = Blue, Eastern Allies = Red, Axis = Black. (Wikimedia Commons)

Important Names

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (US president)
  • Harry Truman (US president)
  • Adolf Hitler (German Führer)
  • Benito Mussolini (Italian “Duce”)
  • Chiang Kai-Shek (Chairman of Republican China)
  • Emperor Hirohito (Emperor of Japan)
  • Rosie the Riveter (American Feminist Propaganda/Labour Icon)
  • Winston Churchill (UK PM)
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (US general/president)
  • Joseph Goebbels (German Propaganda Minister)

Terminology

  • Total War
  • Home Front
  • Lebensraum (“living space”)
  • Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”)
  • The Allies
  • The Axis
  • The Holocaust

The above themes, name and terms are intended as a guide to kickstart your research. Because ASAP History is generalists’ site – that is, we cover all eras and events (within reason) – it is impossible for us to provide detailed insight on every important event or person. With that in mind, below is a collection of articles on significant events. Longer, more in-depth articles are bolded.

The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front was, in and of itself, the most destructive war in human history. Over 40 million human beings – the majority of whom were civilians – lost their lives in clashes from the Finnish border to the steppes of Mongolia. Characterized by intense racial animosity, the Eastern Front saw a blurring of the lines between soldier and civilian as both sides, Axis and Allied, murdered and raped all accused of collaborating with the enemy. The messiest, least-organized stages of the Holocaust – the so-called “Shoah by bullets” – took place as German soldiers and collaborating civilians murdered countless Jewish people. The determination and fanaticism of two men in particular – Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – resulted in the deaths of millions and an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”)
  • Shoah by Bullets
  • Spheres of Influence
  • Lend-Lease
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The Pacific

Although Western scholars tend to count the Pacific War as beginning with the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, the conflict had its roots in decades of American/Japanese economic and political competition as well as a burgeoning civil war in China. As with the Eastern Front, battles in the Pacific were incredibly vicious and saw many civilians murdered by all belligerents. Fanatical Japanese troops – motivated by their emperor to fight til the death – faced off against determined Allied troops led by the Americans, but countless other nations took part in the fighting. A majority of Asian and Southeast Asian people were directly impacted by the war that culminated in the first – and only – use of atomic weapons in human history.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Island-Hopping
  • Kamikaze
  • Northern/Southern Expansion Doctrines
  • Fat Man/Little Boy
  • Unit 731
  • Shinto Directive

The War at Sea

An often-overlooked part of WWII was the war at sea. The Allies possessed a massive advantage in resources, and shipping was the primary means for transporting men and goods from nation to nation; in the early stages of the conflict, these routes were incredibly vulnerable to Axis submarine attacks. The advent of enhanced intelligence assets, as well as the Allies’ superiority in naval strength, eventually won out over the German “U-Boat” swarm attacks – but not before countless sailors (and merchant marines) had lost their lives. Additionally, naval clashes in the Pacific War – where movement from island-to-island was accomplished by boat – helped decide the fate of the war early on.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Ultra
  • Lend-Lease
  • Midway
  • Merchant Navy
  • Aircraft Carriers

Africa & the Mediterranean

The first major engagements between the European Axis (Germany and Italy) and the Western Allies were fought in North Africa and later, the Mediterranean. Described by Winston Churchill as the “soft underbelly of Europe”, Allied war planners sought to thrust upwards into the occupied continent from the south. This strategy was largely rejected after plans for Operation Overlord were drawn up, but not before an incredible series of large-scale battles from El Alamein to Ortona had taken place. North Africa had historically been a resource and manpower-base for the European colonial powers, and its significance – and the effects of war on its population – should not be overlooked.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Special Air Service
  • The Desert Fox
  • “Italy’s Place in the Sun”
  • Colonial troops
  • Operation Compass

The European Theatre of Operations (ETO)

Perhaps the most studied conflict in history, the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) began in 1939 after the failure of the British and French-led appeasement effort. The conflict, which saw almost the entirety of continental Europe under Axis control for a number of years, varied in intensity from place to place. In general, the experiences of occupied territories in the East was much worse than those in the West (although all populations in occupied Europe suffered tremendously during the war). The largest battles between the Allies and Axis took place in 1944 after the start of D-Day; by that point, however, millions of people had been systematically murdered. The Holocaust – a term which encompasses everything from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau to the killing squads of the SS Einsatzgruppen – resulted in the virtual extinction of the European Jewish population, as well as a significant decline in the numbers of Sinti-Roma, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and a variety of other German-labelled “undesirables”.

One important thing to note when studying the ETO is that, contrary to popular mythology, a vast majority of German civilians and soldiers, as well as many civilians in occupied territories, either knew about or actively participated in the Holocaust. There is no such thing as the “clean Wehrmacht.” (For further reading on the topic, see Soldaten by Harald Welzer and Sönke Neitzel).

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Concentration Camps
  • Strategic Bombing
  • Partisans
  • The Phony War
  • Displaced Persons (DPs)

Revolution, Unrest & Decolonization

Many of the colonies, like Dutch Indonesia, took advantage of the war-weariness of their European masters and proclaimed independence near the end of WWII. Although these movements – which had been growing in prominence for some time – achieved varying degrees of success, the post-war decolonization movement upset the balance of power and resulted in a decline of European global dominance. These newly decolonized states were forced to choose their own path: alignment with the East, the West, or, eventually, non-alignment.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Decolonization
  • Revolution
  • The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

Politics, Diplomacy & the Home Front

The war touched everyone’s lives, whether they fought at the front or endured rationing and bombing on the “home front”. Unprecedented economic mobilization characterized the war effort in North America and England, while civilians were often forced into combat roles in the Eastern and Pacific theatres. As the fighting raged, diplomatic agreements – secret or otherwise – helped pave the way for the new world order of the post-war (or Cold War) era.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Home Front
  • Bomb Girls
  • Rationing

Science & Technology

War brought with it an incredibly rapid series of technological advancements. From radar to penicillin, M&Ms to the atom bomb, the Allies and Axis were constantly striving to outdo one another with increasingly advanced weapons and technologies. Many of these innovations directly impacted civilian life, too, such as advances in medical technology and consumer goods.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Wonder Weapons
  • The Manhattan Project
  • Rocket Power
  • Operation Paperclip

03/09 – The Fall of the Dutch East Indies

An IJA “banzai” charge on Manado, Indonesia, sometime in 1942. (Reddit)

On this day in 1942, Dutch troops on Indonesia – then known as the Dutch East Indies – surrendered to Japanese forces. Beginning one day after the assault on Pearl Harbour in December of the following year, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) launched a series of strikes on Dutch airfields and troop concentrations on the islands. Their main objective was to secure the Indies’ oilfields and rubber plantations, a move that would aid their war effort and consolidate power in the region. Despite aid from their Australian, British and American allies, the Dutch defenders were overwhelmed by Japanese airpower and infantry attacks. Although a small-scale guerilla warfare campaign continued after the main surrender, the Indies were effectively under Japanese control by March 9th of 1942.

A map of the IJA’s advances on the Indies in 1941. The sheer scale of the Japanese assault quickly overwhelmed the defenders. (Public Domain)

The Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies was a huge blow to the Allied war effort. Armed with new resources and territory, the Japanese were able to press their advantage in the region and extend their war effort. Part of their Southern Expansion Doctrine (formulated in 1939 in the wake of Khalkhin Gol), the seizure of the Indies was seen as a necessary step in securing a territorial buffer against American imperialism and granting Japan the empire it felt it deserved. Like in their other newly-conquered territories, the Japanese occupiers treated the local Indonesians poorly and extracted labour and resources with brutal efficiency.

A Dutch trooper providing clothes to Indonesians in the late 1940s. By this point, the relationship had grown strained and the Indonesians chafed under Dutch control. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Dutch attempts to reassert control over the Indies ended in disaster. Tired of colonial domination, and inspired by their nascent nationalist movement (itself a result of Dutch educational reform), Indonesians rose up and evicted the Dutch in the Indonesian National Revolution. Like most independence movements in the wake of WWII, the Indonesian experience was a bloody and brutal affair; but by 1949, the dust settled on a free government under Sukarno. Like so many other former colonies, Indonesians had managed to capitalize on the post-war exhaustion of their former masters to achieve their long-sought independence.

鋼の雨: The Battle of Okinawa

US Marines engage IJA troops on Okinawa. (Britannica)

By the spring of 1945, WWII was drawing to a close in Europe. The Axis in that region were either on the run (the Germans) or had already switched sides (the Italians). As Allied command began talking of dividing up liberated Europe in the wake of the Normandy landings, Pacific command was still locked in a brutal struggle with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Having seized most of the Pacific islands and parts of China during the 1930s and early 1940s, the IJA presented a formidable threat to the Allies. Knowing they faced a far from defeated enemy willing to die before giving up, the Allies began planning what was to become one of the bloodiest battles of the war: the Battle of Okinawa, or “Steel Rain” (鋼の雨) as the IJA called it.

ASAP: American hopes for a quick victory were ruined by fanatic Japanese resistance. The savagery of Okinawa helped convince Truman to nuke Japan.

Read on for details!
A map of Allied landing locations on Okinawa. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lead-up to Battle

Following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Americans led the charge in the Pacific against the Japanese. They were, of course, joined by lesser-known allies from Britain and the Commonwealth as well as fighters from the Pacific nations. Having beaten down the Japanese Navy during the Battle of Midway earlier on in the war, and made bloody progress advancing from island-to-island towards Japan, the Allied force now had Okinawa – a small island 550 km (340 miles) from Japan – in their sights. Okinawa would enable the Allies to launch air strikes on mainland Japan with greater ease and practice for the inevitable landings on Japan. The Ryukyuan inhabitants of the island – who had been treated pretty poorly by the IJA during their occupation – were to suffer the greatest losses during the upcoming battle.

An American naval vessel bombards inland positions during the Battle of Okinawa. (Flickr)

The assault was to be the largest amphibious landing of the Pacific campaign. Landing craft would be driven largely by British and Canadian crews, and the bulk of the fighting force – the “tip of the spear” – was to be comprised of roughly 250,000 soldiers and Marines from the XXIV Corps (Army) and III Amphibious Corps (Marines). They were supported by the Naval Fifth Fleet, and all were commanded by American Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Nimitz, an imaginative submarine specialist, had proved himself an expert at coordinating combined-arms (naval, aerial and ground) forces against the tenacious IJA. They faced off against nearly 100,000 defenders; 76,000 were experienced and motivated IJA men, and 20,000 were Okinawans forced to wear Japanese uniforms. They were commanded by Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. Allied doctrine advocated for a 3:1 numerical advantage of attackers to defenders, and as such the assault presented a significant risk for Nimitz. Okinawa’s numerous caves and pre-built tunnel systems – as well as gusuku castles with high walls – meant that the IJA defenders were extremely well dug-in by the time the Allies arrived.

Japanese Kamikaze pilots prior to their “divine wind” suicide missions. (Welt.de)

The Battle

Beginning in February of 1945, Allied ships had been repeatedly targeted by over 1,465 concerted kamikaze (or divine wind) attacks. These attacks were conducted by specially selected pilots who were trained to ram their Zero planes into enemy ships. Concurrently, a Japanese naval fleet codenamed Ten-gō sakusen (Operation Ten-Go) attempted to sneak up on Allied vessels preparing for the invasion of Okinawa. Led by the Yamato – the world’s largest battleship – Ten-Go was ambushed by the Americans. On April 7th, Ten-Go had been effectively destroyed and Yamato was sunk. This proved to be a huge loss for the Japanese, whose naval force had been slated to defend the island. As they had been previously during the campaign, the Allies were able to predict Japanese naval movements thanks to top secret signal interceptions.

The massive Yamato at sea. (Wikimedia Commons)

Near the end of March, Marines and soldiers of the 77th Infantry had begun landing on some of the small islands surrounding Okinawa. While a fake landing was made towards the south of the island, the main force landed in the north on April 1st. They pushed inland across the rocky ground and captured several crucial airfields with limited opposition at first, and by April 18th, the remaining IJA troops in the north were surrounded on the Motobu Peninsula. IJA special suicide troops codenamed Giretsu Kuteitai (“Heroic Paratroopers”) were dropped in to sabotage Allied fuel dumps, but their entire company was wiped out quickly.

Marines return fire at IJA snipers as they advance across the blasted Okinawan landscape. (Flickr)

Concurrently, another American landing group had swung south and began engaging IJA defenders along Highway 1. From there, they pushed on towards the heights of Shuri, site of an old Ryukyuan Castle which was heavily defended. Towards the end of April, the American advance had stalled and the tenacious IJA – and their unwilling Okinawan allies – clung to their positions. The Americans had been surprised at how well the Japanese were able to resist huge artillery bombardments by disappearing into caves and emerging after the firing had stopped. The blasted earth, hammered by naval artillery, only made it easier for the deafened Japanese soldiers to find cover. But my May 11th, American troops had captured two important hills, codenamed “Sugar Loaf” and “Conical”; these two positions flanked Shuri, and allowed the Americans to bring more fire to bear on the IJA positions. After a heavy bombardment from American ships off the Okinawan coast, Shuri was captured by a force of US Marines on May 29th. Although fighting continued, the loss of Shuri seemed to represent a strong psychological blow to the IJA.

An IJA soldier hurls a grenade at enemy troops. (Pinterest)

The Tide Turns

By June 21st, the IJA had been pushed back to their command post on Hill 89 and were forced to hide in underground tunnels. Knowing they had been defeated, Japanese command prepared to commit suicide. One man, Colonel Yahara, was apparently ordered to stay alive by his commanding officer:

“If you die there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame, but endure it.

Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima

The battle was over on June 22nd after 81 days of fighting. Most of Okinawa now resembled a WWI battlefield; constantly hammered by artillery, drenched by relentless rains and blasted with flamethrowers, the earth looked more like a foreign planet than earth. As the rains continued, corpses emerged from the earth. Over 100,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors and pilots had been killed, or committed suicide; roughly 15,000 Americans were lost, and men who had served in Okinawa suffered the highest rate of psychological damage out of any battle in the Pacific theatre. The few Japanese men who survived probably experienced the same difficulties.

The most hard-hit of all were the Ryukyuans who lived on Okinawa. Many had been forced to wear IJA uniforms, and were shot by American troops; others had been used as human shields. As the battle wore on, many Okinawan women were sexually assaulted by Japanese troops, a custom established during the Rape of Nanking in China. As the Americans advanced, the IJA spread rumours that the Okinawans would be massacred by the enemy troops, and as such, thousands jumped from the cliffs to their deaths. According to current estimates, almost 100,000 Okinawans were killed by the Japanese and Americans during the battle, or one third of the prewar population.

A wounded Marine receives plasma during May of 1945. (Flickr)

Aftermath

By all accounts, the Battle of Okinawa was a decisive Allied victory. Japanese naval capabilities had been wrecked during the Ten-Go operations, and many of the most talented remaining IJA commanders had perished in the caves under Hill 89. To Allied command, Okinawa represented the stepping-stone to mainland Japan, a key staging area where aircraft could refuel and men could prepare for battle. But according to some, the devastating losses suffered by both sides convinced American president Harry Truman to drop atomic bombs on Japan and “save American lives” by doing so. Victory in Europe had been declared as VE Day on May 8th, and the Allies were quickly losing steam. If the Battle of Okinawa had one main strategic impact – beyond the obvious and horrendous devastation of the unwilling Ryukyuan participants – it was convincing American command to use “the bomb”.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? 250,000 American Marines and soldiers under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, supported by Commonwealth troops. They faced off against over 100,000 Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) troops under Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. Notably, over 20,000 of the IJA force were Okinawan residents – including children – forced to don Japanese uniforms.
  • Where? Okinawa, one of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. 550 km (340 miles) from the mainland.
  • When? From April 1st to June 22nd, 1945 – 81 days. (Naval battles leading up to the main action commenced in late March).
  • What? The battle was a series of engagements on land, sea and air over the important airfields on Okinawa. Japanese naval vessels were destroyed at sea as the American ground force landed and pushed north and south. The north was captured quickly, but fighting in the centre and south of the island dragged on for months. After the capture of Shuri (an ancient castle and dominating position), IJA resistance collapsed and thousands of Japanese soldiers – and Okinawans – committed suicide.
  • Why? Okinawa was seen as a vital stepping stone to mainland Japan, and a training ground for the main invasion. The battle took longer than expected due to the fanatical Japanese resistance.
  • Result: Decisive Allied victory. It was the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theatre, and possibly resulted in American president Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Was the Battle of Okinawa necessary? Could the island have been bypassed by the Allies?
  • What was the Okinawan situation prior to the battle? How were they treated within the hierarchy of Japanese society, and how did Okinawan society rebuild after the fighting stopped?
  • What were the key Japanese mistakes, and how did the Allies exploit them?
  • Assess Nimitz’ handling of combined arms assets (air, ground and sea).
  • What has been the legacy of the battle for Okinawans in the decades after?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Leckie, Robert. 1995. Okinawa: the last battle of World War II. New York: Viking.
  • Tzeng, Megan. “The Battle of Okinawa, 1945: Final Turning Point in the Pacific.” The History Teacher 34, no. 1 (2000): 95-117.
  • Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan. “Warriors of Word and Sword: The Battle of Okinawa, Media Coverage, and Truman’s Reevaluation of Strategy in the Pacific.” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 23, no. 4 (2016): 334-67
  • Pearson, R. (1996). The Place of Okinawa in Japanese Historial Identity. In D. Denoon, M. Hudson, G. McCormack, & T. Morris-Suzuki (Eds.), Multicultural Japan: Palaeolithic to Postmodern (Contemporary Japanese Society, pp. 95-116). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Yahara, Hiromichi, and Frank Gibney. 1995. The battle for Okinawa. New York: J. Wiley.

01/06 – FDR’s Four Freedoms

A 1944 colourised photograph of FDR. The president had been worn down by the war at this point, and died soon after. (Histomania)

On this day in 1941, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt (or FDR) delivered his state of the union address. In the groundbreaking speech, FDR enumerated Four Freedoms that he believed all human beings on earth deserved:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear

The Four Freedoms speech (as it became known) was significant in that it broke with an American tradition of isolationism that grew in the wake of WWI. Americans – who had been reluctant to fight on behalf of their European allies in the “Great War” of 1914-18 – were wary of being drawn into another “great” conflict in Europe as fascist powers began clashing with more liberal nations in the late 1930s. For Roosevelt, isolationist policies would soon have to end; having relied on British financial aid to extricate the United States from the depths of the Great Depression, he understand the extent to which all global powers were linked. Additionally, he knew that a Europe dominated by fascist nations under Hitler and Mussolini would pose an existential threat to the United States and all people on earth.

Roosevelt’s speech was controversial among Americans at the time. To some, it was the wakeup call the nation badly needed as the world descended into war; for others, it was a cynical ploy designed to encourage a war that would help fund further “socialist” programs such as the New Deal. At the time, Roosevelt’s government was planning to supply huge quantities of financial and material aid to the Allies through the Lend-Lease program (which saw American trucks and weapons in the hands of British, Soviet and French troops) – another unpopular move for many American isolationists. But whatever the contemporary reaction was to the Four Freedoms speech, Roosevelt was essentially proven correct 11 months later during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, an event which resulted in the American entry into WWII.

Khalkhin Gol

Mongolian soldiers during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Western narrative of WWII often forgets much of what happened in the far East. Although the Pacific Campaign gets a considerable amount of American attention, many readers and researchers focus largely on the North African and European theatres. Most sources agree that WWII began on September 1st of 1939, as Nazi troops rolled into Poland.

But a little-known battle on the border between Mongolia and China may have helped decide the fate of the war well before September of 1939. The Battle of Khalkhin Gol, a small-scale (by WWII standards) engagement between Soviet Red Army troops and Imperial Japanese soldiers – or the Nomonhan Incident (ノモンハン事件), as the Japanese call it – completely altered Japanese strategy and led to the new geopolitical climate as it existed in 1940.

ASAP: Overconfident Japanese troops learned the age-old lesson that the only one who kicks Russia’s ass is Russia. Japanese strategy was altered radically by this stunning revelation.

Read on for details!
Emperor Hirohito, leader of wartime Japan. (Wikipedia)

Lead-up to Battle

Prior to the battle, Japanese forces had followed the Northern Expansion Doctrine. Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) generals in Emperor Hirohito’s government dominated tactical discussion and sidelined their Navy counterparts, who (less forcibly) advocated a Southern Expansion through the Pacific islands. At the time, Japan’s imperial ambitions demanded new land and resources, and the IJA insisted that the best plan of attack was to seize territory in China and Siberia – which was a part of the USSR. The plan was, apparently, to coordinate with Nazi Germany (who planned to attack the USSR after destroying England in an aerial campaign) and pincer the Soviets from both sides, forcing the new communist country to its knees and dividing the spoils equally.

The Northern Expansion Doctrine. (USMA.EDU)

In 1931, the IJA had captured Manchuria (now a region in Northeast China, Russia and Mongolia) and renamed it Manchukuo, threatening the neighbouring Soviets. Both sides disputed where the border actually ran, and tensions ran high for most of the decade. IJA troops stationed on the border at the Khalkhin River were a part of the Kwantung Army, which operated essentially as it pleased, independently from the Emperor; they faced off against units of the Mongolian Army and the Red Army 57th Special Corps. In May of 1939, both sides were nervous: the IJA men, fresh off a string of victories in China and the Pacific, were cocky and (rightfully) confident of their chances against the relatively untested Red Army.

IJA soldiers of the Kwantung Army in Manchukuo. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battles

The “incident” began on May 11th as Mongolian cavalrymen entered what the IJA considered to be a part of Manchukuo. The 60 men were attacked by an IJA patrol as their horses grazed by the river; they returned soon after with many more troops and a series of small “skirmishes” began on the Khalkhin River. In June, Soviet KomKor (corps commander) Georgy Zhukov arrived, bringing tanks and many more men. Soon after, Japanese fighter aircraft attacked Tamsak-Bulak – a Soviet air base – in Mongolia; the strike was successful, but occurred without permission from headquarters in Japan. As a result, the Kwantung Army’s air assets (light bombers and fighter planes) were grounded and forbidden from attacking Soviet military targets.

IJA troops advance past knocked-out tanks. (Wikipedia).

Near the end of June, IJA Lieutenant-General Michitarō Komatsubara was given the go-ahead to push the Soviets back across the river. In early July, the IJA began their attack with the intention of assaulting Soviet positions across the river on Baintsagan Hill. A large force of small tanks and “tankettes” – also known as “special tractors” – surged forward, supported by artillery strikes. The offensive troops killed many Soviet defenders, but failed to cross the river in most places; the Kwantung army began to run low on manpower as the two armies continued to battle it out on a 4 km (2.5 mile) frontage for the rest of the month. The Red Army and Mongolians (unlike their Japanese counterparts) were well-equipped to support their heavy losses with a steady stream of reinforcements from the heartland of Russia.

Soviet BT-7 tanks during the battle. (Wikimedia Commons)

By August, Zhukov was facing significant pressure to wipe out the Japanese force and allow the Soviets to face threats from Europe. Huge quantities of men and trucks arrived at Khalkhin Gol, as well as two Mongolian cavalry divisions. The Kwantung Army was totally unprepared as it had received next to no reinforcements, partly as a result of its insistence on disobeying the Emperor’s commands. Zhukov began a series of aggressive patrols designed to test IJA defenses; by August 20th, he was satisfied with the information he had acquired, and launched an attack in the early morning. Soviet artillery and aircraft hammered the Kwantung Army whilst 50,000 Soviets screaming “Ura!” surged across the river on assault boats and pontoon bridges. The Red Army also had hundreds of light BT-7 tanks which overpowered the miniature IJA vehicles. The Japanese fought hard but were encircled and gradually worn down; Komatsubara planned a suicidal counter-offensive, but was ordered to stand down after a ceasefire was signed by both sides on September 15th. The Soviets had lost nearly 30,000 men killed, and the Japanese “only” 16,000; but for the comparatively huge USSR, this was but a drop in the bucket of what Stalin was prepared to sacrifice.

Soviet and Japanese officers meet to discuss a ceasefire. (Pikabu.Ru)

Aftermath

The IJA had been decisively beaten. Army officials in Hirohito’s government were humiliated and sidelined; their Northern Expansion Doctrine quickly fell out of favour, and the Japanese strategy turned to one of Southern Expansion, as advocated by the Navy and Air Force. The IJA would now be used as a landing force throughout the Pacific. This aggressive seizure of islands and shipping routes ramped up tensions with the United States and came to a head in December of 1941 with the attacks on Pearl Harbour, which resulted in the immediate entry of America into WWII on the side of the Allies. Perhaps, if the Northern Expansion Doctrine had won out, the United States would not have been attacked in the Pacific, and its entry into the war would have been delayed.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ceasefire of September 15th enabled Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to invade Poland from the East after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. Although the battle of Khalkhin Gol was not especially large – especially by the standards of later battles in the Soviet Union, such as Stalingrad – it signalled that the USSR was a force to be reckoned with, and gave Stalin clout on the diplomatic stage. Had the IJA beaten the Soviets in Mongolia and pursued its Northern Expansion Doctrine, the Nazis may have decided to invade a weakened USSR earlier – and, with the full force of the IJA supporting them, it’s possible they may have succeeded in significantly diminishing the Soviet threat. An alternate history in which the Soviet Union is sidelined or defeated, and the United States delays (or limits) its entry into WWII, is almost too troubling to contemplate. Although it’s not commonly recognized as a part of WWII, the Battle of Khalkhin Gol certainly had an outsized impact on Axis strategy – and the outcome of the war in every theatre.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Kwantung Army of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) led by Lieutenant-General Michitarō Komatsubara with roughly 35,000 men and significant numbers of light tanks; they faced off against Mongolians and the Soviet Red Army under KomKor Georgy Zhukov and roughly 70,000 men with many more tanks and aircraft.
  • Where? On the Khalkhin River – the border between Manchukuo (a Japanese puppet state) and Mongolia (a Soviet puppet state).
  • When? From May 11th to September 15th, 1939 – just over 4 months.
  • What? A series of border skirmishes between the Soviet/Mongolian defenders and aggressive IJA troops developed into all-out war after Mongolian cavalrymen brought their horses to graze on contested land by the river. A Japanese offensive failed in July; the following month, a massive tank offensive supported by crushing artillery and aerial bombardment forced the Japanese back. The IJA surrendered on September 15th, 1939.
  • Why? The Japanese, and particularly the IJA, sought aggressive expansion to the North. Cocky after a decade of victories, they underestimated the Soviets who, as usual, had many more men to feed into the carnage than their opponents did. Zhukov had the full support of Stalin behind him; Komatsubara lacked support from the Emperor.
  • Result: Decisive Soviet victory. The Japanese abandoned their Northern Expansion Doctrine and turned their attention to the Pacific, which eventually resulted in war with the Americans (and ended up protecting the USSR from an Eastern invasion, enabling them to focus on repelling the Nazis in the West).

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • What were the main reasons for the IJA’s confidence?
  • Did Emperor Hirohito ever fully support the Northern Expansion Doctrine? Why or why not?
  • Compare and contrast the Battle of Khalkhin Gol with other Soviet engagements throughout the war. To what extent did Red Army doctrine rely on overwhelming force?
  • What impact did the battle have on perceptions of the Japanese? Did the Americans underestimate them as a result?
  • What impact did the battle have on perceptions of the Soviets? Did the Germans alter their tactics at all during Operation Barbarossa?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Back Bay Books, 2013.
  • Kotelʹnikov, V. R. 2010. Air war over Khalkhin Gol: the Nomonhan incident.
  • Ogata, Sadako N. 1964. Defiance in Manchuria: the making of Japanese foreign policy, 1931-1932. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Garthoff, R. (1970). Marshal Zhukov’s Greatest Battles. By Georgi K. Zhukov. Edited with an Introduction and Explanatory Comments by Harrison E. Salisbury. Translated from the Russian by Theodore Shabad. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1969. 
  • Yamamuro, Shin’ichi, and Joshua A. Fogel. 2006. Manchuria under Japanese domination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

03/17 – The Battle of Nanchang

IJA troops move up alongside their Type-89 medium tanks during the initial offensive on Nanchang. (Pinterest)

On this day in 1939, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) launched a massive assault on Nanchang, the capital of China’s Jiangxi province. Facing them were soldiers of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army, a worn down but well-armed force on the opposite side of the Xiushui river. After years of regional tensions, the Second Sino-Japanese War had broken out in 1937; by 1939, the IJA had pushed hundreds of miles into mainland China and began staging out of Wuhan. Nanchang was an important transportation hub that, if captured, would severely degrade the Chinese ability to resist the IJA. (Note: The First Sino-Japanese War took place in the late 19th century. Needless to say, China and Japan had been unfriendly for many years).

The extent of the IJA’s push into China during the war. The Japanese offensive only postponed the Chinese Civil War, which resumed immediately in 1945 after VJ-Day. (Wikimedia Commons)

The assault began with a heavy artillery barrage from IJA positions on the Xiushui river. As high-explosive (HE) shells and deadly gas from Unit 731 (Japan’s horrific experimental weapons unit) began hammering the Chinese Nationalists, IJA sappers constructed bridges in the fast-flowing river. Soon, IJA Type-89 tanks were rolling across the river and into Nanchang. By March 26th, much of the Chinese resistance had broken; a counter-attack ordered by Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek threatened to reverse Japanese gains, but the IJA rallied and held the city. By May 9th, the Chinese troops were in full retreat. Roughly 75,000 people were killed in the Battle of Nanchang, many of them civilians.

Chinese Nationalist troops defending their positions. (Wikimedia Commons)

The attack on Nanchang was a part of the IJA’s Northern Expansion Doctrine, an effort to secure land and resources for the growing needs of Imperial Japan. Although Nanchang was a Japanese victory, the battle slowed the IJA’s momentum. After running into the Soviet Red Army with disastrous results at Khalkhin Gol in May of 1939, the IJA was forced to discard the Northern Expansion Doctrine; led by the Imperial Japanese Navy, their focus shifted to the islands of Southeast Asia instead (leading them into direct conflict with the United States). Although the Chinese Nationalists – with aid from America and the USSR – had beaten the Japanese by 1945, the conflict resulted in the deaths of roughly 20 million people and enabled the resumption of the Chinese Civil War. By 1949, the Nationalists had been forced back to Taiwan and the Communist People’s Republic of China was officially established on the mainland.