Vyacheslav Zimonin: “In case of the Japanese’s success in Khalkhin Gol, Germany would have attacked the USSR as early as 1939”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 8: Japan

Vyacheslav Zimonin: “In case of the Japanese’s success in Khalkhin Gol, Germany would have attacked the USSR as early as 1939” Photo: kpp-russia.ru

Realnoe Vremya continues a cycle of interviews with Russian scientists dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Member of the Academy of Military Sciences, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor Vyacheslav Zimonin talks about Japan as key disturber of the world peace in Asia. See the previous publications here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

“Japan had been dreaming of seizing all the Eastern part of the USSR since the intervention in 1918-1922”

Mr Zimonin, what prompted Japan in the 30s to seize territories in Asia, in the Far East? Was it the economic crisis in the late 20s or any ideology that was gaining momentum?

Of course, the economic crisis made an impact on Japan’s actions in the 30s because it was global. But not the crisis was the main reason for hatching these aggressive plans. Japan had had such plans since the late 19th century after the emperor got absolute power back. And in the early 20th century, it came to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. After the world war and the revolution in 1917, Japan intervened in same Russia in the Far East having previously supported the Whites and the riot of the Czechoslovak Legion there. In general Japan had been interested precisely in our country for long.

And in 1927, General Tanaka Giichi, who had participated in the Russo-Japanese War, took the helms of the Japanese government. Besides the government, he chaired the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Colonies, and after several days of elaboration he gave a speech in front of Emperor Hirohito at one of the meetings with a memorandum on the country’s strategy in a possible new world war (Editor’s Note: the existence of this memorandum is still questioned by historians, as its manuscript hasn’t been found).

General Tanaka Giichi, who had participated in the Russo-Japanese War. Photo: wikipedia.org
Besides the government, Tanaka chaired the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Colonies and after several days of elaboration he gave a speech in front of Emperor Hirohito at one of the meetings with a memorandum on the country’s strategy in a possible new world war

Why did the execution of Tanaka’s invasive strategy begin not in 1927 but only in 1931 with the seizure of Manchuria? Was the economic crisis still the case or was it debates in ruling circles because same Tanaka resigned some time later?

Tanaka has nothing to do here. The economic crisis ruined the plans to a certain degree, yes, but nobody put “Tanaka’s memorandum” into cold storage, executives with good appetite substituted Tanaka, and the new Japanese administration approved the fast seizure of Manchuria, Mongolia, China, which was explained in the memorandum and then allowed to create a site to attack the Soviet Union through Mongolia and the territory of Lake Baikal. Japan had been dreaming of seizing all the Eastern part of the USSR since the intervention in 1918-1922. Of course, apart from the seizure of Soviet territories, global supremacy was also planned, including a war with the USA.

It goes without saying that it was possible to carry out such plans in the late 20s — it was necessary to prepare the economy, the army, which wasn’t big, and most importantly determination to start military actions was needed. Everything was ready in 1931, and the seizures began.

“Both Japan and Hitler needed natural resources. Ideology was on the back burner”

What prevailed in “Tanaka’s memorandum” — an aspiration to reach economic and political supremacy or like for Hitler the creation of living space and the racial and nationalistic theory that had no room for Untermensch’s rights was foremost?

It is often said that Hitler and Japan’s politics during those years was, for instance, anti-Soviet, that’s to say, ideological, but it isn’t true. When hatching plans for wars with the USSR, anti-Sovietism in their doctrines didn’t prevail. Both Japan and Hitler needed, first of all, natural resources they didn’t have. For this purpose, at first, Hitler disintegrated Austria, annexed Czechoslovakia, while Japan after conquering Manchuria in 1931 (a part of northeast China) attacked China only in 1937.

Japan after conquering Manchuria in 1931 (a part of northeast China) attacked China only in 1937. Photo: wikipedia.org

Why? Because resources were needed to create a new Japanese empire, while they were closer in Manchuria, which was developed including thanks to the USSR’s help. And, of course, the economy was one of the foundations for military actions in China.

It is hard to imagine that Hitler would have put Russians or Polish in line with Germans if his ideas had become a reality. And we can assume that the Japanese wouldn’t have put their nation next to the Chinese in case of gaining supremacy over China. The Japaneses cruelties meant a lot. Isnt it nationalism?

This all existed, but in the all-out war after 1937. Japan and China had had lasting hatred towards each other by this time: the Japanese hated the Chinese, they considered themselves a pure race unlike the population of China mixed with Muslims, Manchus and others. The Japanese were cruel towards the Chinese, of course, both in Manchuria and China. It is enough to remember that the Japanese troops massacred up to 300,000 Chinese in Nanjing in 1937. The cruelty also affected captive Americans who were expelled from the Philippines in 1942 and the Philippine population. Japan never stopped if it needed to kill people in the same Indochina.

Could the cruelty have affected the USSR population too in case of its resistance?

Yes, they didn’t get to the Russians. But the Japanese remembered the lessons of intervention because they were expelled from the Far East in 1922 and the Russo-Japanese War when they didn’t win in the end but requested truce.

A riverbank awash with bodies of Chinese people executed by the Japanese army. Photo: wikipedia.org
The Japanese were cruel towards the Chinese, of course, both in Manchuria and China. It is enough to remember that the Japanese troops massacred up to 300,000 Chinese in Nanjing in 1937

How would the Japanese occupation of the USSR have looked?

It would have been a proto-state that was subordinate to Japan, but our population highly likely would have been against, a guerrilla war would have broken out, and Japan would have seen no barrier by suppressing the opposition in the USSR. But I will note anyway: the Japanese didn’t have nationalistic arrogance towards Russians, and I will dare to say that the Japanese respected the Russian people and the country itself — they got used to respecting big countries. But the respect for the USSR didn’t impede them from seizing our eastern territory.

By the way, about resources. What did Japan need from the occupied territories first of all?

First of all, it was interested in iron ore, coal. They could produce this all on a large scale in Manchuria, in China. Iron ore was obviously needed to manufacture tanks, weaponry and other armaments.

“In the 20s, Japan had both socialistic and communist moods, but authorities put some order

Isn’t it strange that big European countries — France and Britain as well as the USA — didn’t try to reinforce their influence in same China rich in resources?

Both Great Britain and the USA had been trading with Japan for long and successfully and wanted Japan to direct its all aggressive aspirations against the USSR. “Tanaka's memorandum” wasn’t a secret — the USA knew that Japan was also targeting the Philippines if the latter focused on the fight against the USA. Yes, the USA was aware of the barbarian methods of the war Japan had in China but continued helping it with fuel supplies. It was a profitable business and necessary politics.

The Red Army’s soldiers in attacks. The vicinity of Lake Khasan. Photo: wikipedia.org
Japan understood that if the USSR went on supporting it further, it wouldn’t be able to conquer China. Due to this, in 1938, there were fights between the Japanese and Soviet border officers on Lake Khasan, while Japan’s efforts against Mongolia augmented from May to September in 1939

What did the Japanese population think of militaristic politics?

In the 20s, Japan had both socialistic and communist moods, but authorities put some order: citizens were spied, collective responsibility was introduced in the Gonin Gumi — urban and rural households. And after the seizure of Manchuria, all the population was shouting hurray and only welcomed territorial seizures. The recognition of Manchukuo by numerous countries proved to the population of Japan that seizures were a necessary matter for the country, that strategic and geopolitical space for the Japanese was of vital importance.

Why couldn’t Japan calmly seize and calm down China’s territories it needs and unlike Manchukuo was stuck in a serious war?

Only thanks to the military and economic support of China from the USSR. In addition, Japan understood that if the USSR went on supporting it further, it wouldn’t be able to conquer China. Due to this, in 1938, there were fights between the Japanese and Soviet border officers on Lake Khasan, while Japan’s efforts against Mongolia augmented from May to September in 1939. And Mongolia and the USSR had an agreement on mutual assistance in case of attack on one of the countries, and then there was signed an agreement and introduction of troops to Mongolia.

Japan had already been planning to seize Mongolia, get access to Baikal and divide the USSR into two parts since 1938. Because of this desire, the Battles of Khalkhin Gol and next to the border of Mongolia and China broke out in 1939 between the Soviet-Mongol and Japanese armies. In July, the Japanese crossed the river Khalkhin Gol and even seized the dominant point of Baintsagan Hill. However, the Soviet-Mongol Army under Zhukov during the tank attack expelled the Japanese group.

Khalkhin Gol. Briefing of Japanese tankers next to the Type 89 I-Go tank in Mongolian steppe during an attack. Photo: starcom68.livejournal.com
Khalkhin Gol demonstrated that the Japanese weren’t able to seize Soviet territories, and the Japanese understood it requesting truce. The armistice was signed on 15 September

“The non-aggression agreement with Germany is a direct result of Khalkhin Gol”

Was it bringing to a war?

In general it was certainly planned that Japan’s army would attack. The Japanese created the 6th army with powerful aviation, with the best tanks and planned the attack on 24 August 1939. But our troops, first of all, the command in the person of Zhukov, managed to do a lot — they transported both aviation and tanks to Khalkhin Gol, managed to equip all the units with all the essentials and went ahead of the Japanese. On 20 August, on the weekend when many Japanese commanders went to restaurants of neighbouring cities to drink sake, Zhukov stopped the attack from three different directions, and the Japanese artillery and aviation were simply destroyed within hours, while all the Japanese group not far from Khalkhin Gol was surrounded within two days.

Khalkhin Gol demonstrated that the Japanese weren’t able to seize Soviet territories, and the Japanese understood it requesting truce. The armistice was signed on 15 September. And what important is that the USSR didn’t stop helping China through 1941. In addition, if not the Khalkhin Gol victory, the USSR wouldn’t have had a firm position in the talks with Germany. The non-aggression agreement with Germany is a direct result of Khalkhin Gol. Without doubt, in case of the Japanese’s success in Khalkhin Gol, Germany would have attacked the USSR soon after Poland.

Japan understood that it couldn’t go against the USSR in 1941 — it knew that armies totalling less than a million didn’t stop the Soviet Union in the East, which was very serious.

Japanese tank attack before the river Khalkhin Gol, July 1939. Photo: wikipedia.org
The Japanese army had only a strong fighting spirit. The Japanese had better weaponry than the Chinese army did but worse than the Soviet. It includes planes, tanks, artillery systems

How strong was the Japanese army?

The Japanese army had a strong fighting spirit only. The Japanese had better weaponry than the Chinese army did but worse than the Soviet one. It includes planes, tanks, artillery systems. In addition, air-to-air missiles were tested in Khalkhin Gol, which soon became a part of the Katyusha system, while the experience of Soviet pilots was more important than that of the Japanese — our pilots had been in Spain anyway.

Historians often talk about Richard Sorge’s ciphered message to Moscow in December 1941 about Japan’s refusal of plans to attack the USSR. Were the plans finally cancelled at that moment?

No. The plans existed through 1943 — the Japanese Kwantung Army always was on standby in Manchuria and totalled over a million people. Here Japan was already waiting for Germany’s successes in the war against the USSR for future joint actions, but all its plans for the USSR were ruined after the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk. But the Khalkhin Gol experience also seriously restrained the Japanese.

By Sergey Kochnev