Kim Jong-il, Vaclav Havel, and the Origins of World War II

by Stuart D. Goldman

The deaths Kim Jong-il and Vaclav Havel this weekend jogged an odd connection in my mind. The coincidence of these deaths reminded me of another coincidence: in August-September 1938, crises over Czechoslovakia and Korea helped trigger the Second World War.

The Czech crisis is well-known. Hitler provoked violent demonstrations among Sudeten Germans as a pretext to demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland, the Czech western defense perimeter, to Germany. France and the U.S.S.R. had defense treaties with Czechoslovakia, whose own well-equipped army was prepared to fight. Hitler threatened war. But the German high command warned that war in 1938 would be a disaster. General Beck, Chief of the General Staff, resigned in protest and joined a group of anti-Nazi officers plotting a coup in Berlin. They secretly informed the British government that if London took a strong stand against Hitler’s Czech “adventure,” the German army would overthrow him. British Prime Minister Chamberlain, desperate to avoid war, didn’t believe it. Fearing a Nazi scheme to provoke war, he acquiesced in the Munich Agreement that forced the Czechs to surrender the Sudetenland. Thus passed the last good chance to stop Hitler.

Less well-known: at the same time, Japan and the Soviet Union fought a battle in which thousands died, raising the specter of a Soviet-Japanese war. This conflict (the Changkufeng incident/battle of LakeKhasan) began as a border dispute near where the Soviet Far East, Korea, and Manchuria meet. Korea and Manchuria were occupied by Japan, which had invaded China in 1937 and was about to launch a huge offensive in central China. Tokyo decided to use the border dispute at Changkufeng to test Soviet intentions before expanding the war. Fearing a two-front war, the Japanese generals reasoned that if Moscow reacted very belligerently to the probe at Changkufeng, they must end hostilities in China and mobilize to confront the Soviet Union.

The Japanese threw in one infantry division, about 15,000 men. The Soviets countered with three divisions. The fighting raged for ten days in August with 5,000-8,000 casualties. Both sides kept the conflict limited. The Japanese inflicted heavy losses on the Red Army but were outnumbered and opted for a negotiated settlement, conceding the disputed territory to the Soviets. Nevertheless, reassured because Moscow did not expand the scope of the fighting, the Japanese pressed on into China.

Changkufeng/Lake Khasan was a tactical victory for the Red Army. But a month later, Munich was a strategic defeat. The Soviet united front policy had failed; Moscow was isolated; and Stalin suspected London and Paris of channeling German aggression eastward. Taken together – as they rarely are by western historians – Changkufeng and Munich show that the Soviet Union too faced the danger of a two-front war. Japan and Germany were allies in the Anti-Comintern Pact, which Tokyo now sought to upgrade into an anti-Soviet military alliance. A year later, as Hitler prepared to invade Poland, Japan provoked a small undeclared war with Russia that raged from May-September 1939 with 30,000-50,000 killed and wounded. The fact that this coincided precisely with the Hitler-Stalin pact and the outbreak of the war in Europe – and that there is a causal link between these events – is the subject of my forthcoming book: NOMONHAN, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II. This is not some crackpot theory. I’m a respected scholar. My publisher, the U.S. Naval Institute Press (http://www.usni.org/navalinstitutepress), produces serious military history, books on international relations, and the occasional blockbuster (they were the original publisher of The Hunt for Red October). For a “sneak preview,” check out my article in World War II magazine: http://www.historynet.com/mongolia-1939-stalins-shrewd-opening-act.htm.

Stay tuned; more to come. Comments welcome!