Everybody knows about the Fall of Berlin. You Russians will be out in the streets next week doing your Victory Day thing commemorating the capture of the Reichstag, Hitler eating Luger lead, and—on a sadder note—the end of the long, sweet rape-fest Russian soldiers enjoyed on their triumphant march through Prussia. Yes, their happy thoughts of home and hearth were tempered, as the preachers say, by the realization that their big Woodstock of free, forced love was about to come to an end.
What most people don’t know is that the Red Army had another huge triumph still to come: a crushing strategic victory on a front 3000 miles long, with 1.6 million Soviets annihilating a force that, on paper at least, totaled more than a million battle-hardened Axis troops. I’m talking about Operation August Storm, the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria on August 9, 1945—exactly three months after the surrender of the Nazis.
That date is no coincidence. Stalin was a smart shopper, with the gift of timing—if he’d been born a little later and Wester, he would’ve got rich on eBay, gotten into breeding Shih Tsu or something, and all those people wouldn’t have had to die. Anyway, Stalin made a deal with FDR and Churchill at Yalta (Feb. 1945). It was clear by that time that the Germans were finished, and now it was the Americans’ turn to demand a second front to ease their war burden, this one against Japan.
So Stalin signed on the dotted line: he’d invade Japan’s Manchurian colony within three months of the defeat of the Nazis. The deal was, he had to meet that yardstick—it was like one of these NFL contracts with incentive clauses, the ones they do when the draft choice has loads of talent and a massive coke habit. The Big Three, Stalin, FDR and Churchill, were all smiles at the photo ops, but not stupid enough to trust each other. So Churchill and FDR put in a sweetener for their Soviet pals: if the Red Army attacked Japan’s Manchurian colony within three months of the Nazis’ final defeat, the USSR would get permanent occupation of Sakhalin Island, a big long streak of icy forest north of Hokkaido, and the Kuril Islands, a string of fog-bound rocks looping from the North end of Hokkaido to the Southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Not exactly Rodeo Drive in terms of valuable real estate, but those places meant a lot to Stalin: they’d been grabbed from the Russians by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. It was one of those old disgraces that world powers tend to get all obsessive and unhealthy about, like Hitler forcing the French to surrender in the same lousy railroad car where they’d made Germany surrender in 1918. That was what pre-Abba Europe used to be like: never learned anything new, and never, ever forgot a grudge.
There was something kind of poetic-justice about the way the Americans were begging the Soviets to open up a second front against the Japs, because the Russians had been begging the Anglos to open a second front against the Germans for years—two-and-a-half years, actually, counting from Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) to D-Day (June 6, 1944).For all that time, the Soviet armies had fought alone against the Wehrmacht, the finest land army since the Mongols. And all that time they were screeching, “Hey Allies, buddies, ol’ pals, how about a LITTLE HELP HERE!”
The Anglos had some pretty good excuses, like the fact that the US was gearing up as fast as it could, passing most of its industrial production directly to its allies while dealing with the Japanese in the Pacific—but to the Soviets, who lost at least 20 million people to the Germans, those years of waiting for the Normandy front to debut seemed like a real long time. I read somewhere that there was a joke making the rounds in wartime Moscow: