Q: What is the definition of an optimist?
A: Someone who believes in a second front.
Pretty lame, joke-wise, but I guess it wasn’t adaptive for Russians to make any really smart jokes while the NKVD was listening. Anybody who got any wittier than Yakov Smirnov was likely to win a free GULAG tour package. And at least the joke makes my point: for Russia, those three years were like trying to hold off a rabid grizzly while your allies kept saying in a cheerful-asshole voice: “Be there in a sec! Just hang in there, think positive!”
So Stalin had every reason to turn the tables now, let the Americans bleed the Japanese in the Pacific up till the last moment possible, wait until the Imperial forces were a shell, then send in the T-34s. The fact that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria came exactly three months after the fall of Berlin, the maximum time allowed under the Yalta Agreement, might suggest to some of you cynical folks that the generalissimo was biding his time.
But you have to remember, Spring and Summer 1945 was a busy time for all concerned. The Russians were busy rounding up all the surviving Wehrmacht troops and allies (and the Wehrmacht had a lot more allies than anybody wants to talk about these days), maneuvering for position in postwar European power politics, and trying to deal with all the sheer destruction the Germans had visited on Western Russia. The Japanese had to watch their Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere wiped off the map, island chain by island chain. Even on the Home Islands there was a lot more than cherry blossoms falling that Spring. On March 9, the new B-29 Superfortresses dropped incendiary bombs that gutted Tokyo and killed more people, maybe—they’re still not sure but the estimates go up to 200,000—than the A-bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just before the Soviets struck Manchuria.
The Japanese had a weirdly passive, almost hopeful attitude toward Stalin anyway, going way back to the early 1930s. Right up to the end, they kept hoping he’d let them alone, or even broker a peace deal that would keep the Americans out of Japan. They were all for fighting to the death against the Yankees, but they kept dreaming that Uncle Joe had a soft spot for them.
Bizarre, but then one thing you notice when you study Imperial Japanese “thought,” if you can even call it that, is that they weren’t much on cold-blooded analysis.
Actually their aversion to fighting the Red Army was a lot more reasonable than most of their other zany ideas. They got it the hard way, by getting crushed in battle against the Red Army in Mongolia back in the late 1930s. Back then there were two factions in the Imperial Japanese forces, the “Northerners” and the “Southerners.” Both sides wanted Japan to go forth and conquer; it was just a question of where. The Northerners shrieked that it was Japan’s destiny to seize Eastern Siberia from the Russians, whereas the “Southerners” wanted to grab SE Asia and the Pacific Islands from the US. Roughly speaking, the Imperial Navy favored the Southern strategy, and the Army favored the Siberian option, for the same reason Bush Sr. used to give for the first Gulf War: jobs, jobs, jobs. The Siberian strategy meant the Army would have the leading role; the Pacific plan would put the Imperial Navy in the driver’s seat.
The Army got its chance to show what it could do in a mainland-Asian war against the Soviets in 1938, with an indecisive bloodbath between Japanese and Russian troops at Khasan Lake. The Imperial Army didn’t take the Russians seriously enough, and they figured that bloody draw was a fluke. One more chance and they’d stomp the Russians like they had in Port Arthur and the Tsushima Straits a generation back. You can’t blame them too much; a couple years later, a guy called Hitler had the same idea about how easy it was going to be to stomp the Russians.