The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
In August 1945, the United States was at the pinnacle of world power, globally supreme both economically and militarily. Though the Allies and Soviets had split Europe, the hardening of Cold War lines remained in the future. The immediate foreign policy challenge facing the Truman Administration was how to resolve the China Problem. China, then as now, the largest country on Earth with a population of 450 million, was split between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. In Northern China and the rural areas between Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing, the peasants largely supported Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communists. After the founder of the nascent Chinese Republic, Sun Yet Sen, died in 1925, the two factions spent the remainder of the decade dividing into their respective camps. Though a tenuous peace emerged during the war against the Japanese—fought almost exclusively by the Nationalists—the two parties remained bitterly divided on the future of China.
The United States had official emissaries to both the Nationalists and Communists—the Dixie Mission in Yenan—and a vested interest in a united, stable China. After all, the United States had been the least egregious of the imperial powers during the previous century, when the British, French, German, and Japanese powers carved off concessions, and forced opium into China through treaty ports.
President Truman sent a reluctant, recently retired George Marshall to China to resolve the impasse. Marshall, perhaps the most respected American of the age, had been retired for barely two months. Marshall had been Army Chief of Staff during the war and the renowned “architect of victory.” Marshall’s China mission was to negotiate a sustainable peace between the Nationalists and Communists before post-Japanese tensions erupted into a full-scale civil war. Though the Allies had supplied the Nationalists with over $250 million ($3.6 billion today) of aid during the war, Truman supported peace over faction, directing Marshall to bring both sides to the table.
Marshall’s mission began optimistically; after all, if there was anyone trusted by the world to solve an intractable problem it was the American general. After first meeting Chiang in Chongqing, Marshall arranged an embassy to Mao in Yenan. He insisted that both the Communists and Nationalists be part of a peace and power-sharing program. In just a few weeks, Marshall instituted a three-way structure that brought Nationalists, Communists, and Americans to the table and resulted in a peace progress whereby a representative from each of the three players would act as observers in the field. Initially the group managed to suspend most of the fighting and even had the Communists proposing a disbandment of armies. Ultimately, as Daniel Kurtz-Phelan shows in The China Mission, Marshall failed.
Two factors combined to frustrate Marshall’s efforts. First, the backdrop of the emerging Cold War loomed large over Marshall’s China mission––Churchill made his Iron Curtain speech in March 1946––clouding all intents, motives, and analysis. Of course, simply labeling all Communists as Soviet-allied ignored the complex differences in philosophies and culture between Soviet and Chinese Communists. However, the developing U.S. versus Soviet dynamic in Europe and nascent counter-communist movement in the United States tended to bifurcate the world into one of two camps: allied or communist.
While Chiang controlled the government and managed a massive army, his ability to effectively wield either effectively was limited by incompetence, corruption, and nepotism.
A second friction point was the profligate corruption among Chiang’s Nationalist military and government. While Chiang himself was pious and austere, his cadre of generals, sycophants, and appointees endorsed and propagated the fleecing of Chinese peasants. Where Nationalist officials did not outright steal Allied supplies, they supported or collaborated with local warlords, a legacy of feudal China that contributed to the appeal of the communists. While Chiang controlled the government and managed a massive army, his ability to effectively wield either effectively was limited by incompetence, corruption, and nepotism.
Marshall’s mission also faced serious domestic challenges. As Army Chief he had cautioned regional commanders against “localitis,” or presuming their enemy or situation held greater weight than the overall cause. Now Marshall was asking for extra resources and troops for a region that, excluding President Roosevelt’s insistence that China be granted a seat with the other great powers, held little significance for most Americans, especially as most simply wanted troops to come home. The war was, after all, over. Though Marshall kept American divisions to guard ports and other key infrastructure, his military power dwindled daily as thousands of troops embarked to demobilization points in the US.
In the end, Marshall failed. After a brief sojourn to Washington to lobby for additional China aid and a delay, or at least slowdown, to the withdrawal of American troops which exceeded 200,000 at the war’s end, Marshall returned to Chongqing to find the peace process in shambles. As the Soviets withdrew from formerly Japanese-occupied Manchuria, the Communists and Nationalists resumed large scale fighting as each attempted to capture the remote region’s abundant natural resources. Trust, always in short supply between two factions jaded by 20 years of fighting, evaporated without an external threat to unify efforts.
Moreover, support for the American presence was wearing thin. The rape of a girl in Shanghai by an American Marine who, like 19th century Imperialists was immune to Chinese law, inflamed anti-American resentment. Americans, seemingly overnight, became seen as just another in a long line of foreign occupiers, resented as mere occupiers at worst or, at best, partisan Nationalists supporters. Marshall’s return allowed the sheer power of his presence to create the illusion of reduced tensions, but it wasn’t enough to stem an inevitable full-scale civil war, which resulted in a resounding Communist victory for Mao.
Capturing the dynamics of post-war China to understand the environment Marshall encountered is no easy task. Fortunately Kurtz-Phelan’s book serves as a guide to a forgotten time, when American power was unquestioned and global, China was an occupied ally, and the thought of Soviet cooperation wasn’t a forlorn dream until Soviet actions in 1947-1948 dashed hopes for a cooperative post-war peace.
Kurtz-Phelan has written a strong, concise history about a corner of the Cold War that captures a key episode and highlights the still-present difficulties in the US-China relationship. As one imagines, Kurtz-Phelan focuses on the conflict from an outsider’s perspective. This is a narrative history told as if the reader was George Marshall, with all the incumbent frustrations. Nevertheless the key Chinese players are fully developed, save for the ever-enigmatic Mao. If the book has a fault, it is the very American focus on events. This is not a history of the Chinese Civil War or the Communist takeover. It is a history of the American involvement in China from 1945-1947 and George Marshall’s mission.
Kurtz-Phelan praises Marshall’s character and forthrightness, but still sees the China mission through realist eyes. There are some problems that even the world’s greatest power could not resolve. In the case of China, the blow back after Marshall’s failure created a domestic firestorm at home. Roosevelt had pressed the Allied powers to aid China over the objections of the Combined Chiefs and Churchill. Now it seemed that all the money, time, and materiel spent on China was wasted even as the Truman Administration faced enormous pressure to redeploy troops. Combined with the public’s emerging realization of Soviet ambitions—George Kennan’s “X-Article” published in June 1947 and the Soviets blockaded Berlin in late 1948—in Europe and Truman’s request for a peacetime draft, massive aid for Europe, and continued difficulties with striking steel and coal workers, it seemed as if US policy was failing everywhere.
In addition to paving the way for McCarthyism—at one point the Wisconsin Senator harangued Marshall in a 3-hour speech later published as a book titled, America’s Retreat from Victory—China’s communist turn arguably set off a series of pernicious choices that culminated with America’s disastrous intervention and ignoble retreat in Vietnam. Bad domestic politics drove bad foreign policy.
I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.
—President Johnson, 1963.
No matter the feasibility of actually stopping China’s Red turn, no American president wanted to be accused of losing another country. Coupled with the war in Korea, Truman’s policy of Containment evolved in NSC 68’s policy of forward defense. Rather than wait out the Communists, American Policy became focused on preventing their success anywhere. The escalation in Vietnam from the late 1950s to Johnson’s eventual deployment of combat troops was largely based on events begun in China.
If an American intervention into a faraway civil war in a bitterly divided country seems familiar, it’s because the similarities between what Marshall faced in China and the American-led effort in Afghanistan bear a striking resemblance. Like NATO in Afghanistan, Marshall warned the United States would “have to be prepared to take over the Nationalist Government, practically, and administer its economic, military, and government affairs” to prevent a collapse.
Kurtz-Phelan has done a great service in his concise telling of Marshall’s ultimately futile efforts. General Marshall, despite profound stature built while shepherding the Army from a provincial service in 1939 into a fascist defeating behemoth by 1945, remains a distant figure. After a lifetime of service as a general, then Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State, Marshall died without producing a memoir. By showing how Marshall failed at the height of his powers, Kurtz-Phelan demonstrates the limits of even the best men and greatest nations.
Like NATO in Afghanistan, Americans in China may actually have increased Communist support, making their presence a contributing factor to an already unwinnable situation.
In Kurtz-Phelan’s telling, the hardest part of strategy is honestly facing and learning what cannot be done. Some issues cannot be changed, but admitting that fact does not make tragedy less tragic. According to Kurtz-Phelan, Marshall’s China mission was the first instance of Washington learning the hard way of the “near-impossibility of resolving somebody else’s civil war.” Like NATO in Afghanistan, Americans in China may actually have increased Communist support, making their presence a contributing factor to an already unwinnable situation. Kurtz-Phelan does not offer a better solution than the one Truman sought in sending Marshall to China, but he does caution against the folly of assuming foreign efforts reflect American strengths and that American involvement can effectively end internecine conflicts. For military strategists, the takeaway is that involvement in the domestic troubles of a foreign state carries significant risk—an obvious point made sharp by Kurtz-Phelan’s book, which lays out the challenges Marshall faced and the inability of the American Foreign Policy establishment and public to separate China’s Civil War from its Cold War background. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Kurtz-Phelan’s work is the need to harshly assess American assumptions in order to better understand the limits of power. Forty years after Nixon opened China, it’s not clear the United States understands its biggest trading partner or biggest threat much better.
The China Mission is an important book for those seeking to understand China or, more realistically, grasp the near-impossibility of understanding the complexities of China, in the past or present. Like other recent scholarship from the Council on Foreign Relations—see Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution—The China Mission throws cold water on any China expert who makes definitive claims about China or the Chinese; China remains truly foreign to most Americans.
It seems Marshall agreed with this sentiment, at least in retrospect. In June 1947, shortly after proposing the aid package to Europe that became known as the “Marshall Plan” and earned him the Nobel Prize, Marshall succinctly summarized the challenge China presented to American policy makers: “I have tortured my brain, and I can’t now see the answer…In the final analysis, the fundamental and lasting solution of China’s problems must come from the Chinese themselves.”
John Q. Bolton is a U.S. Army officer and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Committee of Three, from left, Nationalist representative Zhang Qun, George C. Marshall and Communist representative Zhou Enlai. (Wikimedia)
 Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 77.
 Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, “The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 8).
 Ed Cray, General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Solider and Statesman (Maryland: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 633.