“The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947” by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan


The title of Daniel Kurtz-Phelan’s new book about US General George Marshall’s efforts to bring about peace between the Nationalists and Communists in China after the end of the Second World War should be “The Impossible China Mission”. Marshall’s ill-fated mission was the product of wishful thinking and hubris on the part of policymakers in the Truman administration.

Marshall’s mission to China was a manifestation of a recurring and troubling strain of American foreign policy—the idea that the United States can remake other countries in its own image. It is an idea that has resulted in colossal foreign policy failures, most recently in President George W Bush’s disastrous effort to democratize Iraq and spread American values and institutions to Arab nations in the Middle East. Its greatest failure, however, was in China after World War II.

Kurtz-Phelan, the Executive Editor of Foreign Affairs and a former State Department policy planner, is an unabashed admirer of General Marshall. He refers to him as “the greatest of the Greatest Generation” in American history. There is a touch of hagiography here. Marshall, to be sure, accomplished and achieved much in his career. He was a brilliant staff officer in the First World War, the “organizer of victory” in the Second World War, the symbol of the successful postwar European Recovery program that bears his name (the Marshall Plan), and served as both Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration.

But even as great an admirer as Kurtz-Phelan recognizes that “the common understanding of Marshall and his accomplishments has tended to leave out his time in China altogether.” China, as the author notes, was touted by FDR during the war as an expected partner of the Allied victors in constructing a peaceful postwar world. Instead, it descended into civil war and ultimately communist rule, with terrible consequences for the Chinese people and US foreign policy.

This was not Marshall’s fault. The Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong were never going to reach a modus vivendi. The failure of US policy—which Marshall was charged with implementing—was the failure to recognize that reality and conduct foreign policy accordingly. This failure was compounded by the Truman administration’s insistence that the Nationalists become democrats and invite the Communists to share power in a coalition government.

General Marshall spent thirteen months shuttling between Chiang and Mao (often represented by Zhou Enlai), acting not as an ally of the Chinese government, but as a neutral honest broker between the government and the Communists. Yet Chiang was America’s ally. The US supplied his government with arms and advisors. Chiang could never quite understand or accept that his ally would abandon his government to the Communists who were, after all, the ally of America’s chief adversary, the Soviet Union.


 The China Mission: George Marshall's Unfinished War, 1945-1947, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan (WW Norton, April 2018)
The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan (WW Norton, April 2018)

Kurtz-Phelan’s account places equal blame for the failure of Marshall’s mission on Nationalist and Communist “hardliners”. But that misses the point. Marshall’s mission was doomed before it began. As James Burnham and others pointed out at the time and later, even before the guns of the Second World War fell silent, communist forces in China shifted their focus from fighting Japan to preparing for the postwar struggle for power.

The Truman administration’s policy, which would be repeated with similar results by future US administrations in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, in Central America and Iran in the late 1970s, and, more recently, in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, pressured Chiang to institute democratic reforms during a civil war against opponents who were unconstrained by democratic norms and practices. The goal was to unify China under liberal democratic rule.

The author notes that Marshall even began to place hope in a chimerical “third force” of Chinese liberal democrats who might hold the center between extremists of both sides. “Marshall was hardly immune,” writes Kurtz-Phelan, “to the great American faith in the curative power of his country’s form of government and persuasive power of his country’s example.”

Moreover, as the author briefly mentions but downplays, Marshall’s State Department, especially its Far East Division, tended to view the communists in China with ideological sympathy or as the lesser of two evils. There were communists in the State Department and in other agencies of the government that sought to influence US foreign policy. Their impact on US policy toward China was not as important as Truman’s critics alleged at the time, but it was not negligible.


The author notes that by 1947, Chiang’s forces controlled almost eighty percent of China. Chiang thought he was on the cusp of victory. That, too, was an illusion. And as US support for the Nationalists waned, Soviet support for the Communists increased. In the end, the Communists won and founded the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. Americans, meanwhile, debated “who lost China”.

General Marshall came home to become Secretary of State (and later Secretary of Defense), where he helped President Truman devise and implement policies that resisted Soviet encroachments in Europe. The administration’s record in Asia, however, was far less successful. China became an adversary and enemy for more than twenty years until President Nixon skillfully exploited the Sino-Soviet split to America’s (and China’s) geopolitical advantage.

The China Mission is an important reminder about the limits of American diplomacy. Marshall, like many US statesmen before and after him, fell prey to the idea that the rest of the world could be persuaded to solve disputes through an American lens. As Kurtz-Phelan writes,


For all [Marshall’s] efforts to see the world through negotiating partners’ eyes, he did not quite bridge the divide in worldviews, with clashing notions of power that were in the end irreconcilable.


Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.