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Chinese history

US failure to bring peace to post-war China explained in The China Mission – book review

The Marshall Plan changed post-war Europe, but its architect, General George Marshall, failed to unite China’s Nationalists and Communists. Author Daniel Kurtz-Phelan asserts that US foreign policy was flawed and doomed to failure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 9:03pm


The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947

by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

WW Norton

4/5 stars

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 democratise Iraq and spread American values and institutions to Arab nations in the Middle East.

Its greatest failure, however, was in China after the second world war.

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Kurtz-Phelan, the executive editor of Foreign Affairs and a former US 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 “organiser of victory” in the second world war, the symbol of the successful post-war European Recovery Programme that bears his name (the Marshall Plan), and served as both secretary of state and secretary of defence in the Truman administration.

But even as great an admirer as Kurtz-Phelan recognises 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 Allies in building a peaceful post-war world. Instead, it descended into civil war and ultimately communist rule, with terrible consequences for the Chinese people and US foreign policy.

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This was not Marshall’s fault. The Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong were never going to reach a compromise. The failure of US policy – which Marshall was charged with implementing – was the failure to recognise 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.

Marshall spent 13 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 advisers. 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.

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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 post-war 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 by 1947, Chiang’s forces controlled almost 80 per cent 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.

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Americans, meanwhile, debated “who lost China”.

Marshall came home to become secretary of state (and later secretary of defence), where he helped 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 20 years until president Richard Nixon skilfully 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 world views, with clashing notions of power that were in the end irreconcilable.”