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George Marshall, the Man Who ‘Lost’ China — Book Review

For a time, it seemed that Gen. Marshall had united China and ended Mao’s Communist insurgency.

James D. Hornfischer

The China Mission By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan Norton, 476 pages
The China Mission
By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
Norton, 476 pages
 
Here are some things no one ever says about Gen. George C. Marshall today: That he was vain, dull, a bungler. That he was guilty of “criminal folly” in his handling of foreign affairs. That he was not only disloyal to his country but also part of “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”

These dumbfounding slanders, delivered by Joseph McCarthy on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1951, are well and deservedly forgotten. But they reflected the tremors of their time, after the United Nations “police action” in Korea had spun beyond control, engulfing U.S.-led forces in a massive ground war with China—the same China that less than a decade earlier had been a U.S. ally.

What had Marshall, the now almost universally admired U.S. Army chief of staff who had contributed so much to victory in World War II, supposedly done wrong? He had dared and failed in something grand. In December 1945, he went to China as a special envoy of President Harry Truman in an attempt to broker peace between Chiang Kai-shek’s governing Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s insurgent Communists. In the end, though striving mightily, Marshall failed. As Mao drove Chiang and his forces to Taiwan and unified the mainland under Communist tyranny, his good name back home fell into a snake pit of paranoiac partisanship.

In “The China Mission,” Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the executive editor of Foreign Affairs, skillfully tells the story of Marshall’s quixotic and forlorn diplomatic initiative. Deeply researched and written with verve, the book ought to be read by any U.S. foreign-policy maker practicing diplomacy in Asia. Marshall’s oft-forgotten experience in Asia has been covered before, notably in Forrest C. Pogue’s four-volume life (1963-87). But Mr. Kurtz-Phelan has performed a service in reviving this important episode with such aplomb, rigor and pace.

Three days before Christmas 1945, Marshall arrived at a small stone bungalow in Chongqing to begin a series of parleys aimed at ending 18 years of civil war. After an eight-year hiatus following the Japanese invasion in 1937, the conflict had resumed with a vengeance.

Gen. George C. Marshall with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Mei-ling
Gen. George C. Marshall with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek
and his wife Soong Mei-ling

While there was idealism in Marshall’s heart—he was gravely concerned about the famine confronting ordinary Chinese people—power politics justified the effort too. Without a strong, unified China, Washington calculated, the Soviet Union could assert control of Manchuria, which it was already infiltrating and pillaging for industrial capital and infrastructure. Truman and Marshall believed a negotiated peace could serve American interests at home and abroad. Yet the American people in 1946 had little patience for expensive foreign projects.

Doggedly pushing through thickets of disagreement, Marshall won a quick cease-fire pact between Chiang and Mao’s emissary, Zhou Enlai. Chiang had come to the table because his extermination campaign against Communist forces failed once they retreated into China’s hinterlands. Though Mao professed to be a “Soviet pupil,” Stalin had humbled him, signing a peace treaty with Chiang’s government.

On Jan. 22 Marshall handed Chiang a draft bill of rights, a procedure for a constitution and a plan for interim coalition government. He followed this up by securing an understanding to unify the rival Chinese armies under Chiang’s national leadership. “Marshall had achieved what even cynics were calling a miracle,” Mr. Kurtz-Phelan writes.

Praising him breathlessly were not only American journalists, who believed peace in their time was finally at hand, but his Chinese hosts as well. Chiang’s emissary called Marshall the midwife of unification, the leading strategist of the world and an ambassador of peace. Thus the American general departed Mao’s headquarters on March 5, 1946, flattered and hopeful.

But a stronger geopolitical tide was rising. On that very same day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri. America had already resolved to contain Soviet Communism, of course. And the previous June, the U.S. War Department had concluded that the “Chinese Communists are Communists,” in league with the movement directed from the Kremlin.

The three-man “truce teams” dispatched throughout China to effect the cease-fire soon encountered difficulty. Both Chinese sides considered the negotiations a stratagem for improving their position on the battlefield before the peace terms froze the lines in place. The cease-fire provided a rationale to press disputes that kept the fighting going.

Mr. Kurtz-Phelan’s brisk narrative handles all this as a compelling drama. He adeptly paints his characters as more than mere avatars of political positions. Zhou was polished and gracious, a talented actor and dissembler who had become a communist in Paris, where he learned to debate with the best the Sorbonne had to offer. With a “personality full of mobility,” he engaged Marshall with relish about “Lincoln’s spirit of freedom and Washington’s spirit of independence.” One of Marshall’s aides thought Zhou “could run General Motors.”

Mao himself needed the talents of Zhou in order to play Marshall, for the Communist leader was by his own admission emotional, arrogant and quick to point fingers. Mao’s strength was his mystical sense of himself and a massively ambitious ego fueled by the resentments of his upbringing.

Marshall emerges in “The China Mission” as a figure of considerable sympathy. Mr. Kurtz-Phelan shows him as a devout public servant, a consummate professional and a sincere idealist who relied upon the good faith of all with whom he dealt. He could command a room yet conveyed “abject humility.” His Olympian calm coexisted with what the author calls “a reputation for truth-telling, for an almost insolent integrity in rooms of yes-men.” He was less a battlefield leader than a superlative organization man. In World War I he had spoken truth to power—to Gen. John Pershing, who promptly made Marshall his aide. In World War II, his talents had helped defeat Hitler and Hirohito. But the problem of China, in the end, was beyond him.

His warm personal relationships with Chiang and Zhou did not seem to matter. Culture was part of it—at every turn, the American was desperate to make a deal. But the Chinese civil war had a momentum, a ruthlessness, all its own. The talents that made Marshall an effective leader in Allied war councils doomed him to failure with his cynical Chinese counterparts. “Each side overplayed its hand when momentum seemed to be in its favor and them came back to negotiate when the momentum had shifted, at which point the other side was no longer interested,” the author writes.

Before Marshall knew it, American troops stationed in China to oversee an orderly repatriation of Japanese troops were caught in the rekindled civil war. Marshall pressed on nonetheless. Unable to parse the murky relationship between Mao and Stalin, he gambled on good faith, hoping for the best. An honest broker trapped in a wicked game, Marshall was in the end whipsawed by cultural and political forces beyond his ken.

By November 1946, Marshall was all but finished. More than two-thirds of his truce teams had been recalled to headquarters for reasons of their safety. With Truman’s domestic poll numbers in the tank, the midterm elections saw a Republican sweep of Congress. Marshall flew back to Honolulu two months later, never to return.

His failure inadvertently offered up America as a scapegoat for the continuing misery of ordinary Chinese. The Communists exploited it to the hilt. Chiang, meanwhile, believing that Republicans were more sympathetic to him, was counting on the 1948 presidential vote to save his cause. But his reading of U.S. politics was no keener than Marshall’s reading of China’s. With a fatal overconfidence, and poor counsel, Chiang saw his Nationalist forces stretched thin, too heavily outfitted to pursue Mao’s guerrillas into the hills. The same day Chiang’s armies finally lost Manchuria, Truman won a close re-election.

Chiang’s collapse produced an opening for McCarthyites in Washington to push back against Marshall’s idealism. The general returned home to vicious gossip. “There have been rumblings and rumors around Washington to the effect that you have been taken in by the Chinese Communists,” his colleague Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer told him.

The Marshall Mission was, by any standard, a failure. The 13 months of frenetic negotiation led to all-out war, and a Communist government in Beijing that vexes America to this day. The question is whether it had any chance of succeeding at all. After World War II, with the U.S. carrying out a massive demobilization (Truman preferred the term “disintegration”), failure was probably foreordained. Mr. Kurtz-Phelan’s book is valuable for its reminder that diplomacy is futile when it is backed only by the frail regiment of hope.

When a chastened Marshall, as Truman’s secretary of state, turned his attention to Europe, he found that change and peace were possible in war-torn regions of the world. The success of the Marshall Plan was a godsend for the ravaged continent and a boon for America too. But U.S. largesse toward Europe summoned forth hungry supplicants around the world. When Chiang’s ambassador in Washington said there should be a Marshall Plan for China—his chorus of supporters posited the existence of a racist double standard—Marshall could only laugh. Mr. Kurtz-Phelan does so right along with him. “Predictions by American diplomats and journalists that the Chinese Communists would turn into mere ‘agrarian democrats’ proved laughable.” Mao’s victory made it possible for Stalin to approve North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.

We know how the movie ends: the Communists in control by 1949, Chiang defeated and exiled to Taiwan, a customer of American arms. After Moscow tested a hydrogen bomb and war broke out on the Korean peninsula, the Cold War hit full stride.

Mr. Hornfischer  , the author of “The Fleet at Flood Tide,” is at work on a history of the U.S. Navy in the Cold War.

The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2018





 


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