Mission Impossible

George Lacks/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
General George C. Marshall meeting with Chang Chun and Zhou Enlai, circa 1946

The name of George C. Marshall, one of only six US Generals of the Army in modern times, is indelibly linked with the Marshall Plan that was critical to the rebuilding of Western Europe after the devastation of World War II. When he spoke at Harvard’s commencement in June 1947 after receiving an honorary degree, Marshall, then secretary of state, made Europeans an offer of economic assistance, but only if they came up with a plan. The president of Harvard, James B. Conant, and other attendees did not fully grasp that they had heard what Henry Kissinger described as “a historic departure in American foreign policy.” But British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin jumped at the idea and, with his French counterpart Georges Bidault, sparked a West European initiative, while Stalin denied the Soviet-controlled East European nations the right to participate. President Truman signed the plan into law in April 1948.

It was a tribute to the enormous respect in which Truman held Marshall that he had appointed him secretary of state in January 1947, immediately on his return from a year in China, where he had failed to prevent a civil war. The Marshall mission to China looms large in the tangled postwar history of Sino-American relations,1 but has not been fully studied even in that field.2 Now it has been brilliantly described in the detail it deserves by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the executive editor of Foreign Affairs, who seems to have consulted all relevant primary and secondary sources.

Considering the weight that was put on the Marshall mission, it is sobering to realize that it was not the outcome of careful strategic planning but an inspired response to a potential domestic political problem caused by Patrick Hurley, the volatile and self-regarding US ambassador to China. Back in Washington for consultations, Hurley told Secretary of State James Byrnes on November 26, 1945, that he wished to resign, but Byrnes refused to pass this on to the president; he thought he had persuaded Hurley to return to China to continue with the thankless task of trying to keep the peace between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and Mao Zedong’s Communists. Byrnes was intending to pass on the good news to the cabinet when it met over lunch on November 27, but when Truman arrived he was brandishing a teletype with a report of a speech Hurley had made before the National Press Club, accusing the “professional foreign service” of siding with the Chinese Communists. Hurley alleged that a “considerable section of our State Department is endeavoring to support Communism generally as well as specifically in China.” And this was before Joseph McCarthy became a Red-baiting senator.

Truman knew that his political opponents would seize upon Hurley’s outburst. In the cabinet…

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