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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 discussion that followed, a solution was suggested by, of all people, the secretary for agriculture: Why not replace Hurley with a man “of unquestioned nonpartisan credibility,” General Marshall? Truman jumped at the idea. The previous day, he had decorated Marshall on the occasion of his retirement from the army, but he knew that Marshall was a man of duty. When he called him after lunch, Marshall simply said, “Yes, Mr. President.”3

Planning the mission was not easy for Marshall. In early December 1945, a congressional committee interrogated him about the nation’s preparedness at the time of Pearl Harbor. He endured twenty-four hours of questioning over the course of six days. Meanwhile the State Department and the War Department collaborated on the guidelines for the mission, with Marshall joining in when he could. The aim was clear: to avert civil war by persuading the Nationalists and the Communists to “get together.” The Americans had been supporting Chiang Kai-shek by insisting that the Japanese hand over their weapons only to his forces, and 50,000 US Marines had been brought to China to guard crucial points in northern China that might otherwise fall into Communist hands. The longer-term worry was the extent to which Soviet forces occupying Manchuria would turn over Japanese weaponry to their Chinese Communist comrades. Yet no one was prepared to contemplate sending American troops to support Chiang if a civil war broke out, and “no one aside from Marshall wanted to spend much time contemplating failure.”

Marshall spent a week island-hopping to China, landing in Shanghai and proceeding the next day to the Nationalist capital, Nanjing, to be received by Chiang and Soong Mei-ling, his Wellesley-educated wife, a formidable and famous figure in her own right. Marshall was not a stranger to China and its customs, having spent three years in Tianjin as an infantry officer in the 1920s, his regiment being stationed there to protect American interests; he had even learned enough Chinese to read and speak with modest fluency. But in his many meetings with Chiang in the year that his mission lasted, Mme Chiang acted as interpreter. Marshall told Chiang that Americans were warmly disposed toward his government and hoped to see him succeed, but warned that continued US support would require Nationalists and Communists to reach a settlement. Chiang vowed to pursue a political solution as long as the Communists were prepared to give up their armies. Marshall would find that this issue would doom his mission.


Marshall went next to Chongqing, Chiang’s wartime capital, where he established his headquarters, spending his early days just listening, refusing to make pronouncements.4 He recruited more staff, all of whom were in awe of him. After ten days, he had a plan. He would set up a committee of three, consisting of himself, a senior Nationalist to be appointed by Chiang, and Zhou Enlai, the Communist liaison with the Nationalists and future premier of the People’s Republic of China. The committee would proceed only on the basis of unanimity. It met for the first time on January 7, 1946, at Happiness Gardens, Marshall’s home and headquarters. The senior Nationalist turned out to be Chang Chun, a classmate and close friend of Chiang’s and then governor of Sichuan province, where Chongqing was situated; he was also destined to be premier, if briefly, from 1947 to 1948.

Marshall’s first order of business was to get an agreement on a cease-fire deal he had drafted. He took his two colleagues through the text line by line. By the end of three hours on the first day, it was agreed that fighting should stop. But the next day, a major problem emerged: it was agreed that Nationalist forces had to be moved to assert control, and Zhou conceded Manchuria because Stalin had promised it to Chiang; but Zhou refused to relinquish the two provinces bordering Manchuria, while Chang Chun argued that Nationalist troops had the right to enter them. Marshall ended the session early and went to see Chiang.

Kurtz-Phelan is particularly good at using his various sources to bring Marshall’s personality to life and describe its favorable impact on people who worked with him on the China mission. For Chiang in particular, Marshall was a welcome change from the bitter contempt exhibited by his onetime chief of staff, General Joseph Stilwell, and the histrionics of Ambassador Hurley, whom Nationalists nicknamed “the big wind.” In his very first meeting with Chiang, Marshall was candid but deferential, and Chiang was delighted that the American undertook to “advise only me.” This made it easier for Marshall to convince the Gimo—as Generalissimo Chiang was referred to by his wife and almost every American—that he had nothing to fear in keeping his troops out of the two disputed provinces: they were not being ceded, just left for future discussion, and Zhou had ceded Manchuria and agreed to start talks on bringing the Communist armies under the control of the Nationalist government. Besides, a declaration of peace would make a fine opening to the multiparty conference on China’s political future that Chiang would address the next day. At midnight, after two hours of debate, Chiang conceded. Early the following morning, at Happiness Gardens, Zhou and Chang Chun signed the cease-fire in front of photographers called in by Marshall.

But all that had been achieved, Marshall told his two colleagues, was a “pause for deliberation.” He had already decided how to use that pause. The day after the signing, a brigadier on his staff set up a new body, the Executive Headquarters, in a Beijing hotel, led by three senior commissioners, one American, one Nationalist, and one Communist. This body was charged with ensuring that the cease-fire held by sending out three-man teams—again with one representative from each of the three parties—to settle disputes and stop violations, operating on the basis of consensus, but with the American in the “chair.” Marshall drafted one hundred US colonels, aged forty-two to fifty-eight, to join the Executive Headquarters for these operations. He told them to provide their Chinese colleagues in the field with jackets, socks, and mittens, because this would make them their friends for life.

Later in February the Committee of Three would fly in Marshall’s plane to Beijing to inspect the Executive Headquarters. Then, with the senior commissioners in tow, they crisscrossed the country to inspect the operations of the truce teams, congratulating the successful ones and mediating in problem areas. Marshall was greeted with signs calling him “Most Fairly Friend of China,” “First Lord of the Warlords,” and “God of war of the world.” They visited Yenan so that Marshall could meet Mao and praise him for his role in helping bring peace to China. Mao thanked Marshall for his efforts and promised to adhere to the agreements he had brokered. Despite the warm display, after the visit Marshall privately conceded that he’d found Mao a mystery.


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General Marshall signing autographs at the People’s Consultation Conference, circa 1946

Marshall had hoped that the “pause” would lead to mutual good faith and an atmosphere in which more difficult problems might be tackled. The hardest problem of all, he wrote privately to Truman, would be bringing Communist troops into Nationalist armies, which the Chinese themselves would have to accomplish. But shortly after the cease-fire began, Chiang suggested that there should be a military subcommittee of the Committee of Three, in which Marshall would be the US representative. Zhou Enlai seconded the idea: “This will make us come to agreement.”5

Politics came first, however: there had to be an agreement on some form of coalition government. The Communists were particularly keen on this because they assumed that in a peaceful environment, they would always win a battle for popular support against the Nationalists. On the day that the truce was announced, Chiang spoke to the Political Consultative Conference (PCC), a gathering of thirty-eight representatives of all political persuasions, about freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, legitimizing political parties, and releasing political prisoners. Zhou followed up with an acknowledgment of Chiang’s leadership.

But soon enough, it became clear that the talks had failed to produce any concrete results, and Marshall intervened: “He handed Chiang a draft bill of rights, a procedure for devising a constitution, and a plan for an interim coalition government—a rough design for Chinese democracy.” Chiang felt humiliated, but Marshall reminded him that the US would not keep 100,000 troops in China forever, and after swearing the American to secrecy on the origin of these ideas in order to save face, the Gimo introduced a version of them to the PCC. After consulting with Mao and other senior colleagues in Yenan, Zhou returned to proclaim Communist support for a coalition government. He carried a note, signed by Mao, which said:

I greatly appreciate your fair and just attitude in the course of negotiating and implementing the truce agreement. On behalf of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, I wish to extend you our deepest thanks.

Despite this success, Marshall knew that a military agreement—the creation of a national army integrating Nationalist and Communist troops—would be decisive for peace: he was reported by a subordinate to have said that “unless this one works the rest is pure illusion.” Chiang told Marshall that persuading the Communists to give up their armies would be like trying “to negotiate with the tiger for his skin.” As Kurtz-Phelan points out, what Marshall was proposing was fundamentally at odds with twentieth-century Chinese practice: the army would no longer be an instrument of a party, but an institution of democracy.

On the Committee of Three, Chang Chun was replaced by General Chang Chih-chung, who had been stationed in Yenan as Nationalist representative. Marshall, impatient to get an agreement before the discussions ran into the sand, was forced to become much more involved than he had wanted. Within a week, he had managed to help craft a plan, but he insisted that the integration had to be fast and total. Privately he offered Zhou a plan whereby Americans would set up a school to train Communist troops about modern soldiering, so that they would not lose face when they merged with the Nationalists. Zhou Enlai flew to Yenan and returned with an agreement: within eighteen months the rival armies would form a unified force, in which Nationalists would outnumber Communists five to one.

On February 25, 1946, the agreement was signed by Chang, Zhou, and Marshall. After twenty years of outright warfare or unremitting hostility between Nationalists and Communists, Marshall had managed to get both sides to agree to a cease-fire, a political settlement, and military unification in a little over two months. The Committee of Three celebrated by traveling around China, where they received so much toasting (ganbei) that their trip became known as the ganbei circuit. Sadly, the optimism did not last.

There had always been adherents of each side of the Chinese divide who were antagonistic to the reforms that Marshall was pressuring Chiang and Mao to accept. Conservative nationalists were worried about losing status, power, and wealth; Mao was prepared to accept unification but not elimination. Marshall himself was particularly worried by the continuing presence of Soviet troops in Manchuria, which were plundering factories set up by the Japanese. The Americans aimed to prevent the Soviets from controlling northern China with the help of the Communists. Chiang Kai-shek worried that the Soviet army might pass Japanese weaponry on to Communist troops in the area and thus prevent him from taking control of a crucial part of his country.

What was unclear was the extent to which all these worries had been kept in check simply by the force of Marshall’s reputation and personality. As one aide put it, “Marshall’s presence is what is holding China together.” General Albert Wedemeyer, who knew China well, agreed: “The permanence of his accomplishment…is in my mind contingent upon his physical presence.” The truth of these judgments was revealed when Marshall left for the US on March 11, 1946, to solidify support for extensive American aid to help put China on its feet. In the brief month he spent away, he received messages from his staff in China that both political democratization and military demobilization had halted. Chiang and the Communists were denouncing each other. Marshall accepted advice from his staff in China not to announce the aid package until he could use it to bring the two sides to their senses.

But the surge of optimism on all sides that the situation would be transformed once he returned soon receded. After getting back to Chongqing on April 18, 1946, and being briefed on what had happened in his absence, Marshall characterized the situation as “completely out of hand.” It is a tribute to the thoroughness of Kurtz-Phelan’s book that he devotes over half of it to the grim nine months that followed Marshall’s return.

One must wonder: Why did Marshall stay on so long after his three carefully crafted agreements had fallen apart? Was it his sense of duty, his awareness, often expressed, that civil war would be a great disaster for the Chinese people? Was it his close acquaintance with Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Enlai that deluded him into thinking that he could again persuade them of the rightness of the proposals he had made? Did he simply share the Washington consensus that the Soviet Union had to be kept out of China, which meant supporting the Nationalists, though not to the extent of being involved in a civil war on their side? Or was his pride involved: How could he, who had masterminded a victory in a world war, be unable to prevent a civil war in a country heavily dependent on US largesse? As one of his more perceptive aides commented: “Never having failed before, he cannot yet bring himself to admit he has failed this time.”

Whatever Marshall’s mix of motives, he remained in China until January 1947 and worked hard to salvage the situation. Chiang was determined to finally deliver the coup de grâce to the Communists that had eluded him a decade earlier. The Communists were emboldened by a greater willingness on the part of the Soviet Union to aid them with Japanese weaponry. Fighting increased, especially in Manchuria. In their propaganda, both sides were increasingly impatient with, even hostile to, the Americans. To some Chinese, the victorious liberators were beginning to seem like an occupying army. There were clashes, and some American soldiers were killed by Communist troops.

Marshall finally decided to call it quits in early December 1946, but he kept his departure date secret while he took almost a month preparing the valedictory message that he released on the eve of his departure. In it, he described the Chinese Nationalists who had unremittingly opposed his idea of coalition government as a “dominant group of reactionaries” and attacked the Communists for their “unwillingness to make a fair compromise.” According to one of his aides, “Marshall’s farewell ‘a plague on both your houses’ statement has the Chinese vacillating between stunned silence and anguished screams.” Marshall hoped that when Truman named him secretary of state upon his return to Washington—the president had long desired to make this appointment and Marshall had finally agreed—his statement’s impact would be even greater, perhaps sidelining Nationalist hard-liners.

The Nationalists were taken aback when the germ of the Marshall Plan was announced at Harvard’s commencement. One of their supporters in Washington, Congressman Walter Judd, alleged a racist double standard; there should be a Marshall Plan for China too. Marshall gave piecemeal assistance and allowed US arms dumps in China to be taken over by the Nationalists.

As the civil war in China escalated in 1948, Chiang placed his hopes on the widely expected Republican victory in the US presidential election and the friendly messages he received from Thomas Dewey’s campaign. At last, and at least, he would be relieved of the burden of Truman and Marshall. When Truman’s upset win dashed his hopes, he sent his wife to the US to make a last desperate plea to Marshall for increased assistance, but it was not to be. Marshall had, in any case, decided to retire at the start of Truman’s second term, handing his office over to Dean Acheson, though this did not spare him obloquy in the “Who lost China?” furor that overtook the US after the Communists’ unexpected victory in 1949. Even the Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, the leading advocate of bipartisanship in foreign policy, said that such bipartisanship did not apply to China, though he wanted to avoid any criticism of Marshall. Acheson’s decision to release a white paper, United States Relations with China, explaining and justifying administration policy, only added fuel to the fire.

Under pressure, Truman took a fateful step: in order to show his critics that he would resist the spread of communism beyond China, he allocated $10 million in military assistance to the French to fight communism in their colony Vietnam. Marshall warned from the sidelines against being “plunged by political momentary pressures into action that we find later was highly inadvisable.” But by 1954, when the French finally admitted defeat after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, American aid had reached almost $3 billion.

The Marshall mission, from the start, was based on two principles: the US wanted Chiang to continue as leader of China, but it would not involve itself on Chiang’s side in a civil war against the Communists. As Chiang began to lose China, all sorts of suggestions were made for how the US could come to his assistance, some of which would have contradicted the second principle of the Marshall mission. Yet even General Douglas MacArthur, not known for prudence, as Kurtz-Phelan rightly points out, said that anyone advocating sending American ground troops to China “should have his head examined.” Reportedly, Marshall persuaded President Eisenhower to limit US involvement in Vietnam. He died six years before the first 3,500 US marines disembarked at Da Nang in 1965, by which time Vietnam had already become America’s war. Marshall may have failed to short-circuit the Chinese civil war, but he at least prevented China from becoming America’s war.