The Marshall Plan That Ran Aground
The last time generals played so prominent a role in US politics and diplomacy was at the end of the Second World War, when General of the Army George Marshall was possibly the most revered man in America. He was ready to retire to his country home, but President Harry Truman saw him as an irresistible choice to take on the hardest job in post-war foreign affairs: Brokering a peace in China between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. Daniel Kurtz-phelan, editor at Foreign Affairs, reconstructs his year-long mission in exquisite detail, chronicling a tragic failure at intervention by a great statesman on behalf of a nation at a peak of global power. Historians of Us-china relations have studied the episode in depth, but The China Mission is the first telling geared to a wider audience.
Marshall’s complicated, exasperating relationships with Chiang and Mao make a fascinating case study in third-party mediation. His struggle is a cautionary fable of the limits of US influence in Asia, and contrasts with the better-known “miracle” tale of America’s rebuilding of Europe, known simply as the Marshall Plan. As Kurtz-phelan points out, Americans to this day invoke “a Marshall Plan for X” as the cookie-cutter foreign-policy solution to every ill — the most recent example being the notion that North Korea could denuclearize in return for the chance of massive American investment. But with the rise of China to great power status and the retreat of America from global leadership, the Marshall Mission may have greater resonance and hard lessons than the Marshall Plan.
The China Mission: George C. Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947 By Daniel Kurtz-phelan W.W. Norton and Company, 2018, 496 pages, $28.95 (Hardcover)