The China Mission

George Marshall's Unfinished War, 1945–1947

A spellbinding narrative of the high-stakes mission that changed the course of America, China, and global politics—and a rich portrait of the towering, complex figure who carried it out.

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Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

As World War II came to an end, General George Marshall was renowned as the architect of Allied victory. Set to retire, he instead accepted what he thought was a final mission—this time not to win a war, but to stop one. Across the Pacific, conflict between Chinese Nationalists and Communists threatened to suck in the United States and escalate into revolution. His assignment was to broker a peace, build a Chinese democracy, and prevent a Communist takeover, all while staving off World War III.

In his thirteen months in China, Marshall journeyed across battle-scarred landscapes, grappled with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and plotted and argued with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his brilliant wife, often over card games or cocktails. The results at first seemed miraculous. But as they started to come apart, Marshall was faced with a wrenching choice. Its consequences would define the rest of his career, as the secretary of state who launched the Marshall Plan and set the standard for American leadership, and the shape of the Cold War and the U.S.-China relationship for decades to come. It would also help spark one of the darkest turns in American civic life, as Marshall and the mission became a first prominent target of McCarthyism, and the question of “who lost China” roiled American politics.

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The China Mission traces this neglected turning point and forgotten interlude in a heroic career—a story of not just diplomatic wrangling and guerrilla warfare, but also intricate spycraft and charismatic personalities. Drawing on eyewitness accounts both personal and official, it offers a richly detailed, gripping, close-up, and often surprising view of the central figures of the time—from Marshall, Mao, and Chiang to Eisenhower, Truman, and MacArthur—as they stood face-to-face and struggled to make history, with consequences and lessons that echo today.

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Reviews and Endorsements

America has always sought to convert rather than understand China, whether to Christianity or capitalism. In this brilliant historical study, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan focuses on the pivotal moment of misunderstanding between these two very different countries. As a bonus, he provides a beautifully written portrait of George Marshall, a statesman of such integrity that he seems as far removed from Washington, DC, today as would an ancient Roman.

Fareed Zakaria, CNN Host; Author, The Post-American World

The China Mission has much to teach us about both the past and future of American leadership—and about what individual leadership means in the face of hard choices. I have rarely read such a vivid account of how diplomacy really works.

Madeleine Albright, Former Secretary of State

In gripping, crystalline detail, Kurtz-Phelan has given us a vital new chapter on American statecraft. The lessons from what he calls the ‘unsettled world’ of the early Cold War are urgently relevant today. The China Mission will be read for years to come as a window on the origins of American power—and the limits of its reach.

Evan Osnos, Staff Writer, New Yorker; Author, Age of Ambition

The best character study of Marshall I’ve yet seen. He comes alive here as in nothing else that’s been written about him. A major achievement.

John Lewis Gaddis, Author, George F. Kennan; Professor of History, Yale University

Was America’s greatest statesman to blame for America’s greatest diplomatic failure? In this wonderfully written book, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan sheds a bright light on a crucial but dimly understood chapter in U.S. foreign policy. His portrait of Marshall is a model of empathetic but clear-eyed biography.

Evan Thomas, Author, Ike’s Bluff; Coauthor, The Wise Men

An outstanding book on a very important subject: how to use American power judiciously and effectively in a rapidly changing world.

Odd Arne Westad, S. T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations, Harvard University

Kurtz-Phelan has written a marvelous narrative about General George Marshall’s valiant effort to bring Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong together at the end of World War Two and head off a civil war and a Communist takeover of China. But apart from the engrossing China saga, what makes this book so absorbing—and sometimes even touching—is that it draws the reader into the life of a truly great American, reminding us of a different time in America’s odyssey when a sense of modesty, service to mankind, and duty to country were enthroned and esteemed.

Orville Schell, Author of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century and Director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations

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