'The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945–1947'

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan discusses his new book, The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947, a narrative history of a hugely consequential, but largely forgotten episode in the history of the Cold War, American foreign policy, and U.S.-China relations. Kurtz-Phelan brings to life the story of Marshall’s efforts to end the Chinese civil war, build a Chinese democracy, and stop Mao’s revolution—and the wrenching choice that faced American policymakers when the mission failed.

HAASS: Well, good evening one and all. I’m Richard Haass. And I want to welcome everybody to the Council on Foreign Relations and to tonight’s book launch. The book—I’m trying to think what it weighs; considerable, considerable—The China Mission, subtitled George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947. The author, coincidentally enough, happens to be sitting next to me, Dan Kurtz-Phelan.

So I’m going to start with a confession, before I ask Dan his first question. I’m really busy the last few days. One or two things are going on in the world. (Laughter.) And I thought I would basically not cheat—but I thought I’d skim the book enough to do this. (Laughter.) And what happened was, so, you know, I started with the preface, and I got hooked. And I never got the chance to skim the book. I had to read the book. So I’ve got a grudge to—(applause, laughter). It is a gem. It is a gem.

And second confession. As you know, I’m lucky enough to be in the position I’m in. So I normally would think that I’d know something about this subject. So much of this was a surprise. This is one of those interesting pieces of history. And sort of—it’s lost—it’s like the sandwich is down the street. You have two enormous pieces of bread, and what’s in between gets lots. So you had World War II. And then you have the Cold War, Marshall Plan and all that. And this is that filler, that piece of meat in between that gets lost. It’s a really interesting piece of history. So congratulations.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you.

HAASS: This is Dan’s first book. Speaking personally, I hope it’s not his last. He’s also, in his spare time, the executive editor of the leading journal in the world about international relations and things foreign—if I may be permitted a little bit of home-team cheering—Foreign Affairs magazine. So my first question is actually—it comes to that point. Would rather edit somebody else or be edited?

KURTZ-PHELAN: Edit. (Laughter.) There’s no question. There’s no question.


KURTZ-PHELAN: Except for your—except for your work.

HAASS: Yeah. (Laughter.) Nice recovery. Nice recovery. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So let’s start with the preface to the book, which is this remarkable meeting between two of the great figures of the mid-20th century. One is the subject of the book. The other is this gentleman, or not, Mao Zedong. So talk a little bit about that, because it’s important because in many ways it sets or tees-up what is to come.

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right. So to go back to your point about how surprising it is, I think to even many of us who are foreign policy nerds, and spend a lot of time thinking about the history of American foreign policy—I won’t speak about—I won’t call you a nerd, but I’m a foreign policy nerd.

HAASS: Yeah, thank you. Your second good recovery. There you go. (Laughter.)

KURTZ-PHELAN: It’s kind of shocking to look back at this moment in time just after World War II, just as Cold War dynamics are really starting to take shape, and people are starting to take stock of what this world means, and realize that there is this moment when these two kind of major figures of the early Cold War—much of the Cold War, who were on either side of that divide, could be sitting in Yan’an, the Communist revolutionary headquarters, Marshall and Mao, and taking about this future of U.S.-China friendship and peace and democracy.

So you do have this moment in time—this is March 5th, 1946, which is a date we can come back to because it’s important for other reasons—when Marshall is—has been in China for a few months on this mission. He has been trying to broker a peace between the Communists and the nationalists, who have been fighting a civil war on and off for 20 years. He’s been trying to lay the groundwork for a U.S. allied Chinese democracy. And there is this moment early on where it all seems to be working. And Marshall is on what is almost a victory tour around China that culminates in this moment when he goes to see Mao and they talk about this very, very different future.

Something else is happening that same day. Winston Churchill is in Fulton, Missouri giving a speech about the Iron Curtain. And that becomes one of these moments that marks really the start of the Cold War, when those dynamics start to become—really define the shape of—the shape of the world. But there is this moment when Marshall kind of sees this other future.

HAASS: At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, when Marshall and Mao had this conversation—which was remarkably cordial, almost—well, given what happened in history, quite stunning in its optimism—do you think it was one of those conversations where if it were in a magazine you’d have what they’re saying and then the little bubbles behind their heads with what they were thinking? (Laughter.) Or do you actually think there was a high level of sincerity on both sides?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So there was not exactly sincerity, but this is—again, it’s easy to look back at this period and see the world going immediately from World War II into the Cold War. But there is this period when all sides are trying to figure out what this world means. And Stalin is in Moscow, very, very skeptical about the prospects of revolution in China, telling Mao he has to behave. The Americans are telling the nationalists and Chiang Kai-shek that he has to find a way to bring the Communists into his government.

And at this—at this moment, when this kind of one world vision that had really sustained the United States through the war still seems like it might plausibly survive into the post-war, the dynamics really are forcing all these sides into negotiation. And those dynamics start to change. And that’s part of what the rest of this story is all about. But in that moment, all sides do have an incentive to try to cooperate, try to pursue their differences through kind of political means. And they’re not—that’s not what Mao wants to do, but he sees that as the best option at that time.

HAASS: OK, so—why don’t you describe then—so Truman—and here’s Marshall, by the way, steps down from his extraordinary wartime role, and is looking forward to nothing so much as retirement. (Laughter.) Which by the way is a recurring—every time the telephone rings I begin to feel sorry for the guy, because all he wants to do is take it easy and ride horses and garden. And it’s Truman, yet again, saying: Saddle up one more time, General. Your country needs you. And the only thing he says is: Yes, sir.


HAASS: So talk a little bit about the charge he was given by Truman, why Truman turned to him? Just—which is essentially the story of the book. Talk a little bit about the mission handed to Marshall.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. So just to set the stage with Marshall. You know, I think most of us in a place like this remember him for his service in World War II. He was the Army chief of staff. Or, for the Marshall Plan, and his service as secretary of state and secretary of defense. At the moment when this book begins, in November 1945, Marshall is just retiring from almost 50 years in the Army. He’s been Army chief of staff for six years. That started the morning that Hitler invaded Poland. So he’s had a kind of stressful six years. He’s one of the most acclaimed figures in the world, really. And you kind of read these accounts of what Churchill, and Truman, and others were saying about him, and they kind of go into almost kind of giddy raptures when speaking about this figure. There’s a draft Marshall movement, trying to get him to run for president. He’s on, you know, the—he’s Time Magazine’s man of the year, at a time when that was a really important thing in American culture. And—

HAASS: Don’t go there, anybody. (Laughter.)

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. And he—not that it isn’t now. He—but Marshall’s had this rough six years, and he’s ready to retire. So he has a retirement ceremony in the courtyard of the Pentagon, which is a—basically a brand-new building at the time.

HAASS: It’s before they called it ground zero.

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right. And he’s driving out of Washington with his wife, Katherine, on a kind of nice fall afternoon. Walks through the door of his house in Leesburg, about an hour outside of Washington. And the phone rings within minutes. And it’s Truman on the phone. And Truman says: I’m really sorry, General, but I have one last little favor to ask you before you retire. (Laughter.) And Katherine—you know, Marshall is this kind of stoic character, which this kind of sense of duty that will not allow him to say no.

But, you know, Katherine, his wife, knows this and says—is furious at Truman, because she has, you know, been planning their vacations and had this whole retirement planned. But for Truman, who does feel bad—you kind of see these transcripts of meeting where feels really guilty about calling on Marshall after the war—looks at China and has—sees it as this gigantic problem that not only represents great risks for China itself, but really threatens to undermine his whole vision of post-World War II order. China is supposed to be a great power, one of the kind of pillars of peace in the post war. Because of the United States, it’s been one of the first signatories of the—to the United Nations. And it, along with the Americans, and the British, and the Soviets, the Chinese are really supposed to uphold this new order and kind of keep the peace.

The problem is that China at this point looks more like a failed state than a modern great power. It’s been totally decimated by Japanese occupation. There is a central government led by Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists, but the Communists and Mao are really threatening that central government for control in the post war. And Truman looks at this and says: If I can’t figure this out, the whole vision that I have for the post-war world is going to start coming apart.

So he goes to Marshall and says: I want you to go for a couple of months, broker a peace between these two parties, lay the groundwork for that Chinese democracy. And then, a couple months later, you can come back and start your retirement. And instead, it is what leads Marshall to become secretary of state, to the—you know, the Marshall Plan, secretary of defense during the Korean War. It’s about six years before he retires in the end, to his wife’s fury and dismay. But, that’s who he is. (Laughter.)

HAASS: OK. So he was given the charge of essentially avoiding a civil war, but also avoiding a Communist takeover, because it was assumed at this point that if the Communists were to win, all the Communists were aligned. So this would be, you know, a mass—

KURTZ-PHELAN: A victory for Stalin.

HAASS: OK, a victory for Stalin. Was there—what were they—do you think, you’ve been through this now carefully. I’m curious what—in your reading of the people—Marshall, Truman, and the others—what chance did they think he would—that he would succeed? To what extent did they know this was a fool’s errand? And to what extent did they actually think there was a chance he could pull it off?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So Marshall is a pretty hard-headed guy and has not set this goal for himself, and understands that it’s going to be hard. But this had been a kind of central tenet of U.S. foreign policy really through World War II. We’d kind of seen the Communists and nationalists fighting on one side against the Japanese, and figured that there must be some way, with the right application of carrots and sticks, to keep them together in one government. And Truman—you know, you kind of read Truman’s statements about the task, and he says: Look, I don’t—I don’t know that much about what’s going on in China. I just want someone to solve it. And Marshall is the guy who can solve it, as he sees it.

HAASS: Yeah, I mean, the only background I had specifically on this was, if you will, the prequel to your book, which was Barbara Tuchman’s also wonderful book at Stilwell and his experience during World War II. And it was an even thicker book, essentially of unremitting frustration, anger, just bitterness by Stilwell who, first of all, felt he’d been sidelined from the war a bit, and second of all the dealings with Chiang Kai-shek, who has got to be on anybody’s shortlist of infuriating people for senior Americans to deal with.


HAASS: So after all that, why did Americans hold out any optimism that Marshall could pull this off?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So looking at the central government led by Chiang Kai-shek, he is this Christian convert. He has this very, very compelling wife who had gone to Wellesley, had spent time in the American South, had what people called a Scarlett O’Hara accent. She would come to the United States and give these speeches at Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, and 30,000 people would attend, talking about the new China they were building. You have to kind of an amazing extent, as you read back through the accounts of this period, these figures around them who have Ph.Ds. from Harvard or who are trained by missionaries. And so Americans go and look at these figures, and there is a sense of familiarity. It looks like the kind of—when we have an image of a modern leader, they really seemed to inhabit that.

So people on all sides of the political spectrum here look at this government and look at the amount of territory it controls. It is armed by both the Americans and the Soviets, fighting a kind of guerilla army. And you can understand why, in that moment, it looks like this is where—this is who will really have the ability to take back China. Now, there’s also an international dynamic that seems to suggest that a coalition is possible. Stalin does not think Mao can win. And so says to the Communists: Look, you really have to treat Marshall like he’s a representative of the international community. So there’s this moment in, you know, the end of 1945 and 1946 when all of the outside powers seem to be pressing for the same thing. And so once that comes across, it seems very obvious that this can never hold together. But when you have the great powers on the outside telling their respective clients, or the forces they’re supporting, to play along, there’s reason to think it could—it could work.

HAASS: So that was clearly the working definition of success. But there were two other potential working definitions of success, even if they weren’t articulated. One was division. And there’s not much in the book about division. Was that ever seriously on the table?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So the principle for the post war was the creation of a strong, united, and democratic China. That was the charge that Truman gave—

HAASS: The first One China policy.

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right. And there—that was very—that was very central to the way the United States thought about it. And part of the reason was because when we looked at the prospect of a divided China, at this point Vietnam is dividing, Korea is dividing, given the scale of the country and the scale of the potential war there, that was seen as easy prey for Soviet influence. So in order to forestall Soviet domination, we thought there had to be a United China.

HAASS: And was there any serious thought given to a united China, but one dominated by the nationalists, where they essentially would win the civil war?

KURTZ-PHELAN: That was the vision at this point.

HAASS: Even more than coalition that the vision?

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right.

HAASS: OK. And people thought that was militarily—so that was—and that was that they exaggerated what the nationalists could do, or they totally underestimated the resilience and capability of the Communists?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So it was a bit of both. And you had, even before this book starts during the Stilwell era, and kind of growing debate within U.S. policy circles about which side was stronger. But you read accounts from kind of senior military officials at the time who say: Look, they’ve got modern weapons. We’ve been arming them. They have three times as many troops as the Communists. They can win. Then you have a smaller set of figures who see things a different way.

HAASS: So let’s talk about Marshall for a second. I mean, it’s hard not to think they ought to expand Mount Rushmore and some—he was extraordinary. I guess the question I want to ask you is a bit unfair. Did he have any flaws? I mean, is he really on the short list of the most extraordinary men this country’s ever been fortunate enough to produce? I mean, he wasn’t a founding father, but you read the book and you sense he’s right up there.

KURTZ-PHELAN: So one thing that was surprising to me in digging into this story is how much the image of Marshall we have now, but I think also that people at the time had of him, was constructed by him for his own ends, really. He was—he was known as this great stoic. That is kind of the character that has come to us through history. And there’s a lot of truth to that. But that was not how he had been through the entirety of his life. There’s a line I love from an officer who knew him. Marshall, the officer said, is the greatest actor in the Army. Everyone thinks Douglas MacArthur is. But the difference with Marshall is you never know he’s acting. MacArthur is this—(laughter)—you know, narcissistic and blustering and kind of theatrical character. And Marshall is stoic and contained and reserved and has this incredible discipline.

But the officer was right that that was really something that Marshall had gone out of his way to construct. And you kind of see these kind of affectations that he’s taken on. He refuses to use first names. He tells FDR not to call him George because he doesn’t want kind of undue familiarity between a military advisor and commander in chief. He would say to people: I have no feelings except for those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall—(laughter)—which really kind of indicated his approach to the people around him when he was in the military and afterwards.

But going back a bit earlier in his life, he had been—had a very slow-rising career in the military until he was in his mid-30s. And he had this kind of terrible temper and smoked constantly, cursed all the time. He was—he was advancing so slowly in his career that he was considering leaving the Army, which is kind of amazing when you consider where he got to. But he ultimately had these two nervous breakdowns when he was in this mid-30s. He’s hospitalized for nervous exhaustion because he drives himself so hard. And it’s then that he starts to construct this different persona that comes the thing that people know about him. And in some ways, this story—you know, he’s the embodiment of American strength and ambition and heroic leadership. But this is the case where he fails to—you know, to give away the end of the book—he fails to achieve what he’s supposed to achieve and takes away a kind of different set of lessons.

HAASS: Well, I was going to save that for later, but let’s go to that. You basically describe Marshall’s charge, it was to guarantee China’s unity, secure Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, and at the same time encourage enough reform and compromise to undercut the force of revolution and avert a civil war. Not so good.

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right.

HAASS: I mean, virtually all of the—other than having a united China. And even that, not quite, with Taiwan.


HAASS: Let’s talk about Chiang Kai-shek. You write here: No matter how badly Washington wanted to support Chiang, no matter how big a stake in ensuring his survival and advancing Communist advances, it could help only insofar as Chiang and those around him were willing and able to help themselves. Otherwise, all the money and weapons and advice in the world would be for naught. In that sense, it was Stilwell-like. That basically, whether it was the corruption or the—or what? What was it about Chiang that make him so resistant to even—I mean, you read it at times, you go, wow, it’s so clearly not in his own self-interest what he’s doing. What’s your sense of what made the man tick?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So Marshall had a much more kind of complex take the nationalists, generally, and Chiang Kai-shek especially than Stilwell did. Stilwell just had total distain for him, borne really of kind of disputes about power and authority. It was kind of personal as much as it was political or strategic. Marshall really saw him as a sort of tragic figure. He saw him as someone who really had done a lot to make China strong again, to unify China after, you know, kind of dissolution of the early part of the 20th century. He saw him as someone who had the capability, or the potential, at least, to be a real-world figure who could achieve what the Americans wanted him to achieve, but who could never quite deal with the corruption around him, establish a model of local governance that would address economic collapse and political problems around China.

And so you see Marshall, you know, after the kind of early moments of this—of this story, things seem to be going better than he ever imagined. But as it comes apart, you see him kind of banging him head against the wall, trying to persuade nationalist leaders that there is a wiser path, as he sees it, both militarily and politically. But ultimately, the kind of political calculations that many of these figures have to make prevent them from doing what Marshall thinks they should do.

HAASS: One of the interesting parts, towards the middle and end of the book, is obviously how all of this feeds into the who lost China debate, McCarthyism, and the like. Let me ask that question from a slightly different angle. If one were simply going to critique U.S. policy in these years, were there things that Marshall could and should have differently that you believe could have had a fundamentally different outcome?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So once the kind of structural factors start to change, once the Cold War begins, it becomes very hard for anything he can do tactically on this mission to defy those forces which are undermining a peace deal. The kind of important thing is what happens as he starts to recognize the change. And he becomes—you know, you start to have a debate by the end of 1946 about what the U.S. should do about the potential of a Communist victory in China.

And you see a lot of proposals that look like Vietnam in 1961 or 1962. Send 10,000 advisors into combat. Some proposals to put Douglas MacArthur in charge of nationalist armies at one point. And Marshall becomes a skeptic of a lot of those proposals. He’s, as secretary of state, one of the key figures who advises Truman not to take the kinds of half-measures that, as he sees it, will lead to a major intervention that’s going to be very costly and unlikely to work. So it’s, in some ways, about what Marshall takes away from the mistakes earlier in the story.

HAASS: You write what I thought was a very interesting and relevant assessment of the lesson to be learned from America’s failure here. Again, I’ll quote it, “The China mission cuts against the conception of American power that Marshall and his era have been taken to represent. It is a story not of possibility and ambition, but of limit and restraint. Not of a victory achieved at any cost, but of a kind of failure ultimately accepted as the best of terrible options. Perhaps not surprisingly, the common understanding of Marshall and his accomplishments has tended to leave out his time in China altogether.” Which may explain, by the way, why we know so little of it. But let’s come back to the first part of what you wrote about the limits of American power. And it kind of dovetails a bit with what you were just saying. To what extent was—you have the advantage of, what, 70 years now of—70-plus years of hindsight. Talk about whether Marshall and Truman and others came away with. Because it’s not obvious—when you look, among other things, the decision to go north of the 38th parallel and so forth—it’s not obvious that they took that lesson away about the limits to influence and power. But am I missing something here?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So I think when we—because of the—you know, this is the era of the greatest generation and the wise men, and it’s probably the most kind of mythologized time in the history of American foreign policy. And we look at the kind of models of American leadership that were developed. We look at the Marshall Plan, the episodes of kind of ambition and strength that have become very famous, for good reason, the stories we tell about American foreign policy. When you look at Marshall right after this mission, he leaves in January 1947 and immediately becomes secretary of state and looks out at a world where the sense of the Soviet threat is kind of arising everywhere, where societies are collapsing in Western Europe.

And he sees huge demand for American resources and troops and diplomacy, and really limited resources at home. We’ve just fought this war. The economy is contracting. There are shortages of goods here and, you know, Americans really do want to kind of bring the boys home after World War II. Marshall looks at the resources we have on hand to meet the challenges, and the extent of challenges in the world, and decides that we have to be very, very prudent about where those resources are invested. And that’s when he looks at Western Europe and China and decides that Western Europe is the place where those resources are likely to do the most good. And there is a very—you know, I was kind of almost struck, when you go back and read through these—the meetings at the time, you look at the kind of White House transcripts from that era, there was this very conscious sense that given resources, given the scale of challenges, there was a choice at hand.

HAASS: Last question from me, then we’ll open it up. So you have this phase. Then you basically—the United States and China go through 20 years of being adversaries. Then you have the breakthrough under Nixon and Kissinger. And you have it—then the next 20 years, when the United States and China agree on something, which is animosity towards the Soviet Union. And now it’s, what, for the last 25-30 years, we’re essentially trying to find our way to a relationship. Is there anything about all this that leaves you either optimistic or just the opposite, pessimistic, about the United States and China, just given the political cultures, the history, how they—how they deal with each other? It’s almost as if, if Marshall were around today, what his take would be on China and U.S.-Chinese relations.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. I mean, so kind of a remarkable historical echo. You know, Marshall travels to meet Mao. And they have this, you know, 24 hours of discussion about the peaceful future and the friendship.

HAASS: This is Yan’an meeting?

KURTZ-PHELAN: This is the meeting in March 1946. Mao does not have another meeting with a kind of senior American official until Nixon shows up 25 years later, despite all the kind of great promises he’d made that day. We’re at a moment of kind of collective dismay once again about the kind of failure of China to conform to our expectations. And that’s not a cycle that goes back just to even the opening to China in the 1970s, but really you see Marshall kind of living it, and living that pattern in this mission, where he starts with a kind of, you know, projection of American expectations, and hopes, and desires onto Chinese reality. Gives up those hopes and desires very, very reluctantly over time, even as their realities start to defy it.

And then the aftermath, once those hopes fall apart, is this—really kind of the ugliest moment in American politics that I’ve read about, that makes the present seem relatively benign. The who lost China debate after Mao wins leads to McCarthyism. Marshall, who is this kind of incredible figure who has done so much both in uniform and out, is called and a traitor and a living lie on the floor of the U.S. Congress. And the force of that is so powerful that even Eisenhower, who was really created by Marshall, was kind of picked out of the ranks and made D-Day commander—

HAASS: In part because Marshall essentially had to step aside in order to continue to counsel FDR.

HAASS: That’s right. That’s right. So Eisenhower, who’s kind of this protégé of Marshall’s, who looks at Marshall as a father, is campaigning for president in 1952, and appears in Wisconsin with Joseph McCarthy and plans to defend Marshall, but the politics are such that he ends up talking about the opiate of deceit that led to the loss of China and says nothing about McCarthy. And you kind of look at that moment of betrayal, and it looks—makes our politics today look sort of honorable by comparison. (Laughter.)

But that’s all to say, you know—

HAASS: I think we should all start reading a little bit more about that period of history.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Exactly. (Laughter.) But it does not make you—you know, as we enter a new kind of who lost China debate, it does not make you particularly sanguine about how that turns out.

HAASS: OK. Let me open it up to you all, to your questions. Again, remember, this is on the record. Raise your hand, wait for a microphone, keep it short, identify yourself. Wow, look what you’ve done here. OK, well, the gentleman—those who stand get asked first because you’re burning up more calories.

Q: Hi. Scott Malcomson.

HAASS: Oh, Scott, it’s you. Sorry.

Q: Richard, you mentioned unremitting frustration. And I was writing a book at the same time Dan was in the Allen Room at the public library. And he was a picture of unremitting frustration for a number of years. So it’s just thrilling to see this book out. Question, I doubt you have a Chinese publisher. I hope you get a Chinese publisher. Some people in China will read it. What do you—how would you want a Chinese—say, a Chinese official today to read your book and to take away from it? What would you want them to learn from reading it?

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. So I think it’s—there’s enough about Mao in here that does not reflect that well on him that it’s extremely unlikely that it would be translated, on the mainland at least. You know, to me, this is a period that for a long time was—American policy in this period for a long time in China was seen as kind of hostile and unrelentingly aggressively and meant to kind of be the next stage in imperialist dismantling of the Chinese nation. And seeing this moment, that didn’t obviously work out the way Americans intended and that led to something very different, but where there really was this vision of a kind of strong, united China, that carried through both World War II and the immediate post-war period. And I think that cuts against the mythology both here and in China. And I hope that’s the way it would be read.

HAASS: Sure. You and Mr. Laurenti can arm wrestle.

Q: OK. Peter Bernstein.

I just—this may be beyond the scope of your book, which I haven’t had a chance to read, but what Chinese sources are available about this period? And it—what do they reflect? And did you consult them?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So I did—there’s a certain amount that has come out from really all sides of this. You know, the kind of core of my story is what Marshall was thinking and doing and saying. And so the sources are really about Marshall and the people around him. But what you see, from both the nationalist and Communist side, is an effort to play Marshall all the way through. And Marshall is, you know, aware of that, to different degrees, along the way. But you see very intensive debates both before he arrives and while he’s there about how exactly they should manage Marshall. And that really leads to kind of different policies along the way.

At the beginning, they’re both trying to show Marshall that—both sides, the Communists and nationalists—are trying to show Marshall that they really do want peace and they’re going to negotiate sincerely and are really committed to everything he’s trying to get them to do. As time goes on, that starts to shift, and they have different objectives. And so, you know, you read Marshall—accounts from Marshall and people around him, and he’s kind of confused about changing policies. But throughout, both the nationalists and Communists are really trying to use him to their own ends.


Q: Hi. Coe Yangtang (ph). Here I am.

The question is this: You said the basic mission was to have a strong, unified, democratic China, under KMT, I guess. So what’s—by going to Mao, what is he offering Mao for him to play in this game? You know, what are the carrots?

KURTZ-PHELAN: Right, right. So the vision is of a government—a coalition government that brings in—brings in both sides, at first. And that means that there is a kind of basic tradeoff that Marshall is trying to broker. On the one hand the KMT, the nationalists, will allow Communists into the government. On the other hand, the nationalists will give up their independent army. So Marshall is trying to choreograph this very, very complicated deal where there’s a government that brings in some of the key figures around Mao. So you have, you know, in this kind of amazing moment, Zhou Enlai talking about which ministry he should have under Chiang.

And there’d been a long history of this. There had been, you know, united fronts in the past. So this is not entirely unfamiliar. But the deal for Mao was you get to come into government. You, in exchange, lay down your weapons. And your armies become part of a national Chinese army. And in exchange for all this, the U.S. is going to deliver a gigantic assistance package and lots of advisors. And you see, you know, almost a Marshall Plan for China that Marshall is trying to put together at this time. And that’s what’s supposed to cement this new government.

HAASS: But wasn’t the other part of it a stick? The United States was providing an awful lot of hardware to the nationalists. So basically, part of it was a message to Mao, but if you hang tough you run the risk of losing everything.

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right. Right. And people could look at the military balance and say: You’re going to lose if you don’t—if you don’t come on board.


KURTZ-PHELAN: Guillermo Christensen, former CIA, fellow at the Council here.

What kinds of information was Marshall tapping when he was there trying to get a better sense of the picture was dealing with? And then also, how was he communicating back to Washington? These days he would have been on a phone 24 hours explaining what he was doing, do.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. I mean, to start with the second point, it’s kind of amazing knowing how foreign policy and diplomacy works today when you see just how much Marshall was doing on his own. So he, you know, flies over with a few aides. He has a small embassy staff there. He has, you know, some intelligence resources and some military officers around. But really, so much of what he’s doing is just kind of—he’s working with his aides, sitting in this house in Xuancheng (ph) and then Nanjing. And compared to the way, you know, the State Department works today, it’s almost amazing how much if it is just kind of Marshall operating on his own. He’s radioing back and forth to Truman and Acheson, principally. But it’s really, you know, the occasional telegram, the occasional memo going back and forth. But it’s not, you know, daily community like you would have now.

He spends a lot of time consulting a very wide range of people when he first gets there. So he has—you know, when you look at his schedule, just kind of 12-hour days of meetings with Communist officials, nationalist officials, and then the U.S. embassy staff and military officers there. But he also kind of—there’s this kind of amazing array of Americans in China at that point—journalists, you know, some of whom become very, very famous later, from Teddy White to John Hersey, to others.

Professors who had been there, John Fairbank, a Columbia professor whose name I’m forgetting, who had been there during the war doing various things. Missionaries who had lived their whole lives there, including one named John Leighton Stuart, who’s been there for 50 years, who he makes ambassador. So you have this incredible array of Americans who are really steeped in a lot of these problems, and in some cases have made it their life’s work to try to help this kind of China. And Marshall spends weeks consulting with them and sees them constantly throughout the 13 months of the mission.

HAASS: Jeffrey.

Q: Jeff Laurenti.

In the immediate post-war period, what were the openings for either reform elements of the Kuomintang—if there were any still—or of what we now call civil society in Chinese cities, for a so-called third way to create pressure on both of the major parties? And was there any diversity within the Chinese Communist side at this point, diversity of views in their inner counsels, or was this even from the state a contest between two megalomaniacal personalities and the rest of Chinese society could not influence one or the other?

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. It’s a really interesting question, because you have these really heated debates in both sides about what the best course in the post war is. And so you have figures, especially among the nationalists who advocate a much more kind of reformist liberal course. You have other parties at the time who gradually get kind of picked off or co-opted by one side or the other, but who are advocating various kinds of progressive or liberal solutions that fit with the visions of neither the Communists or the nationalists. On the Communist side, you know, Mao has much—in some ways, much tighter control over the ranks than is true on the other side.

But there is a debate among the senior—the senior Communist leadership in Yan’an with kind of Zhou Enlai and Mao and some of the key other figures really wondering about what the best path is. And at this moment, when Mao decides that diplomacy and at this moment when Mao decides that diplomacy and negotiation is the way to go, you see him sending these directives to his followers around China, telling them that the political path is the way forward. And that is true for this moment, but as things start to come apart and the Cold War starts to take shape, and some of the agreements prove a little bit harder to really deliver on in detail than seemed true when they were just transpiring at a negotiating table, the hardline elements really kind of come to the surface again. And that’s what takes you into the rest of the civil war.

HAASS: Maybe some diversity. Yes, ma’am.

Q: Isadora Tang. I’m a CFR alum of 10 years ago.

Question for you about lessons learned for the current context. What would you say the key lessons learned from this episode are for our current landscape of foreign affairs? Second question—

HAASS: Let’s do one. I’m sorry, because we got 20 other people have their hands up.

Q: It’s just a really quick question. So if there were a Hamilton-esque musical made of this—(laughter)—who would play Marshall?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So, in the movie, Tommy Lee Jones would definitely play Marshall, because he has the kind of craggy look. (Laughter.) I don’t know about the musical, but we can cast that later.

HAASS: He was Al Gore’s roommate. Did you know that?

KURTZ-PHELAN: I did know that, actually.

HAASS: Sorry. (Laughs.)

KURTZ-PHELAN: But he has the kind of craggy look that Marshall deserves. The lessons—I mean, there are sort of—I see as kind of echoes or resonance rather than key lessons. And Marshall is someone who studied history very carefully, but really resisted the kind of easy resort to analogues that he saw from some people around him. But the echoes that I see—you know, one is remembering that at this time that we think of kind of golden age of American foreign policy in some ways, the restraint and the ambition really went together. And there was a really wrenching choice that policymakers had to make. And we, I think, tend to focus more on one side of that than the other. Also, the kind of story of wishful thinking about China specifically, but also more broadly. You kind of see this moment when even Marshall, who was a hard-headed character, get swept up in this kind of, you know, evangelical fervor for democracy. And that is given up very, very reluctantly. And the process of giving that up proves to have kind of consequences of its own.

HAASS: When things started going badly, and it became increasingly clear the Communists were gaining the upper hand, was there a serious debate that Marshall participated in about the United States doing 2X or 3X to basically find ways of something really large to do to change things?

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. And he sent General Albert Wedemeyer, who had been one of his aides during the war, had then been—still a successor in China, and became this kind of key figure in McCarthyism later, in ways that are totally infuriating when you read what Wedemeyer’s saying at the time and what he says he was saying, you know, 10 years later. But leaving that aside for the moment, Marshall sent him in ’47 as the kind of Marshall Plan is being worked out, but they’re looking at what to do about both Western Europe and China. And Wedemeyer puts together a proposal for military aide and a large financial assistance package. And it’s—that’s really the moment when Marshall and others around him kind of weigh these two—these two packages and look at what is going to cost and what the risks and are and what the American commitments would be and make a choice.

HAASS: We have time for—oh, John (sp), OK, we’ll do here.

Q: Hi, there.

HAASS: Wait for a microphone.

Q: John (sp)—(inaudible).

You sort of alluded, but I didn’t quite get it, whether Mao Zedong initially was open to these ideas. Could you say something more about what Mao Zedong’s idea of this discussion was about at the start and how it changed?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So, yeah, absolutely. So Mao did not—this was not Mao’s—negotiation was not Mao’s preferred course. But Stalin is telling Mao: You’re not going to win. We really need you to—

HAASS: Can I say, it’s really bad when in a conversation when Stalin’s the moderate? (Laughter.)

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right.

HAASS: That’s a—just as a—just as a historical aside.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Right, right.

HAASS: OK. I just want to point that out. (Laughs.)

KURTZ-PHELAN: And this becomes a source of great—you know, this is kind of in some ways where the Sino-Soviet split starts. Mao says: You never believed in me. You never—you know, if I’d followed your advice, I’d be dead. Which is probably true, if Mao had followed Stalin’s advice. But because of that pressure and because of the way the forces seem arrayed, there is this moment when Mao thinks this might be the only option. What is quite interesting is that he kind of withdraws from the scene and lets others kind of carry water through this period, so he never has to take the blame for it going wrong. But in this period, he is telling people that this is probably how things are going to go for a while.

HAASS: We got time for one last question. OK.

Q: Thanks. Richard Feinberg.

Dan, sounds like a really thrilling book. Look forward to reading it. You emphasized, in Truman’s thinking, the geopolitics. Could you tell us more about domestic political motives in the decision to try to send Marshall? And then perhaps the fallout in domestic politics.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. So, I mean, we think of McCarthyism as really kind of flowering in the ’50s, but there is this moment event during World War II where there is—there are accusations of communist influence in the State Department, some of which is true, but in the case of China is by and large no true. So there is an incident in the latter years of the war, when Patrick Hurley, who had been a predecessor of Marshall, who’s kind a very, very colorful Oklahoman—wealthy Oklahoman who would kind of fly around China giving Choctaw war whoops when he met with Communist leaders. Hurley had failed to broker a peace as well and had at one point accused the young China hands in the State Department of sabotaging him because they were Communist sympathizers.

So you get the kind of first signs of what we now think of as McCarthyism in the U.S. during this period. And kind of ominously, Hurley’s charges are the first thing that the House Un-American Activities starts to investigate with regard to Communism. It had been created to ferret out Nazis, but this is the first moment when they start to look at Communists as well. And that becomes very, very central to the McCarthyist reaction years later. And in terms of the kind of consequences going forward, you know, the weight of the who lost China debate was really one of the kind of central pressures in American politics, and very central to the way American policymakers thought about intervention abroad and foreign policy challenges through—really through the Cold War.

You know, most importantly during the Vietnam debates, when LBJ would say things like—with apologies for the language, but it’s LBJ so it can’t be avoided—he’d say: What happened to those guys is going to be chickenshit compared to what happens to us if we lose Vietnam. So even in these moments when he’s skeptical about the value of escalation, he kind of remembers the political backlash and the cost to Truman, and Marshall, and Acheson and others, and decides there’s kind of no other way to go. And you see it even in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s article in the late ’70s, early ’80s, kind of making the case for interventions. The loss of China is still invoked as this kind of reasons to intervene elsewhere.

HAASS: We also sidelined an entire generation of China hands. And the Vietnam debate not only took place in the psychological and political context, but it took place without the expertise, the John Stewart Service’s and others. So we were approaching this without them.

OK, so I got two last questions. One is, this is your first book, what’s your next one?

KURTZ-PHELAN: So I—(laughs)—you know, I’m going to be editing Foreign Affairs for a little while and not writing. (Laughter.) But I’m interested in kind of other moments—you know, skipping forward a bit—when there were other intervention debates going on. And the kind of ’70s, another kind of unsettled time, is where I’m most intrigued at the moment.

HAASS: I’ll look forward to it. Most important, I see Gideon Rose there, what are the chance this book gets reviewed in Foreign Affairs, and favorably reviewed, more important. What do we think?

KURTZ-PHELAN: I have no say over it. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Again—

Q: He’s already gotten the Council.

HAASS: (Laughs.) The China Mission, by Dan Kurtz-Phelan. It really is a great read. And let me say one other thing, because I’m going to brag a little bit on the Council. It is the third major historical work we have—that people associated with the Council have come out with in the last few months. We have Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken, about Ed Lansdale—Edward Lansdale, and his whole frustrating experience in Vietnam. I see Max Boot here. The Marshall Plan. And now we have Dan’s book. Three extraordinary books about—all have great writing, great important moments in history, and all have significant policy relevance. Congratulations.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you so much. (Applause.)

HAASS: Oh, what? Oh, books for sale. I’m sorry, books for sale. Author here happy to sign. Hamburgers to eat. (Laughs.)


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