The Lessons From George Marshall's Postwar Mission to China

In 1945, U.S. General George Marshall went to China to end the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists and install a democratic government in the country. The story of how he failed, told by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in The China Mission: George Marshall's Unfinished War, 1945-1947, set the stage for U.S.-China relations in the decades that followed.

Appearing in conversation at Asia Society with Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Kurtz-Phelan, the editor of Foreign Affairs, said that even Soviet leader Joseph Stalin believed that the retired general's mission would result in extended stability and democratic governance in China.

"[Stalin] sees Marshall as so commanding and this vision as so persuasive that he tells Mao that he has to cooperate,” Kurtz-Phelan said. "Mao and Marshall meet in Ya'an to talk about this peaceful future. They discuss the Communists coming down from the wilderness and joining the Nationalist government. There's this moment when people in Moscow, China, and the U.S. really see that as a plausible future."

The general negotiated a cease-fire between Mao and Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, convinced the two sides to consolidate their forces into a single standing army, and supervised a draft constitution and bill of rights. Marshall envisioned that the two, working together, would help form a diplomatic channel between the U.S. and the Soviets.

This mission collapsed when China fell under the control of the Communist party by 1949. But his mandate — trying to forge a more democratic future for China — has subsequently recurred in U.S.-China relations.

"What is so amazing about Marshall's experience is that it's a pattern that he begins with this mission ... You see this projection of American hopes, desires and expectations, great reluctance to give up even as evidence against it starts to accumulate, and bitter backlash, recriminations and charges of betrayal once those hopes fall apart."

Watch the full conversation below:

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Ami Li is a content producer and marketer for Asia Society, based in New York. Prior to joining the organization, she worked in media production and live music promotions in Beijing, China.