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Daniel Kurtz-Phelan on George Marshall and China
General George Marshall is best known as a prime mover behind the U.S. economic stratagem that bears his name, a stratagem that helped shape the realities of post-war geopolitics. Far less known is his mission to intervene in China’s own post-war struggle, between the Nationalists under Chiang-Kai Shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong. We spoke for this week’s podcast with Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, executive editor at Foreign Affairs, about his new book on Marshall’s failure The China Mission.
About Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is the executive editor of Foreign Affairs. He previously served in the US State Department as a member of the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff. His reportage and analysis have appeared in publications including the New York Times and The New Yorker.
About The China Mission
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 US-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.
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.
— From the publisher