This magnificent book--"The China Mission by Daniel Kurtzt-Phelan--tells the story of General George Marshall’s heroic attempt to try to negotiate a settlement between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communist parties after World War II, from late 1945 through early 1947.
His mission, despite valiant effort, ultimately failed. He went on immediately following that assignment to become Secretary of State, a position from which he launched the “Marshall Plan” and oversaw with President Truman the protection of Greece and Turkey from Soviet domination.
I found life long lessons emerging from this story:
1. Some endeavors–like this one–are unattainable despite all the will in the world and superior leadership.
In the end, the visions of Mao Tse-tung and Chaing Kai-shek were simply too discordant to be reconciled. This reality was accentuated by each side greatly over-estimating the ease with which it could win over the other militarily.
Marshall, persisting relentlessly for over a year, did all that he could have in this situation. He did not give up easily but he did not fail to see the reality of the challenge.
In hindsight, he may have been “too close” to Chaing to have convinced him of the need to change his ways if he was to receive the support of the U.S. But he did lean heavily on Chaing, and I doubt if Chaing had the mindset to change anyway. To say Chiang was deep-seated in his ways is an understatement.
Mao, on the other hand, always suspicious of the U.S. ( and finding good reasons to be because of the support we were giving Chaing) knew he would have the support of the Soviet Union, even if it was not all that he wanted it to be.
2. Marshall learned from this experience as he went on to be Secretary of State. He focused on not undertaking more than could be done. He became even more beholden to the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
He resisted the pleas to create “Marshall Plans” not only in Europe but in Latin America and Asia. He knew we could not spread our resources too thinly. He wanted to act on what he knew we could “win.”
3. Impressively but not surprisingly, Marshall’s failure to achieve the goal he sought in China did not dim one iota his confidence and energy in pursuing the position of Secretary of State and then Secretary of Defense following his return to the U.S. In other words, he did not let this “defeat” get him down.
4. Marshall’s integrity leaps off the page in the transparency with which he dealt with Zhou Enlai and Chaing and everyone. He spoke directly and honestly. The ability of Marshall to deal with all sides was remarkable. Also remarkable was the strategic quality of the plans he put together. The failure of this mission cannot be attributed to a lack of strategic thought, candor or energy on the part of Marshall.
5. A lesson emerging clearly from the China mission was that in the end only the country itself could resolve what would be the conclusion of a civil war. The fact is Mao gained the support of the “people.” Chaing did not. We were backing a corrupt, autocratic leader. We failed to learn this lesson in Vietnam. The outcome was tragic.
6. Like some of the wars with which we have been engaged, e.g., Syria, Vietnam, we found that a large percentage of the supplies we sent to the nationals ended up getting into the Communists' hands, sometimes because the nationals were selling them to them. As one communist said, “It is all right for the United States to arm the Kuomintang because as fast as they get it we take it away from them.”
7. Like Vietnam and Afghanistan and Syria, there was the continued tension in the U.S. between “bring the troops home” and “bringing in more troops to win the day.”
8. The book brings to life the shining qualities of Marshall’s leadership. Here are two excerpts which I particularly liked:
“Early in his career watching Black Jack Pershing lead American forces in World War I, Marshall had grasped a lesson that stayed with him, ‘when conditions are difficult, the command is depressed and everyone seems critical and pessimistic, you must be especially cheerful and optimistic. The more alarming and disquieting the reports received or the conditions viewed in battle, the more determined must be your attitude.’”
At the start of World War II, Marshall received a letter from a high school student asking what was the secret of success. Marshall’s answer: “Giving the best I had to each job and not permitting myself to grow pessimistic over the slow progress or inevitable discouragements.”
As one of his aides said about Marshall’s renewed fervor after every setback: “He subjugates himself to a purpose.”