America’s fascination with all things related to the “New China” is evident everywhere. We’re as captivated by the explosion of Chinese capitalism as we are by the striking endurance of Chinese communism. And like the American public itself, political elites seem equal parts fascinated by and concerned about China’s rapid rise and recent stumbles. The Obama Administration’s much-publicized “pivot to Asia” is based on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertions in 2011 that “harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests” and that “Asia is critical to America’s future, [just as] an engaged America is vital to Asia’s future.” And as the most formidable power in Asia, China takes a central place in U.S. strategy in the region.
But long before Barack Obama’s pivot, Bill Clinton’s trade deals, or Richard Nixon’s breakthrough visit, the United States embarked on a major diplomatic initiative to shape China’s future and protect American interests there. This winter marks the seventieth anniversary of the Marshall Mission to China, arguably a brief interlude between the end of World War II and the full onset of the Cold War. And the historical lesson of the Marshall Mission is one we would do well to heed today: when it comes to foreign policy, assuming that our power can override the political situation on the ground is the folly of American empire.
On January 10, 1946, General George C. Marshall, today better known for the European recovery program that bears his name, secured a ceasefire between the major combatant parties in the Chinese Civil War – the nationalists, or Guomindang (GMD), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He had arrived less than a month earlier, at the direction of President Truman, charged with forging a settlement between the two hostile parties and military unification under the leadership of the U.S.-backed GMD government. The defeat of Japan in 1945 removed the rationale for a temporary period of cooperation between the two previously warring sides, known as the Second United Front, and the U.S. government hoped to forestall a return to full-scale civil war.
Marshall’s diplomatic mission failed. The ceasefire of seventy years ago collapsed quickly, and by the summer of 1946 the nationalists launched full-scale military campaigns against the communists. By February 1947, Marshall returned home, and the Civil War, which the CCP would eventually win, raged on. In the fall of 1949, as Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists fled to Taiwan in defeat, Mao Zedong’s CCP founded the People’s Republic of China.
Americans tried to draw conclusions from the failure of the Marshall Mission and the eventual victory of the communists, none more famously than the demagogic Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy charged that Marshall lad “lost” China (audaciously suggesting it was somehow “ours” to “win or lose”), and he wanted heads to roll. To McCarthy, it was both intolerable and unbelievable that the nationalist GMD, led by Chiang Kai-shek, did not prevail, destroy the communists, and govern a friendly China in accordance with U.S. interests. He described the Marshall Mission not just as “disastrous,” but as part of a far-reaching government conspiracy, brought about by American officials who served the interests of nations other than their own. Marshall’s failure was so thorough and complete, McCarthy argued, that it must have been by design, not due to incompetence, for if “Marshall were merely stupid, the laws of probability would dictate that part of his decisions would serve this country’s interest.”
As usual, McCarthy drew the wrong conclusions. The Marshall Mission to China failed neither due to a Washington commie conspiracy nor American incompetence, but because of the political situation in China. Even before the end of World War II, American advisers and representatives in China, who, unlike McCarthy, actually knew the situation on the ground, had a far less simplistic view of the state of politics in China.
General Joseph Stillwell, who commanded U.S. army forces in Asia in World War II, famously clashed with Chiang Kai-shek, whom he found corrupt and unreliable. By 1944, American diplomat John S. Service argued that the nationalists were reactionaries, at odds with their own people’s interests, and that Chiang’s Nazi-inspired rule was doomed to failure. And in a memorandum of August 1945, Edwin A. Locke, Truman’s personal representative to China, described Chiang in somewhat more flattering terms than Service did, but argued that the nationalists represented only very narrow, moneyed interests. But perhaps the crucial point in Locke’s memorandum was that, unlike the GMD, the CCP was popular. The communists, he argued, had introduced a range of economic reforms in the areas they controlled, the benefits of which were reaped by the hard-pressed working and peasant classes. Thus, Locke argued, “the communists have broad popular support all over China.”
It is not surprising that the Marshall Mission failed to bring the two parties together under Chiang’s leadership. At the beginning of the mission, Marshall’s military attaché in China, Henry Byroade, claimed to have told his superior that he had no more than a two percent chance of success. Nor is it astonishing that the communists, rather than the authoritarian GMD, managed to gain the support of the masses of Chinese people and prevail in the Civil War. The lessons we might draw from the failure of the Marshall Mission, then, have nothing to do with conspiratorial or incompetent American diplomats. Nor should we conclude that it was merely a lack of men, money, materiel, or military might that prevented American objectives from prevailing in China.
The lesson of post-World War II U.S. involvement in China is a simple, yet seemingly elusive one. It’s also a lesson that, in very different ways, we might also have learned from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq: American aims, even when backed by significant diplomatic and/or military power, cannot countermand the will of foreign peoples on their own soil. Despite McCarthy’s outrage, no one in America “lost” China, because it wasn’t America’s to lose. The outcome of the conflict in China was mainly determined by the ideologies, strategies, strengths and weaknesses of the GMD and CCP. It was determined by the Chinese people.
This may seem like an obvious lesson, but it does not appear to have occurred to most of the current presidential candidates. Donald Trump’s campaign ad declares that he’ll “quickly cut the head off of ISIS and take their oil.” Ted Cruz has been using the phrase “carpet bombing” on the campaign trail. And Marco Rubio tweeted “I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space,” and lately he has taken to calling people who disagree with his expansive foreign policy vision “isolationists.” Despite mounting evidence from America’s tragic foreign policy adventures this century, current political elites reiterate the badly mistaken view that projection of American power can solve all of the globe’s problems in our favor. As usual, we would do well to take a few lessons from history.