When Marshall visited the Communists’ remote revolutionary headquarters, Mao declared, “The entire people of our country should feel grateful and loudly shout, ‘long live cooperation between China and the United States.’” He had already instructed followers that they were entering “a new stage of peace and democracy,” and talked about how much he could learn from a visit to America. Other Communist leaders such as Zhou Enlai were speculating about what jobs they would get in a new government led by Chiang Kai-shek.
But as we know now, the groundwork Marshall laid for a peaceful, democratic, American-allied China would not survive. Discussions moved from the high-level accord to the details of implementation, and apparent agreement gave way to irreconcilable differences about China’s future. As tensions between Washington and Moscow grew, Joseph Stalin went from supporting Marshall’s efforts to encouraging Mao to accelerate his guerilla war.
Marshall struggled for another 10 months to avert a breakdown—and the consequent risk of Communist victory and renewed world war. Officials in Washington would compare him to Sisyphus, trying again and again to restore progress. Only at the end of 1946 did he finally give up. “It is now going to be necessary for the Chinese, themselves, to do the things I endeavored to lead them into,” he concluded.
But in the next phase of his career—watching him at work in China, Truman decided to make him secretary of state—Marshall would struggle with a wrenching choice: what to do as war spread and as Mao’s victory came to appear more and more likely. Yet his China mission had left him with little hope that American help could make a decisive difference there, and convinced him that a major military effort to stop Mao would bring enormous risks, while using American resources that were desperately needed elsewhere.
Ultimately, Marshall warned, the United States would “have to be prepared to take over the Chinese Government, practically, and administer its economic, military, and government affairs.” That would “involve [the U.S.] Government in a continuing commitment from which it would be practically impossible to withdraw,” as well as a “dissipation of resources” that would “inevitably play into the hands of the Russians.” Yet to Marshall, the challenge was not just about resources. A full-scale military commitment would involve “obligations and responsibilities … which, I am convinced, the American people would never knowingly accept. We cannot escape the fact that the deliberate entry of this country into the armed effort in China involved possible consequences in which the financial costs, though tremendous, would be insignificant when compared to the other liabilities involved.”
Just a few years after Marshall and Mao toasted a future of peace and friendship, the Communists conquered all of China, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. At the height of his mission, Marshall had been hailed by figures across the American political spectrum for having “saved” China. Now he was savaged for having “lost” it.