John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”

The telling of George C. Marshall’s failed mission from 1945 to 1947 to end China’s civil war has always been a hostage to history. As China descended into communist rule in the 1950s, it was used by some Americans such as Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy, and even an ambitious Democratic congressman from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, as an example of America’s “moral retreat” from its responsibilities to save China. Marshall’s loss of China, McCarthy thundered in a speech in 1951, “must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Undergirding these charges was the belief that no problem was beyond the capacity of America, which stood astride the world following World War II, to solve. Marshall’s failure to unite China’s Nationalist and Communist parties, which had been at war since 1927, into one government and one army must have been part of a communist plot, the charges went, because if it had wanted to, America could have accomplished anything.

On the other side of the ledger were those Americans, such as the historian Barbara Tuchman, who argued that Marshall and America failed to recognize that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were a spent force and that the ineluctable logic of history was going to propel Mao Zedong’s Communists to victory. The United States suffered a “lost chance” in China, their argument went, by not tempting Mao, like it had the independent-minded Yugoslav revolutionary Josip Broz Tito, to distance himself from Moscow.

Again, this view was deeply paternalistic because at root, it denied the Chinese responsibility for their affairs. Ignored were Mao’s decisions to side with the U.S.S.R. and gin up hatred of America. Tuchman’s lost chance in China held that China was America’s to lose.

These days, however, instead of standing astride the globe, Americans are far more conscious of the limits of their power to build nations, win wars and even manage their own affairs. Against this historical backdrop, diplomat and journalist Daniel Kurtz-Phelan has written an engaging book, “The China Mission: George C. Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947,” that stresses the unavoidability at times of “a kind of failure ultimately accepted as the best of terrible options.”

With an eye perhaps on the tragedy in Syria, or the emerging nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, or relations with autocrats from Moscow to Beijing, Kurtz-Phelan has written a story “not of possibility and ambition, but of limit and restraint.” This is history as allegory. Foreign policy “is made by analogy,” he writes. “The stories we tell matter. How we tell them matters.”

The story Kurtz-Phelan tells is gripping. On Nov. 27, 1945, the day after he retired following more than four decades in the U.S. Army, George C. Marshall was directed by President Harry Truman to go to China to stop its Communists and Nationalists from resuming their civil war. The idea was to force the warring parties into a coalition government and to absorb Mao’s army into Chiang’s, with the dangling carrot of billions of dollars of American military and financial aid to smooth the way.

Kurtz-Phelan paints a textured portrait of Marshall, whom Truman called “the greatest military man this country ever produced — or any other country, for that matter.” Indeed, if anyone could fix the mess in China, it was Marshall, who was widely credited for masterminding the Allied victory in World War II. Kurtz-Phelan describes the wave of initial optimism when Marshall, after just a few weeks in China, seemingly persuaded Chiang and Mao to agree to a cease-fire and to the terms of a coalition government. And then Kurtz-Phelan painstakingly charts China’s descent into civil war as both sides used the negotiations not to lay the foundations for peace but to set the parameters for conflict.

Along the way, Kurtz-Phelan does a splendid job of delineating Marshall’s evolving relationships with Chiang and the Communists’ main negotiator, Zhou Enlai, who would figure mightily later on when the United States and China resumed their ties in the 1970s. At one point, Kurtz-Phelan writes that Marshall returned to Zhou a notebook, apparently untouched. That was lucky for the Communists, as it contained the names of Communist spies at the heart of the U.S. diplomatic mission and the Nationalist regime. More than most books on American statecraft, Kurtz-Phelan’s also gives the reader a deep appreciation of how the diplomatic sausage is made, describing Marshall’s trips up to Chiang’s summer mountain redoubt in a sedan chair: endless games of bridge and checkers with Madame Chiang Kai-shek; and the useful role played by Marshall’s wife, Katherine, in the cultivation of warmer ties with Chiang.

But key to Kurtz-Phelan’s book is the thesis that Marshall was right not to involve America further in China’s plight. As negotiations collapsed and the civil war raged, Kurtz-Phelan argues, Marshall was correct to wash his hands of China and leave Chiang to his fate. The alternative, Marshall told Congress, would be for America to “take over the Chinese government, practically, and administer its economic, military, and government affairs.” Such a move, Marshall feared, could have led the United States into war with the Soviet Union. Walking away from China, Kurtz-Phelan argues, was, indeed, “the best of terrible options.”

Kurtz-Phelan’s book is the beneficiary of new research on the civil war and the release of Chiang’s diaries by the Hoover Institution. The picture we get of Chiang is much better than the usual cartoonish baddie that most American histories of the era present. Still, the Communist side of the story is limited by the continued unwillingness of the government of Beijing to open the party’s archives.

Kurtz-Phelan’s work also constitutes an enormous contribution to our understanding of Marshall. Most biographers have treated the failure of his mission to China as a blip in a career of untarnished success. But Kurtz-Phelan argues convincingly that Marshall’s defeat in China had a deep effect on his later work in Europe with the Marshall Plan and in fashioning a strategy to confront communism. After China, never again would the general advocate a negotiated power-sharing agreement with a communist regime. With diplomat George Kennan, he would become an architect of a containment strategy that involved massive support for anti-communist governments and that endured for more than 30 years.

Another lesson of Marshall’s mission that Kurtz-Phelan clearly believes remains relevant is that American will alone is not sufficient to save the world. A capable partner is a necessary part of any solution. In China, Marshall could not find a partner able to rise to the demands of history, and so when he left to become secretary of state in January 1947, he criticized both Communist and Nationalist alike. Marshall failed in China, Kurtz-Phelan argues, first and foremost because the Chinese failed themselves. To Kurtz-Phelan, who worked in the State Department during America’s troubled occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, a lesson lies therein. As he observes at the end of his book, even “in its moment of greatest leadership, America did not have to solve every problem to show that it was strong.”


George C. Marshall's Unfinished War, 1945-1947

By Daniel

Norton. 476 pp. $28.95