General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, will always be remembered for the victory on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Perhaps less known is the fact that he wasn’t the only, or even top, candidate for the job. In fact, it took President Franklin D. Roosevelt a long time to select his commander. Most expected the role to go to General George Marshall.
As author Daniel Kurtz-Phelan puts it, the feeling was that since Marshall “had built the Allied war machine, he should lead it to victory.” In the end, though, his protégé got the command—and the glory. As Roosevelt told Marshall at the time, “I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country.” In the enthralling The China Mission, Kurtz-Phelan, executive editor of Foreign Affairs, uses archival sources and extensive research to give an in-depth look at Marshall himself, as well as a fascinating account of a little-known chapter in the history of that tumultuous era: Marshall’s difficult and complex postwar assignment in China.
Over the course of 13 months, Marshall sought to create unity in a chaotic China, prevent a Communist takeover and work with larger-than-life figures such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang. Ultimately, the mission failed. That failure followed Marshall the rest of his life and also made him a target of Joseph McCarthy.
In 1953, Marshall became the first military officer to win a Nobel Peace Prize, bestowed for work on the Marshall Plan, his design for the postwar recovery in Europe. Still, Marshall remains less known than many of his contemporaries in “the greatest generation.” As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, The China Mission is a timely reminder of the pivotal role George Marshall played in shaping the world we know today.