5-283 Editorial Note on Marshall’s Role in Postwar China

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Subject: Postwar, China

Editorial Note on Marshall’s Role in Postwar China

October-November 1945

“George and I have had the most hectic fall of his career,” Mrs. Marshall wrote to an old friend. “The post-war reconversion seems to be more difficult than the war. . . . I shall be so glad to get to Pinehurst for a little rest.” As an easy retirement role for General Marshall, President Truman was considering naming him head of the American Red Cross. (Mrs. Marshall to Mrs. William R. Blanchard, October 23, 1945, GCMRL/K. T. Marshall Papers [Correspondence, 1941-49]. Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries [New York: Viking, 1951], p. 113.) But none of them anticipated that Marshall’s retirement would be forestalled by problems in China.

As wartime army chief of staff, Marshall had naturally been cognizant of United States policy toward China, which recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government as sole legitimate sovereign entity in all Chinese territory—now including newly liberated Manchuria and Taiwan. But Japanese military action between 1937 and 1945 had squeezed the center of Nationalist party power out of the cities of coastal China into the distant southwest around the wartime capital of Chungking. Moreover, the sudden end of the war left in China several million Japanese, including several hundred thousand well-armed soldiers, who were directed to maintain civil authority in their areas until they could surrender to the Nationalists. To facilitate the return of Nationalist authority, the United States not only used its air and naval forces to move Nationalist troops into Japanese-held areas but also landed two divisions of U.S. Marines to secure certain ports and rail lines in northern China. The Chinese Communist party also sought to extend its authority and to prevent Nationalist expansion; consequently, a renewal of the Nationalist-Communist civil war appeared certain.

The United States desired a unified China under Chiang’s rule, and was willing to continue intervening on Chiang’s side to a certain extent, but the authoritarian and corrupt nature of Nationalist rule, and its political and military weaknesses, encouraged a cautious approach by the Truman administration. The United States ambassador in China, Patrick J. Hurley, returned to Washington at his own request in late September. Unhappy with what he perceived as a “wide discrepancy between our announced policies [i.e., democracy, anti-imperialism, and the Atlantic Charter’s Four Freedoms] and our conduct of international relations [i.e., bolstering imperialism and Communism],” and incensed at what he considered the professional diplomats’ undermining of his and America’s policies, he was considering resigning his post. After several weeks of indecision, during which it was publicly stated that he would return to China, he announced his decision to resign at a press conference on November 27 and attacked the State Department and the loyalty of the China specialists in the Foreign Service. (Hurley to Truman, November 26, 1945, U.S. Department of State, United States Relations with China, with Special Reference to the Period 1944-1949 [Washington: Department of State, 1949], pp. 581-84. [This source is hereafter cited as China White Paper.] Regarding Hurley’s role and personality, see Russell D. Buhite, Patrick J. Hurley and American Foreign Policy [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973].)

Hurley’s action was “the single topic of discussion” at President Truman’s luncheon Cabinet meeting on November 27. According to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, Hurley’s

action was a complete surprise to both the President and the Secretary of State, both of whom had the impression that he had agreed to return to China. After lunch, in discussing the question of his possible successor, Clinton Anderson, the Secretary of Agriculture, said he believed the appointment of George Marshall would take the headlines away from Hurley’s resignation the following day. I seconded Anderson’s suggestion, and it was the general consensus that he would make an able ambassador. (Millis, ed., Forrestal Diaries, p. 113.)

After the Cabinet meeting, President Truman called Marshall at his home in Leesburg, Virginia. Truman recounted that “without any preparation I told him: `General, I want you to go to China for me.’ Marshall said only, `Yes, Mr. President,’ and hung up abruptly.” The Marshalls had arrived at their retirement home in Leesburg only minutes before the president’s call, and the general knew that his wife would not be pleased with his new assignment. He hoped to break the news to her after she had rested, but she heard the story on the radio first. There was, Marshall told Truman two days later, “the devil to pay.” (Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, vol. 2, Years of Trial and Hope [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1956], pp. 66-67; Katherine Tupper Marshall, Together: Annals of an Army Wife [New York: Tupper and Love, 1946], p. 282. For more on Mrs. Marshall’s reaction to the China mission, see K. T. Marshall to Frank McCarthy, December 29, 1945, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #5-312 [5: 406-7].

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 5, “The Finest Soldier,” January 1, 1945-January 7, 1947 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 371-372.

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