“Knowledge of the past [aids] interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” – Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
August 1945 saw the United States at the pinnacle of its power, economically and militarily supreme. With Europe split between the Allies and the Soviets, the Truman administration’s most pressing foreign policy challenge was resolving the “China Problem.” China, then as now the most populous country on Earth with more than 450 million people, was divisively split. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists controlled the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing and the south, while rural peasants and the north largely supported Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communists. The two factions had split after Sun Yat Sen’s death in 1925. Now, with the Japanese defeated, the furtive peace between the two parties was falling apart.
To resolve the impasse, President Harry Truman sent George Marshall, perhaps the most respected American of the age. Retired for barely two months, Marshall had been Army chief of staff during the war. Now Truman charged the renowned “architect of victory” with negotiating a sustainable peace between the Nationalists and Communists before tensions erupted into full-scale civil war. Though the Allies had supplied the Nationalists with over $250 million ($3.6 billion today) of aid to fight the Japanese, Truman supported peace over faction, hoping Marshall would bring both sides together to form a unified government.
Marshall began optimistically; after all, if there was anyone capable of solving an intractable problem, it was the American general. Within weeks of his arrival, he instituted three-way talks among Nationalists, Communists, and Americans, creating a peace process whereby a representative from each group would act as an observer. Hundreds of three-member teams fanned out across China to watch the disarmament of communist militias and Chiang’s outposts throughout Northern China as a first step toward reconciliation. Marshall also expanded the “Dixie Mission” embassy to the Communists’ headquarters in Yan’an. Initially, his efforts managed to suspend most of the fighting and even had the Communists proposing mutual demobilization.
Two factors combined to frustrate the peace process however. First, the nascent Cold War loomed large over China (Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech was in March 1946), clouding intents and motives with a West-versus-Communism haze. Of course, simply labeling all Communists as Soviet-aligned ignored the complex differences in philosophies (and culture) between Russian Industrial Soviets and Chinese Agricultural Communists. But the camps were quickly establishing by 1946, bifurcating the globe into two categories: third world or communist.
The second problem was the profligate corruption of Chiang’s Nationalists. Though Chiang was pious and austere, his cadre of generals and sycophantic appointees fleeced the country. Where Nationalist officials did not outright steal Allied supplies and cash, they supported or collaborated with local warlords to abuse the peasants, a legacy of feudal China that contributed to the appeal of the Communists. Though Chiang controlled the government and managed a massive army, his ability to effectively wield either was severely limited by incompetence, corruption, and nepotism.
Marshall also faced serious domestic challenges. As chief of staff, he had cautioned commanders against “localitis,” or presuming that their sectors held special weight against the overall mission. Now Marshall was the one asking for extra resources and troops for a region that, excluding President Roosevelt’s calling China a great power, held little significance for most Americans, especially as most simply wanted the troops to come home. The war was over and 10 million men were waiting to return to civilian life. Marshall kept American divisions to guard key points, but his capacity dwindled daily.
Additionally, Chinese patience for Americans was wearing thin. The rape of a Shanghai girl by an American GI who, like the foreigners of the 19th century, was not subject to Chinese law, inflamed anti-American resentment. The United States quickly became seen as just another in a long line of foreign occupiers. Marshall’s return to China brought another soft peace, but it wasn’t enough to stem the eventual Chinese Civil War. Marshall’s mission, coinciding with the Japanese surrender, had broad popular support in China. But foreigners, especially when armed, remain foreign.
After a brief sojourn to Washington to lobby for additional China aid and a delay, or at least a slowing, of the withdrawal of American troops (which exceeded 200,000 through mid-1946), Marshall returned to Chongqing to find the peace process in shambles. As the Soviets had withdrawn from Manchuria, Communists and Nationalists had resumed fighting over the region’s natural resources.
In the end, Marshall failed. By the time he departed in February 1947, Sino-American goodwill was long exhausted as Western troops were resented as occupiers or at least partisan supporters of the Nationalists. Subjected to a thousand cuts of mistrust, miscommunication, and misunderstanding, the fragile peace process could not overcome the enmity between the Nationalists and Communists when the prize was the future of China. Just two years later, the Communists expelled Chiang to Taiwan. China went red.
“We would be almost certain to get mired down in an inconclusive struggle. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to commit itself.” – Secretary McNamara to President Kennedy regarding Vietnam, November, 1961.
If a U.S.-backed intervention into a fractious, torn country nearly alien to Americans seems familiar, it’s because the similarities between what Marshall faced and the American-led effort in Afghanistan bear striking resemblance. What started as an effort to fight a common enemy devolved into a fractious, ultimately domestic struggle outside powers could little affect. Marshall, the preeminent strategist of his age, saw the situation clearly. To alleviate a collapse of the Nationalist government, he warned that the United States would be required “to take [completely] take over China.”
China’s communist turn had long-term pernicious effects for American policy. The “loss” of China set off a series of events—no president wanted to be accused of “losing” another country—that culminated with America’s disastrous intervention and ignoble retreat in Vietnam.
This is, of course, a false dichotomy. America cannot realistically influence the domestic politics of another state, at least not with predictable results. The “lost chance” myth is, according to historian Arne Westad, “fanciful and reassuring of American omnipotence.” It was in China that Americans first learned the “near-impossibility of resolving somebody else’s civil war.” After the Japanese occupation, the Chinese eventually came to see Americans as enablers of corrupt Nationalists, which increased Communist support, hastening an unwinnable situation. In Vietnam, American dollars reinforced the corrupt Diem regime, which the Kennedy administration only belatedly disowned. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, a massive influx of foreign currency enabled corruption and a skewing of power toward cities, disrupting the old way of life for the worse.
“I don’t think in any case that it’s right for a great government such as ours to try and adjust its foreign policy in order to work internal changes in another country.” – George Kennan
Arguments for continued involvement in Afghanistan (or Syria) largely fall into two overlapping categories. We a) owe it to our Afghan allies or b) Afghanistan will again become a terrorist haven if we leave. The problem is these positions are largely specious and fail under the barest scrutiny. In the first case, there must be a limit to supporting our partners. If it’s a matter of sustaining American credibility, that is just another version of the “lost” country fallacy. Going down that slippery slope eventually requires “infinite capabilities or routine bluffs.” Thousands of lives lost and costs approaching $1 trillion would seem to a reasonable boundary for limiting our support, especially when that support seems to be creating an expensive, often ineffectual mirror image of the American military. Moreover sending troops to “train and assist” can easily and perhaps inevitably lead to sending more forces. No such support to another NATO ally would be so blithely undertaken or rarely questioned. We are told that a post-NATO Afghanistan would become a training ground for terrorists, inviting inevitable attacks on the American homeland. The Chicago Tribune said as much: “So why is America still in Afghanistan? Because the terror groups operating there would have the unfettered ability to again thrive if the U.S. withdrew.”
This assertion rests on shaky ground. Extrapolated, it would have American troops engaged in every struggling state. To some extent we already are, bombing or fighting in seven nations with little to no oversight. But the linkage between a future failed Afghanistan translating into a rogue Afghanistan is unclear. The world is full of failed states that pose little threat to America. Narrowly, the notion that leaving Afghanistan would result in attacks on the American homeland ignores the root causes of terrorism and the domestic security requirements that can actually prevent it. Consider that most 9/11 hijackers were Saudis who did their planning and preparation in the United States. Put simply, our presence in Afghanistan (and other places) doesn’t prevent terrorism; in fact, our presence likely causes terrorism. There are 17 years of practical experience in Afghanistan countering theories about the “stabilizing” factors of American and NATO forces.
A recent Defense One article summarized the situation: “Today, there are 14,000 to 15,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan. Spending on the war will [soon] surpass $1 trillion. The toll in lives and taxpayer money has not brought us anywhere close to victory. What more are we willing to sacrifice?”
I would add the following.
Who wants to be the last man to die in Afghanistan amidst the weak rationales for staying? Who wants to see $100,000 missiles destroying $500 pickup trucks? Who wants to see Americans funding a billion dollar “ghost army,” which, though valorous, is being slaughtered to such as extent that the government withholds casualty numbers? Who wants to see American values corrupted and cheapened as we kill innocents in the name of fighting terror? Who wants to see America lose her morality by embracing theocratic despots who happen to buy our weapons, only to intentionally employ them on civilians? Who wants to see American lives wasted for the goal of avoiding failure? Are we ready for a military defeat in Afghanistan?
Ultimately, recriminations won’t matter, but the record of how we spent our capital (morale, people, funds) will. Future generations burdened with our debt, dead, and wounded will ask: did we apply a strategy of success, one that ameliorated a problem and positively affected national security? The truth is that we can win wars through assistance or training foreign forces, but the conditions have to be right. And even then, host nation conditions are often beyond our control. We cannot, however, no matter our power, influence a host nation to make these conditions come about through autogenesis. Strategist John Lewis Gaddis explains that great powers “require a sense of the whole that reveals the significance of respective parts.” An unbiased look at the whole reveals that some conditions are beyond our power while clarifying what is important.
In June 1947, shortly after proposing the aid package to Europe that became known as the “Marshall Plan,” Marshall elucidated the challenge China presented to American policymakers: “I have tortured my brain, and I can’t now see the answer.” In doing so he conveyed his capacity for strategic thought, which is not only solving problems, but also recognizing when problems cannot be solved—that events sometimes run their course. The American public seems to overwhelmingly support its troops; this is all well and good, but they must foremost support the truth. The truth, aided by history, can help us avoid the trap of our strategies “growing stupider as they grow grander.” Strategy involves honestly facing what cannot be done. Sometimes our best isn’t enough; sometimes “losing” a country is acceptable.
John Bolton is an Army officer with multiple deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a Chinese speaker with an avid interest in Asia. The views presented here are his alone and not representative of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.