Rex Tillerson never had a chance to become the pretty good secretary of state he might have been. As the president who fired him with a tweet explained: “We were not really thinking the same…. Really, it was a different mind-set, a different thinking.”

The diplomatic press corps seemed credulous in agreeing with their sources, career foreign service officers, that, whatever else, the fact that Donald Trump had been elected should not affect the conduct of their mission.

In this melancholy week, while thinking about the tasks the next president will face, whoever it may be, it was good to have two quite different books to read about one of the greatest secretaries of state, the revered George Marshall, who, having served as Chief of Staff of the US Army from 1939 until 1945, was Secretary of State from 1947 until 1949. (He stepped in for a year as Secretary of Defense, September 1950-51).

On the next to last page of The Marshall Plan: The Dawn of the Cold War (Simon & Schuster, 2018), economist Benn Steil draws the moral of his book: “In contrast with the earlier Cold War period, the post-Cold War period has been marked by the absence of an American Grand Strategy, a calibrated mapping of means to large ends.”

The first 375 pages of Steil’s book describe with a flair for drama how that mapping was undertaken, and with what result.  His account of the political foundations seems certain to become a standard reference work for many years to come.

The last 25 pages of the book, in a chapter called “Echoes,” describe the improvisation that has served since 1990.  Steil’s reflections are a curtain-raiser – a full-blown overture, I suspect, given that he is a popular historian and senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations – to a debate that is bound to happen, about the wisdom of NATO enlargement after 1990 to the very boundaries of Russia.

It’s a pity, then, that Steil’s publisher didn’t devise a title to convey the real significance of his story.  But the aid package was only the softer half the US strategy that underpinned containment.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance formed originally by a dozen Western nations two years after Marshall’s famous Harvard University commencement address, was the other half.  Steil summarizes the way the strategy evolved:

Over the course of 1946 and 1947 the United States developed a framework of Soviet containment to safeguard its interests without appeasement or war. It then devised the Marshall Plan as the most promising means, given Soviet conventional military supremacy in Europe, and a large American edge in economic power, to implement it. When France and Britain averred that economic integration made Marshall nations more dependent on each other and less able to defend themselves against hostile action by Russia or Germany, the United States responded with NATO. Together the Marshall Plan and NATO provided the means to carry out containment.

The grand strategy of containment worked – there is no longer much argument about that. Steil respectfully examines historian Alan Milward’s critique of Marshall Plan triumphalism and concludes the proposition that “less food and more Germany” would have worked better is “farfetched.”

Arriving at his “Echoes” chapter, and the question of NATO’s Cold War afterlife, Steil is only a little less certain. After describing how Secretary of State Madeline Albright chose Harvard’s commencement on the fiftieth anniversary of Marshall’s address to tout NATO enlargement, he writes,

If historical anniversaries were important for NATO expansion, waiting two years for the eightieth anniversary of the Versailles Treaty would have been more apposite. The treaty heaped humiliations on Germany after World War I with no clear end in sight, and created the economic and political conditions that led to World War II.  Having improbably abandoned communism for democracy, and capitalism in a near bloodless revolution, Russians were, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, feeling similarly humiliated and threatened by an unexpected Western military advance towards their borders.

China hardly comes up in Steil’s book.  Further good news, then, is the arrival of The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War 1945-1947 (Norton, 2018), by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a former foreign service officer and executive editor of Foreign Affairs.

It has been nearly forgotten, but between his wartime years and his term at Foggy Bottom, Marshall spent seventeen months in China, trying to mediate between the national government of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Army of Mao Zedong.

He failed, of course.  But what a romantic story Kurtz-Phelan makes of it!

Some 400 pages by Steil on Russia, another 360 pages about China – who has time to properly read these books?  Not me. I race through the first and the last chapters, rely on the indices for the rest, and stop when I am confident that, at least, I have understood the author’s point of view.

I’ll tell you this, though:  I will take The China Mission to Michigan with me this summer, because I so enjoyed Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 (1971) many years ago: those years in China were, after all, a romantic time. Kurtz-Phelan has written his book in the same vein, and with an even more compelling figure at the center of it.

Moreover, the aftermath of the mission – the Who-Lost-China? controversy that poisoned political lives in the US for the next twenty years – is a warning about the kind of harm that can ensue if the coming debate over NATO enlargement takes the wrong turn.

Indeed, you’ll understand by the end of the book what President Lyndon Johnson was thinking (and, if you know something about it, how mistaken he was) when he asserted that US foreign policy-makers had “lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over China” and concluded therefore “I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chicken shit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam.”

The other Marshall Plan, then, was to know when to fold ’em. A less judicious advisor could have started a whole new war, committing US troops to battle on the Chinese mainland in 1946, instead of five years later, in very different circumstances, in Korea

After one last attempt, in late December 1946, to persuade Chiang to govern his cities rather than seek to engage the rebels on the battlefield, Marshall cabled President Truman that the Chinese leaders were not going to end their civil war. “It is quite clear to me that my usefulness here will soon be at an end, for a variety of reasons.”  Truman called him home days later

The story should be reassuring, Kurz-Phelan concludes. “Even at the height of its power, when it had just led the Allies to victory in World War II and accounted for nearly half of the global economy, America could not solve every problem….”  But even then, “America did not have to solve every problem to show it was strong.”