Anti-Communism and Adoption in Cold War South Korea


A Review of A New American Comes “Home”: Korean War Adoptees and Cold War Sentiments of Race and Nation, by Susie Woo.

Tracing the histories of Korean adoptees to its beginnings, A New American Comes “Home”: Korean War Adoptees and Cold War Sentiments of Race and Nation crafts a narrative that weaves international adoption with American Cold War ambitions, anti-communist rhetoric, and the neo-colonial relationship between South Korea and the United States. In her examination of the earliest adoption of mixed-race orphans, Susie Woo deftly highlights the ways in which adoptees become commodities of democracy. She notes how the national publication Life magazine situated adoptees as the newest American tied to “a new kind of American family – one that was socially constructed, multiracial, and international” (p. 5). From this perspective, Woo locates adoptees and the American adoption project in South Korea as part of a wider American anti-Communist mission. Adoptees are part of the broader modernization, Christianization and democratization processes or what Woo calls the “patriotic triumvirate” associated with anti-Communist efforts (p. 7).

Within the American imaginary, Korean war orphans and waifs were innocent bystanders of the Korean War. Appealing to the nation’s maternal sentiments, everyday citizens sought to protect the war’s littlest victims through monetary support and adoption. Yet, the initial, mixed-raced orphans served as a stark reminder of the social impact of American occupation and involvement on the peninsula. Consequently, Woo contends: “The Korean War adoptee symbolically and literally tied nations together forcing each to confront fraught racial and political landscapes at home” (p. 10). In focusing on the production of the mixed race orphan, influence of American social workers and non-governmental organizations in South Korea, and the American media’s ability to shape perceptions of orphans and adoptees, Woo encourages readers to contemplate how adoption is situated within a wider neocolonial project. She exposes how “the adoptee both furthered and undermined the national goals of both sending and receiving countries [– South Korea and the United States, respectively]” (p. 22). For example, the adoptee disrupted the existing segregation practices in the U.S., particularly when considering anti-miscegenation and Jim Crow legislation. From the earliest adoptions from South Korea, international adoption practice was embedded “within the contradiction-riddled race politics of the Cold War era” (p. 21).

Chapter One, “Militarized Intimacies: Wartime Relations between American GI’s and Korean Children and Women,” complicates existing narratives concerning the American military and government’s interventions in South Korea before, during, and after the Korean War. Woo writes: “The United States poured over 300 million dollars into economic recovery and aid for South Korea between 1945 and 1948 gaining near complete control and planting the seeds of a debt society, the latter an insidious neocolonial tactic” (p. 31). As monies were funneled into South Korea, American missionaries also took hold, offering social welfare services overlooked by the U.S. government. As public sentiment focused on rhetoric of rescue and humanitarianism, the military’s encouragement of GI’s support to orphans and engagement in prostitution with Korean women Woo provides an alternative narrative to post-war South Korea. Orphans boosted the morale of American servicemen. In particular, male orphans served as mascots and houseboys for troops, an extension of the American military as often these children served as invaluable translators for soldiers (p. 41). The decision to focus on Korean male orphans also speaks to fears concerning the appearance of sexual impropriety when coupling U.S. military men and Korean girls as it alludes to potential prostitution between U.S. military men and Korean women in camptowns or “GI towns.” Similar to the adoption of Korean children, relationships between American military men and Korean women disrupted xenophobic understandings of race in the U.S. and the current racial status quo (pp. 62-63).

Building upon her examination of how war orphans were initially incorporated into the popular American imagination, Chapter Two, “Picturing the Korean ‘Waif’: American Campaigns of Rescue,” explores how ordinary Americans sought to aid these children. Utilizing American media, the image of the Korean waif replaced iconography of American GI’s in postwar recovery appeals. The children served as vehicles to garner “non-political donations intended to ‘save’ Korea’s helpless children” (p. 66). U.S. missionaries also believed these images would clearly demonstrated how American “monetary support helped to transform Korean waifs into healthy Christianized and modern subjects” through the use of before and after photographs (p. 66). The value of these images were not lost on missionaries who encouraged Americans to provide monthly financial support that allowed everyday Americans to “adopt” a child as seen in programs operated by organizations such as the Christian Children’s Fund (pp. 70-71). Yet, these images, serving as a tool to depict a particular narrative, also erased Americans’ ability to deeply reflect on the origins of the despair, hunger, and trauma captured in “before” photographs or images intended to elicit American sympathy of Korean children (pp. 73-74). Waif imagery relied on Orientalist tropes to appeal to American citizens’ desires to democratize and civilize the depraved East and its children.

Building a linear narrative tracing Korean children’s status from orphan to adoptee, Chapter Three, “Private Matters of Public Concern: U.S. Social and Legal Management of Korean Adoptee Immigrants,” begins with an opening narrative of Harry Holt, founder of Holt Adoption Program (currently known as Holt International Children Services) and Bob Pierce of World Vision, pioneers of Korean adoption. Conducting a close examination of the ethics of Holt Adoption Program’s proxy adoptions, utilization of potential adoptive parents’ faith as a barometer for parental fitness, and sliding payment scale for adoptive couples, Woo highlights how a single organization became synonymous with Korean adoption. Adoption was presented as the best alternative for Korean children rather than life in their country of origin. The white, normative family served as “the location in which children could be socially engineered to become proper U.S. citizens” (p. 115). This understanding of the adoptive family is inextricably linked to American imperialism and Orientalism, whereby many adoptive parents firmly believed that they would make a better parent than the adoptee’s biological parents. Holt and Pierce alongside other missionaries operating in South Korea (i.e. Seventh Day Adventists, Catholic Relief Services) spearheaded the adoption movement in the US by appealing to everyday Americans desires to demonstrate their Christian beliefs vis-à-vis adoption. Within the American imaginary mixed orphan waifs were transformed from reminders of interracial liaisons between GIs and Korean women into individuals being “saved” by democracy (p. 99). Nevertheless, American understandings of race impacted the treatment of these children. Woo notes: “Unlike Korean-white children whose suspect Asianness was redeemed by white blood, ‘Negro-Korean’ children could not be redeemed by their model Korean half and instead confronted the same racial prejudice as African Americans in the United States at this time” (p. 135). In exploring how American perceptions of race impacted the treatment and adoption of children from Korea, including immigration legislation girding adoption practices and the placement of children into families, Woo highlights the tensions produced by the inclusion of Korean children within the American domestic racializing process.

Chapter Four, “A ‘Pre’-History of Korean War Adoptions: Racial and Institutional Legacies of Neocolonial Care in South Korea,” refocuses the reader’s attention on how American neocolonial practices are implicated in South Korea’s child welfare methods and the racializing process of mixed race waifs. In doing so, Woo complicates a narrative that relies on accounts provided by Holt and other missionaries concerning the treatment of mixed race children through her investigation of how American beliefs and practices became transferred to Korean society. Woo writes: “U.S. pseudo- and social scientific modes of identifying and categorizing mixed-race children gave a name to racial difference, presenting Koreans with ways to organize, define, and pathologize its children in ways that opened the door to U.S.-style intervention and discipline” (p. 146). Tracing the origins of Korea’s child welfare system, Woo underscores how international adoption became the immediate solution to the child welfare and poverty crises of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, Woo is careful to note that sometimes these children were not willingly relinquished. For example, she discusses how Holt Adoption Program employees utilized aggressive tactics to coerce a child’s relinquishment for adoption (pp. 156-9). Holt Adoption Program methods exemplify how birth mothers and by extension, birth fathers, were disciplined by wider Korean society. American social work beliefs concerning unwed mothers’ homes and adoption as offering women a better future for themselves domestically became imbricated in programs developed in South Korea, including Korean maternity homes and orphanages (See Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

Returning to how sentimentality shaped adoption from Korea, Chapter Five, “Model Minority or Miscegenation Threat?: U.S. Cultural Domestication of Korean War Immigrants,” highlights how adoptees served as examples of “racial harmony” and future American citizens (p. 193). Yet their very presence within the white nuclear family also “forced Americans to broaden and revisit conceptions of race, kinship, citizenship, and national belonging” (p. 195). This occurred with varying degrees of success, but typically rested upon forcibly assimilating the adoptee into American culture at the loss of their Korean heritage. In conjunction with the forced assimilationist techniques, Woo notes how adoptees also experienced overt racism within their adoptive families.

A New American Comes “Home” joins existing scholarship in the field of Korean Adoption Studies, including Eleana J. Kim (Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), Kim Park Nelson (Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences and Racial Exceptionalism. Camden, NJ: Rutgers University Press, Forthcoming), Soojin Pate (From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), and Elise M. Prébin (Meeting Once More: The Korean Side of Transnational Adoption. New York: New York University Press, 2013). The impact of this work in the field of Korean Adoption Studies is akin to how Catherine Ceniza Choy’s recent monograph, Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America (New York: New York University Press, 2013), disrupts early narratives of Asian adoption. Woo effortlessly weaves an account of Korea’s earliest adoption practices and their lasting impact on contemporary adoption policies. A New American Comes “Home” provides ample evidence to consider the legacies of the earliest military camptowns and subsequent mixed race children in the current conditions of mixed race Koreans in contemporary society. While much as been written about the lives of adult adoptees and their community, Woo’s work is fertile ground for new discussions in how adoption is inherently tied to neocolonialism. Her historical narrative and examinations of how adoption was considered an asset to securing the United States’ image as a democratizing force throughout the world engages the work of cultural critics, Jodi Kim (Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and Cold War Compositions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and Christina Klein (Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Kimberly McKee
Assistant Professor, Department of Liberal Studies
Grand Valley State University

Primary Sources
International Social Services, Inc. Social Welfare History Archive. University of Minnesota.
Interviews with Korean child welfare agencies/orphanages
Rhee, Syngman Papers. Yonsei University. Seoul.
United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency. United Nations, New York.

Dissertation Information
Yale University. 2010. 378 pp. Primary Advisors: Matthew Frye Jacobson and Laura Wexler.

Image: A Korean orphan boy adopted by a U.S. Navy motor pool battalion at Inchon, Korea and nursed back to health. He is called “Number One” by the boys of the motor pool. June 6, 1951. Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Pretty good assessment of how babies and societies are exploited for one’s geopolitical agenda, using strategies of human psychology, poverty, social status, religion and cultural misunderstanding to manipulate.

    “Holt Adoption Program employees utilized aggressive tactics to coerce a child’s relinquishment for adoption. Holt Adoption Program methods exemplify how birth mothers, and by extension, birth fathers, were disciplined by wider Korean society.” -So true, thanks for stating it so clearly.

    Holt is still guilty of/responsible for continuing and encouraging these practices and for so much more, not to benefit children, but to benefit cold war geopolitical agendas or national economic agendas, at so much cost to children and families.

    Here’s another opinion/analysis on Korean overseas adoption:

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