Battisti on Winslow, 'The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family'

Rachel Rains Winslow
Danielle Battisti

Rachel Rains Winslow. The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family. Politics and Culture in Modern America Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 344 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4910-1.

Reviewed by Danielle Battisti (University of Nebraska - Omaha) Published on H-Diplo (December, 2017) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

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In The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family, Rachel Rains Winslow sketches out the normalization of international adoption in twentieth-century America. In looking at the origins and character of international adoptions from Greece, Korea, and Vietnam after World War II, Winslow makes important contributions to the fields of US foreign relations, US immigration history, and the history of social welfare policy in the United States.

The first aim of the book is to examine how international adoptions moved beyond being episodic phenomena to become “an enduring and embedded institution” in the second half of the twentieth century (p. 2). In Winslow’s analysis, a conglomeration of interest groups exploited the politics and culture of the Cold War to promote the expansion of international adoptions largely for their own disparate purposes. Adoption proponents ranging from prospective parents, social workers, government officials, religious and humanitarian organizations, and the media all advanced programs, laws, and cultural representations of international adoptions that served to normalize and even glorify the resettlement of “destitute young children” who “pricked the collective conscience of post-World War II America” from their home countries to the United States. Cold War foreign policy objectives in Europe and Asia, as well as the adoptees’ “youth, flexibility, and lack of ties” to foreign lands, helped to make their cause successful (p. 3).

A secondary aim of the book is to show how international adoptions (and American social welfare programs more broadly) took place via a mix of public regulations and private institutions. Over the course of the twentieth century, social work professionals gradually convinced lawmakers to place more public regulation on the interest of children’s welfare within both domestic and international adoptions. However, the high point of their achievements failed to materialize until the 1960s. Moreover, even while international adoption became more regulated in the twentieth century, private sector forces continued to exert great influence over the nature and scope of international adoptions. Adoptive parents, religious organizations, free-market advocates, and government officials largely worked to keep international adoptions administered strictly through private channels. By mobilizing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private charities, consumer-oriented adoption agencies, and laws that kept international adoptions in the realm of immigration or refugee policy, rather than social welfare work, highly motivated private sector actors were relatively successful in keeping international adoptions reliant on voluntarism throughout much of the postwar period. 

Winslow also introduces four paradigms that characterized international adoption. These paradigms demonstrate ideological shifts about family and race in postwar America. Each serves as an explanatory model for understanding American foreign relations with adoptees’ sending states as well. The “consumer paradigm” of adoption, advanced most often by prospective parents and private adoption agencies, applied market solutions to social problems, such as “over-population” in a sending state or demand for children in the pronatalist postwar United States. Alternatively, social workers and other social welfare professionals tended to advance a “child welfare paradigm” that advocated the use of social scientific practices in child welfare casework to prioritize the interests of the child over all other factors. Other actors, including NGOS, religious organizations, and some lawmakers, advanced a “humanitarian paradigm” that viewed international adoption as a method of providing humanitarian or foreign aid to a population in need. Finally, as modernization theory caught on among a cohort of American policymakers, some actors advanced a “development paradigm” that placed international adoptions in the context of “rehabilitat[ing] indigenous social welfare infrastructures” (p. 6).

While Winslow begins by developing a narrative about domestic adoption practices in the early twentieth century, the bulk of the book is organized around case studies of international adoptions flowing from Greece, South Korea, and South Vietnam to the United States from the end of World War II to the 1970s. Winslow points out that the first international adoptions of note were those of European minors displaced by World War II as well as the children of American GIs in Europe and Asia. But if World War II put international adoptions on the map, the Cold War gave them a home. In this respect, Winslow’s work is a welcome addition that fills in gaps in scholarship that has examined how the Cold War affected US immigration and refugee laws—but has not accentuated how international adoptions also influenced policy constructions.[1] 

Adoptions from Greece are the first feature of Winslow’s study. Greece’s political and social destabilization following World War II (embodied in a civil war that pitted nationalist against communist factions) made it one of the first flash points of the Cold War. Winslow argues that prospective American parents’ desires to foster children, their sympathy for “blonde” (read: white) war orphans (p. 39), and American media attention to the situation encouraged Americans to take action on behalf of Greek orphans. The result was the emergence of a “gray market” for children dominated by the consumer paradigm of adoption. Winslow cites the domestic precedent of private agencies and individuals controlling adoption markets as influential in carrying over to Greece and further notes a lack of serious pressure to establish regulations over international adoptions. The result was that rather than coming under the auspices of the social welfare state and child welfare agents in the private sector, oversight of Greek orphans was folded into “emergency” legislation to relieve population pressures in postwar Europe—first the Displaced Persons Act (DPA, 1948) and then the Refugee Relief Act (RRA, 1953). Under this structure, private agencies and individuals without any social welfare training or concerns regulated the movement and placement of Greek children to the United States.

While this work is important for studying under-researched fields like American and Greek relations in the early Cold War and the nature of Greek immigration in the postwar period, there are some areas of concern in Winslow’s analysis. Winslow relies on media representations of middle-class American families rushing to incorporate sympathetic “waifs” into their affluent homes to construct the notion of a gray market existing in Greece. She also places heavy emphasis on the placement of international adoption in the realm of immigration/refugee law as laying “the framework for a laissez-faire approach to federal adoption policy” where consumer paradigms (notably embodied by proxy adoptions) could ultimately flourish (p. 45). But, as Winslow notes, “the few [Greek] orphans who did come to the United States were almost entirely adopted by relatives,” almost all Greek adoption cases were handled by a Greek American fraternal organization on the behalf of its own members, and the Greek government required orphans to be placed in first- or second-generation Greek families that adhered to the Orthodox faith (p. 46). Greater attention to recent scholarship that examines the lobbying of Euro-American ethnic groups (like Greek, Italian, and Jewish Americans) for immigration reform in this period would show that ethnic Americans often used “emergency” legislation like the DPA and the RRA to circumvent national origins quota restrictions with the end goal of bringing their relatives to the United States via “side-door” channels.[2] The fact that “95 percent of the Greek children available for adoption from 1950 to 1952 were older children with Greek relatives interested in adopting them” suggests an alternative contextualization of that migration stream. Moreover, Winslow notes that while other European nations were wary of American adoptions, Greece welcomed them. Greek welfare institutions only had the capacity to provide relief to roughly 40,000 out of 120,000 total orphans. Therefore, the nationalist government looked to international adoption as a means of “protect[ing] Greek children from further communist influence while also offering them increased economic opportunities” (p. 50). In that respect, American intervention in Greece via international adoptions looks more like an attempt to shore up the Marshall Plan and other forms of negotiated foreign aid with an anti-communist client-state than as a means to advance consumer-oriented adoption markets.[3]

Winslow’s following chapters on adoptions from Asia are more successful. In the case of Korean adoptions, Winslow joins a list of scholars including Arissa Oh, Christina Klein, and Sara Fieldston who show how Americans used the language of “humanitarianism,” friendship, love, and color-blind families to build lasting partnerships with Asian nations during the Cold War. Moreover, on a domestic front, Winslow’s examination of the well-known Holt Adoption Agency shows how private sector actors like the Holts were able to continue to wield control of adoptions over the objections of social welfare professionals by casting their actions in a humanitarian light. Child welfare agencies like International Social Services labored to place more state regulations in the interest of child welfare on international adoptions (working especially to eliminate proxy adoptions associated with consumer-driven markets), but those groups were only successful in achieving piecemeal reforms by using the anti-imperial language of racial equality to paint their cause as also progressing the United States’ humanitarian mission with allies abroad.

Winslow’s chapter on American adoptions of “American-fathered black Vietnamese children” offers valuable contributions to a number of fields but is especially significant for its contribution to scholarship on modernization theory. As was the case with so many development projects in Asia, Winslow aptly shows, Americans, in this case via the US Agency for International Development (USAID), failed to understand local attitudes toward multiracial orphans but instead transferred American assumptions about the racial undesirability of mixed-race children to South Vietnam.[4] USAID failed to recognize that black Vietnamese orphans would have a place in Vietnamese society. It was only black social workers, voicing “solidarity with global decolonization movements,” who argued that removing mixed-race children from South Vietnam would be harmful to the nation-building efforts underway in the country (p. 144). That narrative, as well as the subsequent chapter’s focus on the controversies surrounding the “babylifts” of some two thousand war orphans out of South Vietnam in the 1970s, demonstrates how domestic critiques of America’s mission toward largely nonwhite developing nations had powerful effects that ultimately shaped both American foreign relations and social welfare policies at home.

The strength of Winslow’s book is its ability to weave connections between domestic policy formation and US foreign relations. By looking at the discourse and policies surrounding adoptees during the Cold War, Winslow is at once able to analyze how “the best possible immigrants” were simultaneously seen as foreign policy tools—malleable figures who formed a link between the United States and their homelands—and as vulnerable children in need of protection from the social welfare state and private actors, such as future parents, religious organizations, and humanitarian groups. One of the most interesting questions uniting the two themes of the book is: where did these future Americans and yet “citizens of the world” ultimately hold membership (p. 213)? The answer to that question surely depends on who you ask. Winslow’s examination of how prospective parents, social workers, religious and humanitarian organizations, government officials, and the media tackled that question and other important issues concerning international adoptions in the postwar period is certainly worthy of consideration.


[1]. Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[2]. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 227-264; Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 176-218; Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy and the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 293-336; and Maddalena Marinari, “Divided and Conquered: Immigration Reform Advocates and the Passage of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act,” Journal of American Ethnic History 35, no. 3 (2016): 9-40.

[3]. An examination of international adoption in postwar Italy, where the ruling anti-communist government similarly sought to stave off communist influence via a variety of emigration programs, might yield similar conclusions. See Michele Colucci, Lavoro in movimento: L’emigrazione Italian in Europa, 1945-1957 (Rome: Donzelli, 2008).

[4]. Winslow also notes how American intervention in South Korea, where mixed-race children were considered a racial and cultural threat, was also influential.

Citation: Danielle Battisti. Review of Winslow, Rachel Rains, The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. December, 2017. URL:

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