Little on Stephen R. Porter, 'Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed'

Stephen R. Porter
Branden Little

Stephen R. Porter. Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed. Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 296 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4856-2.

Reviewed by Branden Little (Weber State University) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2017) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Printable Version:

There’s No Place Like Home: Refugees and Their Discontents

Few historical studies could be more applicable to today’s political turmoil than Stephen R. Porter’s Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World’s Dispossessed. Porter’s monograph examines the myriad responses of Americans to refugee populations in the twentieth century and beyond. Benevolent Empire features seven chapter-length case studies that explore refugee-related developments from the era of the First World War to the aftermath of Vietnam. Special emphasis is placed on Jewish resettlement to the United States in the 1930s, the relocation of displaced Europeans after the Second World War, Hungarian refugee programs in the mid-1950s, and Cuban asylum seekers in the decades thereafter. The epilogue pushes the story to the cusp of the present-day Syrian cataclysm.

Porter persuasively demonstrates that favorable admissions policies have provided no panacea to distressed populations seeking new homes in the United States. Resettlement in American communities proved extraordinarily complicated. In many instances, Americans eagerly exploited new immigrants who were unwittingly trapped in sharecropping and other forms of servitude. Depressed labor markets that offered no substantive opportunities for employment further undermined refugees’ integration and bids for self-sufficiency. America’s mistreatment of the very peoples US officials and aid workers purported to be helping elicited justifiable criticisms. Sharp attacks on US policy and practices resulted. Critics included the peoples transplanted to the United States, other “displaced persons” who were abandoned in camps in Europe once American interest in their relocation waned, and foreign governments keen to indict as a sham American claims to being a beacon of liberty.

This chronicle of unpleasantries raises the question: in what ways can such ugliness be construed as benevolent? Porter makes a compelling case that the moniker “benevolent empire” fits because, promises and pitfalls aside, Americans energetically endeavored to extend mercy to the dispossessed. More than one million refugees entered the United States in the period Porter investigates. Many more millions of displaced persons overseas also received emergency aid services from a mixture of US and private American agencies. Certainly millions of dispossessed peoples would have perished without receiving American aid.

The “imperial” edifice that undergirds Porter’s Benevolent Empire comprised the swirling constellation of private- and state-initiated activity that attempted to reduce suffering in war-ravaged lands. American humanitarians customarily prioritized the projection of relief and reconstruction initiatives into a beleaguered nation. Resettlement in the United States, however, did not necessarily eliminate a refugee’s hardships. Benevolent Empire reveals that the Americans who mobilized to mitigate the misery of the dispossessed inadequately appreciated the complexities involved in fully transplanting refugees into American life. American aid organizations, moreover, expected that once a refugee had entered the United States and settled in a particular community the humanitarian duty to help had mostly ended.

The universal condition of many dispossessed peoples was one of enduring distress despite the relative tranquility of American life compared to existence in many refugees’ fractured homelands. Benevolence, therefore, was at best a palliative measure. The American dream did not universally extend to all refugees who relocated to the United States. Porter documents that some refugees (in camps overseas as well as those living in the United States) became so dismayed with American hostility and ineptitude that they returned home even when faced with persecution. Dozens of despondent victims committed suicide.

The richest chapters in Benevolent Empire interweave in-depth biographical treatments of refugees, humanitarian activists, and American officials. Porter’s narrative illuminates fascinating details, for example, about such obscure figures as James Becker, a Jewish American graduate of Cornell University. Becker served as a US soldier in the First World War, participated in Herbert C. Hoover’s postwar American Relief Administration, and then joined the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). As Becker was confronted by atrocity—chiefly pogroms in the Ukraine—his altruism evaporated and he yearned for revenge. Porter notes that Becker returned to the United States in the 1920s but drops the storyline. One wishes Porter’s biography of Becker’s “benevolence” would have continued. Becker’s later service on the JDC’s national council in the 1940s-50s easily could have been tied to the later periods in Benevolent Empire.

Awakened to the humanitarian catastrophe triggered by the First World War, American society and the US government invested extensively in relief and reconstruction. After the war, the federal government relied on private agencies to prescreen refugee dossiers and sponsor refugees by financing their resettlement. Porter establishes that American interest in helping overseas victims of war and discrimination never seriously waned despite virulent xenophobia and popular disenchantment with global affairs in the 1920s-30s. Once the welfare state enlarged during the New Deal and in the Second World War, the appetite of government to regulate private charitable activities enlarged substantially. Increasingly in the aftermath of the Second World War the state arrogated the power to perform humanitarian functions.

The decades-long pattern of refugee aid that Porter portrays is one in which a multitude of private agencies initiated relief projects that government institutions eventually absorbed or regulated. Porter observes that the federal government vigorously encouraged the centralization of relief services by ever larger and more powerful agencies—public and private. He aptly describes the ascendancy of government and its collusion with powerful relief organizations as “regulatory Darwinism” (p. 85). This bias toward wielding federal power through regulatory control, however, undercut the variety of relief initiatives that Americans traditionally embraced. Greater efficiencies and economies of scale resulted from this process, but it also weakened the American public’s activist sensibility, which was accustomed to providing limited aid to the downtrodden with little government support.

Porter uncovers shocking developments in the ostensibly humanitarian US Displaced Persons Program developed in the late 1940s. Avaricious scheming by southern planters ensured that Latvian refugees would be admitted to the United States as sharecroppers. A refugee’s debt peonage in the Mississippi Delta was soon replicated in other farmlands across the United States. Farmers actively sought cheap foreign labor and shielded their reputation from criticism through the benevolent guise of helping the victims of war. Porter highlights an audacious resident of Milwaukee and president of the Latvian Association of Wisconsin, Lauma Kasak, who raised money to purchase the freedom of several hundred immigrant sharecroppers trapped in Mississippi. Porter discovered headstones with Latvian surnames in a local Mississippi cemetery where the sharecroppers labored. Clearly some unfortunate souls never escaped this form of agrarian bondage. Even as it illuminates the underbelly of American humanitarianism, Benevolent Empire does not deeply penetrate the motivations of the Americans who endeavored to acquire European refugees as “stoop laborers” and domestic servants (p. 119). It is unlikely that the paternalistic American sponsors of refugee resettlement thought they were doing their wards any injustices.

Unsurprisingly, even as the Soviet Union blasted the United States for mistreating minorities, it remained silent about its own oppressive, long-term captivity of hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers. Another scholar, Andrew E. Barshay established in The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956 (2013) that the Soviet Union’s punitive forced labor of Japanese veterans continued upwards of a decade after Japan surrendered. The vulnerability of certain populations to the abuses by others in positions of preponderant power constitutes the common theme in Porter’s and Barshay’s investigations of this tumultuous postwar era. Resettlement in new lands and repatriation to homelands remained chronic challenges for millions of peoples whose experience with war did not simply end in 1945.

Displaced persons put into sharp relief the intimate relationship of civil and human rights to the ideological struggles of the Cold War. Benevolent Empire thus builds on the pioneering scholarship of Mary L. Dudziak (Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy [2000]) and Thomas Borstelmann (The Cold War and the Color Line [2009]) by connecting refugee rights advocacy to geopolitics. Porter shows that American programs for refugee aid overseas and resettlement in the United States affected America’s international reputation and relations. Done well, relief and resettlement could enhance America’s stature; done poorly, America’s image suffered—at least temporarily. Demonstrating little introspection and willingness to recalibrate programs for resettlement to address chronic problems, US government and private agencies continued to facilitate the relocation of the dispossessed. And apparently unwitting refugees remained convinced that starting a new life in America was a worthwhile endeavor to pursue.

A central feature in Porter’s, Dudziak’s, and Borstelmann’s studies is the contested definitions of citizenship. At precisely the same time that the United States admitted European refugees to the United States with the assumption they would be put on a pathway to full citizenship, the federal government energetically suppressed aspirations for Puerto Rican independence, while also denying full voting rights to the island’s inhabitants who were nonetheless US citizens. Yet just a few years later, in 1959, statehood was conferred on Hawaii, another American island possession. The rights of citizens within the “Greater United States,” as Daniel Immerwahr has recently dubbed these insular territories, varied considerably.[1]

Oftentimes the express limitations on rights emanated from racial discrimination in the continental United States toward peoples perceived as inferior. Porter emphasizes that even Europeans, including Hungarian revolutionaries who were branded as ardent anti-Communist heroes, were often treated no better by American society than most other minorities in the 1950s. Disadvantaged “second-class” Americans were incapable of wielding power effectively—this was, of course, a major theme of Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for economic justice. All chronically “dispossessed” Americans encountered hardships. Refugees, however, have been routinely left out of the standard civil rights narrative. Porter helps to establish their place in this important story. Despite the wide array of resettlement initiatives for refugees, Benevolent Empire intimates that many of the transplanted peoples simply enlarged the ranks of minorities and the poor. And as they competed for scarce social welfare benefits and charitable aid with other longstanding claimants, the refugees discovered blatant hostility. Clearly there were serious stress fractures in the foundation that comprised America’s Benevolent Empire.

Benevolent Empire interweaves a vast and growing literature on humanitarian relief, the international dimensions of American civil rights reform, immigration, and American political development. It would serve advanced undergraduate and graduate students well in any number of courses on these themes, in addition to American foreign relations and “America and the World” seminars. The book repeatedly demonstrates that there is no easy differentiation between domestic and foreign relations. Global affairs were always of intimate interest to Americans, Porter correctly insists.

Porter’s well-crafted study underscores the common feature of the refugee experience: misery. Customarily uprooted by violence, a refugee may remain vulnerable even after being transplanted by a benevolent empire. Undeniably many Americans wanted to help the dispossessed and downtrodden. The question of what constitutes genuine help endures.

Benevolent Empire should stand as a potent reminder that refugee resettlement and aid proved exceedingly difficult to orchestrate. In his epilogue, Porter sagely warns that the seemingly intractable problems associated with mass migrations from North Africa and the Middle East today cannot easily be solved. Relocation alone, he has shown, is no comprehensive solution to alleviating a refugee’s distress; humane resettlement has required expansive commitments that were rarely envisioned by communities that accepted newcomers. If there is any moral in Porter’s account, it would be the imperative need to more fully awaken the humanitarian sensibility among host-nation populations to admit extensive and long-lasting responsibilities for those unfortunate peoples whose homelands have been torn asunder.


[1]. Daniel Immerwahr, “The Greater United States: Territory and Empire in U.S. History,” Diplomatic History 40, no. 3 (2016): 373-391.

Citation: Branden Little. Review of Stephen R. Porter, Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2017. URL:

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