Yuh on Oh, 'To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption'

Arissa H. Oh. To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. Asian America Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. 320 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9198-4; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9532-6.

Reviewed by Ji-Yeon Yuh (Northwestern University)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Once marked by a dearth of serious scholarship, international adoption is now the focus of several excellent studies. The latest entry in this emerging subfield, Arissa H. Oh’s historical analysis of the origins of international adoption makes a major contribution to our understanding not only of international adoption but also of the broad influence of the Cold War, the history of the American family, and the history of race in the United States. It also provides fascinating glimpses of the professionalization of social work, the circumstances that turned South Korea into the origin point for the international adoption industry, and the early role of Christianity. It may be tempting to view this book as a specialty book only for researchers studying adoption, but that would be a mistake, for the book is essential reading for everyone interested American history and society.

The book advances three main arguments. First, Oh contends that potential adoptive parents positioned adoption from Korea as supporting Cold War objectives and that this broke down public-private boundaries by making family a political concern. While most studies of domesticity during the Cold War argue that Americans turned inward, eschewing social and political issues to focus on hearth and home, Oh argues that this turning inward was accompanied by a turning outward as Americans argued for legislation that would permit them to create families by adopting children from other countries. Second, adopting from Korea changed the way Americans defined family, legitimating multiracial families and adoptive families. Third, while the promotion of Korean adoption was a strikingly progressive act during the Cold War era, it also reinforced racial constructs in that the acceptance of the Korean children hinged first on their American paternity and then on their complete cultural Americanization, that is, on their proximity to whiteness. She advances a subtle argument about the ways in which accepting Korean children into white American families seems to counter the black/white racial binary by adding Asians into the mix, but in the end actually reinforces that binary—and thus the racialization and racism that accompanies it—by making cultural whiteness the precondition for accepting Asians into the family.

The first two chapters outline the historical conditions that facilitated adoption. Chapter 1 discusses the phenomenon of Korean children adopted as “mascots” by a military unit and the ways in which being a mascot might lead to adoption by one of the soldiers but also, paradoxically, rendered a boy unfit for adoption, according to social workers’ standards and biases of the time. Chapter 2 explores the ways in which mixed-race babies born to Korean women and American soldiers were deemed a problem for South Korea, with the only solution being adoption overseas. In this chapter, Oh does a fine job of explicating the ways in which Korean ethnocentrism, Korean and American patriarchy, American racial thinking, American paternalism, and American individualism came together to conclude that mixed-race babies could not live normal lives in South Korea and that American citizens must take responsibility for the children of America’s soldiers. Her musings on the one-drop rule that defined racial blackness and its similarity to the idea that babies with American fathers and Korean mothers were American and not Korean is fascinating. But given that mixed Korean-black American babies were defined as black, one wishes that she would have gone further and explicate why in one case blackness is dominant while in the other case whiteness is dominant.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the development of systematic Korean adoption, starting with the “rescue” missions and baby lifts of Harry and Bertha Holt and ending with a system that swiftly turned children into orphans and became the template for international adoption globally. Here, Oh discusses the hesitations of professional social workers, who objected to the methods of the Holts, their religiosity, and their hostility to social workers. She also advances her thesis that “Christian Americanism” was a central ideology in the early years that helped popularize and justify Korean adoption. She defines Christian Americanism as a mix of American patriotism and simple Christian beliefs that focused on the importance of family and responsibility. While she makes a strong case for the importance of Christianity in the early years of Korean adoption, especially for the Holts who used conservative Christian beliefs as the standard for judging adoptive-parent fitness, it is unclear what exactly Christian Americanism is, why it died out in the 1960s as she argues, and what distinguishes it from other forms of American Christianity. The emphasis on family and an expansive sense of paternal responsibility that she identifies as central to Christian Americanism can be identified in other strands of American Christianity, including both mainline Protestant denominations and fundamentalist churches, so her argument that Christian Americanism was a particular school of thought that flourished for a few years and then died out is not entirely convincing.

These chapters shine, however, in their description of the ways that potential adoptive parents lobbied for special legislation (clauses in refugee laws that made it possible to bypass immigration laws that prohibited Asian immigration) to allow the entry of Korean children, the misgivings of social workers worried about the lack of training in the emerging Holt adoption behemoth, the drive and conviction of Harry Holt, and the construction of the Korean child as the perfect adoptable child whose rescue from Korea would in turn rescue the adoptive parents by providing them with an important mission. The sheer effrontery of the Holts as they pushed through special legislation is a lesson in both chutzpah and the privilege accorded to white families. The outright fraud committed by orphanages and social work agencies in creating a paper trail that rendered a Korean child an orphan is eye-opening, although well known to those who have followed the work of Korean adoptee activists, such as Jane Jeong Trenka. Most Korean orphans were not orphans at all, and many were not even children given up by unwed mothers. Instead, they were children left temporarily at orphanages by poor and desperate parents who intended to come back for them. Due to the high demand for adoptable children, these children were often turned into orphans on paper so that they could be sent overseas. Deann Borshay Liem in her unforgettable documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010) recounts how the girl who was supposed to be adopted by the Borshay family in California was taken back by her father in the nick of time, and Liem was sent in her place, with that girl’s name and made-up history.

The last two chapters outline how Korean adoption turned into international adoption, as the Korea case became the model for other countries. Oh describes how Korean adoptees became immigrants in the wake of the 1965 immigration reform and no longer had to rely on refugee laws, and how their image as the perfect adoptable child was solidified. She also explores the ways in which international adoption served as a safety valve for South Korea, allowing it to neglect social welfare policies as poor children and the children of unwed mothers replaced mixed-race children in the growing stream of children being sent to foreign couples. Beginning as a rescue mission, adoption from Korea turned into an international industry driven by the demand for adoptable children, and Oh traces the ways in which social workers met that demand through fraud and coercion. She identifies the dependent relationship between the United States and South Korea as critical to the development of the Korean adoption industry, from its inception under Harry Holt to its maturation under professional social workers and adoption agencies. Oh is extremely evenhanded in her discussion of such matters, to the point where sometimes she seems to downplay the misbehavior of those involved in the adoption industry and imputes to them good intentions. She writes, “The inconsistent and questionable methods applied to turn children into orphans, assess adoptive parents, and construct families were products of people trying to find their way in the brave new world of international adoption” (p. 113), without any apparent awareness that her own study explicates the ways in which these same people had their own interests—as social workers, government workers, rescuers with a mission, adoptive parents, etc.—in creating this new system of international adoption. A more pointed critique would have been welcome, but Oh presents sufficient evidence for readers to engage in their own critiques.

This book is likely to be compared to Catherine Ceniza Choy’s Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America (2013). Choy’s book is a broad-brush study that outlines the development of Asian adoption in the United States, only briefly examining Korea before turning to Hong Kong and China, World Vision, and the issue of adoptee narratives and the rhetorical construction of global families. Choy’s book is the expansive landscape, while Oh’s more narrowly focused study is the close portrait. Through a mix of careful readings of archival sources and an analysis of media reports, Oh reveals the centrality of Korea and the Cold War in the emergence of international adoption, and the ways in which adoption from Korea changed how America thinks about families and race.

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Citation: Ji-Yeon Yuh. Review of Oh, Arissa H., To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2015.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44535

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