Book Review: “To Save the Children of Korea”

When activists of the late-1960s began to brandish the phrase “the personal is political” it is unlikely any thought was given to the thousands of Korean children that had traversed the Pacific in the prior decade and a half. Yet, as Arissa Oh demonstrates in To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, the blurring of the private and the political took many forms including that of the emerging international adoption complex she assiduously explores in her book. Focusing on the birth and evolution of a practice that saw thousands of American families adopt “orphaned” Korean children, Oh charts the infusion of global implications into a once intensely private endeavor. Her book, in turn, examines issues as varied and significant as race, identity, class, gender, colonialism, victimhood, and privilege, all of which are invariably suffused with Cold War ideology from the period in focus.

That Oh is able to offer valuable comment on each of these is neither accidental nor surprising given the astounding complexity of her topic, a fact quickly apparent to any reader previously unfamiliar with the subject. To tackle it, she divides her book into the three parts. The first considers the roots of American interest in Korea in the 1950s, namely the experiences of young GIs, their interactions with the country’s youth, and their frequently unchecked propensity for adding to their host nation’s population. Oh’s discussion of the resulting “GI babies” provides fascinating, if frequently heartrending, testimony to the conflicting attitudes of Americans and Koreans towards the mixed-race children. Though America was hardly a paragon of racial harmony, it startlingly outpaced the rigid ethnocentrism of Korea at the time. Part two shifts focus to the development of formal adoption networks that sought to relocate the GI babies—for whom full integration into South Korean society was an impossibility—to volunteer families in the United States. Here, Oh speaks to the notion of “Christian Americanism,” a distinctly Cold War mindset that, she proposes, blended elements of Christianity with American exceptionalism impelling many to “rescue” Korean children. The Cold War, as Oh argues throughout, provided not merely the backdrop but often the justification and motivation for the practice’s popularity. The adoption process allowed ordinary American families the opportunity to actively and publicly participate in a generous democracy’s struggle against communism. Finally, part three considers the lasting impact of international adoption on both the United States and Korea, and how it further developed in subsequent decades.

Through each of these sections, To Save the Children of Korea offers frequently uneasy insight that at equal turns spares neither American nor Korean from any deserved rebuke. Nevertheless, Oh’s handling of the fraught topic is nuanced—as it ought to be—and attuned to the realities of the period. If Americans sought out Korean orphans to expand their dwindling supply of adoptable children at home, Koreans were all too willing to oblige, with the government ultimately relying on adoption instead of actual investment in child welfare. The symbiotic relationship that developed between the two nations explains both the longevity of the practice and the incentive to mask many of its ills. If the commodification of infants was but one of these failings, others included the indiscriminate use of the “orphan” label in Korea, the inadequately explained permanence of adoption to birth families, and the extended use of religious tests as substitute for proper background checks for adopters in America.

Still, Oh does not wholly discount many of the honest intentions present on both sides of the Pacific that genuinely sought to give children a “better” life than one promised to them in Korea. Further, she readily acknowledges the “progressiveness” of Asian adoption in a race divided America, a fact made all the more noteworthy by the largely conservative background of those adopting. As earlier mentioned, Oh’s analysis of the racial negotiation that occurred within these families and American society at large, is among the most interesting of book’s elements. Her argument deftly situates actual racial progress within the constraints of existing and not yet broachable black-white divides still persistent in American society.

If Oh’s work carries any weakness, however, it is that it does not consider frequently enough the implications of its topic on an individual level. Adoption, of course, is a rather intimate affair yet the most personal of the book’s elements seemed to be the included photographs of adoptees with their birth or American families. A bit more consideration to their experiences and outcomes—rather than a meager sentence or two—would have been appreciated. This is not to label the text as unaffecting, it is especially so at points, only absent the full human impact of what is written about.

Instead of personal accounts, then, Oh relies largely on governmental and organizational records and case files, archives of individuals, and media reports in addition to existing scholarship. As she herself attests at the outset, her work lies at the intersection of several fields of historical inquiry, making it of interest to one studying American families, adoption, the Cold War, or race. Perhaps most remarkable is how naturally the subject lends itself to each of these, a testament to the intertwining of American private and political life.

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