Asian Americans and the Cold War
- Madeline Y. HsuMadeline Y. HsuDepartment of History, University of Texas at Austin
The global political divides of the Cold War propelled the dismantling of Asian exclusion in ways that provided greater, if conditional, integration for Asian Americans, in a central aspect of the reworking of racial inequality in the United States after World War II. The forging of strategic alliances with Asian nations and peoples in that conflict mandated at least token gestures of greater acceptance and equity, in the form of changes to immigration and citizenship laws that had previously barred Asians as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”1 During the Cold War, shared politics and economic considerations continued to trump racial difference as the United States sought leadership of the “free” capitalist world and competed with Soviet-led communism for the affiliation and cooperation of emerging, postcolonial Third World nations. U.S. courtship of once-scorned peoples required the end of Jim Crow systems of segregation through the repeal of discriminatory laws, although actual practices and institutions proved far more resistant to change. Politically and ideologically, culture and values came to dominate explanations for categories and inequalities once attributed to differences in biological race. Mainstream media and cultural productions celebrated America’s newfound embrace of its ethnic populations, even as the liberatory aspirations inflamed by World War II set in motion the civil rights movement and increasingly confrontational mobilizations for greater access and equality.
These contestations transformed the character of America as a multiracial democracy, with Asian Americans advancing more than any other racial group to become widely perceived as a “model minority” by the 1980s with the popularization of a racial trope first articulated during the 1960s. Asian American gains were attained in part through the diminishing of barriers in immigration, employment, residence, education, and miscegenation, but also because their successes affirmed U.S. claims regarding its multiracial democracy and because reforms of immigration law admitted growing numbers of Asians who had been screened for family connections, refugee status, and especially their capacity to contribute economically. The 1965 Immigration Act cemented these preferences for educated and skilled Asian workers, with employers assuming great powers as routes to immigration and permanent status. The United States became the chief beneficiary of “brain drain” from Asian countries. Geometric rates of Asian American population growth since 1965, disproportionately screened through this economic preference system, have sharply reduced the ranks of Asian Americans linked to the exclusion era and set them apart from Latino, black, and Native Americans who remain much more entrenched in the systems of inequality rooted in the era of sanctioned racial segregation.