Madeline Y. Hsu
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.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Racism and xenophobia, but also resilience and community building, characterize the return of thousands of Japanese Americans, or Nikkei, to the West Coast after World War II. Although the specific histories of different regions shaped the resettlement experiences for Japanese Americans, Los Angeles provides an instructive case study. For generations, the City of Angels has been home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Nikkei communities and the ways in which Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and institutions resonate with the resettlement experience elsewhere.
Before World War II, greater Los Angeles was home to a vibrant Japanese American population. First generation immigrants, or Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, forged dynamic social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions out of various racial exclusions. World War II uprooted the community as Japanese Americans left behind their farms, businesses, and homes. In the best instances, they were able to entrust their property to neighbors or other sympathetic individuals. More often, the uncertainty of their future led Japanese Americans to sell off their property, far below the market price. Upon the war’s end, thousands of Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles, often to financial ruin.
Upon their arrival in the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans continued to face deep-seated prejudice, all the more accentuated by an overall dearth of housing. Without a place to live, they sought refuge in communal hostels set up in pre-war institutions that survived the war such as a variety of Christian and Buddhist churches. Meanwhile, others found housing in temporary trailer camps set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), in areas such as Burbank, Sun Valley, Hawthorne, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. Although some local religious groups and others welcomed the returnees, white homeowners, who viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat to their property values, often mobilized to protest the construction of these camps. The last of these camps closed in 1956, demonstrating the hardship some Japanese Americans still faced in integrating back into society. Even when the returnees were able to leave the camps, they still faced racially restrictive housing covenants and, when those practices were ruled unconstitutional, exclusionary lending. Although new suburban enclaves of Japanese Americans eventually developed in areas such as Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Pacoima by the 1960s, the pathway to those destinations was far from easy. Ultimately, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles after their mass incarceration during World War II took place within the intertwined contexts of lingering anti-Japanese racism, Cold War politics, and the suburbanization of Southern California.
Crystal Mun-hye Baik
Korean immigration to the United States has been shaped by multiple factors, including militarization, colonialism, and war. While Koreans migrated to the American-occupied islands of Hawai’i in the early 20th century as sugar plantation laborers, Japanese imperial rule (1910–1945) and racially exclusive immigration policy curtailed Korean migration to the United States until the end of World War II. Since then, Korean immigration has been shaped by racialized, gendered, and sexualized conditions related to the Korean War and American military occupation. Although existing social science literature dominantly frames Korean immigration through the paradigm of migration “waves,” these periodizations are arbitrary to the degree that they centralize perceived US policy changes or “breaks” within a linear historical timeline. In contrast, emphasizing the continuing role of peninsular instability and militarized division points to the accumulative effects of the Korean War that continue to impact Korean immigration.
With the beginning of the American military occupation of Korea in 1945 and warfare erupting in 1950, Koreans experienced familial separations and displacements. Following the signing of the Korean armistice in 1953, which halted armed fighting without formally ending the war, the American military remained in the southern half of the Peninsula. The presence of the US military in South Korea had immediate repercussions among civilians, as American occupation engendered sexual intimacies between Korean women and US soldiers. Eventually, a multiracial population emerged as children were born to Korean women and American soldiers. Given the racial exclusivity of American immigration policy at the time, the US government established legislative “loopholes” to facilitate the migrations of Korean spouses of US soldiers and multiracial children adopted by American families. Between 1951 and 1964 over 90 percent of the 14,027 Koreans who entered the United States were Korean “war brides” and transnational adoptees. Since 1965, Korean spouses of American servicemen have played key roles in supporting the migration of family members through visa sponsorship.
Legal provisions that affected the arrivals of Korean women and children to the United States provided a precedent for US immigration reform after 1950. For instance, the 1952 and 1965 Immigration and Nationality Acts integrated core elements of these emergency orders, including privileging heterosexual relationships within immigration preferences. Simultaneously, while the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act “opened” the doors of American immigration to millions of people, South Korean military dictatorial rule and the imminent threat of rekindled warfare also influenced Korean emigration. As a result, official US immigration categories do not necessarily capture the complex conditions informing Koreans’ decisions to migrate to the United States.
Finally, in light of the national surge of anti-immigrant sentiments that have crystallized since the American presidential election of Donald Trump in November 2016, immigration rights advocates have highlighted the need to address the prevalence of undocumented immigrant status among Korean Americans. While definitive statistics do not exist, emergent data suggests that at least 10 percent of the Korean American population is undocumented. Given this significant number, the undocumented status of Korean Americans is a critical site of study that warrants further research.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, living primarily on the West Coast of the continental United States. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing formal apologies and checks for $20,000 to those still alive who had been unjustly imprisoned during WWII. In the interim period, nearly a half century, there were enormous shifts in memories of the events, mainstream accounts, and internal ethnic accountabilities. To be sure, there were significant acts of resistance, from the beginning of mass forced removal to the Supreme Court decisions toward the end of the war. But for a quarter of a century, between 1945 and approximately 1970, there was little to threaten a master narrative that posited Japanese Americans, led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), as a once-embattled ethnic/racial minority that had transcended its victimized past to become America’s treasured model minority. The fact that the Japanese American community began effective mobilization for government apology and reparations in the 1970s only confirmed its emergence as a bona fide part of the American body politic. But where the earlier narrative extolled the memories of Japanese American war heroes and leaders of the JACL, memory making changed dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s. In the years since Reagan’s affirmation that “here we admit a wrong,” Japanese Americans have unleashed a torrent of memorials, museums, and monuments honoring those who fought the injustices and who swore they would resist current or future attempts to scapegoat other groups in the name of national security.
The Japanese American Redress Movement refers to the various efforts of Japanese Americans from the 1940s to the 1980s to obtain restitution for their removal and confinement during World War II. This included judicial and legislative campaigns at local, state, and federal levels for recognition of government wrongdoing and compensation for losses, both material and immaterial. The push for redress originated in the late 1940s as the Cold War opened up opportunities for Japanese Americans to demand concessions from the government. During the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese Americans began to connect the struggle for redress with anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements of the time. Despite their growing political divisions, Japanese Americans came together to launch several successful campaigns that laid the groundwork for redress. During the early 1980s, the government increased its involvement in redress by forming a congressional commission to conduct an official review of the World War II incarceration. The commission’s recommendations of monetary payments and an official apology paved the way for the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and other redress actions. Beyond its legislative and judicial victories, the redress movement also created a space for collective healing and generated new forms of activism that continue into the present.
The “Chinese 49’ers” who arrived in the United States a decade before the American Civil War constituted the first large wave of Asian migrants to America and transplanted the first Asian cuisine to America. Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified at the national level as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home. At the end of the 19th century, food from China began to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation, and by 1980 Chinese food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, aided by a renewal of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese food also has been a vital economic lifeline for Chinese Americans as one of the two main sources of employment (laundries being the other) for Chinese immigrants and families for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience.
The multiple and often divergent trends in the U.S. Chinese-food industry show that it is at a crossroads today. Its future hinges on the extent to which Chinese Americans can significantly alter their position in the social and political arena and on China’s ability to transform the economic equation in its relationship with the United States.
Amanda C. Demmer
It is a truism in the history of warfare that the victors impose the terms for postwar peace. The Vietnam War, however, stands as an exception to this general rule. There can be no doubt that with its capture of the former South Vietnamese capitol on April 30, 1975, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam won unequivocal military victory. Thereafter, the North achieved its longtime goal of reuniting the two halves of Vietnam into a new nation, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), governed from Hanoi. These changes, however, did not alter the reality that, despite its military defeat, the United States still wielded a preponderant amount of power in global geopolitics. This tension between the war’s military outcome and the relatively unchanged asymmetry of power between Washington and Hanoi, combined with the passion the war evoked in both countries, created a postwar situation that was far from straightforward. In fact, for years the relationship between the former adversaries stood at an uneasy state, somewhere between war and peace. Scholars call this process by which US-Vietnam relations went from this nebulous state to more regular bilateral ties “normalization.”
Normalization between the United States and Vietnam was a protracted, highly contentious process. Immediately after the fall of Saigon, the Gerald Ford administration responded in a hostile fashion by extending the economic embargo that the United States had previously imposed on North Vietnam to the entire country, refusing to grant formal diplomatic recognition to the SRV, and vetoing the SRV’s application to the United Nations. Briefly in 1977 it seemed as though Washington and Hanoi might achieve a rapid normalization of relations, but lingering wartime animosity, internal dynamics in each country, regional transformations in Southeast Asia, and the reinvigoration of the Cold War on a global scale scuttled the negotiations.
Between the fall of 1978 and late 1991, the United States refused to have formal normalization talks with Vietnam, citing the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and the need to obtain a “full accounting” of missing American servicemen. In these same years, however, US-Vietnamese relations remained far from frozen. Washington and Hanoi met in a series of multilateral and bilateral forums to address the US quest to account for missing American servicemen and an ongoing refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Although not a linear process, these discussions helped lay the personal and institutional foundations for US-Vietnamese normalization.
Beginning in the late 1980s, internal, regional, and international transformations once again rapidly altered the larger geopolitical context of US-Vietnamese normalization. These changes led to the resumption of formal economic and diplomatic relations in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Despite this tangible progress, however, the normalization process continued. After 1995 the economic, political, humanitarian, and defense aspects of bilateral relations increased cautiously but significantly. By the first decade of the 21st century, US-Vietnamese negotiations in each of these areas had accelerated considerably.
Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.