The Cold War turned hot in Asia. Wars in Korea and Vietnam evidenced that the Cold War, the ideological contest between democracy and communism, met violent ends in the Pacific. While considered one of America’s “forgotten wars,” what unfolded in Korea sent geopolitical ripples around the world and had devastating consequences that would forever change Korea. The war claimed over three million Korean lives, the majority civilians. The United States played an outsized role in the conflict. The United States sent 350,000 servicemen, making up 90 percent of UN forces in Korea. What began as an effort to contain communism north of the 38th parallel, a dividing line drawn up by two US colonels in 1945, shifted to remove communism from the peninsula entirely. Fighting escalated in October 1950 when the People’s Republic of China entered on the side of North Korea. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on the peninsula, which is roughly the size of Minnesota. An August 1953 armistice brought an end to combat but not the war. Korea remained divided, only this time with more than half the population either killed, wounded, missing, or permanently separated from their families. The unended war went on to shape the geopolitical landscape of US-Korea relations, expanded the Korean diaspora, and had a disproportionate impact upon Korean civilians, especially women and children. In the United States, the violence of war was obscured by media that figured Koreans as wartime waifs, assimilating adoptees, and talented entertainers, like the Korean Children’s Choir and Kim Sisters, representations that fostered internationalist scripts of rescue and care. Images of Koreans as model Cold War citizens helped Americans move on from the war, while overwriting the actual experiences of displaced Korean women and children. Between 1953 and 1965, an estimated 7,700 Korean “war brides” and six thousand Korean and mixed-race adoptees arrived in interracial households scattered across a still-segregated United States. The migration of Korean women and children was directly tied to US militarization in South Korea. Camptowns catering to US servicemen that cropped up near bases during the war became permanent sites of prostitution. The presumption that Korean brides were former prostitutes was symptomatic of how the US military impacted the social construction of Korean women. Also resulting from US militarization was the birth of “GI babies.” The mixed-race children of US servicemen and Korean women anchored postwar missionary appeals for Americans to adopt from Korea, campaigns that opened the path to transnational adoptions. Ultimately, what transpired in Korea placed civilians at the crossroads of the Cold War navigating life in Korea, the United States, and spaces in between.
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.
David P. Fields
The United States and the Kingdom of Joseon (Korea) established formal diplomatic relations after signing a “Treaty of Peace, Commerce, Amity, and Navigation” in 1882. Relations between the two states were not close and the United States closed its legation in 1905 following the Japanese annexation of Korea subsequent to the Russo-Japanese War. No formal relations existed for the following forty-four years, but American interest in Korea grew following the 1907 Pyongyang Revival and the rapid growth of Christianity there. Activists in the Korean Independence movement kept the issue of Korea alive in the United States, especially during World War I and World War II, and pressured the American government to support the re-emergence of an independent Korea. Their activism, as well as a distrust of the Soviet Union, was among the factors that spurred the United States to suggest the joint occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1945, which subsequently led to the creation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the American zone and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the Soviet zone. The United States withdrew from the ROK in 1948 only to return in 1950 to thwart the DPRK’s attempt to reunite the peninsula by force during the Korean War. The war ended in stalemate, with an armistice agreement in 1953. In the same year the United States and the ROK signed a military alliance and American forces have remained on the peninsula ever since. While the United States has enjoyed close political and security relations with the ROK, formal diplomatic relations have never been established between the United States and the DPRK, and the relationship between the two has been marked by increasing tensions over the latter’s nuclear program since the early 1990s.
James I. Matray
On June 25, 1950, North Korea’s invasion of South Korea ignited a conventional war that had origins dating from at least the end of World War II. In April 1945, President Harry S. Truman abandoned a trusteeship plan for postwar Korea in favor of seeking unilateral U.S. occupation of the peninsula after an atomic attack forced Japan’s prompt surrender. Soviet entry into the Pacific war led to a last minute agreement dividing Korea at the 38th parallel into zones of occupation. Two Koreas emerged after Soviet-American negotiations failed to agree on a plan to end the division. Kim Il Sung in the north and Syngman Rhee in the south both were determined to reunite Korea, instigating major military clashes at the parallel in the summer of 1949. Moscow and Washington opposed their clients’ invasion plans until April 1950 when Kim persuaded Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that with mass support in South Korea, he would achieve a quick victory. At first, Truman hoped that South Korea could defend itself with more military equipment and U.S. air support. Commitment of U.S. ground forces came after General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. occupation commander in Japan, visited the front and advised that the South Koreans could not halt the advance. Overconfident U.S. soldiers would sustain defeat as well, retreating to the Pusan Perimeter, a rectangular area in the southeast corner of the peninsula. On September 15, MacArthur staged a risky amphibious landing at Inchon behind enemy lines that sent Communist forces fleeing back into North Korea. The People’s Republic of China viewed the U.S. offensive for reunification that followed as a threat to its security and prestige. In late November, Chinese “volunteers” attacked in mass. After a chaotic retreat, U.S. forces counterattacked in February 1951 and moved the line of battle just north of the parallel. After two Chinese offensives failed, negotiations to end the war began in July 1951, but stalemated in May 1952 over the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war. Peace came because of Stalin’s death in March 1953, rather than President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s veiled threat to stage nuclear strikes against China. Scholars have disagreed about many issues surrounding the Korean War, but the most important debate continues to center on whether the conflict had international or domestic origins. Initially, historians relied mainly on U.S. government publications to write accounts that ignored events prior to North Korea’s attack, endorsing an orthodox interpretation assigning blame to the Soviet Union and applauding the U.S. response. Declassification of U.S. government documents and presidential papers during the 1970s led to the publication of studies assigning considerable responsibility to the United States for helping to create a kind of war in Korea before June 1950. Moreover, left revisionist writers labeled the conflict a classic civil war. Release of Chinese and Soviet sources after 1989 established that Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong approved the North Korean invasion, prompting right revisionist scholars to reassert key orthodox arguments. This essay describes how and why recent access to Communist documents has not settled the disagreements among historians about the causes, course, and consequences of the Korean War.
Sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman faced the daunting tasks of winning the war and ensuring future peace and stability. Chided by critics for his lack of foreign policy experience but championed by supporters for his straightforward decision-making, Truman guided the United States from World War to Cold War. The Truman presidency marked a new era in American foreign relations, with the United States emerging from World War II unmatched in economic strength and military power. The country assumed a leadership position in a postwar world primarily shaped by growing antagonism with the Soviet Union. Truman pursued an interventionist foreign policy that took measures to contain Soviet influence in Europe and stem the spread of communism in Asia. Under his leadership, the United States witnessed the dawn of the atomic age, approved billions of dollars in economic aid to rebuild Europe, supported the creation of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, recognized the state of Israel, and intervened in the Korean peninsula. The challenges Truman confronted and the policies he implemented laid the foundation for 20th-century US foreign relations throughout the Cold War and beyond.
Gregg A. Brazinsky
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, America’s relationship with China ran the gamut from friendship and alliance to enmity and competition. Americans have long believed in China’s potential to become an important global actor, primarily in ways that would benefit the United States. The Chinese have at times embraced, at times rejected, and at times adapted to the US agenda. While there have been some consistent themes in this relationship, Sino-American interactions unquestionably increased their breadth in the 20th century. Trade with China grew from its modest beginnings in the 19th and early 20th centuries into a critical part of the global economy by the 21st century. While Americans have often perceived China as a country that offered significant opportunities for mutual benefit, China has also been seen as a threat and rival. During the Cold War, the two competed vigorously for influence in Asia and Africa. Today we see echoes of this same competition as China continues to grow economically while expanding its influence abroad. The history of Sino-American relations illustrates a complex dichotomy of cooperation and competition; this defines the relationship today and has widespread ramifications for global politics.
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
Since the late 19th century, the relationship between journalists and the makers of US foreign policy has been both cooperative and contentious. Reporters depend on government officials for information about policy decisions and their implementation. The White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon use the news media to build support for their policies and, at times, to communicate directly with allies and adversaries. Since World War I, presidential administrations have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to manage the news and influence public understanding of international affairs. Wartime censorship has been one tool of news management. Self-censorship, however, has also affected coverage of international affairs, as journalists have voluntarily refrained from publishing information for fear of impairing national security or undermining support for US wartime or Cold War policies. Allegations of bias and sensationalism became acrimonious during the Vietnam War and have continued to shape the debate about accurate, critical, and legitimate reporting. Arguments over “fake news,” which became commonplace during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, have many precursors, as both journalists and government officials have been responsible for misleading or distorted news coverage of international affairs since the Spanish–American War.
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.
Jane H. Hong
Laws barring Asians from legal immigration and naturalization in the United States began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and expanded to include all other Asian groups by 1924. Beginning in World War II, U.S. lawmakers began to dismantle the Asian exclusion regime in response to growing international pressure and scrutiny of America’s racial policies and practices. The Japanese government sought to use the U.S. Asian exclusion laws to disrupt the Sino-American alliance of World War II, causing Washington officials to recognize these laws as a growing impediment to international diplomacy and the war effort. Later, the Soviet Union and other communist powers cited U.S. exclusion policies as evidence of American racial hypocrisy during the Cold War. A diverse group of actors championed the repeal of Asian exclusion laws over the 1940s and early 1950s. They included former American missionaries to Asia, U.S. and Asian state officials, and Asian and Asian American activists. The movement argued for repeal legislation as an inexpensive way for the United States to demonstrate goodwill, counter foreign criticism, and rehabilitate America’s international image as a liberal democracy. Drawing upon the timely language and logic of geopolitics, advocates lobbied Congressional lawmakers to pass legislation ending the racial exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization eligibility, in support of U.S. diplomatic and security interests abroad.