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date: 24 March 2017

Asian Americans and the Cold War

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Cold War, model minority, refugees, 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, civil rights movement, international education, transnational adoption, Korean War, War Brides Act, decolonization

The Cold War amplified international relations pressures upon U.S. domestic race relations that compelled the dismantling of open racial segregation and fostered the emergence of new systems of inequality that greatly advanced the status of Asian Americans but in the guise of the problematical model minority. America’s global struggle against communism imbued Asian nations and Asian peoples with previously unthinkable strategic importance. Through considerations of politics and economic competition, Asians gained enough standing to require gestures of courtship and friendship from Americans that contributed to passage of new immigration laws granting growing rights of entry and citizenship and improved access to employment, education, and residential dispersion. Asian immigration increased and diversified through family reunification—chiefly of wives, military spouses, adoptees, parents and children, refugees, and growing ranks of students and cultural, professional, and economic exchange participants. The face of Asian American communities transformed with better gender balance and more families, better educated and more middle-class immigration, and the proliferation of mixed-race families.

In addition to the demographic transformations enabled with minor reforms of immigration laws, U.S. domestic racial hierarchies shifted with the emergence of postcolonial, Third World nations with seats in the United Nations and competition from the Soviet Union for their support. The justified critique of Jim Crow forced the United States to discard at least the most egregious forms of segregation, a set of reforms spearheaded by judicial decisions setting aside racist laws in the realms of property ownership, miscegenation, employment, and education. In practice, however, integration and full inclusion have proved harder to realize although Asian Americans have made advances far more readily than African, Latino, or Native American counterparts, as explored by scholars of comparative race and ethnicity. Attempts at coalitional political organizing, despite some early successes, tended to founder against these differentiated constructions of racial difference and possibilities.

Military Empire and Racial Intimacy

America’s post–World War II campaign for global leadership led it to intensify efforts to accumulate and extend its influence across the Pacific. The unanticipated “loss” of China to the Communists provoked a maelstrom of recriminations and hard-line commitments to securing beachheads of American dependencies—styled as fellow democracies and capitalist partners—against the sinisterly inexplicable expanding threat of communism. To this end, the United States increased the scope and degree of its engagements in East and Southeast Asia in ways that in turn reshaped domestic ideologies and practices of immigration restriction, citizenship, and race relations with transformative consequences for the numbers, characteristics, and trajectories of Asians in the United States. The newly decolonized Philippines experienced many of the kinds of programs reflecting America’s extending reach into Asia such as the establishing of bases for military operations, patronage of politically dependent leaders, provision of economic guidance and resources, aid for refugees and other kinds of humanitarian needs, and technical, cultural, and educational exchanges. Other Asian allies such as Japan, “Free China” on Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and South Vietnam similarly became targets of such American imperialist projects.

During the international conflicts of World War II and the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy ambitions in Asia entwined with the state of domestic race relations to require immigration reforms and greater integration of Asian Americans who served as evidence for America’s functioning multiracial democracy. Asian Americans faced diminishing barriers and greater opportunities as a minority population whose numbers could be suppressed through immigration controls—which could sharply limit their numbers while selecting for those bearing greatest economic benefits to the United States in the form of education and scientific training and skills, or through family reunification. These new roles fueled the dismantling of the legal and institutional infrastructure of Asian exclusion, a process that reveals the new priorities and strategies that promoted greater integration of Asian Americans even as they generated new, and less visible, forms of inequality that persist to this day.

These efforts had unanticipated but wholly explicable outcomes in serving both to humanize and to domesticate Asian political allies, making them more welcome as visitors, collaborators, workers, immigrants, and potential U.S. citizens through the piecemeal breakdown of immigration restrictions which had previously conceptualized Asians as intrinsically foreign, inassimilable, and therefore necessary targets for exclusion. Extensive overseas military deployments during and after World War II offered greater opportunities for the forging of international, often interracial friendships, romances, and family relationships. However, the system of highly restrictive, race- and national-origins based immigration quotas imposed by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act and its antecedents made it nearly impossible for many of the foreign partners in most such pairings to enter and reside with their spouses or fiancés in the United States. The valor and sacrifices of America’s military personnel required that Congress pass the so-called War Brides Act in 1945 to honor their patriotism and family bonds.

This law, however, accommodated only some Asian spouses and fiancées. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act had prohibited altogether the immigration of “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” a legal category referring to Asians based on longstanding prohibitions against their rights to citizenship by naturalization. Wartime alliances had gradually reduced such discriminations, with first Chinese gaining repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws and naturalization rights in 1943, then Filipinos and Indians becoming eligible in 1946. As wartime enemies, Japanese were the last major Asian group to attain access as war brides. Although incarcerated en masse during World War II as “enemy aliens,” the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) nevertheless pressed Congress to acknowledge the demonstrated heroism and loyalty of the 442nd Infantry Regiment of Nisei—second-generation Japanese American—soldiers and to uphold constitutional guarantees of equality to also admit Japanese spouses and fiancées. In passing the amendment to do so in 1947, Congress elevated Constitutional ideals over previously legislated, and judicially upheld, race-based inequities in immigration laws while also tacitly acknowledging the legality of mixed-race marriages two decades before the Supreme Court abolished anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia. At first, the military establishment made it procedurally difficult for white and black Americans and their Japanese partners to qualify but in the decades since, military marriages of primarily Asian women to American men has been a major route of entry into America and has resulted in the highest levels of out-marriage in populations hosting American military bases such as Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Vietnamese.2

Military deployments fostered other forms of intimacy that produced new immigration flows which placed Asians into mixed-race American families. War, occupation, and the long-term presence of military bases perhaps inevitably produced orphans, mixed-race, and impoverished children who became ready subjects for American succor. Bedraggled children were the most alluring recipients of G.I. generosity presented in the form of much appreciated candy and gum. Such innocently friendly encounters masked the seamier reality that the significantly greater material comforts and wealth associated with American bases and personnel fostered extensive ancillary services in the form of nightlife, entertainment, and prostitution businesses among local populations. Through the series of American military ventures into Asia—World War II, the Korean War, the occupation of Japan, bases in Thailand, Taiwan, and Okinawa, and the Vietnam War—Americans encountered impoverished, orphaned, or cast-off biracial children demanding American sympathy. Celebrity advocates such as the author Pearl Buck and the evangelists Harry and Bertha Holt urged fellow Americans to undertake the benevolence of inter-country, transracial adoptions. Starting in 1948, refugee legislation provided for the entry of adopted children although initially these laws were framed with Europeans in mind. The Holts spearheaded the popularization of adoption from Asia, particularly with the Korea War, through a well-publicized, successful campaign for Congress to pass special legislation that allowed them to adopt eight Korean children. Their successful encouragement of fellow Americans to undertake salvation of needy Asian children evolved from longstanding American missionary projects in Asia that had been disrupted by the divides of the Cold War. The growing embrace of Asians as members of mixed-race families signals the dissipation of the racialization of Asians as essentially different and foreign.

Dismantling Asian Exclusion

During World War II, the importance of strategic alliances and the diminished power of eugenicist thinking tipped the balance toward the dismantling of Asian exclusion with the growing realization that Asians could be valued as friends and family members. As America’s chief ally in the region, China benefited first with the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws in 1943, a skillfully managed campaign that deployed the Christian, U.S.-educated Madam Chiang Kai-shek as a highly persuasive example of how compatible and deserving of U.S. citizenship Chinese could be. Congress voted to grant Chinese naturalization rights and placed them on the same immigration quota system as other “aliens eligible for citizenship,” which allowed admission for only 105 each year. Fellow Asian allies, India and the Philippines, gained similar status with the Luce-Celler Act of 1946. Even the former war enemy of Japan was recuperated when the unexpected communist victory in the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War turned it into the most vital of U.S. supporters.

The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 ended Asian exclusion altogether by abolishing the racial bar on citizenship by naturalization. It nonetheless affirmed congressional commitment to the discriminatory quota system of 1924 while providing for non-quota immigration by immediate family members such as spouses, minor children, and parents although not transnational adoptees. Opposed by immigration reformers but supported by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the McCarran-Walter Act granted Asians symbolically significant but tiny, token quotas and capped annual immigration from the Asia-Pacific Triangle at two thousand, tracked by racial ancestry rather than national origins or citizenship. The law provided immigration quotas for all nations, even newly postcolonial states in previously barred regions of the world, introduced a preference system privileging workers with skills needed in the United States and close relatives, and granted the attorney general powers to parole refugees into the United States. These measures did not satisfy immigration reformers and President Harry Truman utilized his veto which Congress nonetheless voted overwhelmingly to overturn. The legislative branch was not yet prepared to follow the executive branch’s view that foreign relations required greater change in U.S. immigration laws.

The modest reforms implemented with the McCarran-Walter Act only fueled continuing agitation for more liberal terms. Refugee relief provided a focal point for the broadening array of ethnic, religious, and human rights organizations demanding greater admissions for populations with low quotas. In parallel with the vision of shared humanity that justified greater immigration rights for Asian war brides, admissions of refugees, students, and trainees highlighted shared political causes and economic values against the backdrop of America’s responsibility to provide humanitarian relief to its allies. For example, the 1948 Displaced Persons Act did not allocate any visas to Asians but allowed thousands already resident in the United States to adjust their status rather than be forced back to homelands that had fallen to communism. In perhaps the most striking demonstration of these reworked priorities, Congress took the unprecedented step of directing unused war relief funds to aid Chinese students and technical trainees who lost their funding and homeland with the anticipated victory of Mao Zedong in 1948. About twelve thousand highly select Chinese, with powerful connections and elite academic credentials, were thus able to remain in the United States, with many completing degrees to the level of PhDs, and obtain legal employment. This considerable break from the discriminations of the Asian exclusion era resulted in part from heightened sympathy for Chinese lingering from World War II propaganda and from practical considerations that such highly educated and talented individuals should not be forced into communist hands. The most visible of these “stranded students” included Li Zhengdao (T. D. Lee) and Yang Zhenning (C. N. Yang) who would share the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics and provided potent evidence that America should liberalize its immigration laws to account for individual abilities, potential for contributing to the United States, and shared political goals, rather than race and national origins in admitting new immigrants.

The politics of refugee admissions advanced the possibility of viewing Asians as compatriots and allies, rather than as fundamentally racially incompatible. The 1953 Refugee Relief Act, passed in response to the limitations of the McCarran-Walter Act, allocated a total of 214,000 refugee visas with 2,000 designated for Chinese and 3,000 to other recipients in the Far East generally. Congress thereby conveyed its preoccupation with European affairs, but at the steadfast urging of Congressman Walter Judd of Minnesota, who had also led the charge for repeal and quotas for Asian nations in the McCarran-Walter Act, gestured toward superficial forms of equity. Successive refugee acts of 1956 and 1957 redirected unused visas from the European quotas to Asians, particularly Chinese, who remained in need of new homes. The Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs within the State Department sought to use the programs to highlight American benevolence overseas and its functioning domestic democracy by ensuring smooth resettlement even as it attempted to reassure Americans that refugee admissions, often of peoples kept out by the existing quota system, presented no strain upon the American economy, social dynamics, or political security. Its publicity stressed the family values, educational attainments, work ethic, political conformity, and ready assimilability of those granted refugee visas. In the case of Chinese, these efforts were so successful that in 1962, when a resurgence of refugee arrivals into Hong Kong spurred global outbursts of alarm and sympathy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy was able to authorize with bipartisan Congressional support the parole of 15,111 into the United States, a decision also intended to underscore the inadequacy of existing immigration laws.3 Although relatively unknown, this parole of Chinese refugees laid groundwork for the much larger, more emotional parole of 130,000 Vietnamese with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the continuing admissions of refugees from Southeast Asia that totaled 400,000 by 1980. Such powerful attachments fueled the legal claims of American families who demanded reforms to secure their access to would-be Asian adoptees. Intercountry, transracial adoptions were feasible under piecemeal refugee legislation but continued advocacy by highly outspoken evangelical Christian groups transformed the public image of destitute Asian children from that of refugees to valued potential family members, thereby persuading Congress to permanently legislate adoptees as eligible for non-quota family admissions in an act of September 26, 1961.4

Further pressures for immigration reforms derived from economic considerations of Asians as valuable potential contributors. After World War II, Congress and the State Department sought to promote American influence through educational and cultural exchanges, priorities embodied perhaps most visibly by the Fulbright program. Leadership and technical training programs targeted potential future leaders from developing, allied nations for junkets to expose them to the democracy, and advanced economic and scientific civilization of the United States. State Department programs brought the numbers of international students to unprecedented levels at several thousand per year without any quota restrictions. Tens of thousands of Asians entered the United States by this route, often specializing in STEM (science, technology, education, and medicine) fields, which facilitated their search for legal employment after graduation. Admission through a student visa provided no set pathway to permanent status although administrative practices and occasional legal adjustments nonetheless enabled this flow of educated elites chiefly from Taiwan, India, and South Korea to resettle permanently in a migration pattern that became known by the mid-1960s as “brain drain.” In the case of Taiwan, the most severely afflicted through the 1970s, about 90 percent of such students remained in the United States. The Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) was another example of a “temporary” training program, first established in 1948, that resulted in permanent resettlement of skilled or professional workers. Under the EVP, about eleven thousand Filipina nurses arrived to work in the United States between 1956 and 1968 with many finding ways of remaining in the United States by marriage, reapplication, or migration to Canada, often with the facilitation of the hospitals in which they worked.5

Like their “stranded student” predecessors, many Asian students, particularly those trained in the sciences and engineering, found means to legally remain in the United States although often in transient statuses. Some did so through the refugee laws, others through stays of deportation that privileged applicants for “first preference” admission as those with skills needed in the United States, marriage to citizens, and private bills to Congress. The expanding American economy, and in particular the hotly contested nuclear arms and space races against the Soviet Union, rendered such individuals highly employable with consequences for reforms of immigration law. Public Law 87-885, passed in 1962, removed quota restrictions on thousands of first-preference applicants waiting in line for permanent residency, a privileging of economically useful immigrants that only increased with passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act and its employment and investment preference system. Once-excluded populations of Asians became the leading group of brain drain immigrants to the United States as medical personnel, engineers, scientists, and other employees with useful skills. Cold War politics had laid the foundations for the dramatic transformations of Asian immigration usually credited to the 1965 Immigration Act. These transformations consolidated with evenly allocated national admissions caps of twenty thousand for countries in the eastern hemisphere, preferences for family reunification (75 percent), skilled workers with needed expertise (20 percent), and permanent allocations for refugees (5 percent) along with consideration for investors. Since 1965, the Asian American population has grown at geometric rates shaped by these priorities.

New Immigration Flows

As a largely immigrant population, even minor shifts in immigration laws produced significant changes among Asian American populations. The Cold War witnessed increasing diversity along vectors of sociocultural capital, class, gender, family status, generation, access to mainstream employment and suburban residence, and places of origin, with many of the new arrivals construed as outsiders to established communities for various reasons. Although many Asians immigrated through the family reunification clauses of the McCarran-Walter Act or as refugees sponsored by relatives or friends, thousands of others entered without ties to Asian Americans largely mired in the working-classes and small ethnic businesses. For example, 84,000 Japanese foreign spouses immigrated from 1945 until 1985, constituting over half of the total immigration of 154,000 Japanese. Apart from those who married Nisei, most were situated in the United States through the families and communities of white or black military spouses. Between 1965 and 1975, an almost entirely new immigration of about 8,000 Vietnamese war brides also emerged. Most Koreans entering from 1951 until 1964 did so without ties to the relatively small Korean American community, in the form of about 6,500 war brides, 6,300 adoptees children, and 6,000 students. From 1959 until 1965, 70 percent of Koreans arriving as immigrants were women under the status of military spouses. Mixed in with these largely unskilled workers were 6 percent arriving as professionals and managers, indicating that even before 1965, Koreans had begun shifting toward arriving with greater education and skills. With college and advanced degrees, those arriving as students could then become brain drain immigrants who nonetheless also experienced some discrimination in employment and residential selection. Through such influxes, the tiny population of about 7,500 Koreans in 1950 multiplied five-fold to about 45,000 in 1965 and had exploded to 357,393 by 1980.6

Between 1952 and 1965, Japanese immigrated in greater numbers than any other Asian nationalities, primarily as war brides and other family reunification statuses. Japanese remained the largest Asian American population from 1910 until 1970, after which immigration by other Asian nationalities overtook them in numbers. Although most of these shin issei arrived without professional or technical backgrounds, the Japanese American community’s overall educational and employment profiles improved. After 1924, growing numbers of Nisei and then Sansei had attended college, many through the G.I. bill after 1945, and became a core of professional doctors, dentists, and lawyers.7

From 1940 to 1960, the Chinese American population more than doubled from 106,334 to 237,292, in large part through natural increase as women joined husbands and sons through family reunification categories. By 1965, about 55 percent of Chinese Americans were American-born. However, perhaps the most visible of Chinese Americans during these years were immigrants arriving with technical, scientific, and professional skills—such as the computer entrepreneur An Wang who found Wang Computers—who reached previously unattainable levels of success and integration. In conjunction with growing numbers of American-born entering technical and professional fields, these new immigrants contributed to the segmented representation of Chinese Americans in the labor market characterizing the early 21st century. By 1980, Chinese had overtaken Japanese to become the largest ethnic population at 812,178.8

Asian Indians started exhibiting this bifurcation as well. A small group before World War II, Asian Indians continued to immigrate in low numbers before 1965 with the population increasing from only 2,405 in 1940 to about 50,000 in 1965 and doubled each decade afterward to reach 387,223 in 1980. Much of this new immigration consisted of western educated intellectuals and wealthy fleeing the leftward turn in India’s government.9

The shifts in immigration law brought greater gender balance to the largely male Filipino American community. World War II brought those serving in the U.S. military service the opportunity for naturalization, which several thousand Filipinos undertook annually through the 1940s and 1950s, and thereby gained the ability to bring over wives and children. Through these processes, by 1965, the numbers of adult Filipino men and women had reached parity. For this reason, despite relatively modest immigration numbers, the community did grow through natural increase from 122,707 in 1950 to 176,310 in 1960. Among low numbers of immigrants, increasing percentages arrived as professionals, growing from 9.2 percent in 1959 to 18.1 percent in 1963. Filipino numbers also grew at geometric rates to reach 343,040 in 1970 and 781,894 in 1980.10

Entering the Mainstream

Despite improving immigration access for Asians during the 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War also imposed greater pressures for political conformity, presenting both crisis and opportunity for Asian Americans. As described previously, military valor during World War II set the Japanese American community on the path toward full recuperation by 1952 and the fraught anticommunist struggle turned Japan into America’s key alley in the western Pacific. Chinese Americans, however, faced particular suspicions with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The highly politicized “loss of China” fueled the earliest of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts and continued as a key security issued pressed by the China Lobby which managed to delay the PRC’s entry into the United Nations until 1971. Long-standing practices of immigration through fraudulent statuses—the so-called paper son system—drew close scrutiny as a possible means of entry for communist spies. This threat and the powers to apprehend and detain suspected spies and saboteurs legislated in the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act notwithstanding, the U.S. executive branch government did not replicate its summary incarceration of all West Coast Japanese Americans as racialized “enemy aliens” during World War II, instead scrutinizing Chinese Americans on the basis of political activities and providing means for them to normalize their status.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implemented the highly controversial Confession Program in 1956 in efforts to induce Chinese Americans to voluntarily reveal their paper son lineages in exchange for regularized status and use of their real names. After decades of mistreatment by immigration authorities, only about one-quarter of Chinese Americans participated, most unwillingly implicated in the confessions of others. Evidence of fraudulent entry gained in this way was used to deport those Chinese Americans suspected of leftist sympathies. For self-protection, many Chinese American individuals and organizations claimed allegiance to the Nationalist government on Taiwan, a key American ally in the fight against communist China. The mishandled case of the brilliant Cal Tech rocket scientist Qian Xuesen vividly illustrated how political paranoia entwined with immigration enforcement in identifying “good” Chinese and deporting the “bad.” When he attempted to visit his parents in China in 1950, Qian was accused of past communist party membership despite his recent conversion to U.S. citizenship and marriage to the daughter of a prominent Nationalist official. Qian was placed under house arrest and refused access to research facilities. After five years of such treatment, Qian was eager to leave when his name appeared at the top of a 1955 PRC list of persons to be exchanged in return for American Korean War POWs. Qian returned to found the PRC’s rocket program, in what is often seen as a significant loss to the United States in a key example of how Cold War zealotry generated unnecessary and destructive divides.

Toward the goal of improved integration, Asian Americans gained political ground by exhibiting their American patriotism through the embrace of democratic and capitalist values. The immigrant Dalip Singh Saund became a U.S. citizen by naturalization as soon as legally permitted and was the first South Asian and Asian American elected to Congress in 1956. With Japan’s emergence as a key American ally in East Asia, the Japanese American Citizens League led the campaign to parlay the heroism of the 442nd, which received a sympathetic Hollywood treatment in the 1951 movie “Go for Broke!,” and Japanese American acquiescence to incarceration, to claim a fuller set of civil rights. After 1952, Issei rushed to claim the citizenship that had long been denied to Asians just a few years after being interned as enemy aliens. Incarceration had dismantled West Coast Japanese American communities, leading some to resettle in the Midwest, South, and East Coast states where they had been imprisoned or released. Such patterns were interpreted by some observers as positive indicators that Japanese Americans were finally integrating. Lack of employment opportunities, however, led most Japanese Americans to re-congregate on the West Coast. The back of the ethnic enclave economy had been broken, however, and Japanese Americans found jobs in gardening and domestic service while growing numbers of American-born Nisei and Sansei with college educations were able to enter white collar and professional fields. Military service with its ensuing veterans’ benefits, the throwing out of discriminatory residential covenants, and mandates to integrate workplaces and schools, provided access to middle-class residences and employments which contributed to impressions that Japanese Americans were attaining upward social mobility. The apparent successes of Japanese Americans, after the discriminations of World War II, would provide fodder for one of America’s most powerful claims to have attained equity as a functioning multiracial democracy.

The imperative of integration required that the territory of Hawaii finally attain its almost forty-year quest for statehood in 1959. Before World War II, a coterie of southern conservatives had steadfastly opposed Hawaii’s admission to the union, fearing that the majority ethnic Asian population would elect an “Oriental” representative to Congress. The Cold War rendered such racial rationales insupportable, and the longest campaign for conversion from territory to state finally ended with Hawaii gaining equal status. As anticipated, it sent the Japanese American Democrat Daniel Inouye and the Chinese American Republican Hiram Fong to Congress where they became advocates on behalf of Asian American concerns such as redress for incarceration and immigration reform.

Culture and Integration

During the Cold War, popular cultural products celebrated ethnic cultures, interracial friendships, and even advocated for acceptance of miscegenation. Mainstream publishing houses issued autobiographical writings by ethnic Asian writers such as Jade Snow Wong (Fifth Chinese Daughter, 1950) and Monica Sone (Nisei Daughter, 1953) that revealed for general audiences the struggles of American-born Asians to carve an identity and sense of home from the often conflicting burdens of family and tradition and the racial exclusions of the United States. As do many other ethnic immigrant narratives, Wong and Sone’s accounts produced the happy endings of racialized American individuals finding their sense of belonging and purpose in the United States.

In contrast to the blatantly stereotypical literary and film depictions of Asians that prevailed in the pre–World War II era, such as the series of novels and movies featuring Sax Rohmer’s diabolical Fu Manchu and Earl Derr Biggers’s obsequious Charlie Chan, Cold War cultural productions—on page, stage, and screen—celebrated ethnic communities and peoples while emphasizing American commitments to inclusion of Asians in America and outreach to Asian peoples and cultures overseas. The Chinese immigrant author C. Y. Lee’s 1957 novel, Flower Drum Song, became the basis for Rogers and Hammerstein’s highly successful Broadway musical in 1958, which in turn produced the popular screen adaptation of 1961 memorably featuring Nancy Kwan in celebrating Chinese American ethnicity in the picturesque setting of San Francisco’s Chinatown. “Flower Drum Song” was but one of three Broadway musicals and films generated by Rogers and Hammerstein, alongside the Tony award–winning The King and I (1946), which was based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon that resulted in the Academy award-winning film of 1956, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning South Pacific (1949) which drew upon the Pulitzer Prize–winning book by James Michener, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), and resulted in the movie version of 1958. The bestselling Michener authored several books featuring Americans in Asia and the Pacific islands such as Hawaii (1959), The Bridges at Toko-ri (1953), and Sayonara (1954), which served as the basis for the Marlon Brando film of 1957 that sympathetically portrayed mixed-race romances and marriages between white military officers and Japanese women in occupied Japan. Brando had also starred in the 1956 screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play “Teahouse of the August Moon” (1953), written by John Patrick and adapted from the 1951 novel by Vern J. Sneider depicting comedic collusions between U.S. military officers and Japanese villagers on Okinawa. Patrick also wrote the screenplay for the 1960 movie World of Suzie Wong, based on the 1957 novel by Richard Mason and again starring Nancy Kwan as a prostitute redeemed through her love for a poor American painter.

Asians gained acceptance as Americans but with the caveat that integration required them to remain identifiably ethnic. Multicultural American democracy now allowed Asians to participate as citizens, but their chief symbolic value relied not on their disappearing into the mainstream with other Americans, but on their remaining visibly ethnic in order to demonstrate the United States’ capacity to incorporate difference.

During this era, celebrations of America’s participation in a multiracial Asian Pacific became something of a cottage industry for several high-profile authors and other cultural producers who emphasized the benevolence of the United States’ expanding influence in the region. As described by Naomi Shibusawa, however, the greater emphasis on women and children, portrayed as dependent and malleable subjects, naturalized American dominance and patriarchal leadership while masking the ongoing inequalities of power and privilege in the region. Perhaps most starkly, festive depictions of cheerfully mixed-race Pacific Islander communities contrasted with U.S. nuclear arms testing and population decimations in the region.

Emergence of the Model Minority

The Cold War applied contradictory forces to Asian American lives. America’s expanding imperialism in Asia produced wars, refugees, and exacerbations of global inequalities even as more Asian immigrants gained access to the United States, with some managing to attain celebrity status. The China-born architect I. M. Pei, for example, received the commission to design the Kennedy Library in Boston in 1964 while American-born Minoru Yamasaki contracted to design the World Trade Center in 1965. The Zen Buddhist master D. T. Suzuki became the toast of New York during the 1950s and the Beatles and Mia Farrow journeyed to India to learn from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s. Artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Chang Dai-chien, Mine Okubo, and Dong Kingman garnered critical acclaim and lucrative sales. Despite the highly visible inroads made by a select few, and the professional, technical, scientific, and white collar employment attained by another tier of well-educated immigrants and American-born, many Asian Americans remained trapped in low-paying, long hours of service, small business, manual or low skill labor sectors of the economy such as laundries, restaurants, textile manufacture, agriculture, domestic service, and gardening. Although far greater numbers of ethnic Asians were able to gain university positions than in the past, many with doctoral degrees remained in ancillary roles as librarians or language lecturers rather than as fully fledged faculty. As population numbers grew across the 1950s, community activists tackled problems enduring from the era of Asian exclusion such as urban overcrowding, poor access to public housing and health services, high rates of school drop outs, and juvenile crime. Inspired by the black power movement, the Vietnam War, and liberationist campaigns abroad, college-educated Asian American youths sought to revolutionize American society through identity politics and cultural nationalism that sought through politics, culture, and social and economic transformation to stake greater claims in the American nation-state.

Despite these challenges and struggles, Asian Americans gained integration but not in the manner intended. In 1966 articles in two popular magazines promoted a celebratory image of Asian Americans that has since become a dominant trope, one that elides the experiences of working-class and refugee Asian Americans still struggling to escape low-paying unskilled employments and ethnic enclave housing. That year, the conservative sociologist William Petersen published “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” in the New York Times Magazine using statistical data to argue that despite being arguably the ethnic group to have faced the severest racial discrimination during their lifetime by having been interned, Japanese Americans had managed to attain educational and employment levels comparable to, and even bettering, that of native-born whites. According to 1960 census data: 56 percent of Japanese Americans worked in white collar jobs compared with 42 percent for whites while 26 percent were professionals or technicians compared with 12.5 percent of whites. Petersen attributed Japanese American success not to protests or government programs, but to their commitment to education, which by 1960 reached a median of 12.2 years compared with 11.1 for Chinese, 11.0 for whites, and far above the 9.2 achieved by Filipinos and 8.6 for blacks. Later that year, US News and World Report published a parallel article that made similar claims regarding Chinese.11 This “model minority” image coexists with the “yellow peril” stereotype that had once justified Asiatic exclusion, and retains a pernicious influence well into the 21st century that situates Asian Americans, despite their tremendous diversity of ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, and migration characteristics, as a population of color whose attainments validate democratic processes in the United States even as the risk of persecution as invading foreigners remains. The Cold War provided the conditions for the growing numbers, greater attainments, and access by Asian Americans even as it retained the possibility of their threat to national security, producing conditions of political and social ambivalence whose lingering shadows have yet to be dispelled or even fully recognized.

Discussion of the Literature

Until recently, the Cold War era has been something of a black hole for ethnic studies scholars who focused either on the implementation and impact of Asian exclusion (1882–1952) or the liberalizations that resulted from the 1965 Immigration Act and civil rights movement activism. This binaristic emphasis on discrimination and resistance has obscured the compromised nature of the considerable improvements in status and evolving racialization of Asian Americans as international criticisms pressured the United States to dismantle its systems of open racial segregation. The Cold War compelled reforms that produced new practices and ideologies of inequality that crystallized by the 1980s with Asian Americans fitting into the pernicious roles of model minority subjects.

The earliest generations of Asian American scholars were chiefly preoccupied with documenting community histories and experiences, often from social science perspectives, and critiquing racial inequality. Rose Hum Lee, Betty Lee Sung, Him Mark Lai, Roger Daniels, and Harry Kitano undertook to describe and analyze the limited impact of diminishing discrimination in the aftermath of World War II following traditional approaches of generating community studies of the three largest Asian American groups. All emphasized that despite distinctly improving conditions, the legacies of exclusion remained in the form of ongoing gender imbalances, residential segregation, overrepresentation in service sector jobs, small businesses, or underemployment, stigmatization as un-American, and sanitary and public health problems in overcrowded urban districts. Ameliorating these longstanding problems were gains in gender balance with the greater immigration of wives and possibility of forming families, improved access to white-collar, professional, and public sector jobs, and the easing of residential segregation. The amelioration and remaking of discriminatory conditions were considered politically compromised projects, requiring, for example, that Japanese American history culminate in incarceration as the nadir of human rights abuses even though Japanese American and other Asian American trajectories continued and significantly changed course after World War II.

The next major cohort of historians emerged from the growing ranks of American-born who attended colleges and universities and participated in the civil rights movement. Identifying with the Black Power Movement and Third World liberation ideologies, these scholars staked out the parameters of ethnic studies around the principles of cultural nationalism and self-determination to launch searing critiques of U.S. society that implicated deep structures of imperialism, racism, and sexism in the maintenance of seemingly permanently disadvantaged categories of peoples. These political convictions produced histories “from-the-ground-up” in the process of identifying new sources such as oral histories to produce social histories that shifted attention away from the powerful to emphasize instead the perspectives of women, the working class, ethnic communities, and other marginalized groups, thereby greatly enriching and diversifying topics and methods of scholarly study along with the heterogeneity of students, faculty, and programs on campuses. Ethnic studies and its partners in labor, gender, cultural, critical race, and sexuality studies have remade the academy intellectually and institutionally. Asian American history particularly thrived in its recovery of the broad-ranging implications of Asian exclusion in the ideological, racialized framing of the U.S. nation-state and its requirements for citizenship, the emergence of differential immigration statuses and rights as constituting significant new forms of inequality, and the consequent legal and institutional foundations of immigration restriction.

The Cold War’s dismantling of Asian exclusion challenges these otherwise highly productive scholarly approaches. Asian exclusion lost its ideological moorings as racial discrimination assumed more covert forms, with Asian Americans serving as symbolic examples that minority populations could become successful and that legacies of past inequalities had dissipated. This repositioning enabled a shift toward cultural justifications for persisting hierarchies, that in a post-racial United States, individuals of color could succeed if they embraced the right cultural priorities: hard work, emphasis on education, family stability and solidarity, self-sufficiency, respect for law and order, and pursuit of middle-class employment in white-collar, professional, and STEM fields. The ethnic studies generation of scholars has insisted on the centrality of claiming America, while disregarding the significance of transnational ties, and has thus struggled against the reality that immigration reforms legislated in the Cold War era set in motion the tsunami that has remade the demographics of Asian Americans since 1965 to include disproportionate ranks of already educated, middle-class, immediately employable Asian immigrants who arrived without roots in the exclusion era. In the meanwhile, Latinos have assumed the brunt of immigration hostility racialized as an enormous tidal wave threatening to crash across America’s southern border while blackness continues to signify broken families, laziness, and criminality.

International history facilitates greater understanding of the remaking of Asian Americans into model minorities by considering the pressures applied by foreign relations on domestic race relations and the mandate to end the most egregious aspects of Jim Crow segregation. The strategic front against communism elevated the status of Asian allies and required they receive better treatment as immigrants. The repositioning of Asians for attainment also stemmed from congressional calculus that properly framed immigration laws could keep Asian numbers low even as they selected for the best educated, most readily employable, and most likely to contribute. Once critical of efforts to remake Asians into assimilated Americans—see for example concerted attacks on assimilationist projects seeking mainstream acceptance such as the JACL, The Flower Drum Song, South Pacific, and Fifth Chinese Daughter—recent Asian American studies scholarship compares how racial projects set their subjects on trajectories distinct from that of Latinos and African Americans. Acknowledgement of assimilationist aspirations allows scrutiny of Asian American complicity in gaining acceptance as Americans by actively emphasizing patriotism, anti-communism, business success, and identification with whites. Asian Americans embarked on the politics not only of civil rights and revolution, but as exemplified by Dalip Singh Saund, “Congressman from India,” also by working through mainline political parties, lobbying elected officials, and voting. The consequent improvements in access have situated Asians as highly achieving Americans of color, whose successes stem from their compliance with dominant systems and values. Scholars still struggle to dislodge the straitjacket of model minority attainment that constrains the possibilities of Asians in America today.

Primary Sources

The Cold War has been an under-researched area in Asian American studies. Apart from the extensive holdings at the Hoover Institution, archival collections do not specialize in this time period. Significant general collections about Asian Americans are located at the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley, the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, and the Southeast Asian Archive at UC Irvine. In addition, museums and historical societies collect and provide access to historical materials as listed below. Some holdings of personal and organizational records are substantive enough to provide the basis for articles or even monographs, but most significant projects would require research in multiple archives.

Government records have provided the basis for many key investigations into Asian American history. Relevant collections include those of the immigration administration, the Department of State, key legislators and U.S. presidents, census data, state, county, and municipal records, and court proceedings. Community-based publications and newspapers track local events and perspectives while oral histories are critical lenses into the experiences of marginalized groups. A rich vein of scholarship has focused on cultural productions and their producers for artefacts such as films, music, performance, literature, popular media, art, and fashion.

Further Reading

Brooks, Charlotte. Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Brooks, Charlotte. Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Kuan-Hsing, Chen. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Cheng, Cindy. Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War. New York: New York University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Choy, Catherine Ceniza. Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 1950–1990. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Hsu, Madeline Y. The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Iwamura, Jane. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Kim, Eleana. Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Kung, S. W. Chinese in American Life: Some Aspects of Their History, Status, Problems, and Contributions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Kurashige, Lon. Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934–1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Kurashige, Scott. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Lai, Eric, and Dennis Arguelles, ed. The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century. San Francisco: AsianWeek, 2003.Find this resource:

Lai, Him Mark. Transnational Chinese American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Maeda, Daryl. Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Oh, Arissa H. To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Shibusawa, Naoko. America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Wu, Ellen D. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Yuh, Ji-Yeon. Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America. New York: New York University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Zhao, Xiaojian. Remaking Chinese America: Immigration, Family, and Community, 1940–1965. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.Find this resource:


(1.) This legal category stems from the 1790 Nationality Act which limited naturalization rights to “free white persons.” This racial restriction constituted a significant barrier for integration of nonwhites, and particularly Asians, until the 1952 McCarran Walter Act abolished it altogether. See Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 2006 reprint) and Matthew Frye Jacobsen, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

(2.) Masako Nakamura, “Families Precede Nation and Race: Marriage, Migration, and Integration of Japanese War Brides after World War II” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, 2010).

(3.) Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015, chap. 5).

(4.) Arissa H. Oh, “From War Waif to Ideal Immigrant: The Cold War Transformation of the Korean Orphan,” Journal of American Ethnic History 31.4 (Summer 2012), 34–55.

(5.) Catherine Ceniza Choy, Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 56–82.

(6.) Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 1950–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 66.

(7.) Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America, 54, 60.

(8.) Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America, 48.

(9.) Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America, 70.

(10.) Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America, 61.

(11.) “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” New York Times Magazine, January 6, 1966; and “Success Story of One Minority in the U.S.,” US News and World Report, December 26, 1966.