Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

A New Kind of Missionary Work: Christians, Christian Americanists, and the Adoption of Korean GI Babies, 1955-1961

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

A New Kind of Missionary Work: Christians, Christian Americanists, and the Adoption of Korean GI Babies, 1955-1961

Article excerpt

In a 1954 article in Life magazine, Dr. Howard Rusk, President of the American-Korean Foundation, recollected a scene from war-torn Korea:

You remember the brass band at the Presbyterian Leprosarium just outside Taegu. You remember there was snow on the ground and more than half the musicians stood barefoot as you went by. These were the untouchables. A little leper boy with his face half-gone held the music for those who played on the battered old brass trumpets and trombones, and as you drew near, you recognized the hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus. You remember the eyes of those in your party. They were tough people, long hardened to misery because they had to be: generals, admirals, statesmen. The tears ran down their cheeks. They did not bother to brush them away. But the kids did not cry, for we were Americans and Americans to them meant hope for the future.1

With these nine sentences, Rusk captured several of the main elements in the story of how Americans came to adopt more than 4,000 orphaned Korean children between 1955 and 1961.2 There is the pathos: the vivid, moving details of poverty and hardship that characterized American media portrayals of Korea, both during and after the Korean War (1950-53). There is the military: the men who would father and leave behind hundreds of mixed-race "GI babies."3 There is Christianity: the common faith that united the two nations and that prompted countless Americans-GIs, missionaries, ordinary churchgoers-to generously donate food, clothes, dollars, and time. There is America: as much a symbol of hope as it was a country, a heaven on earth where tears and pain would be washed away. Finally, there are the children-stoic, hopeful, and wise-who knew better than to cry in the presence of those who would deliver them from their suffering.

Basic human compassion was at the root of American relief efforts after the Korean War, but something more complex motivated certain families to take their efforts a step further by adopting orphaned Korean children. The move to adoption was largely propelled by religious and humanitarian beliefs and a desire to "save" children from the effects of war, but it was also a manifestation of a peculiar kind of secular religion that arose in the United States in the 1950s. "There seems to be a wave of enthusiasm for a rather undefined 'religion' in America," noted the Christian Century in 1954. That undefined religion-which I call "Christian Americanism"-was a fusion of vaguely Christian principles with values identified as particularly "American"-specifically, a uniquely American sense of responsibility and the importance of family. Never a fully articulated doctrine, it was nevertheless strongly promoted by American churches, the government, and the mainstream media, and it took hold in white, middle-class America-the segment that adopted the majority of Korea's mixed-race GI babies. Christian Americanism encapsulated the prevailing 1950s belief that equated being a good Christian with being a good American.

This article considers the seven-year period beginning in 1955, when Harry and Bertha Holt, a farming couple from Oregon, adopted eight Korean GI babies, established their adoption agency, and triggered what would eventually become a tidal wave of intercountry adoptions. Until 1961, when the U.S. government banned proxy adoptions,' evacuation efforts focused on mixed-race GI babies. The 1955-61 period is a distinct moment in the history of Korean adoption, since the composition of the U.S.-bound Korean orphan population shifted in the early 1960s from mostly mixed-race to mostly non-mixed-race children.

Two groups of Americans-Christians and Christian Americanists-took on Korean adoption as a new kind of missionary work. The Christian adoptive families were deeply religious and motivated by faith to adopt; although some of them expressed Christian Americanist beliefs, they were first and foremost Christian. …

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