American Military Families Overseas and Early Cold War Foreign Relations

By Alvah, Donna | Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

American Military Families Overseas and Early Cold War Foreign Relations


Alvah, Donna, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military


In the years after World War II, the United States sent hundreds of thousands of service personnel (mostly men) overseas, to bases around the globe, as part of a long campaign to contain communism. It is during this period that the government also began to send thousands of "dependents" along with them. (The term "dependents" included the spouses, children, and other relatives supported by military personnel.) By 1960, over 600,000 armed forces personnel and approximately half a million dependents lived overseas.(1) Sending military families abroad was an extraordinarily expensive undertaking. Why did the U.S. do it? The reasons for sending families overseas illuminate the connections between post-World War II heteronormative families and the US Cold War policy of containing communism. Model families living overseas could, the government came to believe, help to achieve the Cold War goal of containment.

The first important reason for sending families abroad was that wives were no longer willing to endure separation from their soldier husbands. After the war, wives demanded the reconstitution of their nuclear families. In so doing, wives helped to persuade the military of the centrality of heteronormative families in the campaign against the spread of communism.

Second, the US government hoped that sending military families overseas would help to solve a problem in maintaining hundreds of thousands of servicemen abroad for long tours of duty. Servicemen's unruly behavior strained relations between the US and host countries. The men's drunkenness, brawling, criminal activities, and sexual relationships with citizens of host countries contributed to a poor image of Americans and the United States, undermining Cold War foreign relations. The federal government hoped that the presence of wives and children would civilize and domesticate servicemen.

Following the decision to ship dependents abroad--first to Germany and Japan in 1946, then to bases in other countries--the US government began to articulate a vision of military families as messengers of American ideas and ideals to US allies. In the context of the fierce ideological combat of the Cold War, government officials hoped that American families of servicemen stationed abroad could serve as "unofficial ambassadors"(2) who would promote the United States to its allies around the world. Military families overseas would, the government believed, help to manage military men's behavior, and enforce distinct masculine and feminine roles in strong nuclear families. Such model families could, the government hoped, also convey ideas about democracy and other emblematic aspects of American life to other nations. We shall see, however, that assigning the role of "unofficial ambassador" to military wives led to unintended consequences; wives did not always act as the military intended.

Families were implements of US foreign policy; not only metaphorically, but in their everyday activities at American bases in host countries around the world. We are by now fairly familiar with the presumed connection between the post-World War II ideology of the family and the Cold War.(3) Now let us look at it in this laboratory of military bases abroad.

After World War II, military wives pressed for the return of their husbands, but U.S. leaders believed that postwar international stability required the long-term deployment of hundreds of thousands of service personnel at strategic bases around the globe. Government officials were initially reluctant to send large numbers of military dependents abroad because of the expense and because spouses and children overseas might create new problems. But service wives declared themselves unwilling to endure further separation, financial hardship, and reliance on parents and in-laws. Women had wearied of running the household and maintaining their families single-handedly, and children wondered where their fathers were. …

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