Mother America: Cold War Maternalism and the Institutionalization of Intercountry Adoption from Postwar South Korea, 1953-1961

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Mother America: Cold War Maternalism and the Institutionalization of Intercountry Adoption from Postwar South Korea, 1953-1961

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In 1953 an armistice was signed suspending the conflict of the Korean War, a three-year long civil war between what is now the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) (Cumings, 2010). Casualties and the wounded numbered well over a million (Halberstam, 2007). Of those who remained in South Korea were hundreds of thousands of widows and children (Korean Institute of Military History, 2001). Many of the children were mixed-blood, born of Korean mothers and fathered by U.S. servicemen. Because of their mixed parentage, they were oftentimes abandoned, unwanted (Burnside, 1956). Mounting publicity of the poor, helpless “waif” was used to implore the American public to come to the rescue of these desperate children (Oh, 2012). Historian Christina Klein (2003) argues that it was felt that intercountry adoption could strengthen foreign relations between the U.S. and South Korea. It became acceptable and expected that American families would welcome mixed-blood Korean children into their homes, thus symbolizing American prosperity and security. Social welfare agencies played a major role in shaping and formalizing intercountry adoption practices in the aftermath of the Korean War. Numerous scholars, many of them Korean adoptees, have investigated the origins of Korean adoption. They have examined the same time period and utilized the same archival material as this study. What their research has in common with the present study is the critical interrogation of the longstanding dominant adoption narrative of children’s best interests served by humanitarian rescue and American benevolence. However, for as significant a role that social work played in formalizing Korean adoption practice standards in the 1950s, there currently exists no research that centers the activities of the profession with respect to Korean adoption. Using historical research methods situated within a maternalist and social constructionist framework, this study undertook a critical analysis of social work child-rescue efforts in postwar South Korea from 1953 to 1961 as embodied by one international social welfare agency: the American Branch of International Social Service (ISS-USA). This social work organization established and institutionalized intercountry adoption practices in the 1950s in its efforts to save mixed-blood Korean children orphaned by the Korean War. The American Branch became the premier expert on international adoption beginning in the 1950s. Its practice standards are still used today. Content analysis, informed by critical discourse analysis (CDA) and historical discourse analysis (HDA) methods, was conducted on primary source documents of ISS-USA. This archival collection is housed in the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. Findings revealed both how ISS-USA set up a system of formalized adoption standards, and the extent to which maternalist ideological values influenced by Progressive Era maternalism placed thousands of mixed-blood Korean children into the embracing arms of “Mother America.” First, in order to relieve the emergency situation of the many needy children in postwar South Korea, ISS-USA developed a formalized system of intercountry adoption procedures through what it called case conference by correspondence, whereby everything from policy monitoring, practice methods, research, and adoptions were discussed and established through detailed letter writing between ISS-USA social workers, their foreign correspondents, and local and state welfare organizations. Second, in what I call Cold War maternalism, I expanded Progressive Era maternalist ideologies that established specific notions of proper motherhood as belonging to privileged white, middle- and upper-middle class Christian women to a national level. Cold War maternalism suggests that given the patriotic pronatalist, anti-communist contextual reality of 1950s America (May, 2008), by deeming American parents as suitable “mothers” for Korean children, in essence, the United States came to be seen as the best “mother” for South Korea and the many mixed-blood Korean children left after the war. Findings from this study provide another critical perspective of the Korean adoption origin story, but uniquely contribute to this growing body of research by critically examining social work’s central role in establishing intercountry adoption standards. Implications for social work research and practice include more focus on critical indigenous research methodologies, the importance of understanding historical aspects of the profession, and the consideration of historical trauma in current social work practice with intercountry adoptees.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2016. Major: Social Work. Advisors: Jean Quam, Elizabeth Lightfoot. 1 computer file (PDF); xi, 194 pages.

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Lee, Shawyn. (2016). Mother America: Cold War Maternalism and the Institutionalization of Intercountry Adoption from Postwar South Korea, 1953-1961. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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