Jeongmin Kim, What can we learn about anti-Asian racism and gender violence from the history of US militarism and overseas base workers?

On October 19th, 1951, 23-old Korean woman Lee Yong Soon landed in Seattle. [1] This Mrs. Blue Morgan, as she was known in America, was featured in the media as “the First Korean War bride.”[2] Sixty three years later, Life magazine revisited the story about her that it originally published in November 1951, and recalls it as “a wartime story that, at its heart, is less about warfare than about the simple, indomitable power of love.” Without telling us what Lee herself would say about her life after coming to the US, Lifecreates a seamless narrative that uses Lee as a symbolic figure of an American dream and successful romance. The fact that the Korean War was an ongoing hot war when she landed in the US served to emphasize America’s benevolence, not to remind American readers of violence committed by their own troops in the Korean peninsula. In the 2014 recollection of her story, there is no account of the struggles over racial and gender discrimination endured by generations of Asian immigrants, including Lee’s own. The erasures of Cold War projects of US military expansion and overseas occupation and their connection to Asian immigration in the United States are a crucial background for understanding the basis of ongoing contemporary anti-Asian violence and racism, especially against Asian women, in the US and globally.

Lee Yong Soon, as introduced in the newspapers, was a typist working on a US base in South Korea when she met her future husband. The particular pattern of migration via overseas bases exemplified by Lee’s story is a product of the post-WWII period. The War Bride Act of 1945 enabled soldiers who returned from their service abroad to invite their local partners to immigrate to the US through marriage. As the term clarifies, the Act was not a pro-immigration policy so much as the state’s recognition of its male citizens’ rights to bring back their female partners as their foreign “brides.”  The historical context of this Act was the global expansion of the US overseas bases over the course of WWII. In 1938, the US had 14 outposts abroad. By 1945, the number increased to more than 2,000 bases and over 30,000 military installations worldwide.

The expansion of overseas bases was a crucial element of US global domination during the decades of the Cold War. Yet, the base expansion did not go without interruption. By the late 1940s, many of the outposts the US had built or had taken over in the initial phase of the post-War period were closed down. It was only during the Korean War (1950- onwards) that the number of US overseas bases expanded by 40 percent again.[3] As David Vine points out, an important aspect that differentiates post-WWII bases from the ones in the earlier periods is their indefinite occupation of foreign territories. That is, in theory, the deployment of a base ought to be temporary. The troops would ultimately leave when their mission to “promote peace and security” in the region was completed. However, the vagueness of this mission during the Cold War and after has permitted the indefinite stationing of US troops around the globe to enforce various economic and strategic interests of the US state. Many places in Asia and the Pacific have experienced the re/growth of the bases as well as the militarization of the communities in proximity. These bases were from the beginning and have remained a major channel through which a gendered and racialized form of Asian migration has taken place.

US overseas bases are extraterritorial zones that impose international borders within the host country. They are akin to embassies in that regard. The arrival of a base creates unequal labor, social, and gender relations between soldiers, their dependents and local populations. On one hand, a hard border separates the military facility from civilian zones and yet the permeability of the border depends on one’s status, creating a multi-layered hierarchy between the occupying force, their families, and local civilians. On the other hand, a base officially belongs to the US military despite its physical location in a foreign territory. As a military installation in an area remote from the US, a base operates as a comprehensive living complex with facilities sufficient to meet all the everyday needs of its residents. Commissaries and on-base exchanges, for example, provide food items and other daily necessities, and the items are available at a subsidized rate as part of benefits that compensate soldiers’ salary, exclusive to the troop members and their dependents. Aside from subsidies from the occupying government, concessions from the host government, importation of food and other necessities, and the underappreciated use of natural resources and local labor, base economies are self-sufficient.

At the core of the US military’s dependency on the local population is the recruitment of women’s and gendered labor as support staff. The jobs offered to local women were and remain largely service or unskilled labor and perpetuate the extant local gendered division of labor. For example, on base, the military hired local women as typists, janitors, house girls, cashiers, laundry ladies, and singers. Female labor was undervalued, with women paid less than men even for the same jobs. Towns formed around the bases containing a cluster of local restaurants, clubs, bars, and various other services catering to (mostly male) troops. These base towns are extensions of the bases in the sense that their economies are contingent upon the presence of the foreign military camp. One crucial feature of the extended base is the sexual economy, namely military prostitution. With the military’s hands-off attitude toward GIs’ involvement in such practices, a base both encourages gendered and racialized relationships between the occupying force and local civilians and also excludes female soldiers (and male soldiers’ accompanying female partners) from being full members of the male-dominant institution. To be clear, not all of the intimate relationship developed on base or in base towns are transactional sexual relations. Nor are all military brides from camptowns. But, no matter how individual relationships started, the accessibility of the sexual market has contributed to the perception of Asian women as sexually available and also submissive to US servicemen. Women from Korea and other parts of Asia have immigrated to the US and made lives in this country as “military brides” in this context.

Many of these brides have filed for divorce. Of the many Korean women who married American soldiers, some named domestic violence and financial hardship as reasons for divorce. Others suffered racism in both visible and invisible forms, with social biases that easily associate military brides with camptowns and thus marketized sex and language barriers (and their husbands’ lack of interest in learning Korean) leading to feelings of isolation. . Many of these women continued working after they moved to the US. The economic and symbolic power that their GI partners had in the base country was temporary and situational, and, once back in the United States, their husbands’ income was often not enough to get by. Many women found themselves in a situation where their education and previous work experience were not recognized and they had to take mainly service and menial jobs unrelated to their talents and training to earn an income.

For many Korean women, one great incentive to marry a US soldier was “Adikal,” the local name for a dependent “ID card,” which would give them commissary and exchange privileges. With legitimate access to the base, they could shop at on-base exchanges and sell the goods off-base to ‘PX Ladies,’ intermediaries who would resell the items on Korean black markets. This side job was a main income source for many women. For them, marriage was a form of employment. In the base towns in 1960s-70s South Korea, it was not an uncommon practice that women married their GI patrons before the soldiers left for another base area (e.g, Vietnam), so that they could use PX privileges as a legitimate dependent while their “husbands” were gone. These women often never immigrated to the US. GIs were active participants in the marriage-PX contract in exchange for caring, sexual, and emotional labor. This exchange was usually activated when soldiers on leave would visit their local partners.  Even if they never moved to the US, women’s intimate labor as base wives was crucial to sustaining US overseas military operations and became entrenched as a symbolic “fact” of Asian women’s submission to the US military might.

The unequal labor and social relations created on these overseas bases traveled across the Pacific as the GIs returned home with their Asian brides. It is true that through marriage and migration, the women gained a certain degree of mobility, yet they were also dogged by expectations that they fulfill a projected role of Asian women as obedient servants to imperialist masculinity. As Asian military spouses in America, they were/are expected to perform the same roles that they had in the base context. These features of US overseas military expansion have helped produce and embed stereotypes of Asian women – and especially of first-generation immigrants from the Asia-Pacific region.

We can recall the targeted murder of Asian women in massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021, and we can think about the specific ideas of Asian woman as docile and hard-working yet sexually consumable that have pushed groups of these women into jobs and social positions that meet these discriminatory expectations and ultimately that can subject them to racialized and gendered violence. To address these injustices requires attention to the manifestations of prejudice against Asian women as well as attention to the ways in which these domestic ideas are shaped and perpetuated by the US military activities abroad.

[1] A portion of this essay was originally published as “When A Base Leaves: Seeing Military Withdrawal from Local Labor Perspectives,” a Commentary for Critical Asian Studies, on March 1, 2021; I thank Critical Asian Studies for permission to reuse it.

[2] “Korean War Bride,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagles, 19 Oct 1951.

[3] In 1947, the US had 1,139 overseas base sites of which 446 sites were located in Asia/Pacific. The number reduced to 582 by 1949 and again increased to 815 by 1953. The number continued to rise until the Vietnam War, and by 1967, it reached 1,014 again. See James R. Blaker, United States Overseas Basing: An Anatomy of the Dilemma (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990), 33.

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