International Adoptions

Source: John C. Caldwell, Children of Calamity (New York:  John Day Company), opp. p. 97.

Tak Oi Shi from Hong Kong, adopted by the Skinner family of Tacoma and renamed Susie, in 1954.

Source: "The Orphan Lift," Time Magazine, April 21, 1975, 13.

Cartoon accompanying an article about “Operation Babylift,” which evacuated children from Saigon on the eve of the U.S. departure in 1975.

Before 1970, “intercountry” was the more typical term for the adoptions of children born in foreign countries by U.S. citizens. Today, these placements are called international adoptions.

After World War II and during the early Cold War, the adoption market globalized as wars, refugee migrations, famines, and other disasters made the plight of dependent and orphaned children abroad more visible to Americans. U.S. service personnel stationed around the world were on the front lines of this movement. Soldiers and sailors sent to Europe during the war, Germany and Japan after 1945, and eventually Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia produced significant numbers of children in those countries. The story of these half-American waifs, many of them mixed-race and sometimes cruelly stigmatized in their countries of origin, attracted attention in the United States.

These children of crisis resurrected the language of rescue and the religious impulses that had characterized the era of the orphan trains and pointed in the direction of special needs adoptions, which had similar humanitarian overtones. After 1945, international adoptions mobilized Lutherans, Catholics, and Seventh Day Adventists, among others, and inspired the formation of such organizations as the League for Orphan Victims in Europe (LOVE) and the American Joint Committee for Assisting Japanese-American Orphans.

As with the earlier phase in adoption history, benevolence was compatible with self-interest. Some Americans were delighted to discover a baby boom in West Germany, where thousands of healthy children had been abandoned by irresponsible fathers or men who had never been told of their children’s existence. Military families stationed abroad were the first to adopt these children but the mass media quickly spread the news to Americans at home. The story of the Doss family, popularized by The Family Nobody Wanted, was first described in a 1949 Readers’ Digest article entitled “Our 'International Family'.”

During the 1950s, proxy adoptions, which allowed U.S. citizens to adopt in foreign courts in absentia, were the most widely publicized means of international adoption. They gained ground after 1955, when an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, Bertha and Harry Holt, adopted eight Korean War orphans. The Holts went on to arrange scores of adoptions for other Americans who shared their fervent belief that children could be brought from Korea to America with divine guidance.

Child welfare professionals hated this type of adoption, not because it was religious but because it lacked regulation. U.S. Children’s Bureau Chief Katherine Oettinger argued that children adopted from abroad were more likely to suffer abuse, neglect, and disruption because their adoptions circumvented minimum standards. “All of us respond to the idea of rescuing helpless children from the dragon of deprivation,” she agreed, but “problems in adoption are infinitely harder to resolve in an adoption which spans the ocean.” Between 1953 and 1962, Americans adopted 15,000 foreign children.

International adoptions often amounted to transracial adoptions since they brought Asian children into white American families. Directly at odds with matching, these adoptions paved the way for domestic transracial adoptions by making family formation across racial lines a conspicuous social issue for the first time. Pearl S. Buck was perhaps the most important public champion of parentless children of color born within and without the United States. She insisted that love made families—not race, religion, or national background. Outcome studies of international adoptees also prompted new thinking about the need for cultural sensitivity to such issues as language and national heritage. Concerns about whether foreign adoptees might bring about an American future with more interracial dating and marriage were common and urgent, indicating that earlier concerns about eugenics had not disappeared.

Like domestic transracial adoptions, international adoptions raised basic questions that Americans have still not answered in spite of the dramatic recent increase in international adoptions. Is love enough to make a family? Does belonging have a color or a nation?


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
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