Democratic Identity in Postwar America: The Politicization of Asian Americans in the Early Cold War

the chinatown liverpool

Written By: Sarah Lu, Columbia University

A series of unresolved fragments, we come together as a contingent whole. We gain social recognition as a racial collective in the face of this communal loss… It is the naming of these losses that transforms difference into a politicized identity.

David Eng and Shinhee Han,
Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation:
On the Social and Psychic Life of Asian Americans


2018 was a pivotal year for Asian Americans. We saw the unparalleled success of the highest-grossing romantic comedy film Crazy Rich Asians, the first film of its kind in Hollywood to feature an all-Asian cast. We followed the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard affirmative action lawsuit, wherein a number of Asian American plaintiffs sued Harvard University for “racially discriminating” against Asian Americans in the admission process. We watched prominent Olympians from snowboarder Chloe Kim to figure skating champion Mirai Nagasu take home medals on the world stage and stun audiences in Pyeongchang. Andy Kim became the first Korean-American elected to Congress in nearly 20 years, and Hasan Minhaj became the first Indian-American to host a weekly comedy show. But these so-called accomplishments brought forth complicated questions of fragmentation and loss within the Asian American community. What did it mean that a film glorifying Asia’s economic rise opened up new avenues of being seen, shifting entire narratives of identity and difference? What did it mean that Asian Americans sided with Ed Blum, a legal advocate who wanted affirmative action gone – someone who once advocated for Abigail Fisher, a woman who claimed racial discrimination in the admissions process because she was white? What did it mean for us people to self-identify as Asian Americans, in a country that had always found it more convenient to identify what it meant to be Asian American for us?

Since 2018, Asian American political identity has shifted to the forefront of America’s national discourse, and Asian American political participation has become an increasingly salient topic. Currently, Asian Americans comprise of 5.6% of the American population, an ethno-racial group that includes 20 million people of various ethnicities and backgrounds.[1] The economic and political growth of Asia in the last decade or so has resulted in fundamental demographic changes, with the Asian American population growing by 75% from 2000 to 2015—the highest growth rate of any racial or ethnic group in America.[2] Many Asian Americans are highly concentrated at the higher and lower ends of the spectrum in regards to socioeconomic class, with large percentages of specific Asian American subgroups (such as those of East Asian descent) owning more homes, having higher median incomes, and holding more bachelor’s degrees than the average American.

However, the Asian American experience is not monolithic, and perceptions of Asian Americans as the “model minority” while remaining the “perpetual foreigner” remain influential. First defined more than half a century ago, the model minority myth is often used to refer  refers to minority groups that are perceived as particularly successful. Asian Americans are often defined as the model minority because they are seen as more successful across academic, economic, and cultural domains.[3]  In contrast, the perpetual foreigner stereotype casts Asian Americans as inherently foreign and therefore not genuinely American, regardless of their academic, economic, and cultural successes.[4] David Eng and Shinhee Han, amongst other Asian American academics, designate the model minority as a primarily harmful stereotype, “[delineating] Asian Americans as academically successful and rarely well-rounded.” Asian Americans “must therefore submit to [this] model of economic rather than political and cultural legitimization,”[5]  because the alternative is being perceived as the foreign, the unassimilated, and the other. In choosing to conform with the model minority stereotype, Asian Americans are often doing so because they become “attached” to its seemingly admirable qualities, much preferred over the seemingly despicable qualities of a perpetual foreigner.[6]

The heightened importance of Asian geopolitics in American foreign affairs has exhibited a profound impact on Asian Americans, as well as on the dispersal and movement of Asian Americans across the world broadly known as the Asian diaspora. From President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” to the Trump administration’s trade war with China, we have seen a significant shift in U.S.-East Asia relations over the past decade. The fear of Chinese hegemony in the region has forced the U.S. to confront questions of polarity and waning U.S. influence in Asia, and recent disputes over the South China Sea and North Korea have become key concerns for American policymakers.

While most Asian immigrants arrived in the United States after the 1970s, the politics and ideology of the early Cold War had already begun to shape American perceptions of Asian Americans. Forces prior to this era had already begun to shape American perceptions of Asian Americans, and the politics and ideology of the early Cold War were incredibly influential in this respect. The United States’ strong geopolitical interest in Asia has undoubtedly been characterized and influenced by Cold War forces over the decades, and its effects are still seen on Asian Americans today. Although there exists a considerable amount of scholarship regarding the effects of foreign policy on domestic politics in relation to African Americans, the Civil Rights movement, and decolonization movements in the “Third World,” it is also important to conceptualize how Asian Americans fit into this era of racial upheaval and social change. By understanding the role of Asian Americans in the processes of racialization that took place in the middle of the 20th century, we are offered much more insight as to why Asian Americans occupy their current political identity in relation to other minority identities. We can often trace such relative characterizations and subjective constructions of Asian Americans to the impact of the early Cold War on domestic American society.

The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and America’s entry into the Korean War in 1950 in the early Cold War would affect foreign policy decisions and perceptions towards Asia in the years to come, not only in the minds of policymakers, but also within the domestic racial politics of the United States. While mainland Asia and Asian America remain separate entities shaped by different political imaginations and experiences, this paper will specifically investigate the various Cold War forces that came to influence Asian American diasporic communities in regards to foreign policy. How did America’s involvement in Asia during the early Cold War, as well as the expansion of public and cultural diplomacy to promote a liberal, post-war democratic order, contribute to the formation and politicization of Asian American communities? Furthermore, how did Cold War ideology, such as conceptions of American democracy in contrast to illegitimate Soviet communism, shape Asian America as a racial construct in American society?

By contextualizing the history of Asian America from World War II to the late 60s, I aim to define several turning points for Asian American political identity formation in the context of Cold War foreign affairs, including the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act, the Chinese Confession Program, and national responses to the Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines. I will also address the broader trajectory of Washington’s “Asia First” policy and policymakers’ expanding focus on public and cultural diplomacy in the post-war world, especially with regard to U.S. involvement in Asia at the time. Ultimately, I hope to trace the early Cold War origins of the two dominant, often conflicting myths that Asian Americans are still forced to confront.

While the myth of the model minority suggests the economic rise and seamless integration of Asian Americans into mainstream white society, the myth of the perpetual foreigner continues to distinguish Asian Americans as foreign visitors and adversaries, remaining forever on the borders of what it means to be “American.”

The expansion of public and cultural diplomacy in the creation of the American postwar order expanded notions of citizenship to include Asian Americans within the ideals of a democratic, multiracial society. However, American perceptions of the communist threat were shaped by Washington’s geopolitical interests and involvements in Asia, in addition to policies that targeted Asian Americans as un-American subversives, painted Asian Americans as unassimilable foreigners that were inevitably tied to their unfamiliar homelands. Such racist policies, when implemented against an American vision for racial “integration,” contributed to the paradox of Asian American identity. They also allowed for the relative positioning of Asian Americans in relation to African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, wherein Asian Americans were perceived as “not white” but also “not black”— a perception that remains relevant today, even in light of the changes that Asian American political identity has faced over time.

Background and Historical Context

Over a century ago, Asian Americans made up a small percentage of the American population. The exclusionist policies of the late 19th and 20th centuries reinforced beliefs of the failure of Asian immigrants to assimilate to American society, despite the contribution of Asian immigrants to historical developments such as the transcontinental railroad and the California Gold Rush.

The U.S. enacted several policies that made Asian immigrants, unlike their German, Italian, or Irish counterparts, ineligible for citizenship by naturalization, had setting quotas as low as 200 for anyone hailing from Asia. Asian America was more or less a smattering of immigrants who had come to America seeking work, seen by many Americans as a burden seeking to infiltrate American borders, more commonly known as the “yellow peril.” The immigrants who stayed or brought families over from their homelands in Asia were mostly illegal, often operating by bringing “paper children” who claimed that they were related to Asian Americans living in the United States. It was not until the 1940s that Congress relaxed successive laws that permitted admission and naturalization of immigrants from Asian countries, beginning with Chinese nationals in 1943, and eventually including Filipino, Korean, and Japanese nationals by 1952. The subsequent decade would provide more avenues for Asian Americans to immigrate to the United States legally with the passing of the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Asian American population would increase by six times its original size, though this paper will not explore the impact of the Vietnam War and the Indochina Wars on the formation of Asian American communities in the United States.

Current scholarship suggests that the early Cold War, as well as World War II, were crucial in establishing a sense of Asian American citizenship and identity. According to Christina Klein, the legal reforms towards Asian Americans in the 1950s represented the “double meaning of integration in the postwar period,”[7]  wherein the inclusion of Asian and African Americans was essential to the international project of integrating the decolonizing nations into a capitalist, free-world order. Ellen Wu, whose work focuses on the historical origins of the model minority myth, also emphasizes the motivations behind the federal government’s actions to legitimate the place of racial minorities within the early Cold War: “Racial discrimination in the United States was drawing negative attention from both domestic and international critics, and it stained the image of American democracy at a time when U.S. officials hoped to win the hearts and minds of people around the world.”[8]  Scholars point to the centrality of World War II and how it shifted American perceptions of the Chinese and Japanese due to alliances during the war, which would consequently shape how both Chinese and Japanese American populations were integrated as American citizens. Thus, the concept of citizenship on conditional grounds, or the idea that deserving Asian Americans would have to “earn” their citizenship,[9] defined many of the changes impacting Asian American communities in the 1950s and 60s.

Japanese internment during World War II particularly enforced the racialization of Asian Americans, perpetuating yet another paradox under the guise of democracy and freedom. As previously mentioned, shifting perceptions of the  Chinese and Japanese, mostly due to alliances during the war, also indicated a shift in policies towards Chinese and Japanese American populations during and after the war, despite many of them having no political connection to mainland China or Japan themselves. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, President Roosevelt instituted wide-ranging Japanese internment policies under Executive Order 9066, outlining three primary directives: curfew, exclusion, and internment. Despite the United States preaching liberal democratic values in contrast to Nazi authoritarianism, Supreme Court decisions such as Hirabayashi v. U.S. (1943) and Korematsu v. U.S. (1946) upheld the constitutionality of race-based interment in times of “national emergency.”[10] These legal interpretations of national security and race also enforced the perception of Asian Americans as automatic extensions of their ancestral homelands, even though many of the Japanese-Americans affected were Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans whose grandparents had immigrated to the United States before they were even born.

In Hirabayashi v. U.S., the Court deemed that the application of curfews against members of an entire ethnic group was constitutional. The plaintiff, Gordon Hirabayashi, was born in Seattle to a Christian family and was a student attending the University of Washington at the time. In Korematsu v. U.S., the Court emphasized the “military necessity” for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, despite the deliberate suppression of evidence from the FBI which found that Japanese-Americans posed no real security threat.[11] Like Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu was born in Oakland to Japanese parents who immigrated to the US in 1905 and barely had any political connection to Japan aside from ethnic heritage itself. “My father was not a complicated man,” Karen Korematsu remarked, “he had learned about the Constitution in high school. He thought he had civil rights as an American citizen.”[12]

The treatment of Japanese-Americans as Japanese subversives was unsurprising, considering American attitudes towards Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans at the time of the war. Japanese-Americans were conceptualized as enemy aliens, enduring “mass removal, internment, and the effective nullification of their citizenship, and a coercive dispersal.”[13] In a pictorial for Life magazine from 1941 titled “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” the author juxtaposes two facial portraits of a Chinese person and a Japanese person, one above the other. The Chinese portrait is of the Minister of Economic Affairs for the Chinese national government, captioned “Chinese public servant,” whereas the Japanese portrait is of Prime Minister Admiral Tojo, frowning, with the caption “Japanese Warrior.” The pictorial included labels of essentialist physical descriptions that sought to differentiate the Chinese from the Japanese, such as “never has rosy cheeks” as opposed to “sometimes has rosy cheeks.” The main purpose was to help Americans tell whether their neighbors were Chinese or Japanese, distinguishing them based on the wartime dichotomy of ally versus foe, again despite many Asian Americans having little political connection to their ancestral homeland.

At the same time, Chinese-Americans received different treatment as a result of their real and presumed ties to Beijing, a wartime ally. Chinese inclusion, therefore, became a prominent national policy goal. The Magnuson Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, which had previously prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers when it was signed into law in 1882. For China, the repeal of Chinese exclusion was a success, as it had also been a foreign policy goal for the two Chinese governments for more than half a century.[14] In her work on migration as diplomacy, Meredith Oyen emphasizes the symbolic nature of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion laws, with the most popular arguments in favor of repeal centered on the idea that doing so would aid the war effort. The Magnuson Act passed through Congress mostly on the grounds that it would keep the nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek committed to the war against Japan. Furthermore, the U.S. would use successive changes in migration policy to placate Nationalist China when it couldn’t fulfill other promises.[15] The policies created a foundation for the formation of Asian American political identity, serving not as a method of racial integration and assimilation, but rather as a means for the U.S. and both Chinas to pursue diplomatic goals and negotiation.

The treatment of Chinese- and Japanese-Americans during wartime also prompted public responses to policies such as Chinese Exclusion. In 1942, Charles Spinks, a specialist on East Asian relations, published an article calling to repeal Chinese Exclusion. He pointed out that the U.S. fighting side by side with China to destroy fascism and build a new world order of freedom, justice, and equality was contradictory to the US not treating Chinese people with the “justice and equality they deserve.”[16] Furthermore, some media outlets even outlandishly claimed that there was a correlation between Japanese protests against Asian exclusion and the cooling of U.S.-Japanese relations until Pearl Harbor – a mostly baseless argument that sought to connect Japanese ethnic heritage to broader themes of American foreign policy.[17] Other cultural portrayals and depictions of Chinese inclusion included casting Chinese-Americans as American, highlighting the “American-ness” of urban Chinatowns and typical Chinese families.[18] In 1943, Sun Yat Sen’s third wife and esteemed diplomat Soong Ching Ling went on a national tour in the U.S., signaling that China shared principles of democracy with the United States and was willing to collaborate with the United States to uphold democratic values. World War II was therefore pivotal in changing the cultural and political attitudes towards Asian Americans at the beginning of the Cold War.

Asian American communities were also highly engaged in various forms of postwar activism, with Chinese veterans demanding fairer treatment especially in terms of immigration. Their activism eventually paved the way for the 1945 War Brides Act. Wu attests that United States’ emphasis on national unity in diversity during the war meant that Chinese-Americans could claim a stake, welcoming chances to perform “inclusion” on the public stage.[19] The War Brides Act allowed Chinese American veterans to bring wives into the U.S. as non-quota immigrants. This was followed by the Chinese Alien Wives of American Citizens Act, which allowed Chinese American citizens, regardless of veteran status, to bring spouses to the United States. The result was the reunification of thousands of Chinese families and the influx of Chinese women into mostly male-dominated Chinatowns.

After witnessing the Chinese American victory in repealing Chinese exclusion, various communities of Asian ancestry sought to lobby for similar rights, yet Japanese and Korean migrants remained ineligible for citizenship and immigration until long after Chinese inclusion. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a key organization for advancing Japanese-American rights, began a campaign to gain naturalization rights for Japanese immigrants whose children had served in World War II. The War Brides Act was eventually revised to include Japanese wives of American citizens, resulting in over 45,000 Japanese wives and 6,000 Chinese women coming to the U.S. after the war.[20] Moreover, lobbyists from the JACL such as Mike Masaoka would often utilize the politics of post-war inclusion and “Asia First” to his advantage, collaborating with “internationalist” Republicans whose party had just won the 1946 elections.

The consequences of World War II for Chinese- and Japanese-Americans sketched out a familiar trajectory for how Asian American political identity would develop in the decades to follow. As demonstrated by the federal government’s actions in response to Japan and China’s involvement in the war, the lines between Asian America and Asia became increasingly blurred, contributing to seemingly paradoxical perceptions of Asian Americans as both the ally and the foe. Considering that persons of Japanese and Chinese descent consisted of a majority of the Asian American population at the time, such perceptions of Asian Americans would prove crucial in the formation of Asian American communities in the years to come, shaping policies that often conflated the interests of Asian Americans and Asian populations overseas. The foreign affairs of the United States, namely America’s participation in World War II, had a powerful impact on the domestic racial environment at the time. Foreign affairs and domestic racial politics would become more intertwined, with Asian Americans becoming crucial in the American project of conveying the U.S. as a multiracial liberal democracy in the new post-war order.

Public & Cultural Diplomacy in Post-War America

The United States’ interest in maintaining the post-war order also contributed to the expansion of public and cultural diplomacy. The heightened importance of public and cultural diplomacy, as evidenced by America’s responses to global perceptions of domestic racial oppression against African Americans, meant that Asian Americans would play a significantly outsized role in portraying America as an enlightened multicultural democracy. In his work on public diplomacy, Jason Parker suggests that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought to “win hearts and minds” during the early Cold War, and that media influence was a significant means of ensuring the allegiance of the public to either superpower.[21] Soviet propaganda’s influence on racial relations in the U.S., as well as the subsequent policies implemented by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, underscored the importance of foreign affairs on domestic public opinion.. This became a reciprocal relationship in which domestic race policy became a means of political signaling in the conduct of foreign affairs.

Soviet propaganda on the racial relations of the U.S. often contributed to the global perception of America as losing the Cold War and the failure of the American political order, especially the failures of American racism in contrast to the image that the U.S. presented to the rest of the world. Soviets often “disseminated stories on rampant racism in US society that proved US democracy ‘an empty fraud’ and in so doing, replaced the WW2 propaganda of Germany and Japan that sought to accomplish the same.”[22] Japanese propaganda during World War II, for example, were directed against America’s anti-Chinese laws, attempting to appeal to Asians by emphasizing the flaws in American racial legislation.[23] Soviets utilized a similar logic of post-racialism, depicting the Soviet Union as a truly egalitarian communist utopia in contrast to the tense racial  environment of the United States, with some instances of propaganda even predating World War II.

Soviets attempted to undermine American depictions of a liberal, multiracial society, signifying the importance of racial politics in Cold War diplomacy during the 1950s. In a poster created in 1932 by one of the Soviet Union’s most famous propagandists, a menacing statue of liberty stands above nine African American men in chains.[24] The words “Freedom to the Prisoners of Scottsboro” are plastered at the top of the poster, appearing next to a wooden gallows with several nooses attached. The poster was referring to the nine black teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of raping two white women in Scottsboro. Similarly, another poster from 1948 is a diptych of a black and white image of an African American man bound by ropes, gazing upward at the statue of liberty in the background, alongside a red-stained depiction of men and women of various races and ethnic clothing standing together.[25] The poster is captioned “Under Capitalism vs. Under Socialism”, with the black man tied by ropes associated with the woes of American capitalism.

As the 1950s and 60s brought a wave of decolonization and independence movements amongst the “Third World,” the USSR, just like the U.S., also wanted to promote the appeal of an egalitarian communist society to those who had long criticized the impact of Western imperialism and dominance. It worked, to a certain extent—at the same time, waves of Africans were immigrating to the USSR from former colonies, many of which included students participating in state-led opportunities to study at Soviet universities.[26] In attempts to expand their influence to the Third World, the Soviets continued to condemn instances of racism in the United States. When federal troops intervened in Little Rock after schools refused to desegregate, communist youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a story with photographs of Little Rock, sensationally titling the article “Troops Advance Against Children!”[27] Another state-sponsored newspaper, Investia, also covered the incident and called “so-called American democracy” a mere facade. As Mary Dudziak emphasizes in Cold War Civil Rights, the Russian objective was to disrupt U.S. international relations and undermine U.S. power in the world, thereby undermining the appeal of U.S. democracy to those living in other countries.

Consequently, the U.S. sought to address the issue of civil rights much earlier than when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum through impact litigation in the 1950s. Immediately following World War II, President Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights through Executive Order 9808 on December 5th, 1946, seeking to explain why it was essential to ensure civil rights for all in the post-war period. Not only did the Committee point to the rise of a new world conflict drawn amongst the lines of both economic ideology and race, it directly emphasized that American racism compromised the national security of the United States.[28] This was one of the ways that race became increasingly intertwined with  national security at the beginning of the Cold War, and it would become even more interconnected in the 1950s.

Many of Truman’s initiatives indicated a willingness to take civil rights seriously in the context of foreign policy and national security. In Truman’s speech to Congress on February 2, 1948, a year after the Committee was created, he spoke of freedom and equality under the law, as well as the protection of civil rights. To do so, he proposed the establishment of a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, a permanent commission on Civil Rights reporting to the President, and a Committee on Civil Rights in Congress. The equality in naturalization for immigrants and the evacuation claims of Japanese-Americans from the era of interment formed two significant policy recommendations and goals in his speech, even though the Asian American population was comparatively smaller at the time. In regards to the Magnuson Act, he stated, “I urge the Congress to remove the remaining racial or nationality barriers which stand in the way of citizenship for some residents of our country.” [29] He also defended the evacuation claims of Japanese-Americans, many of whom wanted reparations for the losses they suffered after being forced to abandon their homes and businesses to evacuate to internment camps. “During the last war more than one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were evacuated from their homes in the Pacific states solely because of their racial origin…The Congress has before it legislation establishing a procedure by which claims based upon these losses can be promptly considered and settled.” [30]

Five months later in July 1948, Truman signed a bill in response to his request to deal with the evacuation claims of Japanese-Americans, authorizing the settlement of property loss claims by Japanese-Americans who were forcibly removed. As the Soviet Union promoted a communist utopia, America also sought to promote their own image of racial harmony—an image that began by “righting the wrongs” of the past, such as dealing with the consequences of Chinese Exclusion and Japanese internment. There was also federal intervention on behalf of civil rights as early as 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer, where the federal government’s brief supporting the dismantling of racial restrictions in housing relied on the State Department’s view that the U.S. had been “embarrassed” in diplomacy due to racial discrimination at home.[31] The violation of basic liberties for racial minorities in the U.S. was therefore tied to matters of national security; Truman’s adherence to such a paradigm would later be underscored by his veto of the McCarran Internal Security Act, which had passed through Congress to limit the political power of potential Communist subversives. In the next section, this paper will explore the impact of the McCarran Internal Security Act on Asian American communities.

The outbreak of the Chinese Revolution in 1949 and the Korean War in 1950 also caused a shift in the way domestic policy was tied to national security: the threat of communism appeared greater than ever, and the preeminent strategy at the time was to emphasize the importance of the U.S. and the rest of the free world in combating the communist threat of “Red Colonialism.” Only now, it was not just limited to Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. As a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in 1949 and its alliance with North Korea and the Soviets in the Korean War, the rest of Asia was just as susceptible to the “domino theory:” one country’s “fall” to communism would cause other countries to follow its lead, much like a set of dominoes. Following the United States’ entry into the Korean War, the Truman Administration committed to a “Campaign of Truth” that sought to portray America in a positive light by “coherently and aggressively pressing the American case, and improving American standing, in foreign eyes.” [32]

When President Eisenhower came into power, he also established components of a “New Look” national security policy that focused on undermining Soviet influence on non-aligned countries. In his analysis of public diplomacy, Parker suggests, “American analysts found that profound political and psychological changes that were the result of anti-colonial nationalism, racial awakening, and economic underdevelopment would greatly affect the US ability to achieve Western objectives.”[33] Preaching western liberal values in theory were not enough to offset anti-colonialist sentiments and race-based movements in the Third World. Such a realization would lead to the creation of agencies such as the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953. Under the Jackson and Rockefeller Committees, the USIA formulated “country plans” on-site, tailoring information that drew on the theme of free world unity to be disseminated in countries with strong nationalist movements such as Guatemala.[34] Eisenhower was so determined to present this vision to the world because from the administration’s point of view, transnational racial sensitivities were so strong that even dominant forces like the U.S. could not neutralize communism’s abilities to absorb them. In 1957, U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote to President Eisenhower about the riots in Little Rock, stating the following: “Here at the United Nations I can see clearly the harm that the riots in Little Rock are doing to our foreign relations…more than two-thirds of the world is non-white and the reactions of the representatives of these people is easy to see.”[35]

The domestic racial politics in postwar America played an important role in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. The racial tensions and demands of African Americans that arose at home could no longer be ignored, and the U.S. government scrambled to reconcile what they wanted the rest of the world to see, and what the world was actually seeing. The rise of public and cultural diplomacy meant that American soft power could now be consolidated in new ways–such methods eventually became essential to the relative positioning of Asian Americans in the wake of America’s geopolitical subsequent involvement in Asia, and during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

The McCarran Internal Security Act

Truman’s “loss” of Nationalist China, as well as China’s entry into the Korean War, instilled fears of Asian Americans at home. The logic that justified Japanese internment during World War II had returned: policies that restricted the civil liberties of those who looked like the enemy were perfectly warranted so long as it was in the interest of national security. As Bruce Cumings stresses, China’s entry into the Korean War cast Asians as an “enemy race” that sought to destabilize the global political order.[36] Asians, including Asian Americans, were perceived as enemies who were part of a global communist mission seeking to destroy the American way of life. Popular portrayals of American involvement in Asia such as a 1962 film titled The Manchurian Candidate emphasize how pervasive this logic was even nine years after the war ended. In the film, a platoon of U.S. soldiers become brainwashed by evil Korean communists, becoming part of an international communist conspiracy to undermine the U.S. government.

In 1949, the federal government’s conviction of eleven Communist Party members for teaching or advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government established a precedent for imprisoning both citizens and non-citizens for their political beliefs. This was followed by the 1950 Emergency Detention Act, which gave the U.S. Attorney General the authority to establish concentration camps for anyone who might be deemed a domestic threat in a national emergency. Like Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, the Asian Americans who were commonly perceived as behind enemy lines often had no connection to their ancestral homeland. Many were first- or second-generation immigrants for which America was their only home and culture. Regardless, widespread anger and fear over China’s loss prompted the United States to implement policies that upheld the ability of the U.S. government to punish citizens for their political beliefs, many of which were based on assumptions from American encounters with the Asian enemy abroad.

One of the first major pieces of legislation that responded to fears of the Communist threat at home was the McCarran Internal Security Act, which passed on September 23rd, 1950.

The Act was established by Democratic Senator Pat McCarran, who was a supporter of Joseph McCarthy. McCarran was  firmly convinced that immigrants were bringing communism to the United States. The Act required communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), which prompted the investigation of those suspected of subversive activities or promoting totalitarian dictatorship. Citizens that were suspected or found in violation of the act could lose citizenship for up to five years or be detained; the Act also authorized state detention of persons suspected of espionage or sabotage in the event of an invasion, war or insurrection.[37]

The McCarran Act normalized and legitimized prejudices towards Asian Americans, despite the post-World War II characterization of some, but not all, Asian Americans as wartime allies. Ellen Wu states:

Almost overnight the prevailing images of Chinese in the American public eye had metamorphosed from friendly (if weak) Pacific allies to formidable, threatening foes. Businesses reported losses as nervous clientele began canceling orders. Individuals became targets of verbal harassment and physical assaults, as was the case of one unfortunate Texan who was shot when mistaken for  a ‘Communist.’[38]

Public hysteria and fears amongst policymakers would force Chinese-American communities to react. Unsurprisingly, Chinese-Americans were already extremely wary of U.S. policy after China’s entry into the Korean War, especially after witnessing the effects of Japanese internment. Although the actual numbers of communists in Chinese-American communities were tiny, Chinese-American fears also led many Chinatown elites to support Chiang Kai-Shek. Many pro-Chiang Chinese elites ended up working with the FBI to suppress any expression of support for the new communist regime—the Trading with the Enemy Act, for example, prevented currency transfers to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including remittances to family.[39] The actions of Chinese-American and other Asian American communities to collaborate with the government did not necessarily quell fears amongst decision-makers, however; the United States’ intervention in Asia exaggerated an “Us vs. Them” mentality that remained ingrained in the American consciousness.

Despite passing in Congress, the McCarran Act was vetoed by Truman. True to his concerns of America’s perception in international politics, he justified his veto with the potential negative consequences of the legislation on the conduct of foreign affairs, emphasizing how the passing of the Act would help communists in their attempt to undermine American freedom. In a speech on September 22, 1950, Truman stated, “But in actual operation the bill would have results exactly the opposite of those intended…It would help the Communist propagandists throughout the world who are trying to undermine freedom by discrediting as hypocrisy the efforts of the United States on behalf of freedom.”[40] The suggestion that the U.S. could not betray its tradition of freedom of expression because it would help communists undermine American liberties attested to the importance of promoting the American commitment to freedom and democracy, at least in the eyes of the public.

The Filipino Uprising and the Hukbalahap Rebellion

The United States’ domestic response to the CCP victory and the Korean War propelled Asian Americans to the forefront of concerns regarding national security and the conduct of foreign affairs. In a region of Asia south of the equator, another popular uprising was also starting to brew. The Hukbalahap (Huk) Movement, which had initially begun as an anti-Japanese guerrilla force during World War II, merged with the Communist Party in the Philippines in 1950. Partially a response to the internal distributions of wealth—inequalities which U.S. policies had done little to curb when the Philippines was a U.S. colony—the Huk movement mainly targeted wealthy Filipinos who collaborated with the Japanese during the war.[41] Eventually, the Huks seized numerous large estates in central Luzon and established a regional government, collected taxes, and even administered their own laws.

After the Philippines gained independence in 1946, the Huk movement started to gain more momentum and eventually led to a popular uprising. The containment doctrine, as well as previously established fears of a communist takeover in Asia, allowed the U.S. to suppress the uprising, working together with the Philippine establishment to curb the rebellion. Many members of the Huk Rebellion called for the removal of American military bases, which the U.S. viewed as a “direct geopolitical threat.”[42] As a result, Truman authorized large shipments of military supplies to the Manila government under Ramon Magsaysay, which would prove effective in suppressing the rebellion. The U.S. also spent special military advisors to the Philippines to develop counterinsurgency tactics that would later be used in the Vietnam and Indochina Wars.[43] Perceptions of the Filipino threat were highly connected to the loss of China and the view that China was attempting to expand its influence in the Asiatic region. In John Foster Dulles’ address of Secretary in 1957, he states:

[The Chinese Communist Party] retains power not by will of the Chinese people, but by massive, forcible repression. It fought the United Nations in Korea, it supported the Communist war in Indochina; it took Tibet by force. It fomented the Communist Huk rebellion in the Philippines and the Communists’ insurrection in Malaya. It does not disguise its expansionist ambitions. It is bitterly hateful of the United States, which it considers a principal obstacle in the way of its path of conquest.[44]

These perceptions of threat also resulted in political consequences for Filipino-Americans. As demonstrated by the McCarran Internal Security Act, the United States was both willing and able to persecute individuals on the basis of their political beliefs, and policies towards Filipino-American communities were no different. Along with prior beliefs that established Asians as the enemy, the United States began to perceive transnational networks linking Filipino leaders and Filipino-American activists as a major threat, pursuing domestic policies that specifically targeted Filipino-Americans. These policies included the aggressive persecution of Filipino labor leaders and the monitoring of Filipino activists. An activist named Carlos Bulosan, a high profile Filipino-American writer who chronicled the Filipino-American experience from the 1930s to the 1950s, was an avid supporter of the Huks and attempted to mobilize support for them amongst American leftists.[45] As a result, he was blacklisted and surveilled by the FBI.

The U.S. government also targeted Filipino members of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), who were known for their daunting critiques on white supremacy and anti-imperialist views. Filipinos and other Asian Americans had dominated the workforce in Alaskan canneries since the 1900s, comprising a majority of the ILWU. They distributed materials that served to educate Asian American communities on the failures of the American political system to truly promote a multiracial society, including a pamphlet entitled “The McCarran Act: 57 varieties of union harassment: a digest and analysis of the Internal security act of 1950.” According to the University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, “the unionization of workers in the Alaska canneries and the fields of western Washington gave Filipinos an important tool to fight for better wages and working conditions and also for civil rights.”[46] The ability of activists such as ILWU members to point out the civil rights violations of the U.S. government, however, also meant that they contradicted the image of the multiracial democracy that the United States wanted to depict to audiences abroad. “Liberals of the time envisioned Asian inclusion as adaptation to white, middle-class norms and behaviors…Asians would need to ‘earn’ legitimation as fellow citizens by performing in ways deemed acceptable by the state and other powerful actors,” Madeleine Hsu and Ellen Wu said. “This meant that only those who were sufficiently patriotic, anti-communist, heteronormative, and upstanding could pass muster.”[47] Filipino-American members of the ILWU certainly did not fit the bill. As a result of their activism and the United States’ geopolitical entrenchment in Asia, members of the ILWU were investigated by federal authorities for alleged communist sympathies, and hundreds were arrested or arbitrarily deported for their subversive political beliefs.

The United States’ domestic response to the Huk Rebellion, while certainly not as broad in scope as the McCarran Act, stoked underlying racialized fears about Asian Americans solidified the means of threat perception that had provided much of the justification for the McCarran Act. The emphasis on the transnational nature of the Asian communist threat would shape policies regarding Asian immigration and the political identity of Asian Americans in the years to come. It would also contribute to the continued fears of an ideological takeover, with decision-makers such as Dulles viewing Asian countries as both particularly vulnerable to and seeking to exert communist influence.

Chinese Confession Program

The perception of a transnational Asian threat profoundly impacted Chinese-American communities. In 1955, U.S. consul in Hong Kong Everett F. Drumwright, issued a report warning that communist China was making use of “massive fraud and deception to infiltrate agents into the US undercover as immigrants,” providing a rationale for FBI and INS raids into Chinatowns across the country.[48] Chinatowns were flooded with public notices, street fliers, and warnings of potential spies and subversives that only exacerbated the underlying fear of the McCarran Act. More importantly, the Drumright Report also called for federal investigations and subpoenas of Chinese-American populations in order to investigate Chinese immigration fraud, which had become a prevalent issue at the time. In 1950, at least 25% of the Chinese-American population was undocumented, and most were in the U.S. as a result of fraud and surreptitious entry.[49] Most of the undocumented population consisted of “paper sons:” people who had immigrated to the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century by posing as sons of naturalized Chinese-American immigrants. Due to this system of paper immigration, the discovery of one fraudulent claim could implicate about 30 other individuals.

Ending paper immigration, however, was not as easy as government officials envisioned. Even if white officials regarded Asian Americans as potentially disloyal because of their ancestry and supposed connection to enemies in Asia, authorities could no longer make publicly make such claims.[50] This also meant that Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) could no longer operate in the same way they had before. The national embarrassment of the U.S. government failing to address civil rights was too prominent, and the issue was one that both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations sought to address. At the time, President Eisenhower was also dealing with the delicate situation of the Quemoy-Matsu crisis, a military conflict between China and the ROC which had exacerbated tensions between the United States and China. Moreover, many Chinese-Americans across the country were extremely frustrated, and multiple communities on the west coast had started to become more affiliated with liberal politicians. Chinese activists and leaders like Chinese-Americans Citizens Alliance (CACA) President Henry Lem forced the government to respond to concerns of Chinese activists who emphasized that Chinese exclusion was the cause of Chinese illegal immigration. The subpoenas and investigations by the Department of Justice, as prompted by the Drumright report, had to be replaced with something slightly more accommodating, so long as it did not appear like the government was pandering to those who were perceived as intimately connected with communist conspirators in Asia.

After blanket subpoenas were thrown out in March 1956, the Chinese Confession Program officially started in 1956. The program was set up to prevent communists from entering the U.S. fraudulently and requested that Chinese-Americans with paper citizenship come forward in exchange for “amnesty.” While they were offered immunity from prosecution, they were still subject to deportation, and the program was more of an administrative adjustment for confessors as opposed to an actual method of integration. As Cindy I-fen Cheng argues, the government relied on the Chinese Confession Program to “reinstate illegal immigrants back into the alien/citizen dichotomy.”[51] Rather than integrating undocumented Asian immigrants as  American citizens, it placed the responsibility on Asian Americans themselves to claim their own legality as American citizens. Many Chinese-Americans ended up outing close friends and relatives in exchange for immunity from the lack of persecution. It was also likely the best deal that Chinese-Americans could have received at the time in the midst of the anti-communist hysteria that had swept up the United States.[52]

At least 11,336 Chinese-Americans entered the Chinese Confession Program, implicating another 19,124 people and subsequently closing off 5,800 slots for citizenship.[53] The main problem underlying the Chinese Confession Program was that it utilized a method of selective enforcement. The INS could choose whom they wanted to deport, and the U.S. government’s prior focus on stripping those with “subversive” political beliefs of their citizenship and liberties meant that those perceived as political radicals would be more subject to deportation, even when the actual number of leftists in Chinese-American communities was minuscule.[54] Secondly, the program was unreliable. It was often difficult to verify the claims of paper citizens because the documentation was not there in the first place. Mae Ngai stresses that authorities found paper immigration to be nearly impossible to eliminate, as it rested on documentation that was created by the State. “Just as oral testimony and interrogation helped create that body of evidence, ‘confession’ became the only method of proving its fraudulent character.”[55] In other words, confessions were almost just as unreliable as the testimonies of the Asian immigrants who claimed to be paper sons.

After decades of facing racism and discrimination from the state, Chinese confessions were also not necessarily predicated on any sense of trust between Chinese communities and the government. Most Chinese-Americans were skeptical of the government’s ability to help them, and rightly so, since they had lived under the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, and the recent McCarran Act. While the program resulted in the arrest of New York illegal immigration racket kingpin Sing Kee, it also led to the arrest of individuals like Maurice Chuck, a radical San Francisco journalist who was trapped by the confession and courtroom testimony of his own (real) father. Chuck was convicted, stripped of his paper citizenship, and sent to prison; although his father’s confession had exposed him, Chuck shared a hotel with his father during the trial, who wept every night.[56] Cases like Chuck’s demonstrate that the Chinese Confession Program did not necessarily accomplish its goal of disrupting transnational networks of communist subversives. Rather, it generated widespread confusion and discord amongst Chinese American communities, operating on Chinese-Americans’ fears of potential persecution.

Prioritizing the elimination of paper immigration contributed to the perception that Chinese-Americans were “unscrupulous, devious, and immoral.”[57] Aside from the presumption that all persons of Chinese descent in America were illegal immigrants, the dichotomy of “Good China” (the ROC) versus “Bad China” (the PRC) also forced Chinese-Americans to pick sides in policies that sought to restrict their civil liberties. It encouraged prominent community leaders to emphasize transnational strategies as a response to the American perception of Asian Americans as holding a deeper connection to Asia than they might have. Before the Chinese Confession Program, Chinatown organizations such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) coordinated with the INS and the FBI to suppress left-wing, pro-PRC opponents through programs of domestic surveillance, repression, and deportation.[58] Yet, when CCBA-NY relied on ROC officials to protest against the initial Drumright probe in 1956, the KMT government proved unable to help—according to one CCBA-NY member, the KMT government was “so weak and corrupt it makes one sigh.”[59]  When the members were unable to produce tangible results for Chinese-Americans, many Chinese-Americans also lost faith in the ROC’s ability to protect Chinese-American rights, and a transnational political identity was abandoned in favor of a more local one.

Asia First and the Cultural Narratives of Race

While Asian Americans faced racially targeted policies at home, Republicans had already begun to develop an “Asia First” policy stance in an attempt to separate themselves from the Democratic presidency of Truman. The Asia First policy outlook brought a new dimension to Asian American identity at the time and was integral in enhancing the role that Asian Americans played in national politics. Although policies like the McCarran Act targeted Asian American populations, the sense that the United States was responsible for China’s post-war destiny under Asia First conveyed that Asian Americans had a real stake in national decisions regarding foreign affairs.

Aside from China’s alliance with the U.S. in the Pacific War and U.S. support for the KMT government, there were other early indications of a policy tilt towards Asia. Before Truman was elected, a document named “The Manchurian Manifesto” was published in 1946 that protested the Soviets’ expanding influence in Manchuria and largely blamed the U.S. for what happened to China at Yalta.[60] In 1947, the U.S. wanted to reconstruct Japan’s pre-war economic machine as a foil to possibly revolutionary China, and Japan was perceived as playing a large role in bridging the markets of Southeast Asia and the U.S. market.[61] The adoption of China as a signature foreign policy issue from the Chinese Revolution onwards was accompanied by skeptical leaders who were wary of troops getting further involved in European affairs. Many also blamed Truman for the “loss of China” after the victory of the CCP. A pro-Chiang position that funneled more funding into Asia was therefore a partisan approach to the perceived weakness of the Democrats in dealing with policy issues concerning Asia.

One of the largest proponents of Asia First was GOP Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio.

Taft, along with other House Republicans, criticized Truman harshly on his policies towards China leading up to the 1948 election. The rigid dichotomy of Communist and Non-Communist–wherein Mao was Communist and Chiang was not–meant that the U.S. automatically had to support Chiang. Truman’s weak support for Chiang and his nationalist government was, therefore, a main point of contention. “I believe very strongly that the Far East is ultimately even more important to our future peace and safety than is Europe. We should at least be as much concerned about the advance of Communism to the shores of the Pacific…as we are to its possible advance to the shores of the Atlantic,”[62] stated Taft in a speech to the Economic Club of Detroit.

After the CCP’s victory in 1950, the establishment of the PRC entrenched further impressions that America was losing the Cold War. The idea that the United States should serve as China’s protector magnified how much of a loss China appeared to be, and the question of “Who lost China?” haunted the Truman administration in the years to come. In her work on American conservatism in regards to China policy, Joyce Mao emphasizes that the downfall of a free China “easily compounded perceptions of the free world rapidly disintegrating, which in turn led to a belated appreciation of Free China as a bulwark against the spread of communism and an assumption that the American Pacific Rim was in danger.”[63] It also didn’t take long for Republicans to utilize the loss of China to their advantage, transforming China into a partisan issue. In his 1951 book titled A Foreign Policy for Americans, Taft portrayed Asia as American foreign policy’s Achilles Heel. He argued that prioritizing Asia was a matter of basic fairness: why shouldn’t the U.S. grant Asian allies the same amount of attention and support as they had given to European ones? To support his argument, Taft frequently cited what happened in China during the late 1940s as the best examples of liberal foreign policy failures—from Roosevelt conceding too much at Yalta to Truman abandoning the KMT, it was clear where Taft and other Republicans stood in relation to Democrats on the issue of Asia.

Perceptions of Asian Americans also influenced the conduct of Asia First, especially those that continued to conceive Asian Americans as transnationally linked to the political ideologies of communist countries in Asia. During the Chinese Confession Program, community Republicans often fought against Chinese American activism that sought to frame immigration subpoenas from the Department of Justice as a racial issue instead of a transnational one.[64] Liberal Democrats such as former California Assemblyman Phil Burton, while campaigning for a State Assembly seat to unseat a 24-year old Republican incumbent, tapped into his liberal  network to help defend the Chinese-American community during the initial DoJ probes.[65] Several congressional representatives in California responded and questioned the probes directly, earning the support of many Chinese-Americans. After witnessing the targeted impact of racialized responses to the war in Asia, Asian Americans were also quite aware of the fact that government officials often viewed them in conjunction with Asian populations overseas. Republicans such as Rollins MacFayden, a white American Legion member, urged Chinese conservatives to form branches of the California Republican Assembly, assuming that “the primary interest of the “Orientals” [with] whom he organized was Asia policy.”[66]

The attempts to conflate the interests of Asian American communities with national interests in Asia policy contributed to the perceived foreignness of Asian Americans, reinforcing stereotypes of the perpetual foreigner. Simultaneously, Asia First also transformed Asian American identity by accentuating its role in both national and local politics, paving the way for strategic public and cultural diplomacy that further underscored the role of Asian Americans in foreign affairs. The U.S. government’s fear that ethnic Chinese and Asians in America were susceptible to political seduction by communist China and other Asian communist countries did not only manifest in the form of targeted racial policies like the Chinese Confession Program. As part of the project to promote U.S. democracy at home and abroad, the U.S. government also made it a priority to include semi-assimilated Chinese-Americans in Cold War narratives of race to demonstrate the superiority of America’s “multiracial” and liberal democracy. As Hsu and Wu emphasize, Asian Americans’ “links to Asia were remade into assets amidst the geopolitics of World War II and the Cold War.”[67]

Such attempts to include Asian Americans in the dominant narrative and eventual goal of racial integration was often reflective of shifting, conflicting attitudes and policies towards Asian Americans. The impact of films and books was particularly prominent in perpetuating a sense of “dual identity” amongst Asian Americans that merged both American and “Asian” elements that never presented as fully American. Prominent authors such as Jade Snow Wong, Pardee Lowe, and C.Y. Lee dominated the Asian American cultural zeitgeist, and Christina Klein underscores how essential their cultural depictions of the Asian American identity were to the goal of “driving the reformulation of American national identity as a pluralistic nation of immigrants.”[68] This again emphasizes the importance of domestic racial politics in the conduct of Cold War foreign affairs, with policy stances such as Asia First providing even more momentum for the heightened representation of Asian Americans both culturally and politically. The rising political prominence of Asian Americans was incredibly significant in the context of the actual Asian American population at the time: from the 1940s to the 1950s, the Asian American remained relatively constant, consisting of approximately only 0.2% of the American population.[69] This percentage is less than 3.5% of the Asian American population today.

Stories of Asians popularized in books and films often focused on individualized assimilation and the ethnic qualities of Asian individuals, spotlighting various elements of Asian culture as a nod to American multiculturalism. Take the 1956 film Sayonara, a drama about an interracial romance in the Cold War era between American Air Force flier named Ace and Japanese performer Hana-Ogi. Set against an anachronistic backdrop of scenes from exoticized Japan, Ace falls in love with Hana-Ogi on his deployment during the Korean War. The couple remains in love, but Ace cannot marry Hana-Ogi under U.S. law, and Hana-Ogi is sent back to Tokyo. Another romance in the film between one of Ace’s colleagues and his Japanese lover end in a double suicide, prompting Ace to realize his true love for Hana-Ogi. At the end of the film, Ace is told that laws were being passed in the United States to allow interracial marriage, upon which he rushes to find Hana-Ogi in Tokyo, eventually pleading Hana-Ogi to marry him. Consider that Sayonara was released two years before the landmark case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down barriers to interracial marriage across all states. On one hand, Robert Lee notes that the movie highlighted the “anti-communist necessity of ‘ethnic liberalism’ that presents Hana-Ogi as a model of ethnic assimilation.”[70] On the other hand, the film hinged on emphasizing the differences between the two protagonists, suggesting that interracial marriages and interracial families—particularly those between white men and Asian women—presented a solution to the problem of racial discrimination in the United States.

In the 1961 film Flower Drum Song, dual-identity characters such as Mei Li possessed political value precisely because their non-American parts connected America to the rest of the world. Originally a novel, the film version focuses on eldest son Wang Ta’s romantic choices between two women: American born, completely assimilated Linda Low, or recent Chinese immigrant Mei Li. Throughout the film, Linda Low and Mei Li are juxtaposed with each other, with Mei Li portrayed as the epitome of traditional “Asian” femininity as opposed to Linda’s American sensibilities. Linda, like other cultural conceptions of a typical American woman, dresses in American clothing and talks about which men she wants to date. In contrast, Mei Li wears the Hollywood version of a traditional Chinese dress, sings with a notable accent, and bows often, presenting with a modest and shy demeanor. Although the protagonist Wang Ta starts out in love with Linda, he ends up marrying Mei Li. Thus, there is a clear process of privileging Mei Li, a character that highlights Asian foreign-ness and cultural difference, as opposed to Linda, who epitomizes assimilation and integration into American society.[71] In both Sayonara and Flower Drum Song, the ethnicities and cultures of Asian individuals are fetishized in a way that ignores the historic racial dynamics and lived experiences of Asians in the United States, presenting Asian Americans in an ahistorical vacuum. Individualized notions of “assimilation” but not full integration underscored that overcoming racial discrimination could be done through the hard work and determination of individuals instead of dismantling systemic wrongs. Such depictions also further solidified any notions of Asian Americans as permanent foreigners, or as literary critic Frank Chin describes, “racialized aliens forever identified with countries they may never have seen.”[72]

Aside from their roles in films, Asian Americans also played a prominent role in America’s conduct of public diplomacy. Other than agencies such as USIA that sought to disseminate American propaganda to the Third World, Washington also sent Asian Americans such as Jade Snow Wong on a 45-stop speaking tour through Asia in 1952, and Congressman Dalip Saund on a similar tour in 1957. Wong, a Chinese American author of popular autobiography Fifth Chinese Daughter, was the first Chinese American sent overseas by the State Department, receiving varied welcomes as she stopped in countries like Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, Thailand, Burma, India, and Pakistan. Saund was the first Asian American elected representative in Congress, and like Wong, stopped in many of the same countries as an official representative of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.[73]

Wong, for the most part, spoke about the United States and the possibilities it offered for Chinese-Americans. As Klein reiterates, “Wong understood her ‘dual heritage’ as a political asset for the nation, one that allowed her to internationalize the role of cultural mediator that she had constructed in her autobiography.”[74] Not only did Wong defend America from charges of racism and discrimination, but she also shifted the blame for the effects of discrimination to Asian Americans themselves. Similarly, Saund understood his duties as operating on two levels: one was to study mutual security between Asia and the United States, and the second was to “present [him]self as a living example of American democracy in practice.”[75]  The latter was reiterated over and over again on his tour, with Saund telling attendees at a luncheon in Bombay (Mumbai) that any claims of prejudice against Indian-Americans or people of Indian descent were untrue. The logic of prioritizing individual faults over systemic wrongs would come to define the very crux of the model minority myth: as long as one exemplified certain traits of hard work and discipline, they could overcome racism in American society.

Even though State Department officials considered Wong and Saund’s tours a triumph for Cold War diplomacy, they made the same mistake that many of their colleagues at home did—they overemphasized a sense of transnational Asian identity and conflated the Asian American experience with a generalized and monolithic pan-Asian one. Hendrik Van Oss, a foreign officer at the time, reiterated, “Miss Wong’s life demonstrates the success that Asians can achieve in America…her speech and outlook clearly showed that she is accepted as an American, and this in itself was powerful counteraction to the reports of racial discrimination which have received wide publicity here.”[76] Even though Wong received some warm welcomes on her tour, many audiences were more critical, questioning her authenticity as a “true Chinese” person. It turned out that overseas Asian audiences did not have experiences as monolithic as State officials thought, and Chinese identity did not necessarily unite all persons of Asian descent. In Malaya, for example, one man confronted Wong, asking her if she was really implying that there was no racial prejudice in the United States at all. Being the diplomat that she was, Wong responded with how Asian Americans create a happy life for themselves in the United States regardless of prejudice and discrimination.

At home, the government actively emphasized the successes of select groups of East and South Asians to emphasize the rising status of Asian Americans in U.S. society. Notable firsts like Judge John F. Aiso in 1953 (the first Japanese-American judge) and Judge Delbert Wong in 1959 (the first Chinese-American judge) were often used as signaling by the state.[77] At the time, California Governor Edmund G. Brown had asked Judge Wong to fly to Sacramento as part of a planned conference, and mainstream media like the U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, and the New York Times ran stories that featured the successes of Asian Americans like Wong and Aiso to discredit the claims of Black civil rights leaders.[78] The American government continued to actively recognize and promote racialized minorities as part of the post-World War II, Cold War order, and elected officials and news organizations were often aware of how elevating the status of Asian Americans could work to establish the credibility of U.S. democracy.

The 1960s and the Relative Positioning of Asian Americans

The experiences of Asian Americans in the 1950s, as well as the policies and cultural depictions that represented the fraught paradoxes of America’s claims to a multiracial democracy, significantly influenced the political identity of Asian Americans in the 1960s. Although perceptions of foreign-ness and Asians as the enemy never truly escaped the American consciousness, “Asia First” and the heightened role that Asian Americans played in foreign affairs would elevate Asian Americans to a position they had never previously occupied in the racial structures of the United States. Even though this paper does not explore the implications of the United States’ geopolitical involvement in Asia during the 1960s on Asian Americans, I argue that the legacy left by policymakers and government officials from the 1950s were extremely remarkable in transforming the relative status of Asian Americans in the 60s.

The status of Asian Americans in American society in relation to African Americans is still a hotly debated topic today. Amy Chua, author of infamous autobiography Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, also published a book named The Triple Package in 2014, seeking to explain why certain groups in America did better than others. The book mostly attributed common measures of success such as socioeconomic class to specific cultural traits that were more present amongst ethno-racial groups such the Chinese, the Jewish, and Nigerians. Many critics opposed the book on the account that it ignored institutional and systemic barriers—a fair criticism, especially since “less successful” groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans have faced different sets of institutional obstacles that Asian Americans have since the 1960s. Chua’s logic was similar to that of the 60s, wherein popular attitudes conceptualized how inherent ethnic characteristics such as hard work and individual uplift could contribute to the vision of a racially harmonious society that defined Cold War politics. This subsequently emphasized a society where the state played a neutral role in race.

Asian Americans, especially those of East Asian descent, were bolstered by the model minority relative to African Americans. Images of Asian American uplift were shown in contrast to the supposed “criminality” of African Americans in the civil rights movement, even while African Americans were portrayed similarly in national concerns regarding the treatment of racial minorities within America’s borders. In an amicus brief by the Department of Justice on Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Attorney General explicitly urged that “The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the U.S. has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”[79] This indicated that the U.S. government saw the value in furthering the economic, social, and political status of African Americans in American society, mainly because it would help boost their reputation abroad. At a certain point, however, the U.S. began to see more value in promoting images of Asian American upward mobility and integration. Asian Americans were therefore much more advantaged by public opinion and institutional changes during the 1960s, and one primary reason for this was the emergence of the model minority myth.

The model minority myth perpetuated that Asian Americans had inherent cultural values that helped them succeed despite racial discrimination. In a 1966 New York Times article titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” sociologist William Peterson claimed that Japanese-Americans succeeded relative to “problem minorities” such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans because they held “Tokugawa” values like diligence, frugality, and achievement orientation.[80] Similar to the conceptions of transnationalism upheld in the 1950s, those of Japanese descent were automatically linked with the “alien” culture of Japan, even when Japanese-Americans consisted almost entirely of native-born U.S. citizens in 1965 (Japanese immigration had been barred between 1924 and 1965, when the Hart-Celler Immigration Act was enacted). Six months prior to the publication of the article, the Watts neighborhood riots had occurred in LA, where six days of rioting had incurred over $60 million in property damage as a result of a violent altercation between a crowd of African Americans and the police. [81] In the same year, a U.S. World and News Report article remarked that Asian Americans “faced more prejudice than Negroes today” due to Japanese internment, and most Americans seemed to forget Japanese internment was and still technically is constitutional—the original Korematsu decision has yet to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Robert Lee highlights in The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth, the elevation of Asian American status to the position of model minority had less to do with the actual success of Asian Americans than to the perceived failure of African Americans to assimilate to a white majority culture.[82] One reason for this was due to how Asians were placed at the forefront of narratives of assimilation in the 1950s. The two-fold utility of the model minority myth included sending a message to the Third World that the U.S. was a liberal democratic state with upward mobility for people of color, and sending a message to African Americans that non-compliance would be punished.[83] This was more or less demonstrated by the subsequent conflict in the Johnson Administration in responding to black demands for racial equality. While Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Report on the Black Family underscored the dysfunctional nature of black families, President Johnson’s speech at Howard University articulated a vision of social reform to combat poverty.

Following the publication of Peterson’s article and the longer trajectory of Asian American political identity that had taken shape in the 1950s, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Immigration Act in 1965. The act abolished the national origins (race-based) quota system established in 1924 and instead adopted a hemisphere quota system that was based on world population distribution—quotas for Asian nations jumped from 100 to 20,000 immigrants a year. In the same year, the Chinese Confession Program ended, since the ability of Chinese immigrants to become naturalized made the paper-son strategy unnecessary,[84] and between 1971 and 1980, approximately 1.6 million Asian immigrants arrived on American soil, eclipsing the Asian American census population in 1950 by over 1.2 million. Between 1981 and 1990, 2.8 million more Asian immigrants arrived. The immediate effect of the Hart-Celler Act was an increase in Korean and Indian immigration, as well as a considerable increase in the number of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian immigrants who were affected by the Indochina Wars in the 1970s. Overall, the percentage of Asians in America increased from 0.2% in 1950 to 1.5% at the end of 1980.[85]

The logic of the model minority myth was even present in policies towards immigration and diplomacy. The U.S. employed strict screening techniques to recruit only the best immigrants from Asia to integrate into American life, and the ROC would also use screening techniques to ensure that emigrants would support their government against communist opposition and change.[86] The Hart-Celler Act cemented preferences for educated and skilled Asian workers, and employers assumed great powers in providing workers routes to immigration and permanent status,[87] resulting in the subsequent “brain drain” of highly educated and skilled individuals from countries such as China, Korea, and India. The preference for educated and skilled Asian immigrants would also further reinforce the model minority myth.

Popular perceptions casting Asian Americans as alien subversives did not disappear. The dominant narratives of race and citizenship that had been so salient during times of war persisted in the 1960s, resulting in a relative positioning of Asian Americans as sometimes “like whites,” but definitely “not-black.”[88] According to Claire Jean Kim’s theory of racial triangulation, the relative positioning of Asian Americans in relation to whites and African Americans occurred via two processes, both of which were extremely significant in determining the trajectory of Asian American political identity during the early Cold War.

Under Kim’s theory of racial triangulation, there is first the process of “relative valorization,” wherein Asian Americans are valorized relative to African Americans. This process was especially emphasized by the political value of Asian Americans in relation to “Asia First,” popular images of Asian American uplift and mobility, and cultural depictions of African Americans as comparatively more criminal in their fight for civil rights. The second process is that of civic ostracism, where whites constructed Asian Americans as immutably foreign and unassimilable with whites–often on cultural and racial grounds, in order to ostracize them from political participation. This was exemplified by the wartime perceptions of the Asian enemy, racially targeted policies towards Asian Americans such as the McCarran Act, as well as the cultural and political emphasis on differentiating Asian Americans from fully assimilable immigrants. Both these processes were amplified and enforced by the American mission of promoting the ideals of a multiracial democracy, as well as the United States’ geopolitical interests in Asia as a result of World War II, the Chinese Revolution, and the Korean War. The political and ideological forces of the early Cold War, therefore, played a significant role in perpetuating perceptions of Asian Americans as both loyal Americans and alien subversives, allowing many of the institutions and mores which enforced mechanisms of white supremacy and racism to remain in place despite the consistent, repeated demands of African Americans.


In 2017, NPR writer Kat Chow published an article that identified the model minority myth as being used as a “racial wedge” between Asian Americans and African Americans.[89] In response to a New York Magazine article praising Asian Americans as an exemplar in how to overcome discrimination, Chow underscores how the “perceived collective successes” of Asian Americans are a worn-out trope, and how these successes are often used to minimize the role that racism plays in the struggles of other minority groups. Such characterizations of tensions between Asian Americans and African Americans are a testament to the extent to which the relative positioning of Asian Americans as not white, but not black, has influenced American racial politics.

In addition to the racial triangulation of Asian Americans, this paper examines shifts in immigration and domestic policy, broader U.S. foreign policy goals, and certain facets of public opinion and community activism, in relation to their impact on Asian American communities in the United States. By emphasizing major turning points in Asian American history such as the 1950 McCarran Act or the policy shift towards “Asia First” in the context of maintaining a post-WWII, Cold War order, we can recognize the importance of U.S. foreign policy in Asia and its impact on the domestic racial environment. This environment was often situated against the broader American vision for a democratic, multiracial society, as well as the expansion of public and cultural diplomacy. The changing perceptions of Asian Americans during the early Cold War in the 1950s provided essential momentum for the development of the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner myth in the decades to follow, contributing extensively to the relative positioning of Asian Americans in the context of other racial minorities. By investigating the early Cold War origins of these myths, I do not intend to identify a single source of causation for the changes that have affected Asian American communities, nor do I wish to debunk the empirical successes of Asian American immigrants and communities. My paper also does not focus on the politics of Third World solidarity and cross-racial perceptions during the Civil Rights movement, as I am mainly interested in showcasing the effects of foreign policy on domestic racial politics. Asian Americans’ sociological perceptions of African Americans may have also impeded strides for cross-racial activism, which is a subject that requires further scholarship. The history of racial progress and the positioning of Asian Americans within American society has been influenced by a variety of complex factors that are beyond the scope of this paper.

Yet, the model minority and perpetual foreigner myths – two myths that were repeatedly perpetuated and reinforced during the early Cold War – continue to have implications on Asian Americans today. While Asian Americans as a whole have a higher median income than most Americans, the income gap amongst Asian Americans is the largest out of all racial groups, with subgroups such as Hmong-Americans and Cambodian-Americans having much lower incomes than Chinese-, South Asian-, and Korean-Americans. The characterization of Asian Americans as monolithic and unassimilable under the two tropes of the model minority and perpetual foreigner is dangerous and harmful. Popular perceptions of Asian Americans often paint us with a brush stroke as able to overcome racial prejudices through hard work and success, leading to discriminatory expectations and unequal treatment. Simultaneously, the myth of the perpetual foreigner reinforces common perceptions of Asian Americans as inherently foreign, regardless of what culture they may have grown up or surrounded themselves with. The popularization of such racial constructions reflects the lasting legacies of the Cold War and its often all-encompassing influence on domestic politics.

[1]  Gustavo Lopez, Neil G. Ruiz, and Eileen Patteen, “Key facts about Asian Americans, a diverse and growing population” Pew Research Center (Sep 8 2017),

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Model Minority Myth” in Asian Americans in the Law, Vol. 5, Issue 1 (Nov/Dec 2018), 2018,

[4] Stacey J. Lee et. al,”The model minority and the perpetual foreigner: Stereotypes of Asian Americans” in Asian American Psychology: Current perspectives (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2009), 69-84

[5] David Eng and Shinhee Han, “Racial Melancholia” in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation (Duke University Press, 2018), 46-47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (University of California Press, March 2003)

[8] Ellen Wu, ““America’s Chinese”: Anti-Communism, Citizenship, and Cultural Diplomacy during the Cold War” in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 77, No.3 (University of California Press: August 2008), 391-422

[9] Madeleine Hsu and Ellen Wu, “”Smoke and Mirrors”: Conditional Inclusion, Model Minorities, and the Pre-1965 Dismantling of Asian Exclusion” in Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 34, No. 4 (University of Illinois Press: Summer 2015), 43-65

[10] Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Avi Selk, “FDR issued an executive order sending Japanese Americans to internment camps — 75 years ago” in The Washington Post (Washington DC, Feb 9 2017)

[13] Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 43

[14] Robert G. Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” in Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 149

[15] Meredith Oyen, The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U. S. -Chinese Relations in the Cold War (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2015), 5

[16] Xiaohua Ma, “The Sino-American Alliance During World War II and the Lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Acts” in American Studies International, Vol. 38, No.2 (Mid America American Studies Association: June 2000)

[17] Oyen, The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U. S. -Chinese Relations in the Cold War

[18] Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, 56

[19] Ibid., 56

[20] Charlotte Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

[21] Jason C. Parker, Hearts, Minds, Voices: US Cold War Public Diplomacy and the Formation of the Third World (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[22] Cheng, Citizens of Asian America – Democracy and Race During the Cold War, 2

[23] Ma, “The Sino-American Alliance During World War II and the Lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Acts”

[24] Steve Rose, “Racial harmony in a Marxist utopia: how the Soviet Union capitalised on US discrimination” in The Guardian (Jan 24 2016),

[25] Ibid.

[26] Olga Chudinovskikh and Mikhail Denisenko, “Russia: A Migration System with Soviet Roots” (Migration Policy Institute, 2017),

[27] Julia Ioffe, “The History of Russian Involvement in America’s Race Wars” (The Atlantic, 2017),

[28] Cheng, Citizens of Asian America – Democracy and Race During the Cold War (New York: New York University Press, 2013)

[29] Harry S. Truman, “Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights” (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, 1948)

[30] Ibid.

[31] Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” in Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, 157

[32] Parker, Hearts, Minds, Voices: US Cold War Public Diplomacy and the Formation of the Third World, 42

[33] Ibid, 66.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Dr. Cary Fraser, “Crossing the Color Line in Little Rock: The Eisenhower Administration and the Dilemma of Race for U.S. Foreign Policy”, Diplomatic History 24 no.2 (2000)

[36] Bruce Cumings, “American Orientalism at War in Korea and the United States: A Hegemony of Racism, Repression, and Amnesia” in Orientalism and War, ed. Tarak Barkawi and Ketih Stanski (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013)

[37] Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority

[38] Ibid., 111

[39] Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” in Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, 152

[40] Harry S. Truman, “Veto of the Internal Security Bill” (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, 1950)

[41] Rick Baldoz, “Asian Americans During The Cold War” in Finding a Path Forward: Asian American Pacific Islander National Historic Landmarks Theme Study, ed. Franklin Odo (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office), 227

[42] Benedict J. Kerkvliet, The Huk rebellion: a study of peasant revolt in the Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977)

[43] Rick Baldoz, “Asian Americans During The Cold War”, 227

[44] John Foster Dulles, “Address by the Secretary of State, San Francisco, June 28, 1957” in FOREIGN

RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, 1955–1957, CHINA, VOLUME III (Washington, DC.:Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State)

[45] Rick Baldoz, “Asian Americans During The Cold War”, 227

[46] “Filipino Cannery Unionism Across Three Generations 1930s-1980s” in Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project (Seattle: University of Washington, n.d.),

[47] Hsu and Wu,”Smoke and Mirrors”: Conditional Inclusion, Model Minorities, and the Pre-1965 Dismantling of Asian Exclusion, 55

[48] Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” 153

[49] Mae Ngai, “Legacies of Exclusion: Illegal Chinese Immigration during the Cold War Years” in Journal of American Ethnic History Vol. 18, No. 1 (University of Illinois Press, 1998)

[50] Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years, 158

[51] Cheng, Citizens of Asian America – Democracy and Race During the Cold War, 187

[52] Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years, 178-179

[53] Cheng, Citizens of Asian America – Democracy and Race During the Cold War, 187

[54] Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years, 177

[55] Mae Ngai, “Legacies of Exclusion: Illegal Chinese Immigration during the Cold War Years” in Journal of American Ethnic History Vol. 18, No. 1 (University of Illinois Press, 1998), 7

[56] Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (Hill and Wang, 2005)

[57] Ngai, “Legacies of Exclusion: Illegal Chinese Immigration during the Cold War Years”, 6

[58] Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, 397

[59] Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years, 174

[60] Joyce Mao, “Up from Isolationism” in Asia First: China and the Making of Modern American Conservatism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

[61] Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” 156

[62] Robert A. Taft, ed. Clarence E. Wunderlin, The papers of Robert A. Taft (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1997-2006)

[63] Joyce Mao, “Up from Isolationism”, 23

[64] Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years, 165

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Hsu and Wu, ““Smoke and Mirrors”: Conditional Inclusion, Model Minorities, and the Pre-1965 Dismantling of Asian Exclusion,” 54

[68] Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961

[69] “Table C-7. Asian and Pacific Islander, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1940 and 1950”, US Census, bC-07.pdf (September 13, 2002)

[70] Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” 162

[71] Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961

[72] Ibid, 240.

[73] Hsu and Wu, “Smoke and Mirrors”: Conditional Inclusion, Model Minorities, and the Pre-1965 Dismantling of Asian Exclusion”, 54

[74] Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, 240

[75] Hsu and Wu, “Smoke and Mirrors”: Conditional Inclusion, Model Minorities, and the Pre-1965 Dismantling of Asian Exclusion”, 54

[76] Ellen Wu, ““America’s Chinese”: Anti-Communism, Citizenship, and Cultural Diplomacy during the Cold War” in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 77, No.3 (University of California Press: August 2008), 391-422

[77] Cheng, Citizens of Asian America – Democracy and Race During the Cold War, 111

[78] Ibid, 114.

[79] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Brown v. Board of Education in International Context” (Washington DC: Supreme Court of the United States),

[80] William Peterson, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” in New York Times (New York: January 9, 1966),

[81] “Civil Rights Digital Library: Watts Riots” (University of Georgia – Digital Library of Georgia, 2013),

[82] Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth”, 145

[83] Ibid.

[84] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882, 158

[85] “Table C-7. Asian and Pacific Islander, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1940 and 1950”, US Census

[86] Oyen, The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U.S.-Chinese Relations in the Cold War

[87] Hsu, Madeline Y. Hsu, “Asian Americans and the Cold War” (Oxford Research Encyclopedia, May 2015),

[88] Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans” in Politics and Society (SAGE Social Science Collections, 1999)

[89] Kat Chow, “’Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks” in NPR (April 19, 2017),