Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

5.4: Wars and Imperialism

  • Page ID
    • Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Studying the Impact of Wars and Imperialism in Asian American Studies

    Asian American Studies professors, Wei Ming Dariotis and Wesley Ueunten remind us that due to the “model minority” myth and the general lack of knowledge about Asian American history, most Americans don’t realize how issues of war impact today’s Asian American communities. They point out that “Asian Americans of all generations are affected by the ghosts of wars in Asia, the Pacific, and Europe in myriad ways that vary distinctly by community” (2010, p. 747). Dariotis and Ueunten emphasize how many of these issues are related to the “overarching logic in the construct of Orientalism” or the construction of the collective “Orient” (Asia and the so-called Middle East) as foreign, feminized, and "othered" in order to justify years of Western colonization (p. 748).

    This section of the chapter will review just a few examples of how U.S.-involved wars and imperialism have shaped the racialization of Asian Americans and continue to impact their lives today. We will center the narratives of silenced Asian American stories, often misrepresented in mainstream media. Dariotis and Ueunten (2010) also point out how focusing on contemporary Asian American issues related to war contributes to understanding Asian American history and migration as related to U.S. militarism and expansionism; for, “Most of Asian America would not exist if it had not been for the push-pull effect exerted by the destabilization of Asian homelands through U.S. military actions, pushing Asians out of Asia…and the related increased wealth the U.S. enjoys that pulls Asians to the United States” (p. 749).

    Forgotten Wars: the Philippines and Korea

    Dariotis and Ueunten (2010) point out how the U.S. tends to reinforce the message of being victims of attacks on U.S. soil, as “they provide an impetus to war” (p. 750). Contrary to this, we are just as quick to forget or hide U.S. military actions that work to minimize its impacts and reduce the number of years involved or people killed. These examples of U.S. involved wars or imperialism are not commonly celebrated, nor are they given a significant time in history textbooks. These are the “Forgotten Wars” of the U.S.

    Philippine-American War and U.S. Imperialism

    One such example is the Philippine-American War between the U.S. and Filipinx revolutionaries. After 400 years of Spanish colonization in the Philippines, the U.S., in its desire for global domination, took the opportunity to go to war with Spain as Cubans were fighting for independence. In the Philippines, Spanish domination had already been weakened by hundreds of years of resistance by Filipinx people who wished for nothing more than to be able to govern themselves and dismantle Western occupation. Thanks to these liberation efforts, the U.S. was able to come in at a crucial moment and help defeat the Spanish in four months. It was uncovered fairly quickly that the real motive by the U.S. was not about supporting independence in Cuba or the Philippines, but about expanding the U.S. empire. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the United States was “given control” over the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

    This move was an extension of the Manifest Destiny ideology, that the U.S. was destined to expand their empire. Americans began to construct a narrative that justified their occupation of the Philippines, proclaiming that “it was their duty to expand both Christianity and democracy in the word” (Parks, 2013, p. 264). It’s important to note that not all Americans believed this and in fact there was a strong force of anti-imperialists who opposed the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. People of the Philippines also opposed U.S. control and resisted. The Philippine-American War (1899 - 1901) ensued, with Filipinx revolutionaries led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The war was claimed to have ended upon Aguinaldo’s capture, but rebellions continued into 1913.

    “White Man’s Burden”

    A poem by famous British writer, Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” was first published in 1899 at the start of the Philippine-American War. Kipling was “a staunch advocate of Western imperialism” (Parks, 2013, p. 265). The poem proclaimed that it was the moral obligation of the “superior” white race to guide their “little brown brothers” into the light of Western civilization. This white supremacist ideology only worked to justify U.S. imperialist and military actions in the Philippines as then-President William McKinley welcomed this poem. “White Man’s burden” became “a euphemism for Western imperialism” (p. 265).

    Many scholars agree that white supremacy reinforced a unifying principle of whiteness, a shared racial identity that cut across class lines. White supremacy allowed white Americans to unite as one race and feel superior to others (Strain, 2003, 44:04 - 44:34). Multiple racial projects throughout the 19th century sent the message to poor whites that at least they’re better than non-whites. This allowed them to feel united with land-owning, upper-class whites who actually wielded power over them and distracted them from class-based inequalities through narratives of white supremacy. White man’s burden and the U.S. occupation of the Philippines were racist projects that reinforced the ideologies of white supremacy.

    Igorot children singing with a white woman
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Igorot Sining Lessons. [Philippine Reservation in the Department of Anthropology at the 1904 World's Fair]". (Public Domain; Jessie Tarbox Beals via Missouri Historical Society)

    The 1904 St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair was another of these racial projects to “showcase America’s achievements.” They featured human exhibits of “savage” peoples in their “natural habitats” in order to demonstrate their contrast with U.S. superiority. White fair-goers took pictures next to “savage” people in order to physically demonstrate “how civilized they were.” One organizer described it as “a practical illustration of the best way of bearing the white man’s burden” (Strain, 2003, 49:09 - 51:30). These human exhibits attempted to demonstrate “a bucolic view of slave life” and Geronimo, an Apache warrior, signed autographs. The Philippine Exposition was one of the fair’s largest exhibits, attempting to indicate the benefits of U.S. influence on one of the empire’s newly conquered peoples (51:37-52:31). Author Scott Malcolmson stated, “White people saw their advance as being historical,” giving them “enormous motivation to see the lives of people who were not white as being outside of history and not part of this progressive advance” (53:40-53:54).

    Korean War

    Korean girl carrying a baby on her back in front of a war tank
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A war weary Korean girl by a stalled tank at Haengju, Korea. June 9, 1951. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF. (Navy) via Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Photo Archive - Flickr)

    The Korean War is often recorded to have lasted from 1950 to 1953, however many scholars, activists and survivors of the war in the Korean peninsula recognize that we are still technically at war today with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). No peace treaty has ever been signed and military drills still happen at the 38th parallel, which has divided the land and families for over seventy years. Still, what is recognized as the Korean War with active combat and bombings between the USSR-occupied North and U.S.-occupied South is also known as “The Forgotten War” by many Americans.

    Korea was colonized by the Japanese empire from 1910-1945. For 35 years Koreans suffered under Japanese repression, forced to speak the Japanese language, use Japanese names, and bow to the Japanese emperor. Koreans were left hungry and sometimes forcefully removed from their homes and land. Koreans resisted the Japanese for decades and Kim Il Sung, soon to be the “father” of the DPRK, was one of many Korean guerilla fighters who fought for Korean liberation. These class-based revolutionaries in the North were communists backed by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Fearful of the spread of communism, United States became involved in Korea in order to exercise their Cold War policy of containment. The U.S. military occupied the South and divided the Korean peninsula into two at the 38th parallel and a civil war ensued between the “South” and “North.” The nation is still divided 70 years later and the U.S. military continues to operate in South Korea.

    The war devastated Korea, killing four million and displacing over nine million people. Eleven million families were separated due to division and war, and many children were left orphaned. Asian American Studies professor Grace J. Yoo writes that “No Korean family was untouched by this war” (2012, p. 63). Yoo highlighted Korean women impacted by the war, discussing how 300,000 women became widows forced to peddle in order to survive and care for their families. In Hee Kim had no money or place to live, and started a shrimp selling business. Others sold sweet potato or rice cakes on the road (pp. 71-72). Yoo summarizes that decades later, the women are still haunted by the memories of war. But they shared their stories via hundreds of pages of handwritten notes in hopes that the next generation of Korean Americans won’t forget the war (p. 73).

    Mass Incarceration of Japanese in the Western Hemisphere

    Japanese Americans have a long history in the United States. Today, Japanese popular culture and food are quite recognizable in the U.S. In combination with the push for the “model minority” myth, the image painted may be that Japanese Americans have fully assimilated and don’t face any discrimination. Yet by now, we hope the reader recognizes that such broad generalizations of the Asian American community often overshadow important aspects of U.S. history that prevents us from fully comprehending the impact of Orientalist, White Supremacist, and Anti-Asian ideologies that justified extended acts of violence and legalized discrimination against Japanese Americans. One of these major instances was the legalized mass incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, Canadians, and Peruvians during World War II.

    In the Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

    By the time the Japanese army bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States government had already made steps toward increasing surveillance of the Japanese American community. For decades before, Yellow Peril and Orientalist ideologies pushed the narrative that Japanese immigrants were to take over the West. The 1940 Alien Registration Act made all alien residents register and provide their fingerprints to the federal government. Agencies like the FBI had already been collecting information about Japanese American communities, including the names of people who led cultural organizations, language teachers, martial arts instructors, or anyone suspected by the U.S. government to be too “Japanesey” (Lee, 2015, p. 212; Kochiyama, 2001, p. 344). Within just a few hours of the Pearl Harbor bombing by Japan, the U.S. government initiated so-called security measures targeting Japanese, and some German, and Italian nationals. Martial law was established in Hawai’i, and the FBI began arresting individuals they suspected were spies for the Japanese government. Over one thousand Japanese were arrested within two days, largely community leaders on the government’s list. By February of 1942, over 2,000 Japanese people were held in U.S. Department of Justice camps (Lee, 2015, pp. 215 - 216).

    This included the now famed and respected Japanese American activist, Yuri Kochiyama’s father. Kochiyama was only nineteen when the bombs were dropped, and her father, who owned a fish market in San Pedro, CA, had just come home after a surgery. On the very day Pearl Harbor was attacked, Kochiyama’s father was taken by the FBI and detained in a federal prison. He was released and allowed to return home on December 20, but he was extremely frail and could not talk. He died 12 hours later (Kochiyama, 2001, pp. 343-344).

    Historian Erika Lee explains that the arrests and other government actions like freezing bank accounts created a catastrophe among the Japanese American community (Lee, 2015, p. 216). Hysteria against the Japanese continued with baseless claims in newspapers and among U.S. politicians and military personnel who believed Japanese Americans were spies for the Japanese military. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt was convinced that Japanese Americans were enemies and stated, “a Jap is a Jap” (p. 217). Ironically, the Japanese government did place spies in the U.S., but the nineteen Americans arrested for spying were all white (p. 213). In fact, two U.S. government surveys confirmed that Japanese Americans were overwhelmingly loyal to the United States. Curtin B. Munson informed President Roosevelt in 1941 that there was “no Japanese problem” and that up to 98% of second-generation Japanese Americans were “pathetically eager to show this loyalty” (p. 213).

    A Japanese American family of nine, photographed with their packed bags and tagged by the government
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): "Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation Bus." Hayward, CA. May 8, 1942. Records of the War Relocation Authority. (Public Domain; Photographed by Dorothea Lange via National Archives Catalog)

    Despite this data, on February 19, 1942, only two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the secretary of war to set up military areas where they could restrict the movement of people considered “enemy aliens,” particularly Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans (Schlund-Vials, et al, 2017, p. 138). Lee reminds us that the ultimate responsibility rests with Roosevelt who signed this order, ignoring reports from the FBI, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and his own investigators who reported that a mass removal and incarceration was not necessary (Lee, 2015, p. 222).

    Under the guise of “military necessity” all people of Japanese ancestry were forcefully removed from Washington, California, Oregon, and parts of Arizona. Exclusion orders were posted all over cities and towns, also stating where Japanese Americans were now banned. Japanese Americans had one week to pack and bring with them only what they could carry (Lee, 2015, pp. 229 - 230). Many families had no choice but to sell or abandon their homes, farms, and businesses. Japanese Americans were ordered to assemble on their “evacuation” days when they were met with armed soldiers who gave them ID tags. Monica Sone wrote, “From then on, we were known as Family #10710” (p. 230).

    They were first sent to “assembly centers,” such as the one Kochiyama’s family was sent to in Arcadia, California. Most assembly centers were on fair grounds or race tracks and people were forced to sleep in horse stalls. She explained, “...for mattresses they gave us muslin bags, and told us to fill them with straws” and pointed out how it was especially challenging for families with young children since they couldn’t carry much besides their children and babies (Kochiyama, 2001, p. 345).

    Sidebar: Fred Korematsu

    Fred Korematsu sitting in the center, wearing glasses, surrounded by five others
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Fred Korematsu at a press conference with member of his coram nobis legal team. (CC BY-NC 2.0; Courtesy of the family of Fred T. Korematsu via J Curnow, Flickr)

    Fred Korematsu, born in Oakland, CA, attempted to avoid the removal order by undergoing plastic surgery. He went into hiding, but was arrested and sent to jail. Ernest Besig, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), approached Korematsu and asked him if he was willing to challenge the legality of mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans. Korematsu said yes as he “intended to fight for the civil rights of Japanese Americans as a whole” (Okihiro, 2013, p. 94).

    Korematsu’s lawyers charged that the mass relocation was unconstitutional because it denied Japanese Americans their due process protections, but Korematsu was found guilty of violating a military order. When Korematsu filed an appeal, his case moved up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1944, the majority decision on Korematsu v. the United States, was that due to “real military dangers,” the detainment of Korematsu was justified. Korematsu was sent to Topaz camp until the end of World War II, and then moved on with his life, married, and had two children.

    In the 1980s, it was discovered that the government lied to the Supreme Court about Japanese American wartime cases, including Korematsu, and this finding allowed for a coram nobis appeal. Korematsu went to court again, testifying, “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color” (Irons, 1989, pp. 25 - 26; cited in Okihiro, 2013, p. 95). Finally in 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, signed by Ronald Reagan, and issued a national apology to Japanese Americans for mass removal and incarceration. The government also paid $20,000 each to living survivors who were US citizens or legal residents. Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, and continued to advocate against the racial profiling of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities who were targeted after September 11, 2001. Korematsu passed away on March 30, 2005 and is buried in Oakland, CA where he grew up (Okihiro, 2013, p. 95).

    Mass Incarceration

    Several inmates walking by barracks in the snow covered camp
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Winter at Manzanar. (CC BY-SA 2.0; Don Graham via Flickr)

    Starting in the summer of 1942, Japanese Americans were moved again to ten newly constructed War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps in various desolate and hostile locations throughout the country (Lee, 2015, p. 236). The WRA provided housing, medical care, and education, and inmates did various jobs at the camps. They were not paid at first, but eventually earned some wages, usually at mere fractions of what people were normally paid, such as $8 or $12 a month for full-time work (Okubo, 2014, p. 62). Yuri Kochiyama and her family were sent to the Arkansas swamplands, assigned to sleep in army barracks with more than 200 people per block. Their camp was surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers. She described the ways Japanese Americans had to come together and organize in order to survive, writing,

    Just before we went in to the camps, we saw that being a Japanese wasn’t such a good thing….But when I saw the kind of work they did at camp, I felt so proud of the Japanese, and proud to be Japanese...(2001, p. 347).

    Incarcerated Japanese Americans tried their best to live life and did so in a communal way. They built vegetable gardens, a silkscreen poster shop, and a tofu factory. Children still attended school, though materials were in short supply. The curriculum emphasized “Americanization,” yet the irony was that children were taught about being a free American and to live in a democracy behind barbed wires (Lee, 2015, p. 237). Since cameras were not permitted at the camps, Miné Okubo, a young college student at the time, decided to record everyday life at the Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz concentration camp, through sketches, drawings, and paintings. She attempted to record the “Crazy things” that happen when you have ten thousand people confined to one square mile with no privacy (Okubo, 2014, p. xxvi). Her illustrations uncovered challenges like when camp police would surveil the premises (p. 60), the stinging sand storms in Utah (p. 127), and the time an elderly man was shot and killed by a guard from one of the watchtowers (p. 180).

    Okubo also illustrated scenes of resilience and how Japanese American inmates survived the years of uncertainty during their incarceration. Such as how people created art out of wood, toothbrush handles, and peach seeds (Okubo, 2014, p. 169); and how recreation halls offered ping pong, basketball, and baseball to pass the time (p. 170). Over time, however, Japanese Americans grew angry, frustrated and restless. Conflict grew within camp communities between those who wanted to cooperate with the government and those who wanted to express dissent. At Manzanar, the arrest of a man who beat someone he suspected to be an informant resulted in riots, martial law, and soldiers firing into an unarmed crowd. Two people were killed and nine were injured (Lee, 2015, p. 238).

    Sidebar: Mine Okubo Collection

    Check out the online collection of drawings by Miné Okubo, illustrating life in the Tanforan assembly center in California and Topaz concentration camp in Utah during World War II. These drawings served as the basis for her renowned book, Citizen 13660, which was printed in 1946 and was the first personal account published on the camp experience.

    Japanese Americans who fought in the war and those who resisted

    In 1943, the U.S. wanted to recruit detainees to fight in the war. The War Relocation Authority initiated a loyalty review program and made any Japanese American male aged seventeen and older fill out a questionnaire that they thought would determine their loyalty to the United States. There were two questions that were the most concerning:

    Most answered “yes” to both questions. Some Nisei shared that it was easy to respond “yes” since they were eager to get out of the camps. They were soon issued draft notices in 1944. Thirty-three thousand Japanese American men fought in segregated units: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, later called the “Purple Heart Battalion” for their many losses and 900 Purple Hearts (Lee, 2015, p. 242). The 442nd became one of the most decorated units with 3,600 Purple Hearts, and hundreds of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, and one Congressional Medal of Honor (p. 243).

    Others who questioned the government’s motives found the questionnaire to add insult to injury. After having lost his family business and incarcerated, Dan Harada stated that the government now asking for his allegiance and to serve in combat duty “didn’t just sound right” (Lee, 2015, p. 239). He answered “no” to both questions. In fact, approximately 12,000 men answered “no” to both questions, later known as “no-no boys” and as a punishment were sent to Tule Lake Segregation Center where they were met with various atrocities (p. 239). This was the largest camp and turned into “a maximum security center with additional barbed wire, increased guards and tanks, and an eight-foot-high double ‘man-proof’ fence” (p. 240). Deplorable work conditions led to a death, and 800 inmates went on strike in 1943. They were beaten and the army initiated martial law at Tule Lake. No-no boys also met backlash from fellow Japanese Americans, like the leaders of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) who criticized them as draft dodgers and dishonorable (Lee, J.H.X., 2018, p. 89).

    Another three hundred and fifteen Japanese Americans resisted the draft. The Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming asserted their loyalty to the U.S. and the core principles of freedom and justice, but first demanded that civil rights be restored before complying with the draft. They were convicted of a felony and incarcerated for their actions (Lee, 2015, p. 243; Lee, J.H.X., 2018, p. 89). This community was also shunned and vilified by the JACL.

    Japanese Latin Americans

    Detention of people of Japanese descent extended to Canada and Latin America as well. Viewing the entire Western Hemisphere as a sphere of interest under the Monroe Doctrine, and in the interest of hemispheric security, the U.S. pressured Latin American nations to send Japanese people to the U.S. to be used for hostage exchanges for U.S. prisoners of war held by Japan (Okihiro, 2013, p. 85). Roughly 2,300 Japanese Latin Americans, about 80% from Peru, were expunged from their homes and interned on U.S. soil. The U.S. government took their passports and labeled them as “illegal aliens.” More than 800 were forced to participate in prisoner exchanges with Japan. After the end of the war, over a thousand Japanese Latin Americans were deported to “war-devastated Japan” since the Peruvian government refused to readmit Japanese Peruvians (Shimizu and Ueunten, 2010, pp. 816-817). The 300 or so who remained in the U.S. fought for legal residence status and many became U.S. citizens.

    Even though Japanese Latin Americans were removed and detained because of the U.S. government, they were excluded from redress granted to Japanese Americans in the 1980s. For several decades now, internees, their descendants, and supporters have sought redress and justice for Japanese Latin Americans through lawsuits and legislative efforts. Additionally many have helped to educate the public about this “little-known wartime history and the ongoing struggle” (p. 818).

    The Vietnam War, “The Secret War,” and the Cambodian Genocide

    U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia: A Failed Attempt to Contain Communism:

    U.S. strategy of containment in response to the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949 led to a series of U.S. interventions in Asia, including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the “Secret War” in Laos, and the civil war and genocide in Cambodia. All these actions resulted in a new wave of Asian immigration to the United States. Displaced from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1.2 million Southeast Asian refugees fled the destructive and deadly effects of war and political turmoil (Choy, 2022, p. 33).

    As Catherine Ceniza Choy points out,

    ...just as American wars and policies have indelibly impacted Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, and Cambodian peoples and their homelands, so too have Southeast Asian refugees, their descendants, and immigrant generations transformed the U.S. landscape with their labor and ingenuity, and their community organizing and creativity (2022, p. 32).

    The story of Southeast Asian refugees is one of the least understood narratives in U.S. mass media. As Vietnamese American graphic novelist Thi Bui writes in her family memoir, The Best We Could Do (2018), “I think a lot of Americans forget that for the Vietnamese the war continued, whether America was involved or not” (p. 209). Many Hollywood movies focused on the point of view of American soldiers and an oversimplified story of American heroes and Viet Cong communist enemies. The silenced background characters were of screaming Vietnamese people who were brutally killed or sexualized bar girls and prostitutes as side pieces for American GIs. Choy writes,

    The plethora of controversial issues contributes to a US-centric history that has reduced Vietnam to a story about war and a consequence of the failed US strategy to contain the spread of communism ….This narrative erases the meanings and memories of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as homelands, the beauty of their landscapes, and the diversity and humanity of their peoples (2022, pp. 33-34).

    Choy (2022) also importantly underscores how the histories of this group have been deleted in large part because U.S. military actions were covert. The U.S. was already involved in Vietnam as early as the 1950s. France colonized Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos since 1859, calling it “French Indochina,” but for decades Vietnamese nationalists organized for their liberation. One of these people was Ho Chi Minh, whose call for independence was ignored by the West and he turned to communism and fought the French in the First Indochina War. Eventually, France let go and the 1954 Geneva Accords divided Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel and the North was led by Ho Chi Minh and the U.S. backed the southern government (Lee, 2015, pp. 315-316).

    a navy fighter plane drops multiple bombs over Vietnam
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): A U.S. Navy McDonnell F-4B Phantom II of Fighter Squadron VF-111 Sundowners drops 227 kg Mk 82 bombs over Vietnam during 1971. (Public Domain; U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation via Picryl)

    President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,000 U.S. military advisors to Vietnam by the time he left office, and Kennedy continued to support the southern regime by sending in the special forces and more U.S. military into Vietnam. President Johnson escalated U.S. involvement. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowed the U.S. to bomb North Vietnam and deploy U.S. troops, starting the Second Indochina War (Lee, 2015, p. 316). By 1967, there were 540,000 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and more than a million tons of bombs were dropped in North Vietnam and four million tons of bombs in South Vietnam, destroying buildings, roads, waterways, and more infrastructure that people depended on (p. 316). The tonnage of bombs dropped in Southeast Asia was greater than the total tonnage dropped on Nazi-occupied territories during the whole of World War II. In addition, the U.S. used chemical warfare including napalm and agent orange that displaced 12 million people from South Vietnam (p. 317).

    By 1973, another U.S. President was in charge, Richard Nixon, and due to U.S. troops losing, and increasing pressures to end the war in Vietnam, a peace agreement between the U.S. and North Vietnam was signed on January 27, 1973 (Lee, 2015, p. 317). But the U.S. never withdrew from Southeast Asia, continuing to carpet bomb Cambodia and Laos in covert operations that completely destroyed and destabilized both nations. Laos and Cambodia were both under communist regimes by 1975 and the people there today are still contending with the effects of war in the form of millions of land mines left in the region (p. 317).

    The CIA’s “Secret War” in Laos

    Multiple bomb shells stacked up outside
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Bomb shells left over from the U.S.'s secret bombing campaign, lined up in a village outside Phonsavan, Laos. (CC BY-NC 2.0; Lorna via Flickr)

    Award-winning Hmong American author, Kao Kalia Yang starts her family memoir, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (2008) with this line: “The world that they were living in could no longer hold them safe. It was 1975 and the Vietnam War, as the world knew it, was over” (p. 7). U.S. bombings of Laos helped to destabilize the nation, where there was a civil war between the communist Pathet Lao and the anticommunist Royal Lao government. When the Pathet Lao won a majority of seats in the coalition government in the 1958 elections, the U.S. took secret action against this political shift in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “set its sights on recruiting Hmong soldiers to take on covert actions on behalf of the United States” (Lee, 2015, p. 318).

    As an ethnic minority originally from China, Hmong people have lived in the mountains of Laos since the early 1800s. They were fairly isolated from the rest of the Lao population, often discriminated against by the government. Vang Pao helped the CIA recruit Hmong soldiers to attack the North Vietnamese traveling through Laos in exchange for military and humanitarian aid. Many Hmong also believed that the U.S. promised a “long-sought Hmong homeland or sanctuary” (Lee, 2015, p. 318). The death rate was high in America’s “Secret War,” as an estimated 50,000 Hmong were killed, and by 1970 the CIA began recruiting boys as young as 10. Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the world and with the “most displaced population in the world” (p. 319).

    When communist Pathet Lao came to power in Laos in 1975, they announced: “It is necessary to extirpate, down to the root, the Hmong minority” (Yang, 2008, p. 7). The CIA and the Americans had abandoned the Hmong. Yang wrote, “the Hmong knew that the only thing coming for them was death” (p. 8). Many fled to the thick jungle in order to escape imprisonment, starvation, torture, hard labor, and executions, including both of Yang’s parents who were teenagers at the time. For three years they foraged in the forest, constantly moving to escape nearing North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers. Yang wrote:

    They were hungry and dirty. They had gotten used to the scabs on their backs from the heavy packs, the gnawing hunger, the feeling that there was air in their stomachs all the time, and the bombs that fell from the sky destroying green canopy and shattering the bodies of old men and women who could not run fast enough (2008, p. 10).

    Yang’s young parents met while scavenging for food and they married in a clearing, no more than “three to four banana-leaf-covered lean-tos around a small fire” (Yang, 2008, p. 15). Yang’s mother was given an embroidery that told the Hmong peoples’ story, and a heavy silver necklace that symbolized “being a Hmong woman” (p. 17). A month into their marriage, Yang’s parents visited Yang’s maternal grandmother, which ended up being the last time she ever saw her family in person.

    Yang’s mother was separated from her husband while pregnant, captured by Lao and Vietnamese soldiers. Yang’s father and his brothers hatched an escape plan and snuck them away from capture in the middle of the night months later. Yang’s mother had already given birth to their first-born, Dawb. The extended family ran as dogs barked and soldiers chased after them, firing their guns. They decided to cross the Mekong River and head for refugee camps in Thailand.

    When they reached the Mekong, Yang described it as “raging and wild and high,” as the Mekong River is the “twelfth longest river in the world…known in both Laos and Thailand as the mother river” (2008, p. 35). As soldiers started to approach the shore, Yang’s mother buried pictures of her family that she carried on her, telling herself that “One day, she would find the pictures again” (p. 37). Yang’s father cut and tied bamboo strands to himself, his mother, his wife and baby. He couldn’t swim, and instead dragged his family across the river. The silver necklace Yang’s mother was given on her wedding got lost in the undertow of the river. Yang’s family made it across as soldiers on the other side were firing guns and they walked until some Thai soldiers guided them toward the United Nations compound where they could register as refugees. They lived in under-resourced, crowded, and unsanitary conditions in the refugee camps for years.

    Yang was born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in 1980, a year and five months after her family crossed the Mekong River. Tens of thousands of Hmong refugees lived in these camps, located in hot and arid places. Rations of old grains of rice and hard to digest fish came only three times a week and families had to find whatever else to eat on the other days of the week (2008, p. 61). Yang’s grandmother was a respected medicine woman and allowed to travel into the mountains with armed guards to find herbal remedies (p. 69).

    Yang’s family remained in the camp for years until leaving in 1987 (2008, p. 88). They settled in the housing projects of St. Paul, Minnesota, along with many other Hmong families. The city later became known as the “Hmong Capital of the World.” Yang’s grandmother came later, eventually settling in Minnesota. Yang spent many years with her grandmother, listening to her tell stories of life in Laos. When her grandmother passed away, Yang promised her they would meet again, writing: “We will become Hmong, and we will build a strong home that we will never leave and can always return to. We will not be lost and looking our whole lives through” (p. 268).

    Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979)

    A chained off area with a sign reading Please don't walk through the mass grave!
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Cheung Ek Killing Fields site, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. May 2009. (CC BY-SA 3.0; Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons)

    The U.S. led a covert bombing campaign in Cambodia from 1965 to 1973, targeting eighty-three sites and carpet bombing with B-52 bombers. This pushed Vietnamese communists deeper into the nation, radicalizing more against their government. An estimated 250,000 Cambodians were killed from U.S. destruction. This combined with the U.S. leaving the region contributed to the ascent of the Khmer Rouge’s power. Choy (2022) writes,

    The Khmer Rouge attempted to create a classless society made up of rural agricultural workers by destroying culture and traditions. The regime’s leaders called this idea “Year Zero” and put it into practice by shutting down schools and universities, evacuating people from cities and moving them to rural areas, separating children from their parents and placing them in labor camps, abolishing money, and banning music (p. 34).

    “Class enemies” affiliated with wealth, education, or in any way with the West were targeted for execution or re-education. Cultural leaders, including singers, artists and martial artists were persecuted, along with members of religious and ethnic minorities. An estimated 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians were killed in the genocide under Pol Pot’s regime from 1975 to 1979, having to endure, “forced labor, starvation, disease, and mass executions, after which the sites of these atrocities became popularly known as the ‘killing fields’” (Choy, 2022, p. 34).

    Many fled Cambodia secretly like Bun Thab, a Cambodian refugee who published his story under a pseudonym. Bun fled with two friends, but witnessed one of them get brutally killed. He hid underwater as a soldier jumped over his head. They walked for days without anything to eat until reaching the border of Thailand, where an old man fed them rice. Even after settling in the U.S. Bun was haunted by the trauma he experienced stating, “I still have nightmares of that Khmer Rouge jumping over my head, and I wake up shivering with fear” (Welaratna, 1993, p. 127; cited in Choy, 2022, p. 36).

    Southeast Asian Refugee Life in the U.S.

    These newer communities of migrants didn’t have any “long-established ethnic enclaves.” Due to the inability to bring material wealth and our government’s dispersal policy, Southeast Asian refugees mostly ended up living in neglected and impoverished areas of the U.S. (Dariotis and Ueunten, 2010, pp. 751-752).

    It’s important to note the use of the term refugee and how it differs from immigrant. Immigrants generally are able to make a plan of departure, and may bring resources including material wealth, and even family members. Overall, immigrants in many cases have more agency in deciding to migrate to a new nation, and once in the new place of residence, they are more likely to come into a more stable situation and have support from family and extended ethnic enclaves that have settled previously. Refugees, on the other hand, have no choice when fleeing their homeland, often torn away from family, and may not have the ability to bring much with them. Refugees are either fleeing war or political situations that are deadly or very dangerous in the least.

    Several Vietnamese refugees hanging off and near a Chinook helicopter
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Fall of Saigon - Refugees hanging onto a Supply Helicopter in Xuan Loc, Vietnam. April 14, 1975. (CC BY 2.0; manhhai via flickr)

    April 1975 marked the “Fall of Saigon,” also called Liberation Day in Viet Nam, and U.S. troops began to withdraw. U.S. officials described scenes of “absolute chaos” as those most vulnerable to persecution under communist leadership scrambled to leave Vietnam. Around 7,500 people were evacuated a day by U.S. airplanes, and 73,000 left by sea on South Vietnamese Navy vessels. One person who fled early on a U.S. military transport plane realized that he may never see Vietnam again, sharing, “My heart had shattered to pieces. I lost not only my country but also everything I have loved” (Chan, 2006, p. 104-112; cited in Lee, 2015, p. 321). Later called the “first wave” of refugees from Vietnam, this group were from elite or middle-class backgrounds, educated and had come with some English or French fluency. They may have already had some relationships with Americans in Vietnam which of course helped their relatively faster transition to their new lives in the United States (Lee, 2015, p. 321).

    Lee reminds us that the resettlement effort of Southeast Asian refugees was “cloaked in the heady rhetoric of U.S. humanitarianism” (2015, p. 325). For example, “Operation Babylift” was one of these “humanitarian” efforts to airlift 1,700 “orphans” to the U.S., mixed-race babies fathered by U.S. military personnel. Ford claimed it was America’s “moral obligation” to help refugees and 130,000 Southeast Asians were admitted in the first wave by the end of 1975. Another 433,000 came from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia until 1980 due to political persecution and economic restructuring (p. 325). For example, ethnic Chinese people in Vietnam were targeted by the communists. This second wave of refugees were left to their own devices to flee under the cover of night, typically on boats to nearby Southeast Asian countries where they could find temporary refuge. This group of refugees was less educated and had fewer resources. They were called “boat people” (p. 326).

    In The Best We Could Do (2018), Bui illustrates her parents' experience working as teachers under the new communist government. They were careful to wear humble clothing so as to not stick out. They noticed that people started to disappear and hatched a plan to leave in secret with their three young children. Under the cover of night, Bui’s parents, including her pregnant mother, left Vietnam with their children on a boat. Bui remembers getting nauseous, and how they were almost followed by pirates. They arrived in Malaysia after three days, and her mother gave birth at the Pulau Begar refugee camp in 1978. Life was not easy, as they had to gather and boil their own drinking water, and they missed basic necessities like toilet paper, but Bui also described how for the children it was like a vacation, an escape from regular life, and that there was no school. The Buis were lucky as they only stayed at the camp for a few months, sponsored by her mother’s sister and her husband already in America (pp. 268 - 274).

    After surviving months, sometimes years in refugee camps, Southeast Asians continued facing challenges in the United States. For example in many families, “parent-child hierarchies flipped as children grasped the English language with more proficiency than their elders” and helped to pay a bill or translate at school (Choy, 2022, p. 39). Furthermore, refugees were haunted by the trauma and memories of war and in the 1980s, many Southeast Asians, mostly Laotian and Hmong men, would die in their sleep for unexplainable reasons. They also faced anti-Asian violence, hostility and racial tensions. Choy explains that, “These racial hostilities partly stemmed from the way that Americans lumped Southeast Asian refugees with other Asian American groups who, in the 1960s and 1970s, were increasingly portrayed as successful immigrants and model minorities” (pp. 39 - 40). Americans also resented that Southeast Asian refugees received public assistance.

    When her family moved to San Diego, Bui told how she and her father were called “Gook” and spit on, explaining, “San Diego was a naval and marine corps base, where the wounds of the Vietnam War were still fresh and not everyone welcomed our presence” (2018, p. 66). In 1990, Cambodian American, Heng Lim was struck on the head by a piece of wood by Timothy Meitzler and later died from head injury. Meitzler called him a “fucking Chinese.” Attacks against this community was common across the country in the '80s and '90s, including “campaigns of violence…in the Boston area,” the beating death of Cambodian, Bun Vong in 1985, and a 1989 shooting rampage at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California by Patrick Purdy who killed five children: four Cambodian and one Vietnamese (Choy, 2022, p. 41).

    Southeast Asian youth were left to fend for themselves in impoverished neighborhoods rife with gang violence, as their parents were still navigating a new life in America. Some sought kinship in gangs. Cambodian American Billy stated that his parents were too traumatized from the war to realize what was happening with the kids.

    I was a good boy at home…so they didn’t know anything about gangs. We just got into gangs to protect ourselves. We were just kids, thrown into the inner city with Mexicans and Blacks. We’re the product of the American system (Lee, J.H.X., 2015, p. 408).

    Many Cambodians who ended up in prison turned their lives around, like Karney who got his GED after dropping out of school in seventh grade. Despite this, Karney was taken by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to a detention center when he finished his sentence in state prison. He was detained for 12 months and then sent to Cambodia, separated from his daughters (Lee, J.H.X., 2015). The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center reported that 2,000 Southeast Asian Americans have been deported out of the U.S. since 1998, and currently 15,000 live with a final order of removal; 80% of removal orders are based on past convictions (Choy, 2022, p. 41). The 1996 passing of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act led to increased deportations of immigrants for crimes they committed even before the laws were passed. Many of these were nonviolent offenses, as the new laws extended the list of deportable crimes and wouldn’t allow judges to prevent deportations. Some crimes that didn’t qualify as felonies under state law were listed as “aggravated felonies” under immigration law (Cengel, 2018, p. 10). After September 11, the U.S. pressured Cambodia into receiving deportees, including system-impacted individuals and did so beginning in June of 2002.

    protesters gathering in the snow with signs calling an end to deportation
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Protest outside ICE for the release of Cambodian refugees in St. Paul, Minnesota. January 17, 2017. (CC BY 2.0; Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

    Many were deported or face deportation despite having completed their prison sentences. Most had never spent time in their homelands or left when they were still very young, and hardly spoke the language. Karney luckily did speak Khmer and had relatives in Cambodia. He still missed his family and children sharing, “It’s hard on them, hard on their families. The kids end up growing up with no dad. And they can’t support them” (Lee, J.H.X., 2015, p. 409). He ended up marrying a Cambodian woman and had three children with her. But not everyone is able to adjust to life in Cambodia, as some deportees turn to drugs, end up back in prison, and a few have committed suicide. Asian American Studies professor, Jonathan H.X. Lee wrote, “There was no system of assistance that was planned for these Cambodians” (2015, p. 410).

    Back in the states, activists and communities have come together to organize against deportations. The Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) led anti-deportation campaigns and supported more than thirty individuals receiving gubernatorial pardons, post-conviction relief, and administrative actions to prevent and reverse deportations. APSC successfully advocated for the release of Bounchan “Boun” Keola from ICE custody. Boun was an incarcerated firefighter and was granted a pardon from Governor Newsom in 2021 (APSC, 2022). They are currently lobbying for the passing of the VISION Act (Voiding Inequality and Seeking Inclusion for Our Immigrant Neighbors) in California, or AB 937, which would end the transfer of refugee and immigrant prisoners eligible for release from state or local custody to ICE. It would also ensure protection from inhumane and unsanitary conditions in immigration detention centers, and deny state and local agencies and courts from using their immigration status to deny access to various programs (Vision Act, AB 937, Fact Sheet).

    Choy (2022) points out how Southeast Asian Americans have transformed the landscape through ethnic enclaves like Little Saigons in Orange County and San Jose. With distinct temples and Buddhist statues, the Vietnamese American community have physical places that may remind them of what they were forced to leave behind. For Vietnamese Americans born in the U.S., they make yearly pilgrimages to Little Saigon for the Tet festival, or Lunar New Year, and such sites serve “deeper social and spiritual meaning” for the community (p. 43). Countless restaurants and shops offer food that remind many of home, like banh mi and pho.

    Ted Ngoy fled Cambodia with his wife and settled in California. He survived by working at a gas station and as a church custodian. One day he tasted a donut, reminding him of the Cambodian nom kong. He eventually opened his own donut shop and “sparked what would become Cambodian predominance in California’s donut industry…a ‘pink box’ revolution” (Choy, 2022, p. 45).

    Hmong American political leaders have emerged since the 1990s, starting with Choua Lee, who gained attention when becoming the first Hmong American to be publicly elected when winning the race for a position on the St. Paul School Board (Lee, 2015, p. 346). Olympic gold medalist, Sunisa Lee became the first Hmong American to join a U.S. Olympic team at only 18-years-old and elated Hmong Americans and Asian Americans across the nation during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics (Diaz and Chappell, 2021). Pictures and video of her family and the Hmong American community cheering her on in Minnesota went viral that summer.

    This page titled 5.4: Wars and Imperialism is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .