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To this day, us first generation transracial adoptees from Korea and Vietnam are generally referred to as ‘war orphans’ in the media and by people we encounter on a daily basis, as if it is a self-applied term of endearment. The main assumption is that we were rescued from a tragic past and handed a hopeful future. The public was reassured that we were not going to look back and puzzle together the facts behind our orphan status.

Yet, this is exactly what we are doing. And at every turn, we are admonished for daring to not only question the historical interpretations of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, but also other people’s motives and methods for transporting us out of our birth countries. Americans acknowledge these wars without taking any responsibility for the unintended consequences. They ask us, “Where would we be without them?” 

In response, we ask one searing question that few people are willing, or even prepared, to answer: Who made us orphans in the first place? In order for us to have gained our second parents, we had to lose our first parents.

Yes, people can say that we were saved. But, we’ll be damned if we let them have the last word.

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What the Holts and Operation Babylift have taught Westerners is that in order to justify the act of taking small brown bodies from their countries of origin and raising them in their own image all you have to do is reduce the child’s circumstances to one of two alternatives: “leave to rot” in an inhumane orphanage or raise up in a “loving family” where with time and material excess everyone will forget and be the better for it. These two historical events speak to a disturbing pattern exhibited by Westerners toward developing countries. With a mixture of good ole paternalism and a pinch of racial superiority, and under cover of civil wars, social upheavals and economic instability, they extracted us without any sense of irony that Western countries had a big hand in triggering these crises.

Praising us as Asian angels borne from cargo holds and cardboard boxes, we were never expected to look back and think about our lives before adoption, much less about our countries of birth. The American flags we were given upon assuming citizenship were supposed to blind us with star-spangled magnificence. It is only within the past decade that many of us have become wise to the racial self-hatred that had been instilled in us and have questioned the multiple loyalty tests we have been forced to take in order to prove our legitimacy in the eyes of our fellow Americans.

The pitiful footage of children in orphanages and then triumphant arrival in foreign airports has remained the same despite the changing of the years because the main adoption themes are replayed over and over with the same tune playing in the background. It is not a mistake that adoption agencies, adoption advocates and adoptive parents still refer to the legacy of the Holts and Operation Babylift in the most glowing of terms because it is yet another instrument for Americans to prove their generosity of spirit and can-do attitude to themselves. Like the Bertha Holts and Rosemary Taylors of yore, American wanna-be parents assume the role of well-meaning world citizens who also want to save thrown-away orphans from hell-hole countries.

Currently, Vietnam is experiencing similar social and economic growing pains as South Korea did during the 1970s and 80s. Korean children were the hot commodity in international adoption up until many adult Korean adoptees put the South Korean government’s feet to the fire and made it acknowledge the mass production aspect of its adoption policies. With many more legal and monetary barriers in place in South Korea, Westerners turned once again to Vietnam and enjoyed unfettered access to Vietnamese children, especially infants. In early 2008, the U.S. State Department investigated a growing number of inconsistencies in the documentation of children’s orphan status and reports of child trafficking. This led to a halt in adoptions between the U.S. and Vietnam in September of this year. But, much like the attitude exhibited by Americans in 1975 when Operation Babylift commenced and they were criticized for seemingly taking advantage of a bad situation, many prospective American adoptive parents today are incredulous about the charges of official corruption and baby selling. These children only need a home and a loving family, they plead. Who would ever deny them that?

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In the adoption arena, legends were made out of the names Harry & Bertha Holt and Operation Babylift because they typify many Americans’ assertions about this country’s boundless goodwill and moral superiority over its supposed “enemies”. Nevermind that these legends serve to disregard factual inconsistencies, inconvenient truths and unsatisfactory conclusions. Prominent personalities in the international adoption movement, i.e., Bertha Holt and Rosemary Taylor, have become household names. Their stories and accounts have become irrefutable and their official stories have solidified into unchallengeable testimony. Honest investigation of the facts behind their stories is unwelcome and discouraged.

Bertha Holt is characterized as a kind and pious old woman who only wanted the best for the children of Korea. From proxy adoptions to Holt International Children’s Services, thousands of Korean children have been told that they have Bertha and Harry Holt to thank for breaking down racial barriers and normalizing international adoption in American society, as well as their privileged lives today.

In the same vein, the protagonists of Operation Babylift are credited with saving thousands of children who otherwise would have grown up in a postwar communist dictatorship where food shortages and other deprivations would have condemned them to certain death. OBL was considered such a singular feel-good event that, to this day, the media remind Americans that it is “the one good thing that came out of the war.”

A cottage industry involving annual commemorations and permanent memorials, as well as reunions between adoption legends and adoptees themselves, has become a fixture on the nation’s calendar. Much like legend-building, the remembrances aim to convince the participants that they represent a larger mission and purpose. Adoptees are to absorb the message that enormous amounts of compassion and ingenuity on the part of the U.S. were used to “save” them and they each owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who made their lives possible. There is also the implied threat that to question the reasons and actions of one’s benefactors is to put one’s own life in question.

Operation Babylift has become a redundant closed-loop system of mourning, remembrance, gratitude and redemption. It is celebrated as an isolated, unilateral humanitarian gesture. Ironically, by remembering OBL in such a way encourages the so-called “Lost Children of Vietnam” to forget the causes and effects of the Vietnam War and leave unexamined their own adoption stories that were vitually gift-wrapped and handed to them.

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Presidents, senators, congressmen, adoption agency directors, nurses and flight attendants claim they were only trying to help us out of the mass grave that would have been our lives if they had just left us in Vietnam to rot in our dead mothers’ arms. They’re at ease with reminding us that it was they who came to our rescue while our countrymen were too busy gambling their country’s future away at the rigged roulette wheel; they’re only too happy to remind us that we were wearing rags before they picked us out of the trash heap and fit us with the rich fabric of freedom.

What they fail to mention, though, is that we were made available for adoption as a direct result of over 6 million tons of bombs falling over a country roughly the size of New Mexico. It was common practice to destroy villages and communities that were suspected of harboring communist sympathizers. Free-fire zones were established in which every civilian was marked for death. Agent Orange defoliated huge swaths of the countryside, and napalm and white phosphorous bombs burned skin to a crisp. Counterinsurgency protocols like the Phoenix Program were aimed at killing Viet Cong cadre and/or their sympathizers, whoever they might be.

Our benefactors make it a point to impress upon us how dire the situation was in the orphanages, nurseries and hospitals, how destitute our first parents were, and that we were abandoned because our mothers either loved us too much or could care less about us. What they fail to mention is that the American government propped up corrupt dictatorial regimes one after the other that pilfered and siphoned off much foreign aid into their own coffers. Money and resources were diverted from child welfare programs into the war effort. Refugee and widow assistance was sacrificed in order to conscript, equip and train more young men to fight for their masters.

Preposterously, our caretakers lauded American military know-how and generosity for clearing the way for scarce medical and food shipments to reach the orphanages. Individual soldiers are to be thanked for giving us their free time, bubble gum and rides in the back of their Jeeps. Some of these soldiers even put down their guns long enough to adopt us. And, when it was time to close up shop and escape the inevitable national meltdown, military air transport was called in to ferry out the precious few, the angels of this-or-that orphanage, the Chosen Ones.

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In Asia, wherever the U.S. military went, prostitution and intermarriage came along for the ride. Official U.S. military policy discouraged its personnel from consorting and fraternizing with the native female population. But, the fact that thousands of mixed race children were born to Korean and Vietnamese women tells us that regardless of the rules, human nature took over.

When it came to prostitution, top U.S. brass looked the other way, while local pimps and madames carved out certain sections of the city for soldiers and civilian personnel to spend their R&R breaks. This was all done under the watchful gaze of local authorities, many of whom took a substantial cut in the proceeds.

And, what would a war be without the crime of rape that, for time immemorial, has been used to dominate the indigenous population and erase a proud people’s sense of self-worth.

The media portrayed the products of their loins, the Amerasians, as caged animals who were abandoned by their unfeeling mothers and missing-in-action fathers. Americans feared that these children would become innocent victims of cruel and inhumane treatment by Oriental savages. This racist fantasy took the focus off the fact that American and other Western men had violated or cavorted with Korean and Vietnamese women ostensibly to teach the enemy a lesson.

In order to soothe their conscience and fulfill a sense of obligation to those fathered by their countrymen, Americans advocated for the adoption of Amerasians. Since these children were assumed to be half American and they didn’t ask to be born, it was reasoned that they should share in the benefits and good fortune of being a U.S. citizen. Unintentional or not, the adopting out of Amerasian children became the Trojan Horse for institutionalizing international adoption across the board.

Paradoxically, American military intervention paved the way for private U.S. citizens to intervene in the affairs of Korean and Vietnamese families, thus establishing ever more control over these nations.

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In 1954, Harry and Bertha Holt, born again Christians, found their calling when they heard about the orphaned cherubs of Korea. They especially had an affinity for those children fathered by American army and civilian personnel (commonly referred to as Amerasians). In fact, the Holts chose to adopt eight Korean children themselves. Congress even passed a special Act in honor of the Holts, thus legalizing and legitimizing the novel practice of international adoption. Soon thereafter, the Holts inspired countless other Americans to join them in “saving” these “war waifs”.

When the 1970s came along, Americans read about Vietnamese children in the newspaper and saw them on the evening news. These children would also have the honor of being labeled charity cases and seen as more lost souls in need of saving. Churches, chapels and ministries across America galvanized their congregations to collect money and materials to send to orphanages in South Vietnam, patting themselves on the back for their magnanimity at every opportunity. But for many Americans, they didn’t just want to send in their checks and offer well wishes; they wanted to see a return on their investment. To acquire a Vietnamese child was seen as the ultimate act of selflessness and sacrifice, not to mention the books they could sell about their little war babies.

Americans believed they had a moral responsibility to take care of those less fortunate and open their hearts and homes to the children of a war they forgot their country started. However, the implied politicized message was that Americans were more moral than those “godless communists”, aka the Koreans and the Vietnamese, and that only Americans could provide an infinitely better outcome to these castaways.

Working hand in hand with anticommunist fervor, the Christian evangelical movement spread the assumption that the people of Asia were incapable of taking care of their own. Westerners turned their attention to the “neediest of the needy”, those children who were left to experience the aftermath of each bombardment that inevitably separated them from their families. Under the protection of the U.S. military and with the support of countless donations, these missionaries established orphanages that inadvertently took the place of indigenous methods and solutions for child welfare. With so much of the country overwhelmed by the casualties of war, ladies and gentlemen of mercy took up the mantle of healer and savior.

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