Elevate Difference

Entangling Alliances: Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century

When men are shipped out to foreign locations to engage in wartime activities, it seems inevitable that they will become romantically and sexually involved with foreign women. In Entangling Alliances, Susan Zeiger explores this phenomenon, examining governmental, military, and societal responses to American soldiers’ desires for sex, companionship, and marriage while engaged in combat overseas. She argues that the changing ways Americans treated war brides over the course of the twentieth century demonstrates shifting American sensibilities regarding foreign policy, race, and gender. More than anything, because war brides involved an exchange of women across cultural and national boundaries, American discourse about war brides was ultimately about what constituted American manhood, men’s relationships with women, and the role of the nation in its relationship to other countries.

During World War I, the military preached sexual abstinence while devising methods to keep American soldiers and local women apart, in particular African-American soldiers and white European women. The army’s response to marriage requests vacillated until an official policy was handed down that marriage was a personal, not military, question. Meanwhile, domestic policy concerns in the U.S. triumphed over an internationally-oriented political outlook; xenophobia for newcomers was inevitable and Americans wondered if these foreign women could become good American wives. Though many predicted the demise of these marriages, evidence reveals that the majority made it.

In World War II, military policy differed depending on location. It encouraged marriage in Great Britain and Australia, both Allied countries with similar cultural backgrounds to white middle-class America. Likewise, American society welcomed these brides, suggesting that American women should emulate their domesticity and loyalty to husbands. Alternatively, the military encouraged prostitution, rather than marriage, in both Italy and the Philippines, while American society viewed these war brides as less desirable immigrants. Zeiger argues that both policies—encouraging prostitution or marriage—“shared... the intention to preserve and extend male control over women.” She also points out that though many of these local women showed independence and an assertion of personal freedom by going out with American men, sometimes against their family’s wishes, their stories “end with marriage and dependence.”

Race played a huge role in war bride stories post-WWII and throughout the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Congressional policy actively limited brides from Asian countries, outright barring Japanese spouses for several years, while all interracial couples faced social discrimination and, occasionally, found that their marriages were not legal when they moved from one state to another.

Zeiger argues that the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam saw the “demise” of the war bride as a phenomenon considered and debated by the American public. The military did not provide transport to war brides the way they did in WWI and WWII, and it actively encouraged prostitution rather than marriage, extending its WWII policy of creating red-light districts where prostitutes were regularly examined by medical officials and given “safe” ratings to prevent the spread of venereal disease. Korean and Vietnamese wives were not written about widely in the American press and they have not written about their post-war experiences in America, the way war brides from earlier eras have done. They have been, Zeiger writes, “all but invisible in American culture.”

Demographic information suggests that these Asian war brides tend to be isolated, even in comparison to other Asian immigrants though they have sponsored family members to come to the U.S., unlike earlier war brides. Though Asian war brides were an untold story, there was a lot of media attention paid to the mixed-race children left behind in Vietnam and, sometimes airlifted out and brought to the U.S. Zeiger argues that the story of Amerasian children, and the efforts to bring them to the U.S. allowed Americans to re-conceptualize the war, seeing both Amerasian children and American soldiers as victims in the story. “The American nation becomes father and, also, paradoxically, child. Vietnam, the mother, the war bride, is not part of this reconciliation.”

Entangling Alliances is a compelling read, illuminating twentieth century social struggles encountered by men and women on both domestic and foreign soil over questions of gender, race, and nationality. Though Zeiger argues that the war bride phenomenon died out with the Korean and Vietnam wars, clearly, soldiers still took wives and fathered children with Korean and Vietnamese women. More recently, stories of male American soldiers marrying Iraqi women have been exploited in the media. Because Zeiger only covers the period from WWI up through the Vietnam War, she leaves a perplexing question unexplored: What has happened with female soldiers and local men in the conflicts that the U.S. has engaged in the last twenty years? Have female soldiers, like male soldiers, engaged in romantic and sexual conquests with non-U.S. citizens? I suspect their experience has been radically different than their male counterparts.

Written by: Jessica Powers, June 5th 2010