Over the past few decades, feminist scholars have shown that war is not exclusively a matter for men, or a masculine domain. Instead, it is a complex process that transforms not only public institutions and national economies but also intimate relationships. Adopting a feminist approach to the study of war and adoptions and migrations from Vietnam, Allison Varzally’s Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations examines the changing meanings of the Vietnam War and its aftermath in the lived experiences of adopted Vietnamese, Amerasians, and their transnational families. Bringing together the tools of history and the theoretical insights of gender, ethnic, and family studies, Varzally insightfully shows that because of the timing of the arrival of Vietnamese adoptees and the war conditions that propelled their departure from Vietnam, national debates about the adoptees were simultaneously debates about U.S. race relations, foreign policies, and national identity. Children of Reunion begins with an examination of American attitudes toward the first wave of Vietnamese adoptions, which took place against the backdrop of military escalation and the antiwar movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. According to Varzally, in the earlier periods of the Cold War, Americans articulated the adoptions of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children that followed U.S. expansionist interventions in their countries in the positive rhetoric of uplift and rescue. However, American attitudes toward adoption shifted in the context of the Vietnam War: deploying the language of guilt and blame rather than of patriotism and humanitarianism, Americans began to conceive the adoptions of Vietnamese children as the consequence of and solution for failed and immoral U.S. foreign policies in Vietnam. This historical fact is important because it demonstrates the diverse perspectives and complex politics of transnational and transracial adoption across space and time. It also reveals the intersection between the public and private spheres, noting how antiwar activists used adoption—and the power of intimate, familial relations—to make a political point about U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, Varzally usefully notes that in the context of the era’s civil rights and women’s movements, Americans came to regard Vietnamese adoptions and the resultant interracial families as an effort to realize ideals of racial inclusion and equality, and to celebrate middle-class white maternity. Although antiwar activists looked to the adoption of Vietnamese children to settle their concerns about U.S. interventions in the Vietnam War, the aftermath of the government-backed Operation Babylift—the controversial U.S. emergency initiative to transport more than two thousand Vietnamese children to the United States at the conclusion of the war in April 1975 (Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam , vii)—underscored the complex and unresolved outcomes of the war. While most scholars have argued that the arrival of the Babylift children enabled the U.S. to transition ideologically from a warring to a humanitarian nation, Varzally once again shows that the situation on the ground was much more complex. Instead of endorsing the government’s evacuation efforts as a benevolent act, many American journalists and political observers challenged the humanitarian claims of Operation Babylift, characterizing the initiative as a continuation of a pattern of American abuse of Vietnamese by “traffic[king] in used babies” (52). What I appreciate most about Varzally’s book is her focus on Vietnamese efforts to create meaning for themselves. In her discussion of Operation Babylift, Varzally shows that Vietnamese, both in Vietnam and in the United States, condemned the airlift as a U.S. effort to “strip their country of future generations” (54). Some Vietnamese families even participated in a class-action lawsuit in San Francisco seeking to halt the Babylift adoptions, charging that many of the children did not appear to be orphans but had been taken from South Vietnam against their parents’ will. In the last two chapters, Varzally further shows how adopted Vietnamese, including Amerasians, via their social media, memoirs, documentaries, conferences, heritage camps, and more, had consistently undermined the U.S. government’s attempt to represent itself as a benevolent world actor. By the end of the 1990s, having experienced racial difference, violence, and dislocation in the United States, many Vietnamese adoptees and Amerasians joined other Vietnamese immigrants/refugees in seeking to reconnect to Vietnam; some eventually reunited with their kin there. In deflecting and rejecting American preemptive attempts to manage the memory of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese strove to shape the remembrance of the war, thereby pushing Vietnamese adoptees and their families to the center of debates about the war’s end and its aftermath. Two writing issues affected my reading of the book. First, the book contains no headings and subheadings to guide the reader from one topic and argument to another. Without these signposts to mark how information is organized in the chapters, I found it difficult to discern where one argument ended and another began. Second, Varzally repeatedly used the term “American” when it would have been more accurate to write “white American.” As an example: “A number of American couples seeking to adopt Vietnamese children cited previous adoptions of minority children as evidence of their open-mindedness regarding race and culture” (37, emphasis added). In this sentence and elsewhere, it is clear that the term “American” does not refer to all Americans but to the smaller subgroup of “white Americans.” The practice of conflating American and white prevents Varzally from engaging the important discussion about inequality in adoption: the fact that the most common pattern of transracial adoption is that of white middle-class parents adopting poor children of color, both from within the United States and elsewhere. Overall, Children of Reunion productively brings together the field of American history with the fields of family studies and critical immigration and refugee studies. Its main argument is important and generative: that transracial and transnational adoption is not a private familial decision but a public portal into American and global histories. Children of Reunion thus affirms the role of family as a site for understanding social and political change, both domestically and globally. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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