Asian American Adoption- Part 2: From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today

A Vietnam exhibition display of two soldiers standing next to the helicopter and one in the cockpit.
A section of “The Price of Freedom” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Clarissa Trent.

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

After the Korean War, Asia faced other crises, including the Vietnam War, Cambodian Civil War, and the Laos Civil War. These wars left millions of men, women, and children dead. Countries fell into geopolitical tyrannical regimes and East and Southeast Asia transitioned to communist states. At the same time, international adoption was gaining traction in South Korea and growing popular in other Cold War countries. One infamous example of this popularity was Operation Baby Lift, which occurred after the Vietnam War.

Operation Baby Lift was authorized by President Gerald R. Ford and allowed for 30 planes to be filled with Vietnamese and Cambodian children. These infants and toddlers were airlifted out of the country to adoptive families in the United States, Canada, Australia, and more. The operation evacuated over 2,000 children from their home countries. While many applauded the United States government and military for their seemingly heroic rescue of these children, critics have characterized the event as “kidnapping,” describing the evacuation as a photo opportunity designed to pull public focus away from an extremely unpopular war.

During and following times of war, parents were often unable to find work and unable to provide for their children, and many turned to orphanages to care for them. Governments and adoption agencies, however, would misconstrue the facts and depict children as parentless even if one or both parents were still alive. Whether it fit the legal definition of kidnapping or not, the once-popular idea that international adoption saved children from the perceived threats of communism has become a central topic in modern conversation around adoption.

A newsletter clipping of the Disabled Child of the Month by Holt International.
A Holt Adoption Program Newsletter from September 1967 featuring a “Handicapped Child of the Month.” Photo by Clarissa Trent, courtesy of a National Museum of American History collections tour.

In recent years, adoption requirements have become stricter. Many countries have age, income, marriage, and health requirements. A number of countries have also agreed to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. This sets an international standard for how international adoptions are conducted worldwide, to combat abduction and trafficking of children. However, not all countries are part of this agreement—most notably South Korea—and Americans continue to adopt from countries that are not part of the Hague Convention.

Asian adoptees who experience transracial adoption often have a complicated sense of identity. While adoptions do occur in families of the same race, the majority of Asian adoptions are to white families. The issues that Asian adoptees face are a part of a growing field of study looking at identity crisis, racism, mental health, emotional health, and abandonment. A study published in 2013 explored these issues in American adoptees. The results indicated that adoptees are four times more likely to die by suicide than biological children. These issues around plural identities and racism are not felt by all Asian adoptees, nor are they exclusive to Asian adoptees. While sometimes difficult, these conversations are essential to uncovering the stories of adoptees historically and today.

Readings and Resources:

For a full list of sources, view here.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *