Save the Children: Religion, Politics, and International Adoptions in America

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Arissa Oh
Boston College

Date: March 1, 2017

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Although international adoption has become a commonplace practice in the United States, many Americans know very little about how or why it began. At her luncheon colloquium, Arissa Oh will draw on her book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, and examine the rise of international adoption, which began systematically in the aftermath of the Korean War. In particular, Oh will discuss the role of religion in U.S. international adoption, both past and present.

Speaker Bio

Arissa Oh

Arissa Oh is associate professor in the history department at Boston College, where she teaches and researches migration in U.S. history, particularly in relation to race, gender, and kinship. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2008. Her book on the history of international adoption, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, was published by Stanford University Press in 2015. She is currently working on a history of marriage migration and immigration fraud in U.S. history since the late 19th century.

Event Photos

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Arissa Oh discussed the origins of international adoption in the United States at a Boisi Center luncheon colloquium on March 1.

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Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

On March 1, Arissa Oh, associate professor in the history department at Boston College, came to the Boisi Center for a luncheon colloquium discussing the history of international adoption in the United States. Oh drew on her book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, to explain how the practice, language, and culture surrounding international adoption has developed and changed from the Cold War to today.

Oh began her talk by showing a brief video about the “Global Orphan Crisis”—an idea that was appropriated by the Evangelical adoption movement. According to Oh, the movement includes hundreds of organizations nationwide that are committed to solving this “orphan crisis” by promoting international adoption in congregations. The trouble, Oh pointed out, is that there is no “Global Orphan Crisis” and the vast majority of so-called “orphans” are children who may have lost one parent or are living with extended family.

Describing the origins of international adoption, Oh pointed to the American adoption of “G.I. babies” in Korea—the children of American soldiers and Korean women conceived during the Korean War—as the dawn of what would eventually become a practice in other nations as well. Oh gave the example of Harry Holt. Holt’s agency, Holt International, caters to Christian clientele and remains the largest international adoption agency in the world. Holt was an Evangelical Christian and farmer who became famous for adopting eight GI babies from the Korean War. Oh noted that, despite Holt’s Christian focus, the United States government was not entirely comfortable with purely religious reasons for adoption. Advocates for international adoption argued that the practice could demonstrate the benevolence, tolerance, and open-mindedness of the United States—especially in comparison to its Cold War competitors, the Soviet Union.

According to Oh, Evangelical adoption took off in a time of general decline in international adoption. Today, the Evangelical adoption movement is becoming more engaged in conversations on the ethics of adoption and of removing children from their cultural/racial contexts. Increasingly, international adoption is being de-emphasized, while organizations and congregations are becoming more focused on family preservation internationally and foster care domestically. Oh noted her interesting position as “a historian studying something that might be coming to an end.”

Attendees discussed the differences between public motivation and individual reasons for adoption, the future of international adoption in the U.S., and the potential impacts of the new administration.

Read More


Oh, Arissa H. To save the Children of Korea : The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. 2015. Print. Asian America.


Oh, Arissa H. “From War Waif to Ideal Immigrant: The Cold War Transformation of the Korean Orphan.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 31, no. 4, 2012, pp. 34–55.,

Oh, Arissa. “A New Kind of Missionary Work: Chrisitians, Christian Americanists, and The Adoption of Korean GI Babies, 1955-1961.” Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3/4, 2005, pp. 161–188.,

Oh, Arissa H. "The Historical Roots of the Evangelical Adoption Boom." The Historical Society Blog. 2013.

Other Sources

"To Save the Children of Korea: On the History of International Adoption"

"How South Korea became the first country to start international adoptions"

"In South Korea, international adoption as a solution to social problems"

In the News

Arissa Oh was featured in the Boston Globe for her recent book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. Check out the article here. You can find more information on current issues surrounding adoption in South Korea here.