Military Romance: American Soldiers and Foreign War Brides in the Twentieth Century



Susan Zeiger . Entangling Alliances: Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century . New York : New York University Press , 2010 . xi + 281 pp. Index. $45.00 (cloth) .

The American soldier has perhaps been the most enduring U.S. export since the turn of the twentieth century, with no end in sight. Americans have fought wars on foreign soil, occupied countries, and built permanent military installations all over the world. Currently about a quarter of the country's active duty personnel is stationed on military bases scattered around the globe. For better or worse, these troops have helped shape America's image abroad. In the past, political leaders have hailed them as “ambassadors for democracy,” as was the case in Germany and Japan after World War II. But they have also expressed concern about America's international reputation when soldiers engaged in misconduct abroad, as occurred with increasing frequency during the 1970s when military morale was at its lowest in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and drug addiction, alcoholism, and violent crime were on the rise. Host countries, in turn, have welcomed American troops as liberators or shunned them as imperialist invaders. U.S. military occupations in the aftermath of war have created strong resistance movements (the Philippines), cemented lasting positive relationships (Germany, Japan), and divided the country (Afghanistan, Iraq). The establishment of a worldwide system of U.S. military bases in the aftermath of World War II offered opportunities for cross-cultural interaction but also disrupted the political, economic, and cultural coherence of local communities.

Among the consequences of America's military engagements abroad were thousands of marriages between American soldiers and local women. These marriages are the subject of Susan Zeiger's fascinating book, Entangling Alliances. In a broad historical sweep that covers America's wars from World War I to Vietnam, Zeiger documents the obstacles and hardships these intercultural couples overcame as they navigated through the military bureaucracy, endured resistance from their respective communities, and tried to integrate into civilian society in the United States. One of the book's central contributions is the balance it strikes between the soldiers' overseas experience of intercultural courtship and the war brides' American experience of xenophobia, isolation, assimilation, and integration.

Zeiger's objective is to show the relevance of these private affairs for the history of America's foreign relations since the early twentieth century. She argues that “intercultural relationships have served an important function in U.S. history: war bride marriages are a multifaceted prism through which Americans have sought to make meaning on a popular level of their relationships with other countries” (p. 2). She sees the apprehension with which military officials and the American people received the war brides over the course of the century as an indicator of a “deep and continuing uneasiness with internationalism” in the United States. The title of the book, in reference to the famous warning Thomas Jefferson issued in his 1801 inaugural address, “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” aptly underscores the nexus between the personal and political, even though Zeiger erroneously attributes the phrase to Washington (p. 9).

The narrative arc of the book follows the trajectory of the “rise and demise” of the war bride throughout much of the twentieth century, covering an ever expanding geographic terrain. In Europe in 1918, the American military was utterly unprepared for the onslaught of requests by soldiers to marry foreign women and bring them back to the United States. These romantic involvements appeared to confirm American fears that young impressionable doughboys were unable to resist the allure of seductive French mistresses of questionable moral character. The specter of American innocence destroyed by engagement in a European war carried over into the postwar period and created a moral backlash against the war brides as they arrived in the United States. To make matters worse for these women, their arrivals coincided with a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that swept the country in the early 1920s. Despite deep reservations about these international liaisons, however, the military after World War I established a system of processing wartime marriages to foreign nationals and providing for war brides' safe passage to the United States.

As America's foreign engagements grew, so did the influx of alien war brides into the United States. By the end of World War II, the war bride issue had become a global affair, creating new tensions along gender and racial fault lines. Though few Americans continued to view GIs as naïve innocent victims of foreign sexual seduction, as had been the case during World War I, they remained concerned about the potential moral and sexual corruption of their troops abroad, particularly when confronted with reports about rampant prostitution near war zones and military bases, and the spread of venereal disease. More worrisome to young American women were reports of American soldiers' declared preference for foreign women because they were less demanding and more subservient than their American counterparts. In light of the postwar shortage of men everywhere the healthy, well-fed, and carefree American GI became the world's most eligible and sought-after bachelor.

Opposition to wartime marriages manifested itself also in racial terms, as military officials sought to prevent interracial liaisons. Zeiger reveals the institutionalized racism that pervaded the military bureaucracy's system of marriage approval, which obstructed or outright denied soldiers the right to marry partners from different racial backgrounds. In Japan, the U.S. military banned all marriages to Japanese nationals until the early 1950s. In Europe, it did not openly prohibit but actively obstructed African American efforts to wed white women.

By the time the United States deployed forces in Vietnam, the military war bride program was in decline. Servicemen received little legal support to certify their marriages, leading many to make local arrangements outside the military. In addition, the Vietnamese wives of American servicemen in the late 1960s and early 1970s no longer enjoyed special privileges, such as free passage to the United States. The reasons for this decline remain unclear. Was it the nature of the conflict in Vietnam or the military's reluctance to support interracial marriages? Or was the military rethinking entirely its involvement in approving and certifying the marriages of U.S. service personnel? In addition to the Vietnamese wives, a steady trickle of alien military spouses entered the United States from other military installations abroad, above all Great Britain and Germany, the largest foreign locale for peacetime deployment. For comparative purposes, it would have been helpful to explore whether the military approached these marriage requests differently from those in Vietnam.

The experiences of foreign military wives over the course of the twentieth century are so varied that it is hard for Zeiger to find many common denominators. Part of the problem lies in a number of asymmetries that militate against a comparative approach. The first emerges in the fundamental difference in the nature of the wars over the course of the century. The theatres of operation, nature and duration of the conflicts, and social composition of the troops created particular conditions in which both the relationships and the military's response to them evolved. The dynamic of relationships between soldiers and women during wartime also differed from those forged during occupations or during long-term troop deployments on military bases. A third asymmetry emerges from comparing different geographic regions at different times. Zeiger's focus on Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and 60s associates these nonwestern countries with the demise of the war bride as a cultural phenomenon. But what about Germany and Great Britain, where soldiers continued to serve on military bases during the Vietnam War and where they continued to forge relationships including marriages? Even in Korea, most marriages occurred long after the war as soldiers transferred into and out of military bases near the demilitarized zone. “Military base brides” served not so much as reminders of the triumphs and tribulations of past wars than evidence of America's long-term global military presence.

Zeiger's study provides a crucial perspective on the effects of America's growing military presence abroad. It forms part of the larger narrative of twentieth-century immigration, civilian travel, and globalization. After World War II, military service abroad was a rare and exotic experience unavailable to most middle- and lower-class Americans. However, by the 1960s a growing pool of civilian Americans, including Peace Corps volunteers, foreign students, and an increasingly globalized work force, provided a counterbalance to the military migration between countries and continents. Those civilian migrants forged similar relationships with foreign nationals, some of them resulting in marriage. By the 1970s international and intercultural families had become an integral part of America's economic and cultural globalization.

The war bride as a cultural phenomenon reached its peak at the end of World War II when America's military power was at its peak, as Zeiger has shown. It faded into relative oblivion at a time when the postwar military establishment had reached its nadir and when the age of globalization transformed America's role in the world. It would be wrong to assume, however, that America's foreign entanglements declined at this point. To the contrary, they had already become more diverse encompassing military, political, economic, and cultural “affairs.”