Writing + Graphic by Anonymous
CW/TW: descriptions of war crimes and racial violence
As Asian Americans, we often hear the story of “my parents fled our home country for a better life in the United States.” We are constantly told, by both those inside and outside the community, to be “grateful” that we are living in the West. Missing from this narrative; however, is why many Asians fled their home countries in the first place. In this current era of #StopAsianHate, a connection to western imperialism in Asia is crucial to truly understanding and combating anti-Asian racism.
The Asian American anti-war/anti-imperialist movement was at its height during the US invasion of Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. The movement correctly understood that it was precisely because of imperialism that destabilized and looted Asian countries in the first place; it was these wars that caused many of our families to flee.
American militarism requires the racialization and dehumanization of Asian people, an attitude which eventually comes home to roost. Asian American zine Gidra in 1972 stated, “The systematic dehumanization of 'gooks' in the military affects Asians in America as well because it is to America that trained killers of Asians return.”
A brief summary of US Wars in Asia
War in the Philippines (1899 to 1906)
As part of the Spanish-American war, the US invaded the Philippines, which was fighting to be free from Spanish colonial rule. General Jacob Smith ordered his troops to kill any male over 10 years old. At the same time, the US was justifying their actions by saying they were bringing democracy to the Filipinos. Rudyard Kipling’s “Take Up the White Man’s Burden,” often mischaracterized as a poem justifying the British empire, was actually written in 1899 to glorify the American colonization of the Philippines.
World War II (1940s)
After Imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President FDR ordered all Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps, fearing they were spies. This order even went beyond the borders of the continental US. American military officials enacted Japanese internment in the Philippines. The US government also got cooperation from 13 South American countries who agreed to forcibly deport 2,264 ethnic Japanese. They were to be incarcerated in the United States where the State Department planned to use them as wartime hostages. Despite the US going to war against Germany and Italy too, German and Italian Americans were not sent en masse to internment camps at the scale as their Japanese counterparts. Dehumanizing war propaganda posters, many of which were drawn by Dr. Seuss, depicted Japanese people as flies, rats, rapists, and spies.
The Korean War (1950-1953)
To “save them from communism,” the US military invaded Korea. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, stated US troops exterminated 20 percent of the Korean population in this war. US troops dropped more bombs in Korea during this war than they did in the entire Pacific during World War II. It also marked the first use of Napalm bombs, at the time a new technology. Common anti-Asian slurs in use today originated in this war.
While not a direct military intervention, the US engaged in covert operations and facilitated the killings of up to 1 million Indonesians. Indonesian President Sukarno was leading the non-aligned movement of newly liberated Asian and African countries who wanted to follow neither the US nor the Soviet Union, but rather carve out their own path. Fearing the “domino effect,” the CIA cultivated and funded a far-right Indonesian military and sent them to eliminate Indonesian leftists. The CIA and US Embassy in Jakarta provided hit lists that included women’s organizations, trade unions, intellectuals, teachers, land reform advocates, and ethnic Chinese. Up to 1 million Indonesians were killed in the US-backed purge.
Vietnam War (1960s-70s)
In yet another war to “save them from communism,” the US military invaded Vietnam and killed 3 million Vietnamese people. US soldiers were ordered to “bomb Vietnam back to the stone age,” The widespread sexual exploitation of Southeast Asian women and children was rampant. The conflict spilled out into Laos and Cambodia, and the former became the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. At home, Asian Americans faced danger as well. Violence by veterans was widespread; several incidents occurred where newly returned vets attacked Chinese restaurant workers. Vietnamese refugees fled a warzone to then face racial terror from the Ku Klux Klan in coastal Texas.
War on Terror (2001-now)
US invasions and sanctions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iran have led to rising Islamophobia. The term “terrorist” was further racialized by Western media to be Muslim and brown. Sikhs, South Asians, and anyone perceived as Muslim were victims of racial violence and murder at home. In the Middle East, at least 37 million people were displaced and over 800,000 Middle Easterners were killed since US intervention ramped up after 9/11 (comparatively, only around 7,000 US soldiers have died in the same conflict).
In the Vietnam War era, massive numbers of Asian Americans mobilized to protest the war. For the first time, Asian Americans of many ethnic backgrounds came together realizing they shared a history of being victims of imperialist violence. Karen L. Ishizuka, an Asian American historian, notes, “It was no accident that Asian America was born at the peak of the Vietnam War.”
Asian Americans held anti-war rallies highlighting the racialized aspect of the war, with bilingual signs saying “Stop killing our Asian sisters!” “End your racist war!” “Asia for Asians!” Activist Chester Cheng stated, “We are able to unleash the most terrifying, vicious and horrible weapons devised by man in this war, because yellow people are as expendable as the buffalo and the American Indian. We are gooks in the eyes of white Americans.” They confronted the mainstream (white) anti-war movement for centering only white American military lives and not Vietnamese civilian ones. Asian Americans in this movement refused to play into assimilation (aka “I was born here” politics); they opposed the war out of identification with the Vietnamese and seeing their own racialized experiences in the wider context of Western imperialism in Asia.
Graphics from the May 1972 issue of Gidra
Graphic comparing the amount of Vietnamese civilian deaths and US military deaths in the Vietnam War
The mainstream Asian American anti-war movement largely died out after the Vietnam War concluded. The connection between militarism and the plight of Asian Americans has not.
US military occupation of the Philippines, South Korea, and Okinawa continues to this day. This occupation has fueled the image of Asian women and girls as hypersexualized objects for white male consumption. The local women and children that live around these bases face extensive sexual violence from the US soldiers. This is the same violence that Asian women here at home face; the hypersexualized stereotype is what led to the recent shootings of six Asian women in Atlanta.
Despite technically being in “peacetime,” the US is constructing yet more bases in Okinawa (against the will of Okinawans) to prepare for war against China and North Korea. Millions are getting evicted during the pandemic and Asian Americans are facing a deluge of racial violence. At the same time, Congress is doling out billions for military equipment to “counter China” while the faithful media releases endless articles and cartoons with old-school Yellow Peril tropes to manufacture our consent for a new cold (or hot) war.
US politicians said anti-Asian racism is “un-American,” yet it is the same America that bombed most of Asia into oblivion at one time or another, and will again.
Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins