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War Brides Past and Present

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War brides have been a part of American culture since World War I. Through them we came to know and appreciate more cultures than just our own, and we learned something about ourselves. Today we’re at war on two fronts with an enemy most in the United States don’t understand, but it remains to be seen if many of our soldiers will bring home wedded enlightenment.

Prior to WWII, immigration was a touchy subject for Americans, as it didn’t fit into that era’s isolationist and ethnocentric policies. However, it was love that bloomed outside our borders during that terrible war that helped reverse some of our ancestors’ ignorance-fueled legislation.

The love I’m talking about came in the form of war brides. A war bride is typically defined as a woman who marries a soldier from another country during wartime, and the term is more often than not connected with marriages that occurred during World War I and especially World War II.

Allied servicemen coming home from various locales around the globe following the end of the Second World War sought to bring back foreign flings that flourished in some of the worst conditions. Estimates say 150,000 to 200,000 or more brides came from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and other countries.

The nations involved dealt with the great move in their own ways. Australia, for instance, took away the exiting brides’ Australian citizenship, and in recent years, many of these women have been trying to gain back their lost status to no avail. The Canberra Times reported that Australian girls who left their country for an American were subject to antagonism and were thought to be “betraying the nation.”

Canada, as a recipient state of many of these brides, seemed to welcome the flood of wedded women. Former Prime Minister Mackenzie King even addressed a substantial gathering of war brides immigrating to Canada on board the Queen Mary in 1946 congratulating them on their unions with his country’s soldiers and their newfound citizenship. Now, though, some of these women, and their children as well, are starting to find out they’ve never been officially declared Canadian citizens, and their adopted government is fighting their appeals.

The United States went about modifying existing immigration laws when GIs started trying to bring back their new partners in marriage. In 1945 the War Brides Act allowed the spouses and adopted children of American servicemen to enter the country. Also, the ban on Asian immigration established by the Immigration Act of 1924 was momentarily eased by this same piece of legislation.

Furthermore, the Soldier Brides Acts of 1946 and 1947 expanded the terms of the War Brides Act so that even more women and their children could bypass existing immigration statutes. Congress then passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which finally did away with the racial restrictions in previous immigration-limiting regulations, and war brides from South Korea and Vietnam were finally allowed to enter the U.S.

I read a New York Times article about the lives of the estimated 70,000 British war brides who came to America following World War II. After enduring the bombing of their homeland and the fear of German invasion, they had to wait to see if the American legislature would pass a bill that would allow them to come to the U.S. After that, it would be ten days on a cramped ship filled with women and children, crossing the Atlantic amid rumors of brides being raped by the crew.

Finally arriving in the States, these women still didn’t have it easy. Work was sometimes hard to find. Some found they had barely traded up on their living conditions, moving from bombed-out cities to dilapidated tenements infested with mice and cockroaches.

Eventually some of these war brides formed support groups and initiate social clubs for women like themselves, where they could trade stories, do lunches, and have parties, and most important, trade their homesickness for a feeling of familiarity.

That was then. What about now? We’re engaged in two wars. Will we be inundated with Iraqi women coming over with their new American husbands? Are we going to find ourselves shopping alongside a GI’s Afghan newlywed in the local Target?

Probably not. Why? A number of reasons might come into play, but essentially it comes down to two things: culture and the nature of the war.

As for culture, Americans come from a highly globalized society dominated by wasteful extravagance and Christian values. The people with whom we’re engaged militarily come from a strict Islamic world plagued by poverty. They simply don’t understand our way of life, and likewise, we can’t fathom theirs.

American GIs at least had some common ground with the women in other locales to which they were sent in the past, but much less so in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the chief tenets of Muslim culture for females is modesty, and that doesn’t lend itself well to the over-stimulated libido of our male soldiers. How could it, when in their homeland they are bombarded by sexual images in the media every day?

As for the nature of the campaigns in which Americans are involved, a couple things come to mind. The wars from WWI up through Vietnam, the sources of the nation’s war brides and of the pseudo-tradition of soldiers bringing home foreign wives, were large-scale, globally-invested, preexisting conflicts that the U.S. became involved in only after the fires had begun to rage. The armed engagements of today, by contrast, didn’t exist until the U.S. initiated them.

In some peoples’ eyes, Americans came as uninvited invaders, so they’re not completely welcome even by the peaceful folks they say they’re there to liberate. Moreover, the soldiers have difficulty distinguishing between friend and foe. Consequently, neither party feels fully able to trust the other, and a lack of faith can’t bring people together.

These things don’t mesh well for an American soldier looking for love. One side looks at the other with wary eyes and vice versa, and each is unaccustomed to the ways of the other. Unfortunately, ignorance tends to breed contempt, and love can’t bloom unless we get to know each other a little.

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About Jerry Stegall

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Jerry –

    I think you’ll find that there is a significant number of Iraqi women marrying American soldiers – not nearly in the numbers found in Southeast Asia, but still enough to become an accepted presence on military bases.

    As a retired military man who once married a woman from overseas, and as a man who was raised as a racist in the deepest of the Deep South, your article means more to me than most. In my experience, we in the American military really are seen as ‘the good guys’…with the exceptions of the two charlie-foxes left us by the Bush administration. That – plus America’s (now tarnished thanks to torture) reputation as a country based on the rule of law, has probably diminished the attraction that impoverished women in third-world countries see in well-paid, clean-cut, generally-healthy American men. I’m sorry if that last phrasing seems conceited – it’s not meant as such, but as a summary of experience.

    But the “tradition” of war brides (which in reality probably predates Rome) has been a great and wonderful thing for American culture, for it is only through personal interaction with those of other cultures that our prejudices diminish, though they never disappear.

    I conclude with my observation that the more homogeneous the culture, the greater its inherent racism and prejudice towards those who do not fit within said homogeneity…and I feel the converse is true as well.

  • C Hicks


    This seems to be an interesting book however, may I humbly point out that there was no concept in legal terms of ‘Australian citizenship’ until at least the 1960s. Australians up until the post war period regarded themselves as British subjects/citizens and their passports reflected that. So in effect the Australian war brides of American servicemen could not have had their Australian citizenship removed by the Australian Govt as they would not have possessed it at the time of migrating to Australia and I am fairly certain that the US govt does not allow for dual citizenship. More likely these women are now trying to obtain it after it was introduced in the 1960s in Australia and are having difficulty meeting the conditions because they are resident in Australia or have not been for many years. Also the Australian govt went to great lengths to secure transportation for the war brides to the US and UK at the conclusion of the was despite the shortage of shipping as first priority was given to the returning servicemen. This would hardly fit with the picture painted of a government that resented the war brides for leaving the country. See the link re history of Australian citizenship

    C Hicks

  • C Hicks

    Sorry, did not read that post properly before I hit the ‘Post Comment’ button – I meant to say migrating to the US from Australia and that the war brides have not been resident in Australia for many years and that may be the reason they are having difficulty obtaining Australian Citizenship.

  • Herb Knowles

    Can/t you give me a more direct answer than all this gibberish?

  • Catherine Magnasson

    Maybe we’d all enjoy this article more if you would have talked more about the time of the crusades…i mean, lets face it, EVERYONE LOVES the crusades… war brides left and right.