On Sept. 27, Private Travis King was returned to the U.S. from North Korea after a two-month imprisonment. In July, images of King dashing across the DMZ to North Korea astounded audiences across the globe. King’s actions caused significant embarrassment for both the U.S. military—who delivered him to Incheon Airport for repatriation to the U.S. after repeated instances of misbehavior—and to the Biden administration, precisely at a time when heightened tensions with North Korea, Russia, and China already made the U.S. vulnerable to foreign criticisms.
Details of the case remain scarce, but it is clear that King crossed into North Korea willfully. The North Korean government used the incident to critique racial discrimination in America, reporting in August that “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” in the U.S. military and U.S. society as a whole were the grounds for King’s spectacular defection.
Out of the group of 21 who decided to remain, three were Black. The Chinese government was quick to seize upon this fact to persuade decolonizing nations in Africa and Asia that communism was better suited to provide real equality. As Adams told his captors while a POW, “I do not want to go back to America because I am hoping for a better life than the one I left in the United States.” Chinese officials copied these remarks and segments of Adams’ writing into their propaganda pamphlets.
At home, media outlets lambasted Adams, ignoring his efforts to expose systemic racism and focusing instead on how he embodied a crisis of masculinity with this betrayal to his country. In 1957, Eugene Kinkead, editor of The New Yorker, blamed such defections on “a new softness,” “the result of some new failure in the childhood and adolescent training of our young men.” Newsweek called Adams and his peers “bound more together by homosexualism than communism,” and even the Black newspaper the Afro-American derided them as “squealers” (a term reserved for weak, effeminate men).
Such language illuminated the ways in which the Red Scare yoked communism, civil rights, and homosexuality to justify racial and sexual discrimination and undermine social justice movements. The Chicago Defender, for example, reported that communists used “special training in minorities” to create allies within the U.S, while the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) explicitly designated southern civil rights organizations as “a communist front.”
Equating civil rights with communism served as a powerful tool for southern segregationists, who found that red baiting successfully mobilized massive resistance against crucial federal legislation and federal court decisions focused on racial equality, such as the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The associative power of communism on public opinion was so strong that even in 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of non-violent protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., they passed 200 giant billboards commissioned by a right-wing group, seeking to discredit King by accusing him of partaking in a “Communist Training School.”
As the Vietnam War heated up in 1964, Adams participated directly in communist propaganda, controversially recording a broadcast for the Vietnam National Liberation Front in Beijing. He was stirred to action by the fear that Vietnam would once again see “many poor blacks sent to a remote foreign land to be slaughtered” as he had witnessed in Korea. Aired via Radio Hanoi, with loudspeakers on the Vietnamese front to reach U.S. troops, Adams urged Black soldiers to “go home and fight for equality in America.”
Adams eventually became disillusioned at the prospect of equality in China. In 1966, he returned home to Memphis with his Chinese wife and two children and ended up opening seven Chinese restaurants. However, it wasn’t a warm homecoming. Adams had to outsmart a mob of “angry whites” at the Memphis train station, and both local and national news media refused to print his insistence that, in 1954, China was a preferable place to live due to U.S. racism at home. Instead, they only printed his praise of China and continued to label him a turncoat. Adams was also summoned to testify in front of HUAC, and faced calls for a treason conviction due to his broadcasts on Radio Hanoi. But he never apologized for his actions. In his memoirs he situated his decision to stay in China as an enactment of his Americanness and his right to pursue racial equality instead of a betrayal of it.
That’s why others seeking racial justice continued to forge connections with communist regimes. In 1969, for example, the Black Panther Party’s head of international affairs, Eldridge Cleaver, traveled to Pyongyang for an anti-imperialist journalism conference, and ended up adopting the North Korean principle of self-reliance as a strategic model for organizing within the U.S. North Korea, Cleaver held, was a “socialist paradise.” In turn, the North Korean government was happy to affiliate itself with the Panthers, as it supported their anti-imperial and anti-U.S. agenda.
Today, North Korea still uses instances of U.S. racism as public relations fodder, notably during the Black Lives Matter movement and in particular in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in 2020. However, even within this context, the expulsion of Travis King shows that the global climate has changed on both sides. Unlike in the 1960s and 70s, when the strategic benefit of aligning with North Korea outweighed the negatives for U.S. leftist groups, solidarity initiatives today have pivoted away from engaging with the country’s brutal dictatorship. For North Korea, the logistical and diplomatic hassle of hosting a U.S. soldier—and possible accusations of keeping him as a POW—no longer outweigh the propaganda potential.
Nevertheless, the case of King has once again brought to the forefront the issue of racism within the military. While the Biden administration’s response was swift and diplomatic—they never condemned King in official statements—the global scandal that King’s case sparked reminds us that racism remains in urgent need of redress, both in the armed forces and outside of them. The fact remains that, despite its foundational democratic assertion that “all men are created equal,” equality has never materialized in the U.S. This reality is at once a domestic tragedy and international liability. Democracy in the U.S. as a concept has been bound up in racialized ideas of whiteness, a fact that its adversaries—from Iran to China to North Korea—continue to seize upon to undermine U.S. legitimacy in the international arena for their own gain.
Suzanne Enzerink is assistant professor of American studies at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.