David R. Roediger

Gook: The Short History of an Americanism

Monthly Review, 1992, Volume 43, Issue 10 (March)

By David Roediger

"The Haitians, in whose service United States Marines are presumably restoring peace and order in Haiti, are nicknamed |Gooks' and have been treated with every variety of contempt, insult, and bestiality." So wrote Herbert J. Seligman in the Nation in 1920. The contempt and bestiality will scarcely surprise those who have much studied American imperialism, but hearing the term gook applied to black people may. In the last forty years, gook has chiefly slurred Asian but far from exclusively, those actively opposing American presence in Korea and Indochina. But the broader pan-racist past of gook provides almost a short history of modern U.S. imperial aggression and particularly of the connections between racial oppression and war.

The origins of gook are mysterious, but the dictionary-makers agree that it is an Americanism. The authoritarian 1989 Oxford English Dictionary counts the word "orig[inally] and chiefly U.S." and identifies it as "a term of contempt; a foreigner; a coloured inhabitant of (south-)east Asia." It offers a 1935 first usage, applied mainly to Filipinos, and notes use by U.S. troops in Korea and Vietnam, without considering that such usages in fact applied to natives in lands where Americans were foreigners. The OED adds "origins unknown" as its verdict regarding scholarly knowledge on the coining of the term.

If gook did originate in the Philippines, it likely did so far earlier than 1935. Irving Lewis Allen, in The Language of Ethnic Conflict, refers to goo-goo as "originally a Filipino in the Spanish- American War, 1899-1902" and some scholars of American English suggest that gook itself found usage during the same conflict. If so, gook developed among troops who were probably connecting contempt for natives with contempt for "promiscuous" women and for poor people generally. An 1893 citation from Slang and Its Analogues finds gooks to be "tarts" and particularly camp-following prostitutes or "barrack hacks" catering to the army. A 1914 source similarly defines a gook as "a tramp, low."

Another explanation--and it is surely preferable to think of the various possible sources of ethnic slurs as overlapping rather than as alternatives--is that gook developed from goo-goo, which, as Stuart Flexner suggests, may have been a mocking imitation of Filipino speech. If so, the origins would square with the roughly contemporaneous "spik," the derivation of which, H.L. Mencken held, came from Spanish-speakers' alleged attempts to say that they did not "spik" (speak) English. One account from the 1930s specifically identifies gooks on language grounds, as Spanish-speakers. Finally, the use of gook in the Philippines had a specifically racial dimension, with the term applied particularly to those natives who had no mixture of European "blood"—a particularly despised (or pitied) category which imperialists freely predicted would die out as "progress" occurred.

By the 1920s, gooks were French- and Creole-speaking black Haitians and Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans. Marines, as we have seen, made the Haitians into gooks. They also, after the 1926 invasion of Nicaragua, were responsible for so naming "natives" there. Into the 1930s in Costa Rica, goo-goo described the citizenry, at least to Americans. Such a term, in the Philippines or Latin America, could hardly have failed to conjure up an image of an infantilized subject population.

By the time of the Second World War, the identity of the gook expanded again. The West Coast's brilliant amateur student of language, Peter Tamony, took notes on radio commentator Deane Dickason's 1943 comments on gook—the Marines' "word for natives everwhere" but especially for Arabs. The latter of Dickason's conclusions is likely closer to the mark than the former. "Natives" of France, or of Britain, or of Holland, were not gooks, but people of color were. In particular, the mainly Arab population of North Africa acquired the status of gook. Indeed the usage spread to French colonialists so that, even a decade after the war, panicked settlers reacted to Algeria's national liberation struggle by indiscriminately slaughtering villagers in "gook-hunts."

In the Pacific, the Second World War witnessed the spread of gook to apply to peoples far beyond the Philippines. And coming from a nation supporting the United States or from an American territory was not proof against being called a gook. At the war's end, large riots between servicemen and natives erupted in Hawaii. Life commented in November 1945 that the rioting servicemen saw their enemies as "gooks--that stupid, dirty lower strata of Honolulu citizen." The San Francisco News explained to a California audience that same month that gook was "a Hawaii servicemen's name roughly equivalent to the mainland |zoot-suiter'"—the latter term describing the stylishly dressed Hispanics and blacks who were often the victims of mob violence stateside.

When the Korean war followed fast on the heels of the Second World War, gook quickly named Korean friend and foe in that conflict. Anti- Communism and racism mixed promiscuously. A 1950 San Francisco News headline blared "HILLS ARE LOUSY WITH GOOKS" before the subhead "Red Mortars Keep Yanks Pinned Down." One source cited South Korean soldiers fighting alongside Americans as calling North Koreans gooks. But it is unlikely that many Koreans saw the term as anti- Communist rather than racist. Some Koreans appear to have thrown back the slur, coining megooks as a word for U.S. soldiers.

Although one San Francisco Examiner report from 1950 maintained that gook was "soldier's slang for almost any non-American," there is no available evidence that non-American whites in the United Nations force in Korea were so called. On the other hand, so prevalent was the reference to native Koreans as gooks that in September, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur directed that the use of the term be discontinued because it gave "aid and comfort to the enemy" by calling into question the U.S. commitment to democratic ideals. Although one October 1953 newspaper account optimistically held that gook "has disappeared from the GI vocabulary," the word's use certainly continued quite prominently after MacArthur's pronouncement. Life's December 1951 "A Marine Tells What Korea Is Really Like," for example, is littered with casual references to gooks.

Since Vietnam followed Korea with no other sustained U.S. interventions between, it solidified the modern meaning of a gook as an Asian. Clearly, the American command during the Vietnam fighting did not effectively press MacArthur's campaign against use of the word. One of the most revealing of the countless such references to "gooks" came in a 1969 report by war correspondent Robert Kaiser, one titled "The GI's and the Gooks." Kaiser wrote, in a sentence suggestive of how anti-Vietnamese racism drew on formulations as old as the Indian wars, "The only good gook, it is said again and again on U.S. bases throughout Vietnam, is a dead gook."

The stark dehumanization of enemies in such a line reminds us that racism is not only a way to motivate fighters in wars of aggression but also that militarism has helped foster racism. The frenetic gook- baiting which so many antiwar ex-GIs later reported as a feature of basic training during Vietnam was easily enough turned on but, despite the remarkable, hard-won antiracism developed by some soldiers, it was not always easily turned off on U.S. soil. Steve Jacobs, a psychiatric nurse counselling veterans of Vietnam, challenges clients who use gook to describe their "enemies" not just because the word is repugnant but because it signals a continuing refusal to acknowledge the war's horrors and a holding on to pain.

The 1991 U.S. imperial adventure in the Gulf came complete with references to "Indian country" as a military synonym for "enemy territory." My students tell me that the more gung-ho stateside supporters of the war referred to Arabs as sand niggers. The combination of racism, imperialism, and war produces hideous things, including words. Those who would champion "ethnic civility" must oppose such barbarisms, and not just at the level of language.