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George McTurnan Kahin


George McTurnan Kahin

George McTurnan Kahin
Monash University in 1971
Born (1918-01-25)January 25, 1918
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Died January 29, 2000(2000-01-29) (aged 82)
Rochester, New York, USA
Citizenship United States
Fields History, political science
Institutions Cornell University
Alma mater Harvard University
Stanford University
Johns Hopkins University
Doctoral advisor Rupert Emerson
Other academic advisors Owen Lattimore
Doctoral students Benedict Anderson, Herbert Feith, Daniel Lev and 155 others[1]

George McTurnan Kahin[Note 1] (January 25, 1918 – January 29, 2000) was an American historian and political scientist. He was one of the leading experts on Southeast Asia and a critic of United States involvement in the Vietnam War.[2] After completing his dissertation, which is still considered a classic on Indonesian history, Kahin became a faculty member at Cornell University. At Cornell, he became the director of its Southeast Asia Program and founded the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project. Kahin's incomplete memoir was published posthumously in 2003.

Early life

George McTurnan Kahin was born on January 25, 1918, in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in Seattle, Washington. He received a B.S. in history from Harvard University in 1940.[3]

Kahin married Margaret Baker in 1942, but the marriage ended in divorce.[2] During World War II, Kahin served in the United States Army between 1942 and 1945, where "he was trained as one of a group of 60 GIs who were to be parachuted into Japanese-occupied Indonesia in advance of Allied forces". However, the operation was canceled after it was determined that U.S. forces would bypass the Indies after the Potsdam Conference. As a result, his unit was sent to the European theater. He earned the rank of sergeant before leaving the Army.[3] Kahin's interest in Southeast Asia developed during this period, and he learned to speak Indonesian and Dutch.[2]

Kahin returned after the war to complete his M.A. from Stanford University, which he received in 1946. His thesis was titled The Political Position of the Chinese in Indonesia (Kahin 1946),[4] describing the role of Chinese Indonesians in the new country. He continued to pursue of his interest in Southeast Asia, going to Indonesia in 1948 to conduct research during the Indonesian National Revolution. During his work, he was arrested by Dutch colonial authorities and expelled from the country. Kahin received a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1951. His dissertation, titled Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (Kahin 1952), is considered a classic on Indonesian history.[3][5]

Academic career

In 1951, Kahin became an assistant professor of government at Cornell University. He received tenure and was promoted to associate professor in 1954; he became a full professor in 1959. He became the director of Cornell's Southeast Asia Program in 1961 and held the position until 1970. Kahin also founded the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project in 1954 and served as its director until his retirement in 1988. Between 1962 and 1963, he became a Fulbright professor at London University. Kahin was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[3]

We voted for the maintenance of academic freedom, believing that without that essential quality there can be no relationship of any kind between blacks and a university, because without that quality you don't have a university.

—George McTurnan Kahin, April 25, 1969[6]

On April 19, 1969, Cornell's Afro-American Society occupied the Willard Straight Hall student union in protest against "the university's racist attitudes and irrelevant curriculum" regarding racial issues.[7] The university was divided between proponents of the inclusion of the principles of social justice in course instruction and advocates of academic freedom for the faculty. This clash affected the Department of Government, where Kahin and a number of professors defending academic freedom resided.[8] Many of these professors had considered leaving the university due to the administration's policies promoting racial justice, and many did following the end of the occupation. The following week, the Department of Government organized a teach-in on academic freedom, and Kahin was invited to speak at the event by department chair Peter Sharfman.[9] Historian Walter LaFeber would later remember his remarks as "the most eloquent speech about academic freedom I have ever encountered anywhere up to that time or since that time".[10]

Vietnam War critic

Kahin was a leading critic of the Vietnam War and opposed United States involvement. He participated in a teach-in in May 1965 and led the anti-war position.[5] Later, he co-wrote The United States in Vietnam (Kahin & Lewis 1969) with Stanford professor John Lewis,[11] a publication which helped to turn people in academia against U.S. intervention in Vietnam.[12] It was the most comprehensive study of American involvement in the war to date. According to Kahin and Lewis, American policy was based on a distorted view of Vietnam. "Vietnam is a single nation, not two," Kahin and Lewis argued, and "South Vietnam constitutes an artificial creation whose existence depends on the sustained application of American power."[2]

When U.S. Senator George McGovern campaigned in the 1972 presidential election on a platform to end the war, Kahin became his foreign policy adviser.[4]

Khmer Rouge supporter

Kahin, along with his graduate student Gareth Porter, was optimistic about the prospect of a takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge. In early 1975, Kahin predicted of a Khmer Rouge victory: "I know of no basis for assuming that there is going to be a major bloodbath." He also spoke highly of the Khmer Rouge leadership, particularly Khieu Samphan, whom he called "a very talented person."[13]

During the subsequent Cambodian genocide, Kahin backed Porter's attempts to discredit reports of the mass killings (see Cambodian genocide denial). In his foreword to Porter's book Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, Kahin argued that Khmer Rouge policies "were not, then, applications of some irrational ideology, but reflected pragmatic solutions by leaders who had to rely exclusively on Cambodia's own food resources and who lacked facilities for its internal transport."[14]

According to Vietnam scholar Stephen J. Morris, Kahin "emerged from his past record of support for the Vietnamese communists and the Khmer Rouge with his scholarly reputation intact."[15]

Relations with Indonesia

After Kahin was expelled from Indonesia in 1949, he helped young Indonesian diplomats Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, Soedarpo Sastrosatomo, and Soedjatmoko during their work at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C. He also developed a close relationship with Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, the first President and Vice President of Indonesia. In his book Subversion as Foreign Policy (Kahin & Kahin 1995), he attempted to clear former Prime Minister Mohammad Natsir, with whom he also developed a personal relationship, of any involvement with a rebellion movement against the Indonesian government.[4] The book also described a "destructive relationship" between the United States and Indonesia during Sukarno's presidency.[5]

Kahin helped develop Indonesian studies in the United States at a time when the majority of material on Indonesia was held at Leiden University in the Netherlands. At Cornell, he introduced a postgraduate education program for diplomats from around the world who were in the middle of their careers. He also helped many Indonesian intellectuals, including Deliar Noer and sociologist Selo Soemardjan, obtain education in the United States. Several of Kahin's students and associates, including Herbert Feith, went on to establish similar programs at the universities where they subsequently taught.[4]

At one point, the United States blocked Kahin's passport, and the Suharto government in Indonesia also denied him a visa.[5] In 1991, Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas awarded Kahin the Bintang Jasa Pratama (English: Medal of Merit, First Class) for his work as a "pioneer and precursor of Indonesian studies in the U.S."[3]

Death and legacy

Kahin died at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, on January 29, 2000.[3] Several months after his death, a memorial service was held in Ithaca, New York, for him and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.[11] A memoir which he never completed was brought to publication by his wife Audrey Richey Kahin (Kahin 2003). Kahin is also survived by his son Brian, daughter Sharon, sister Peggy Kahin Webb, and two grandchildren.[2]

Kahin was a major influence on the foreign policy thinking of Sandy Berger, United States National Security Advisor under President Bill Clinton.[12] He is the namesake of Cornell University's George McT. Kahin Center for Advanced Research on Southeast Asia, dedicated in his honor in 1992.[3]

Major publications

Southeast Asia and Indonesia

Vietnam War



External links

  • Guide to the George McTurnan Kahin Papers, ca. 1951–1999, at Cornell University Library
  • George McT. Kahin Center for Advanced Research on Southeast Asia

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