Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

George McT Kahin (1918-2000)

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Daniel S Lev

As word spread around the world of George Kahin's death on 29 January, at age eighty-two, the many who knew him or his work must have paused for a time to reflect on the huge empty space. Judging from an obituary in the New York Times, even those who fought with him had to concede that this was an extraordinary scholar filled with integrity, honesty, and courage.

One can reasonably argue that he was above all a research scholar or educator or political activist, each with persuasive evidence. A former student of his once came up with the pat analysis that Kahin had two distinct sides, scholar and activist. It missed the point completely. Kahin drew no lines between the demands of scholarship and those of public engagement or undergraduate and graduate education. They were bound up with one another inextricably by a powerful sense of intellectual and personal responsibility unfettered by anything like a hungry ego. Kahin never hedged on the purposes of knowledge, but assumed that whoever possessed it was obliged to make it useful wherever it might count for the sake of a universal public good. If he was a genuinely capable scholar and teacher, he was also a genuinely moral man with a sense of justice the size of Mt Everest.

The sheer volume of Kahin's work during the last half century seems unlikely for one man, and the variety of it is astonishing. Along with the late John Echols he developed Cornell University's Modern Indonesia Project and the Southeast Asia Program, which drew graduate students from around the world. As director of the CMIP, Kahin sought out promising students, encouraged and supported them, gave advice, not orders, and treated them as colleagues, not underlings. (His courtesy and consideration, as most of his students will attest, knew few bounds; he once talked with John Smail and me for half an hour before either of us understood he thought we should get haircuts before our Ford grant interviews.)

Kahin's scholarship was not flashy or pretentious, but consistently careful, solid, uncluttered, and trustworthy. His first book, Nationalism and revolution in Indonesia (1952), remains a standard work, fifty years later, required reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Indonesia. His essays and articles from the 1950s, and the short book on the Bandung Conference, are still worth reading for what they have to say about Indonesian politics and the problems of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The texts he edited in the early 1960s on Modern Governments of Asia and Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia, largely the work of his students, are long since out of print; nothing since on Southeast Asia matches the quality of the latter, unfortunately.


By the time the Vietnam War began to take shape in the mid-1960s, Kahin, long immersed in America's adventures throughout Southeast Asia, was well prepared to deal with it. He quickly became one of the most active and best known critics of the war, and in some circles is better known in this connection than for his Indonesian studies. At the first national teach-in in May of 1965, Kahin led off for the anti-war position against a stand-in for McGeorge Bundy, who had withdrawn. It was no match. He and John Lewis later wrote The United States in Vietnam (1967, 1969), which helped to define the arguments against the war. A decade later Kahin's book, Intervention: How America became involved in Vietnam (1979, 1986) provided ample detail on the disaster. By then, Kahin had become one of the most persistent critics of American foreign policies in Southeast Asia. Returning to his Indonesian interests, he and his wife Audrey, a specialist in modern West Sumatran history, published Subversion as foreign policy, which related the destructive relationship between the United States and Indonesia from the revolution onwards; another book that will last.

Kahin did not relax much after his retirement from Cornell in 1988, despite serious health problems. At a United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO) meeting in Washington, DC, near the end of 1999, meant to discuss fifty years of American-Indonesian relations, Kahin, then suffering congestive heart failure and more, led off with a paper that was vintage Kahin: detailed evidence, careful analysis, no punches pulled. His friend Soedarpo, about the same age as George, followed suit in supportive comments, making it hard for anyone there inclined to celebrate American contributions.

In an age of self-advertisement and career manoeuvres, not least among academics, Kahin's character isn't all that easy to understand. He grew up in Seattle, the son of a respected lawyer and a mother who taught part-time at the University of Washington, went to one of the city's best private schools, did his undergraduate education at Harvard, a master's degree at Stanford, and his PhD at John Hopkins. He was not an outsider, clearly, but one of those few anywhere who did not choose the obvious route to quiet success. At the start of the second world war, still a student at Harvard, he devoted himself to helping Americans of Japanese descent who were about to be shipped off to internment camps. He never stopped criticising the arrogance, injustices, brutalities, and stupidities of state power, wherever, and spent little time worrying about the consequences for himself. He won honours for his work; he was elected president of the Association for Asian Studies, his books were well reviewed, his colleagues and students admired him, and he made capable opponents sweat. Kahin showed little interest in his own prominence, however, and took in stride the disfavour power visits on critics. During the late 1940s or early 1950s, the American government blocked his passport for a time. The New Order government in Indonesia denied him a visa but also awarded him a medal, which sums up nicely his odd impact in high places.

Daniel S Lev (dlev@u.washington.edu) recently retired as professor in political science at the University of Washington, Seattle.


Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

Latest Articles

Essay: Local tradition in a global religious community in modern day Java

Feb 20, 2024 - LEO BARRY

Ghosts and spirits often come up in conversation but attitudes are changing

Review: Netflix’s ‘Cigarette Girl’ promotes Big Tobacco interests in Indonesia

Feb 08, 2024 - MARINA WELKER

Netflix’s series Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl) romanticises an industry that kills around 290,000 Indonesians each year

Book review: I am that unicorn

Feb 06, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Essay: A movement to remember

Feb 01, 2024 - GHINA TSABITAH

This essay is the first in a new series featuring the writing of and edited by young people.

Obituary: Soni Farid Maulana (1962-2022)

Jan 23, 2024 - IAN CAMPBELL

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.