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A Tompkins County Hero - George Kahin

by Caleb Rossiter

(Published in the ITHACA (NY) JOURNAL, May 5, 2000)

It is fitting that as America and Vietnam mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, people in Tompkins County will gather on Saturday at a memorial service for the person who did more than any county resident to end the war ­ Cornell professor George Kahin. All of us owe Kahin our gratitude, especially those of us who were of draft age in the 1960s and 1970s. Without his contribution to the anti-war movement, it is likely that the list in Dewitt Park of the 16 county residents who died in Vietnam would be a lot longer.

As one of America's leading scholars of Asia, Kahin was not content to sit by in his ivory tower in 1965 as America committed its ground troops and its credibility to a war he believed was not only morally wrong, but politically and militarily unwinnable. Kahin and Stanford professor John Lewis published an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, "The United States in Vietnam," describing U.S. opposition to Vietnamese independence as a 20-year project. The article showed how after World War II the United States had funded France in a war to reclaim its colony, and then, after the French defeat in 1954, had created a South Vietnamese government that blocked the national elections that would have brought Ho Chi Minh to power.

This concise history provided the crucial context that was missing from the "Munich" analogy being promoted at the time by the Johnson administration and the media, in which South Vietnam was misleadingly portrayed as a democracy being invaded by a treacherous neighbor. In 1967 the article was expanded into a book and became the essential text for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who were trying to convince their parents, their neighbors, a radio audience, or their government that America's goals in Vietnam weren't worth another American or Vietnamese life.

When I was running for Congress in 1998, I enjoyed telling audiences, especially young people, where I had picked up the preposterous belief that one person could actually change the world. I said that this belief came from being brought up around the Cornell campus, where the professors who came into our house, just regular people who were our parents' friends, were living proof that with knowledge and dedication you could achieve anything. Physicist Hans Bethe ­ he'd helped make the atomic bomb that forced Japan to surrender. The gregarious Fred Kahn ­ he ran the government's airline agency and became a president's top economic adviser. The courtly Arthur Mizener and Mike Abrams ­ they were leading experts on American and English literature. And soft-spoken, gracious George Kahin ­ he'd written the book that helped end the tragedy of the Vietnam War.

One of the treasured moments in my career as a foreign policy activist in Washington, D.C., was having the chance to collaborate with Kahin. He was an expert on Indonesia, and in 1997 he advised me as I helped a coalition of human rights groups craft a bill to link U.S. assistance to an end to military repression in Indonesia and the occupation of East Timor. Passage of this bill by the Republican-controlled House shocked the Indonesian government and played a role in the recent dramatic transition toward democracy in Indonesia and independence in East Timor. As in his earlier work on Vietnam, George Kahin had translated his scholarship into a form that strengthened U.S. national security even as it improved respect for human rights in an Asian country. Perhaps somewhere today there is a young scholar who has been inspired by his example, and is ready to take on his mission. Perhaps that person is right here in Tompkins County.

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