As Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) focuses on a region of the world that was among the most volatile in the decades following World War II, it was inevitably caught up in many of the conflicts over foreign policy that raged among American academics and policy makers during that period. The Program was founded in the early years of the Cold War, when American interest centered not only on the Soviet Union but also on the perceived threat of the new Communist government in China and the fear that communism would spread southwards to the former colonial countries of Southeast Asia. In the 1960s, Washington’s focus on the region became even more intense as the United States became directly and massively involved, both politically and militarily, in the countries of Indochina.
The Program was established in 1950, when the Rockefeller Foundation, aware of the region's growing importance in international affairs, became interested in sponsoring research and teaching on East and Southeast Asia. A Southeast Asia Program headed by Raymond Kennedy, a historian working on the Netherlands Indies, had already been established at Yale with Carnegie funds. But C. Burton Fahs, who headed Rockefeller's division on Asia and was himself a Japan historian, felt that the Yale program should have competition and believed that another program focusing principally on mainland Southeast Asia should be established at some other university. Cornell was a natural candidate, for over the previous decade, Lauriston Sharp, a young anthropologist working on the Thai peoples, had been fostering Southeast Asian studies there. Sharp had joined Cornell's faculty in 1936 and soon became the first chairman of the university’s newly established Department of Anthropology and Sociology. In early 1945 Sharp was called to Washington and spent over a year as assistant director of the Southeast Asia Division of the State Department, where he was shocked to discover the scanty knowledge of Southeast Asian countries on which American policy toward the area was based. In 1947, a year after Sharp's return from Washington, the Carnegie Corporation awarded Cornell a grant for advanced work in anthropology, and with his share of these funds Sharp established the Cornell Thailand Project focusing on "the study of the social and psychological effects of technological change" in rural Thailand.
During the Program's first three years of operations it succeeded in spreading Cornell's coverage of Southeast Asia from Thailand alone to virtually every major country of the region except for the Indochinese states, with special emphasis on Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines. Indonesia became a major focus of graduate research after George Kahin joined the Program in 1951 and became its executive director, and when in 1952 John Echols, a specialist on language and linguistics, who had prepared the first Indonesian language program for the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, also joined the Program and took a central role not only in language teaching but also in developing the library’s holdings on Indonesia and Southeast Asia as a whole. Recognizing Cornell’s strength on modern Indonesia, the Ford Foundation, in early 1954, decided to fund a project at Cornell under Professor Kahin’s direction, focused on Indonesia’s government and politics. In 1953, Frank Golay, an economist working on the Philippines, who had been serving in the international division of the Federal Reserve Board, also joined the Program, extending its coverage geographically and to another discipline. These four men —Sharp, Kahin, Echols, and Golay — formed the core of the program as it developed during the 1950s and beyond.
One of the major reasons that the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell outpaced those being established at other universities was that, from the beginning, Sharp and Kahin insisted on lodging all Program faculty in a discipline department, ensuring that all PhD students studying the area receive their degrees in a discipline, with only a minor in Southeast Asian studies. At the same time Lauriston Sharp and his colleagues emphasized two other major priorities: developing a language program that offered as wide as possible a coverage of the major Southeast Asian languages; and, on the basis of the already-existing Wason Collection on East Asia, building up a library collection adequate for teaching and research and, if possible, of a sufficiently high quality to make Cornell a world center for scholarship on Southeast Asia. Because of the paucity of teaching materials on Southeast Asia, they also stressed the importance of creating original language texts and of distributing the preliminary results of the students' field research through a speedy and cheap series of publications produced by the Program and by the Modern Indonesia Project.
This is an excerpt of Audrey Kahin's SEAP Bulletin article from 2007, "Growth and Crisis: Cornell Southeast Asia Program's First Two Decades."
Photo: David Wyatt, Frank Golay, John Echols, George Kahin, and Giok-po Oey (curator) celebrate in the newly named John M. Echols Collection, 1977.
The Southeast Asia Program mourns the loss of Professor Emeritus Benedict Anderson, 1936 - 2015. A compilation of the many eloquent pieces that have been written in Ben's honor have been gathered and can be found on: https://seap.einaudi.cornell.edu/benedict-anderson-memorials