Stanley Karnow, the award-winning author and journalist who wrote a definitive book about the Vietnam War, worked on an accompanying documentary and later won a Pulitzer for a history of the Philippines, died Sunday morning. He was 87.
Karnow, who had congestive heart failure, died in his sleep at his home in Potomac, Md., said son Michael Karnow.
A Paris-based correspondent for Time magazine early in his career, Karnow was assigned in 1958 to Hong Kong as bureau chief for Southeast Asia and soon arrived in Vietnam, when the American presence was still confined to a small core of advisers. In 1959, Karnow reported on the first two American deaths in Vietnam, not suspecting that tens of thousands would follow.
Into the 1970s, Karnow would cover the war off and on for Time, The Washington Post and other publications and then draw upon his experience for an epic PBS documentary and for the million-selling “Vietnam: A History,” published in 1983 and widely regarded as an essential, even-handed summation.
Karnow’s “In Our Image,” a companion to a PBS documentary on the Philippines, won the Pulitzer in 1990. His other books included “Mao and China,” which in 1973 received a National Book Award nomination, and “Paris in The Fifties,” a memoir published in 1997.
A fellow Vietnam reporter, Morley Safer, would describe Karnow as the embodiment of “the wise old Asian hand.” Karnow was known for his precision and research – his Vietnam book reaches back to ancient times – and his willingness to see past his own beliefs. He was a critic of the Vietnam War (and a name on President Nixon’s enemies list) who still found cruelty and incompetence among the North Vietnamese. His friendship with Philippines leader Corazon Aquino did not stop him from criticizing her presidency.
A salesman’s son, Karnow was born in New York in 1925 and by high school was writing radio plays and editing the school’s paper, a job he also held at the Harvard Crimson. He first lived in Asia during World War II when he served throughout the region in the Army Air Corps. Back in the U.S., he majored in European history and literature at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1947.
Enchanted by French culture, and by the romance of Paris set down by Americans Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, Karnow set out for Europe after leaving school not for any particular purpose, but simply because it was there. “I went to Paris, planning to stay for the summer. I stayed for 10 years,” he wrote in “Paris in the Fifties.”
He began sending dispatches to a Connecticut weekly, where the owner was a friend, and in 1950 was hired as a researcher at Time. Promoted to correspondent, he would cover strikes, race car driving and the beginning of the French conflict with Algeria, but also interviewed Audrey Hepburn (“a memorable if regrettably brief encounter”) fashion designer Christian Dior and director John Huston, who smoked cigars, knocked back Irish whiskies and rambled about the meaning of Humphrey Bogart. Friends and acquaintances included Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and John Kenneth Galbraith.
Karnow’s first book was the text for “Southeast Asia,” an illustrated Life World Library release published in 1962, before the U.S. committed ground troops to Vietnam. It was partly a Cold War time capsule, preoccupied with Communist influence, but was also skeptical enough of official policy to anticipate the fall of a key American ally, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dihn Diem, an event that helped lead to greater American involvement.
Like so many others, Karnow initially supported the war and believed in the “domino theory” that asserted one country’s embrace of Communism would lead to others doing the same. But by war’s end, Karnow agreed with the soldier asked by a reporter in 1968 what he thought of the conflict: “It stinks,” was the reply.
“Vietnam: A History” was published in 1983 and coincided with a 13-part PBS documentary series. Like much of his work, Karnow’s book combined historical research, firsthand observations and thorough reporting, including interviews with top officials on both sides of the war. Decades later, it remained read and taught alongside such classics as David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” and Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”
“There are not many carefully delineated judgments in the book. But that is more a comment than the criticism it might be, for Mr. Karnow does not claim to have reached a sweeping verdict on the war,” Douglas Pike, a former U.S. government official in Vietnam who became a leading authority on the war, wrote for The New York Times in a 1983 review.
“Because he has a sharp eye for the illustrative moment and a keen ear for the telling quote, his book is first-rate as a popular contribution to understanding the war. And that is what he meant it to be.”
The PBS series won six Emmys, a Peabody and a Polk and was the highest-rated documentary at the time for public television, with an average of 9.7 million viewers per episode. Along with much praise came criticism from the left and right. The liberal weekly The Nation faulted Karnow for “little analysis and much waffling.” Conservatives were so angered by the documentary that PBS agreed to let the right-wing Accuracy in Media air a rebuttal, “Television’s Vietnam: The Real Story,” which in turn was criticized as a show of weakness by PBS.
Karnow completed no books after “Paris in the Fifties.” He attempted a study of Asians in the U.S., which he abandoned; a history of Jewish humor that never advanced beyond an outline; and a second memoir, with such working titles as “Interesting Times” and “Out of Asia.” He also cared for his ailing wife, Annette, who died of cancer in 2009. A previous marriage, to Claude Sarraute (daughter of French novelist Nathalie Sarraute), ended in divorce in 1955. Karnow had three children.
He was often called on for speeches, panel discussions and television appearances and asked for his opinions on current affairs. One query came in 2009, through his old friend Richard Holbrooke, at the time the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. Holbrooke wanted advice on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and put Karnow on the phone with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander. Karnow and the general discussed similarities between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam.
“What did we learn from Vietnam?” Karnow later told the AP. “We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”