Journalist was 'wise old Asian hand'
Stanley Karnow, an award-winning author and journalist who worked on a definitive book and television documentary about the Vietnam War and later won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of the Philippines, died on Sunday morning. He was 87.
Karnow, who had congestive heart failure, died in his sleep in his home in Potomac, Md., said his 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 dates 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 newspaper, 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.
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.”
Karnow 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.
He 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.