Stanley Karnow dies at 87; author of epic Vietnam history

Stanley Karnow, an award-winning author and journalist who combined insightful reporting with personal accounts and historical sweep in books on the Vietnam War and the Philippines and the critically acclaimed public television series that accompanied the works, died Sunday at his home in Potomac, Md. He was 87.

Karnow had congestive heart failure and died in his sleep, said son Michael Karnow.

A former correspondent for Time, the Washington Post and other publications, Karnow was one of the first U.S. journalists to report from Vietnam in the late 1950s, when American involvement in South Vietnam was still confined to a small group of advisors. He reported on the first two U.S. deaths in Vietnam, not suspecting that tens of thousands would follow.


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His coverage of the war spawned an epic PBS documentary series and his bestseller “Vietnam: A History,” published in 1983. Even-handed and thorough, it remains a definitive work on the unpopular war.

His next book was “In Our Image,” which examined the U.S. presence in the Philippines through history’s long lens, starting in the late 1800s when Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish navy at Manila Bay. It included his accounts of the country’s strong-fisted leader Ferdinand Marcos and his colorful wife, Imelda, as well as martyred opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., and Aquino’s widow, Corazon. The companion PBS series aired in 1989, and in 1990 Karnow won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

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.

Once described by Vietnam reporter Morley Safer 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. A critic of the Vietnam War who was on President Nixon’s enemies list, he still found cruelty and incompetence among the North Vietnamese. His friendship with Philippines leader Corazon Aquino did not stop him from criticizing her presidency.

The son of a machinery salesman and his Hungarian wife, Karnow was born in New York on Feb. 2, 1925. As a teenager he wrote radio plays and edited his high school newspaper. At Harvard, he studied European history and literature and wrote for the Crimson.

During World II he was posted to Asia, where he spent much of his service living in the mountains between China and India as a weather observer, cryptographer and unit historian in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After returning to Harvard to earn his degree in 1947, he moved to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and married Claude Sarraute, the daughter of experimental novelist Nathalie Sarraute. “I went to Paris, planning to stay for the summer. I stayed for 10 years,” he wrote in “Paris in the Fifties.”

His marriage to Sarraute ended in divorce in 1955. His second wife, Annette, died of cancer in 2009. He is survived by three children.

Karnow’s journalism career began with dispatches to a Connecticut weekly, which led, in 1950, to Time hiring him as a researcher. Promoted to correspondent in1950, he covered strikes, auto racing 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.

In 1958 he was assigned by Time to Hong Kong as bureau chief for Southeast Asia and soon began covering Vietnam. Like so many others, he initially supported the war and believed in the “domino theory,” which asserted that if South Vietnam were to fall to communism its neighbors would too. But by war’s end, he agreed with the soldier asked by a reporter in 1968 what he thought of the conflict: “It stinks” was the reply.

The publication of “Vietnam: A History” coincided with a 13-part PBS documentary series, aired in 1983 when the book was released. Decades later, the book has remained essential, read and taught alongside such classics as David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” and Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”

“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,” 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.

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. 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.” But Karnow’s appraisal of the war did not change.

“What did we learn from Vietnam?” Karnow later told the Associated Press. “We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”