Restless, skeptical, petulant and compulsively inquisitive, to the end.
Stanley Karnow, the journalist and historian who wrote the definitive book on the war, fond of quoting a Chinese proverb: “May you live in Vietnam: A History, was interesting times.” It is actually the first of three curses of increasing severity meant to be heaped upon an enemy. The second is,“May you come to the attention of powerful people.” And the third is, “May you find what you are looking for.”
Karnow not only lived in interesting times, he documented them as few others did, consistently and accurately. He often came to the attention of powerful people, once making President Richard Nixon’s notorious “enemies list.” Upon his death in January at 87, his peers honored him for having found excellence as a journalist and historian that few of his generation had.
The Brooklyn-born Karnow’s immersion in interesting times began slowly. He left college during World War II to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces in the mountains between China and India, as a weather observer and unit historian. He complained that he never heard a shot fired during his war service.
But the interesting times caught up with him in Paris in 1947, after he completed a Harvard degree in European history and literature and worked on the Harvard Crimson. He used his GI bill to enroll at the Sorbonne and later worked at Time magazine’s Paris bureau.From his first stories,Karnow showed a talent for aggressive reporting with vivid details and quotes.He became fluent in French and came to love Parisian culture,its cafes,good wine and its strong Gitanes cigarettes. He married a French woman from a literary family, Claude Sarraute. Years later he wrote Paris in the Fifties,a humorous memoir of the city and the cultural,literary and political figures he met,including a breathless young Audrey Hepburn and a drunken Ernest Hemingway.
Karnow recalled a conversation with Hemingway at the Ritz bar when he asked the famed novelist,“What do you think is the attribute of a good reporter?”Hemingway replied,“What every reporter needs is a built-in bullshit detector.” Karnow rose through the ranks of Time as a reporter and bureau chief in Algeria while tuning his bullshit detector. He became known for not suffering fools gladly and taking a confrontational attitude toward public figures he did not trust.
An early adversary was the enigmatic Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, a CIA agent and adviser to Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem. Karnow later described Lansdale in his book: “Lansdale exuded a brand of artless goodwill that overlooked the deeper dynamics of revolutionary upheavals. He seemed to be oblivious to the social and cultural complexities of Asia.” Lansdale, who tried to have Karnow fired from Time, once said, “Karnow’s reporting must be taken with a grain of salt.”
In 1959, as Time’s Hong Kong bureau chief, Karnow’s love affair with China, Vietnam and the Philippines began. Foreign journalists were barred from China, so Karnow joined the ranks of “China watchers”who analyzed scraps of news coming from the mainland of Chairman Mao’s repressive regime. “Asia gets into your blood, your psyche,” said Karnow. “It was perpetual excitement about its diversity of regional languages and dialects, of cultural traditions and shifting political development.When covering Asia you can be a specialist, but not an expert.”
Karnow went to Vietnam in July 1959 and reported the first American casualties of the new war. Two Army advisers at Bien Hoa, Major Dale Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand, had been killed by Viet Cong while watching a movie.“My dispatch about the incident earned only a modest amount of space in Time—it deserved no more,” Karnow wrote later.“For nobody could have imagined then that some three million Americans would serve—or that nearly 58,000 would perish in its jungles and rice fields. In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war that nobody won—a struggle between victims. Its origins were complex, its lessons disputed, its legacy still to be assessed by future generations. But whether a valid venture or a misguided endeavor, it was a tragedy of epic dimensions.”
Karnow often revealed a lack of reverence for Time’s conservative publisher, Henry Luce. Karnow told of picking Luce up at the airport in Taiwan, where he was to meet with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.Luce was agonizing over some missing luggage.“I think they’ve lost your bags,”Karnow remarked, adding,“It won’t be the first thing they’ve lost.”Luce, a supporter of Chiang, was annoyed by the remark.“Within a year I was no longer working for Time,”Karnow said. He alienated his editors by becoming one of the leading journalists challenging Washington’s view that the Vietnam War was being won. He resigned, moving to The Saturday Evening Post and The Washington Post.
Explaining his transition to book writing, Karnow said: “Good reporters are perennial adolescents—restless, skeptical, petulant and compulsively inquisitive. Rather than retire to a university or a golf course, I began to ponder the idea of shifting to a career in books.”
In 1983 Vietnam: A History was published to accompany the 13-part PBS documentary Vietnam: A Television History.Douglas Pike, an authority on the war, wrote in a 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 series, the highest-rated documentary at the time for PBS, won several awards, including six Emmys, a Peabody and a Polk. Karnow followed that achievement with In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. It would also be used to produce a PBS series.
Andrew Pearson, who worked with Karnow on the PBS documentaries, described him as being as effective in television work as he was in print. “He was a journalist in the best American tradition: Serious about research and gathering insights, liberal politically, practical about how to get work done. The people we interviewed felt so at ease because Stanley knew everything about them he could learn before we did the interviews. They felt respected. TV history at its best.”
In Hanoi for The New York Times in 1990, Karnow met North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap, conducting—in French—the most in-depth interview the general had given to a foreign journalist. At the end of the interview, Karnow wrote: “A typical retired general, Giap now devotes much of his time to revisiting battlefields and addressing veterans. ‘If I had not become a soldier,’ he reflects,‘I probably would have remained a teacher, maybe of philosophy or history. Someone recently asked me if I ever imagined I would fight the Americans. What a question! Did the Americans ever imagine that they would one day fight us?’With that he walked off briskly, leaving me to contemplate the cemeteries, the war monuments and the unhealed memories in France,America and Vietnam, and the terrible price their people paid.”
At a gathering of his Vietnam-era friends a year ago, Karnow told of a late-night call from the just-named U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. “General McChrystal asked me what were the lessons of Vietnam that could be useful to us now in Afghanistan. I told him the first lesson is that we should never the hell have been there in the first place.”
Did the third Chinese curse, “May you find what you are looking for,”become a reality in the life of Stanley Karnow? According to his peers, yes. Upon Karnow’s death, fellow Vietnam reporter Morley Safer of CBS described him 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.”
A friend from the early days, former CBS correspondent Bernard Kalb said, “Stanley has a great line about how being a journalist is like being an adolescent all your life. With Stanley, you have this eagerness to learn, this great capacity to absorb, this phenomenal memory.”
Frank McCulloch, who replaced Karnow as Time bureau chief in Hong Kong in 1963, paid the ultimate compliment a journalist can to a colleague or competitor: “You were not going to beat Stan on a story. You might get something first, but you were not going to beat him. No matter where he was or what he was doing, he did it better than anyone else.”
Don North was a freelance photographer and later staff war correspondent for ABC and NBC in Vietnam for more than four years.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.