Stanley Karnow, Journalist and Historian of Vietnam, Dies at 87

AP Photo, Jacquelyn Martin

Stanley A. Karnow
February 04, 2013

Stanley A. Karnow, a nationally acclaimed author and journalist whose seminal books about Vietnam and the Philippines during times of war have been taught in many college classrooms, died in Potomac, Md., on January 27. He was 87 and had been suffering from congestive heart failure.

For more than a decade and a half, Mr. Karnow worked in Southeast Asia as a correspondent for Time, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The London Observer, The Washington Post, and NBC News.

In 1983, Mr. Karnow published a 750-page book, Vietnam: A History, that focused primarily on the United States' role in that country. Mr. Karnow's work was praised for its straightforward and thoughtful account of a war that began with an attack on a French garrison in 1954 and ended in 1975, soon after the final withdrawal of U.S. service members.

"It remains the most readable overview of U.S.-Vietnamese interactions," said Glenn May, a University of Oregon history professor who has taught Mr. Karnow's book in a course on the history of Vietnam. "What set Karnow apart from academic historians was that he could tell a story."

Mr. Karnow also worked on a 13-part PBS documentary that accompanied the book. That series, Vietnam: A Television History, won six Emmy Awards.

"It was balanced and thoughtful," said Michael H. Hunt, a professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mr. Hunt said the series "tackled a lot of key issues that even today we think about," such as capturing the viewpoints of multiple sides in a war.

Born in New York in 1925, Mr. Karnow launched his career as a journalist soon after serving in the Army Air Corps in Asia during World War II. He studied European history and literature at Harvard, where he graduated in 1947. Mr. Karnow was also a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1958 and won several awards, including the Shoren­stein Prize for his reporting in Southeast Asia.

Early in his career, Mr. Karnow worked as a correspondent for Time magazine in Paris. In 1958 he was assigned to serve as bureau chief for Southeast Asia in Hong Kong. He arrived in Vietnam in 1959, at the beginning of the U.S. military presence there, the same year the first Americans were killed in an attack.

In his popular book on the conflict in that country "there was a kind of passion and sense of place that a lot of later academics sort of lost or repressed in one way or the other," Mr. Hunt said. The journalistic approach "made it a very good first-cut history."

Later in his career, Mr. Karnow turned his attention to the Philippines and won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines. The book also spurred a PBS documentary, The United States and the Philippines: In Our Image. Mr. Karnow narrated that three-part series.

Mr. Karnow said in a 1989 interview with NPR about the book that "journalists are historians" and that journalism is history "written under pressure."

"What I try to do, and I've now in this book and in earlier books, is to try to write history as if it were contemporary, as if it were happening. As if I was a reporter in 1898 reporting on Dewey sinking the Spanish fleet," Mr. Karnow said in the interview.

Mr. May, who specializes in the history of the Philippines, said Mr. Karnow's work on the subject was an "impressive and engaging volume."

"Some academic historians dismiss him as a popularizer," Mr. May said, "but there are invariably scholars who are incapable of reaching a large audience."