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Archive for Sunday, December 13, 2009

Out of Asia’: Vietnam historian recalls ‘interesting times’

December 13, 2009

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Journalist Stanley Karnow is shown at a 2009 memorial in Washington for American soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1959.

Journalist Stanley Karnow is shown at a 2009 memorial in Washington for American soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1959.

— Stanley Karnow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and longtime foreign correspondent, is trying to think of a good title for a planned memoir.

One candidate: "Interesting Times."

"You know what the Chinese curse is? 'May you live in interesting times,"' he says.

Interesting times: covering the war in Vietnam, from the first Americans killed, in 1959; traveling to China for President Richard M. Nixon's 1972 visit; Karnow's friendship with Corazon Aquino, who in the 1980s became president of the Philippines and an international heroine.

For now, he has settled on "Out of Asia" as a title, a tribute to a book he admires, Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa," and a concise summary for the author of one of the defining texts on the Vietnam War, and a Pulitzer winner in 1990 for "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines."

Karnow has not published a book since "Paris in the Fifties," a memoir that came out in 1997. The silence was unplanned. He tried writing a history of Asians in the United States, but decided that an Asian was more suited for the job. He attempted a book on Jewish humor, "a marvelous book," but never advanced beyond an outline.

He also had personal reasons. His wife, Annette, became ill with cancer and Karnow spent the last few years caring for her. Annette Karnow, an artist and diplomat, died in July.

So at age 84, Stanley Karnow, whose round, sad eyes brighten when he tells a favorite story, has been going through papers and writing on a computer in his cellar, a place he calls "Santa's Workshop."

"Working on the book is my therapy," he says.

Memories fill the screened porch where Karnow sits on a sunny morning, looking out on the swimming pool out back. He has seen the world and brought some of it back, whether the wooden mythical bird from Indonesia, the wall hangings from Bali or the lamp base shaped out of a Chinese wine jug.

Karnow is still called upon - if not always heeded - by those seeking lessons from the past. He has a friend in the Obama administration, Afghanistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and spoke briefly last summer to Holbrooke and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

"He (McChrystal) calls me and asks if there was anything I learned in Vietnam that we could use in Afghanistan," Karnow says. "Well, I didn't have a long conversation with him, but I did say if we're going to talk about Vietnam, what we really learned in Vietnam is that we shouldn't have been there in the first place."

He watched President Barack Obama's announcement at West Point that an additional 30,000 troops would be sent to Afghanistan. He was impressed by the speech, but says he's still "skeptical whether anything is going to work." Karnow likes Obama and worries he could become a one-term president.

"I hope it's not a banana peel," he says of the Afghanistan conflict.

Atypical correspondent

Karnow is a Jewish boy ("totally secular") from Brooklyn, N.Y., with a street-wise suspicion of double-talk and a scholarly pull for facts. When he takes on a subject, he stays with it. His Philippines book starts in the 16th century; his Vietnam work goes back to ancient times. His memoir about Paris includes digressions about taxes, restaurants, the guillotine and the Devil's Island penal colony.

"Stanley has a great line about how being a journalist is like being an adolescent all your life," says Bernard Kalb, the former CBS newsman whose friendship with Karnow dates back to when both were based in Southeast Asia. "With Stanley, you have this eagerness to learn, this great capacity to absorb, this phenomenal memory."

He was born in 1925, the son of a salesman and grandson of a precinct captain for then-New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. By his teen years, he was engaged politically - selling silver paper from cigarette boxes to raise money for Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War - and a dedicated follower of the news.

"The idea of being a journalist always attracted me," he says. "We were great newspaper readers at home. ... New York had about 15 newspapers and my father would come from work with all of these newspapers under his arms and sit there and read his favorite columnists."

He was a sports columnist for his high school newspaper, wrote radio plays and enrolled in the University of Iowa. Bored in the Midwest ("Zilchville," he remembered it), he followed friends' advice and got accepted to Harvard University, majoring in modern European history and literature.

As Karnow writes in "Paris in the Fifties," he lit out for France after finishing school, planning to stay for the summer and remaining for a decade, much of it reporting for Time magazine. In the late 1950s, he was assigned to Hong Kong as the Time and Life bureau chief for Southeast Asia, a part of the world he first saw during World War II (he served in the Army Air Corps). He reported into the 1970s - for Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post and The Washington Post.

"He wasn't a typical correspondent," says Karnow's close friend and Harvard classmate Anthony Lewis, an author and former New York Times columnist. "Journalists have short attention spans. We drop into a country, we write about it and we move on. That wasn't the pattern with Stanley."

Essential reading

His first book was the text for "Southeast Asia," an illustrated Life World Library release published in 1962. Anticipating an event that would help lead to greater American involvement, Karnow wrote that South Vietnam's autocratic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was in danger of "being overthrown in a coup d'etat."

A year later, Diem was deposed.

By the 1970s, Karnow was ready to take on full-length works and step back from reporting. His "Mao and China: From Revolution to Revolution" was a National Book Award finalist in 1973. A few years later, while vacationing in Nantucket, Mass., he began chatting on the beach with then-PBS President Lawrence Grossman, who was seeking a writer for a program about Vietnam.

Grossman recalls Karnow agreeing to put together an outline for $1,000. Karnow said the price was $4,000, or a month's rental for the historian's Nantucket house.

"He (Grossman) said, 'You got it,"' recalls Karnow, who served as chief correspondent for the PBS documentary. "I've got my old typewriter from my bar mitzvah there, and the next thing you know, we're doing a blockbuster series."

Grossman, who now helps run the Digital Promise research and educational project, cited several reasons for asking Karnow to collaborate. He was smart, knowledgeable and fair-minded, even as Grossman never doubted that Karnow thought the war a mistake.

"It's not that he didn't have a point of view. It's just that he didn't let his opinions override whatever he was reporting," Grossman says.

Aired in 1983, the 13-part "Vietnam: A Television History" was widely praised as thorough and objective and won a career's worth of prizes, including six Emmys, a Peabody and a Polk. Karnow's companion book has sold more than 1 million copies, remains widely taught and is often ranked alongside such classics as Michael Herr's "Dispatches" and David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" as essential reading about the war.

Minor turned major

Karnow speaks of his life as a narrative of seemingly minor events turning out to be major, whether reporting on the first American deaths in Vietnam, having no idea thousands more would follow, or enduring his graduation ceremony at Harvard in 1947. The speaker was then-Secretary of State George Marshall, "rattling on," Karnow recalls, about some aid package for Europe.

"So there I am ... thinking, 'How the hell am I going to get out of here?' My parents were there. How am I going to get away from my parents?" he says. "I had a date with my girlfriend and it was hot and the speaker system was awful."

The girlfriend didn't last, but the commencement address lingered on: It was the unveiling of the Marshall Plan.

Interesting times.

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