Journalist and historian Stanley Karnow dead at 87

The Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent, author, historian, and documentarian died Sunday at the age of 87.

Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist who produced acclaimed books and television documentaries about Vietnam and the Philippines in the throes of war and upheaval, died on Sunday at his home in Potomac, Md. He was 87.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said Mr. Karnow’s son, Michael.

For more than three decades Mr. Karnow was a correspondent in Southeast Asia, working for Time, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The Washington Post, NBC News, The New Republic, King Features Syndicate and the Public Broadcasting Service. But he was best known for his books and documentaries.

Karnow was one of a crop of print journalists whose reporting during the Vietnam War pointed out the discrepancies between the upbeat statements of the U.S government and military, and the far more complicated and less sundry reality on the ground.

In 1959, Karnow arrived in Vietnam when for the U.S involvement in the country was still in its infancy with no airstrikes, the jungles untouched by defoliant, and no combat troops on the ground. Even then Karnow  saw the folly of the U.S throwing its backing behind a series of ineffectual and corruption riddled  governments of South Vietnam.

Moreover Karnow, through his reporting,his book ‘Vietnam: A History’, and ‘Vietnam: a Television History’ the highly acclaimed 13-part PBS documentary series it spawned helped Americans understand the culture of  the country as well as its history at a time when few Americans could even find the country on a map. Karnow’s work involved much more than speaking with political and military leaders or covering the latest skirmish between U.S and North Vietnamese forces. Through his interviews and encounters with soldiers and supporters of both the south and North as well as the sizable population of civilians and refugees who were caught in the middle.

In later years Karnow was vexed by  neoconservatives and other ‘revisionists’ who despite America’s victory in the larger cold war clung to the ‘domino theory’ and maintained the war could have been won had America stayed the course  longer.

Recently, in an attempt to justify the U.S. commitment, a featherweight group of neoconservative think-tankers (few of whom have any firsthand experience of either the country or the war) has begun rattling 30-year-old sabers, alleging that America broke its “word of honor” to its ally, asserting that the war could have been won and reviving the dubious domino-theory thesis that the war was necessary to halt the Soviet Union’s global aspirations. This revisionist wave has been successful in landing its exponents on talk shows. It has been far less successful at convincing most experts. This is not surprising, for it has little basis in fact.

During his last years Karnow continued his work, writing a book ‘In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines’ about the U.S occupation and annexation of the Philippines early in the twentieth century that was later adapted into another PBS documentary, and an autobiography ‘Paris in the Fifties’, among others. People would sometimes ask him what he learned from U.S involvement in Vietnam by those such as General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the U.S led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF)  in Afghanistan where America and others are  still  fighting insurgents  and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan.

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 with 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 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.

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