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Interesting times, indeed, for Stanley Karnow

The historian and journalist reflects back on a career covering some of the 20th century's biggest stories: the Vietnam War and Nixon's visit to China, among them.

January 08, 2010|By Hillel Italie

Reporting from Potomac, Md. — Stanley Karnow, a 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 a global 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 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 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.

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 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 Forces). He reported into the 1970s -- for Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post and the Washington Post.

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