(b. 4 February 1925 in New York City), journalist, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Far East correspondent, and historian who brought the Vietnam War and East Asian history to life through his writings.
Karnow, born to Harry, a businessman, and Henriette (Koeppel) Karnow, a homemaker, began his writing career in high school, covering sports for his school's newspaper. With a brief interruption to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1946, he continued writing at Harvard University for the student daily, Crimson, until he graduated with a B.A. in 1947. Following graduation Karnow took a summer job in Paris and ended up staying ten years. His GI Bill benefits paid for his study at the Sorbonne from 1947 to 1948 and the Ecole des Sciences Politiques from 1948 to 1949. While he was in Paris, he married Claude Sarraute on 15 July 1948; they divorced in 1955. Karnow also learned to speak French, which helped him secure a job at Time magazine in 1949. He spent the next nine years as a correspondent in Paris. In 1958 he moved to North Africa as Time's bureau head and then became the Hong Kong bureau chief in 1959. He married Annette Klein on 21 April 1959; they had three children.
When Karnow moved to Hong Kong, he began a career that served to define him as an Asia expert not only for the 1960s but for future decades as well. He worked out of Hong Kong for the next twelve years, from 1959 to 1971, serving with Time until 1962 and as a Far East correspondent with the Saturday Evening Post from 1963 to 1965 and the Washington Post from 1965 to 1971. His first cover story for Time, in the March 1960 issue, was an in-depth analysis of Australia's flourishing economy under the leadership of its prime minister, Robert Gordon Menzies. Karnow's coverage of Australia set the tone for his journalistic style—provocative, comprehensive, and sometimes controversial. He was more renowned, however, for his coverage of the two Asian countries at the forefront of American foreign affairs, Vietnam and China.
Karnow reported on the Vietnam War continuously for sixteen years. While most American journalists scrambled to understand the country as U.S. involvement intensified, Karnow was already knowledgeable about the region as a result of his visits there in the 1950s. He had covered the French Indochina War while he was in Paris and had already learned the names of people and places through his study of Vietnamese culture. Karnow's coverage of the war began with the first American casualties. On 9 July 1959 he arrived at Bienhoa, the future site of a major American base, to gather information on two American advisers killed there. The landscape, still largely untouched by war, offered a glimpse of the gravity of the future devastation, with the small military camp an eyesore in the serene countryside. Karnow admitted later that he never imagined the destruction that would follow over the next sixteen years, but he had a feeling that the war would soon dominate American foreign policy.
Journalists in the 1960s did not just report the war, they analyzed policy and strategy and attempted to influence public opinion and, through it, government decision making. Early in the war, Karnow believed that Vietnam was the most pressing concern for the United States when many others did not. During a brief trip to Washington, D.C., in 1961, he interviewed Robert Kennedy about the war. Kennedy responded, "Vietnam? We [President John F. Kennedy's administration] face twenty Vietnams a day." In 1963 Karnow wrote against continued U.S. support of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem, calling Diem the greatest ally the North Vietnamese ever had. Every policy and military operation that Diem implemented resulted in more South Vietnamese becoming sympathetic to the Vietcong. Karnow also understood the importance of learning the culture and history of the region and wrote Southeast Asia (1963), published by Time-Life Books as part of the "Life World Library" series. In his reporting he commented that few Westerners, particularly those in government, attempted to learn about this region. The book offers general information about the culture, geography, history, and economics of the area.
Stationed in Hong Kong, Karnow also covered events in China, a country that grew increasingly important to the United States, particularly as President Richard Nixon attempted to take advantage of Sino-Soviet tensions. In 1964 Karnow published Bitter Seeds: A Farmer's Story of the Revolution in China. From 1966 to 1969 the dominant news event in China was the Cultural Revolution, which Karnow described as the first legitimate attempt at creating a free press in the country. Numerous newsletters, documents, handbills, and radio broadcasts emanated from China during this time with little or no interference from the ruling Communist Party. This information formed the basis for most reports about China in the Western media, but Karnow saw a larger story emerging from the individual pieces. With this larger story in mind, he returned to Harvard in 1970 to work as a research fellow at the East Asia Research Center. In 1972 he published Mao and China: From Revolution to Revolution, a comprehensive look at China's Cultural Revolution. Karnow's writings on China secured a rare invitation for him to accompany Nixon on his historic visit to China in 1972.
Karnow's reporting on Asia in the 1960s earned him several awards, including the Overseas Press Club Citation in 1966 and the 1967 and 1968 annual award for the best newspaper interpretation of foreign affairs, also from the Overseas Press Club. Karnow considered himself a journalist rather than a writer—"journalists are writers, not all writers are journalists"—even when he wrote books. At the time he wrote Mao and China, journalistic histories were becoming more accepted as authoritative, and his work was no exception. Even his few critics, who considered his work shallow because he did not utilize primary source material, applauded his ability to provide a clear look at a complex world event.
Karnow worked as a journalist and syndicated columnist throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1980s Karnow began to see himself as a full-time historian, calling journalism the "first rough, vivid draft of history." Relying on his experiences in Asia, he produced a series of highly regarded histories and documentaries. His works include Vietnam: A Television History (1983), a documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which won an Emmy award in 1984, and Vietnam: A History (1983). His documentary In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines (1989) won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. Later, Karnow produced Asian Americans in Transition (1992) and Paris in the Fifties (1997). On 17 January 2002 Karnow was named as the first recipient of the Shorenstein Award for lifetime work in journalism.
Much about Karnow's life is found in his own writings, especially Mao and China: From Revolution to Revolution (1972), Vietnam: A History (1983), and Paris in the Fifties (1997). An autobiographical essay is in Brian Lamb, Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing and the Power of Ideas (1997). A thorough overview of his life and career is in Contemporary Authors (2001).
Michael C. Miller