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January 28, 2013

Vietnam reporter-historian dies at age 87

NORMAN — Stanley Karnow, the award-winning author and journalist who wrote a definitive book about the Vietnam War, worked on an accompanying documentary and later won a Pulitzer for a history of the Philippines, died Sunday morning. He was 87.

Karnow, who had congestive heart failure, died in his sleep at his home in Potomac, Md., said son Michael Karnow.

A Paris-based correspondent for Time magazine early in his career, Karnow was assigned in 1958 to Hong Kong as bureau chief for Southeast Asia and soon arrived in Vietnam, when the American presence was still confined to a small core of advisers. In 1959, Karnow reported on the first two American deaths in Vietnam, not suspecting that tens of thousands would follow.

Into the 1970s, Karnow would cover the war off and on for Time, The Washington Post and other publications and then draw upon his experience for an epic PBS documentary and for the million-selling “Vietnam: A History,” published in 1983 and widely regarded as an essential, even-handed summation.

Karnow’s “In Our Image,” a companion to a PBS documentary on the Philippines, won the Pulitzer in 1990. His other books included “Mao and China,” which in 1973 received a National Book Award nomination, and “Paris in The Fifties,” a memoir published in 1997.

A fellow Vietnam reporter, Morley Safer, would describe Karnow as the embodiment of “the wise old Asian hand.” Karnow was known for his precision and research — his Vietnam book reaches back to ancient times — and his willingness to see past his own beliefs. He was a critic of the Vietnam War (and a name on President Nixon’s enemies list) who still found cruelty and incompetence among the North Vietnamese. His friendship with Philippines leader Corazon Aquino did not stop him from criticizing her presidency.

A salesman’s son, Karnow was born in New York in 1925 and by high school was writing radio plays and editing the school’s paper, a job he also held at the Harvard Crimson. He first lived in Asia during World War II when he served throughout the region in the Army Air Corps. Back in the U.S., he majored in European history and literature at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1947.

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