Stanley Karnow, journalist and historian

By Dru Sefton

Stanley Karnow, whose book Vietnam: A History was the basis of a critically acclaimed 13-hour documentary on PBS, died Jan. 27 at his home in Potomac, Md. He was 87.

Karnow in 1983 at WGBH in Boston. (Photo: WGBH)

Karnow in 1983 at WGBH in Boston. (Photo: WGBH)

“Unlike many books and films on Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s and the nightly newscasts that focused primarily on America’s role and its consequences at home and abroad,” his obituary in the New York Times noted, “Mr. Karnow addressed all sides of the conflict and traced Vietnam’s culture and history.”

The WGBH-produced series Vietnam: A Television History was six years in the making from conception to its 1983 PBS broadcast premiere; Karnow participated in the production as chief correspondent and historical adviser. Its thorough examination of the costs and consequences of the controversial war set a new standard for treatment of historical subjects on public television.

More than a decade after its PBS debut, producers at WGBH edited the original series to 11 hours for rebroadcast on American Experience in 1997. “I was blown away by how well it holds up,” said Margaret Drain, then-e.p. of American Experience, of the process of preparing the series for rebroadcast. “It was very meticulously done.”

After its 1983 television debut, the series won seven Emmys, the George Foster Peabody Award, the duPont/Columbia Journalism Award, the George Polk Award, two Writer’s Guild Awards and the Erik Barnouw Award of the Organization of American Historians.

The duPont/Columbia jurors noted, “These 13 hours of spellbinding, journalistically exemplary television have deservedly been called a landmark in American broadcast journalism and the most important and most compelling documentary series ever made. The power and importance of this series will endure.”

American Experience “owes much” to the series, wrote David Stewart, a former CPB director of international affairs, in a 1998 commentary in Current. Stewart quoted Peter McGhee, a longtime WGBH vice president for national programs: “Television was the means by which a generation was educated about Vietnam. We decided there was a lot [more] American history that fell into that category.” Nearly 10 million viewers watched each episode.

Karnow was born Feb. 4, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Harvard University, leaving during World War II to serve in the Army Air Forces. With funding from the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and at the École des Sciences Politiques in Paris. Karnow’s first media job was in 1950 in the New York Times’ Paris bureau, as a gofer.

He eventually became a Times correspondent, moving to North Africa in 1958 and Hong Kong in 1962. He later worked for the Saturday Evening Post, the Washington Post, NBC News, Time, Life and the New Republic.

His books include Paris in the Fifties (Broadway, 1999); Mao and China: A Legacy of Turmoil (Penguin Books, 1990); and In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (Random House, 1989).

Survivors include children Catherine Karnow and Michael Karnow; a stepson, Curtis Karnow; and two grandchildren.

This article was first published in Current, Feb. 25, 2013.

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