11 July 2009

Interview: Stanley Karnow, Part I

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
Washington, DC, 8 July 2009
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

Stanley Karnow has enjoyed the kind of career that makes other journalists seethe with envy and non-journalists gape with astonishment. To that essential asset of good luck (being in the right place at the right time), he has added a powerful mind, lively prose, peppery conversation, and a tough, thoroughly winning personality. Name a nation, and he’s been there when history was made; name a field of endeavor, and there’s hardly a major figure of the second half of the 20th century with whom Stanley hasn’t locked horns or broken bread. And he knows everything — everything — worth knowing. There are few things I’m as proud of, as the fact that he consents to speak to me.

Following military service in South Asia in World War II, Stanley gravitated toward Paris, where he began reporting for TIME Magazine. His assignments took him to North Africa, and the Algerian War, then back to Asia. His coverage of the United States war in Southeast Asia led him to write what has become one of the standard texts on the subject, Vietnam: A History, which was joined by an acclaimed television series on PBS. His many books include In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and Paris in the Fifties, a memoir.

Stanley and I sat down at his home in Maryland on 9 July. The day before, he had spoken at a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first American deaths in the Vietnam conflict, Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand. Stanley himself had reported that story, from the scene, in 1959.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

WVM: The event yesterday — I was thinking about it. You reported on the first American deaths, 50 years ago this week, and every phase of the war after that; and you wrote the book about it. People turn to the book because they’re looking to get a grasp on this war that is sprawling and slippery and seems ungraspable. Is there anything about it that you haven’t grasped yet?

STANLEY KARNOW: Yeah. There are a few things, when you look back on the war. One was, from the Communist point of view, why they didn’t at certain points try negotiations with the United States. There were a couple of opportunities where they might have tried negotiations. I’ll give you one example, in April 1965, Lyndon Johnson proposed that the Mekong River Valley be turned into another [Tennessee Valley Authority]: dams, hydroelectric plants, and so forth. And that would serve all of that part of Southeast Asia. And he invited Hanoi, the Communists, to come and participate in it. They turned him down. Lyndon Johnson was very surprised. You know, Lyndon Johnson was basically a Texas politician — he thought those guys up in Hanoi were like Texas ward-heelers. He kept saying, “Oh, old Uncle Ho [Chi Minh] can’t turn me down!” But they turned him down.

That was a big mistake on their part. They must have known the United States was going to put combat troops into Vietnam — which Lyndon Johnson did the following July. It seems to me that if they’d have agreed to come into the negotiations over this T.V.A. project, that they would have forestalled the entry into combat troops. And it’s a bit of a mystery to me. I can’t seem to get my finger on why they turned him down. I’ve asked various people, but I can only conclude from my own experience with them, [why] they turned him down.

One of the reasons, I think, was that they were very suspicious of diplomacy. These guys in Hanoi, these Vietnamese, they had no idea what diplomacy was all about. They had been double-crossed at the Geneva Conference of 1954, when they were forced to take — to partition Vietnam. They had to make a deal with the French. They had expected that all of Vietnam would come under their control, but they were forced to take a divided, partitioned Vietnam. Oddly enough, it was the Russians and the Chinese who forced them to do that, because the Russians and the Chinese at that point wanted to improve their relations with the West. The Vietnamese negotiator at that conference told me much later, he said, “We were betrayed by our comrades.” And they were. They were very suspicious of diplomacy. They didn’t know very much about it.

So I think that this turning down Johnson was a failure. So that’s one thing that I think — if you went back and looked at the war — we might have avoided getting as deeply involved as we did.

But I don’t know, I think I pretty much covered all of the bases and the whole story.

So there aren’t really that many questions still in your mind?

There were other opportunities, when I look back, we maybe could have avoided the war. But with that book — and I did a television series — I think I pretty much got it right. There’s always going to be something we can go back and look at, with historical events. Thurber wrote a piece one time, that if Grant had been sober at Appomattox and Lee had been drunk [laughter], Grant would have surrendered to Lee. So with anything — you know, if Washington had only done this, things would have been different.

Commemorating the deaths of Buis & Ovnand
Washington, DC, 8 July 2009
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

I think for a lot of people the big question about Vietnam is exactly — how could it have been avoided, how could it have been stopped?

Well, the way it could have been stopped in the very beginning was not to get involved. In the very beginning, one of the reasons we got involved in Vietnam is that the French were going to war to retrieve their colony, in 1945, ’46. Roosevelt had said before he died that he didn’t think that any colonies should be given back, or certainly the French colonies should not be given back to the French. But when Truman took over, he was very anxious to get the French to agree to German rearmament. And the French were then getting involved in their war to retrieve their colony in Indochina and Vietnam, and they wanted American help. So he agreed to help the French. And in fact, we paid for it: 85 percent of the French war. It was $57 billion, in the days when $1 billion was worth something. So we really were in the hole, and we got ourselves involved. You had these speeches, like Eisenhower saying that by helping the French, we were helping to stop the spread of Communism, and so on and so forth.

The French were defeated, at the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in May of 1954. And they had to leave. Then there was the danger that Communists in the North, once they had defeated the French, would take over all of Vietnam. So therefore, Vietnam was partitioned, and we really got ourselves involved. Now, in the course of getting involved, there were moments when it looked like the Communists might take over. Or it looked like some factions in the South might have favored some sort of neutrality for the South and come to terms, make deals with the North. That scared a lot of people in Washington, when you go back to the Sixties. The idea of a neutral South Vietnam scared them, because they said, if it’s neutral, then that’s only a step away from its becoming Communist. And so the idea of a Communist Vietnam anathema, going back to the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy administration, Lyndon Johnson, and so forth.

Now, when you look back, in retrospect, so what? Who cares that it’s Communist today? Communism is a dead issue. And the Vietnamese, even though it’s a Communist regime, they’re really anxious to do business with the United States. You have lots of Vietnamese coming to America to study, and Americans going to Vietnam to do things. So Communism is dead anyway. What’s taken over the world from the so-called Marxist revolution has been the consumer revolution. When I gave a lecture one time in Hanoi, a few years ago, I wanted to talk about the war. The kids weren’t interested in the war. They were interested in Michael Jackson, hi-tech, and so on and so forth. They didn’t care about any — most of them of course were too young to remember the war, though all Vietnamese lost people.

There’s still the idiocy that — you go back to the original Marxist thesis, and there will be a “worldwide revolution,” and “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Nonsense, in retrospect. The proletariat wasn’t interested in dictatorship. The proletariat was interested in makin’ money and buyin’ cars. Communism and Socialism never took any root in the United States. Workers joined labor unions to get better pay. I mean, there were some really attractive Socialists, in American history, guys like [Eugene V.] Debs and so forth. But they didn’t make much impact in America.

Noted Authority: Interviewed by the Pentagon Channel.
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

Standing back a little bit — again, struck yesterday by the talk — you covered the war first a reporter, and second as a historian. You’ve kind of worn two hats.

Reporters are historians. The time frame is different. Reporters have deadlines. They have to get their stories out. You know, the old cliché is that journalism is the first rough draft of history.

Do you believe that that cliché is true?

Yeah, in a way. We reporters would report stuff that then became — you know, we were wrong a lot of the time, but historians go back to old newspapers. Good historians do. And there’s some crappy stuff in newspapers, but there’s some really marvelous stuff. If you go back, for example, and read old issues of Harper’s Weekly. Now, Harper’s Weekly covered the Civil War, in great detail.

They were the ones who published Matthew Brady’s pictures, right?

Yes, and there were lots of etchings, and engravings, and whatnot. The Philippine–American War, the Spanish–American War. They had these images, either copies of them or the originals. The reporting was terrific. So — reporters were historians on deadline. That’s what they were. As I say, in many cases wrong. What you thought happened one day really didn’t happen that day. You had to go back to see what really happened. What motivated people to do things that you thought they were motivated to do.

Are there traits that you have as a reporter that you feel you have to suppress when you’re writing history?


Something that you feel you need to turn off a little part of your brain and say, “Now I’m doing this”?

No, no. There are thousands of reporters. There are smart reporters, and there are dumb reporters. There are. Smart reporters who have bad days; there are dumb reporters who have good days. You can’t generalize. I mean, this notion about “The Press,” as if it’s a monolith, is totally wrong. I’ve been in situations where you’d see 500 reporters at some news conference, in Vietnam or Washington. Some people understood, some were too lazy. Too lazy to follow up on what they had. You know, it’s like any other profession. There are good and bad doctors, good and bad lawyers, good and bad journalists.

You as a reporter, or me as a reporter, had to — first of all, had to be well-educated. Had to be extremely curious, filled with curiosity. Had to know what was going on. Energetic, to be able to follow up on things. And not be just content to take the handouts. One reporter just lived on handouts!

This is an interesting thing, because you were a Harvard graduate but went into journalism, and you were really sort of the first wave of Ivy League-educated journalists.

No, no. You go back to the Twenties and Thirties, there were well-educated journalists.


I mean, I had to learn my trade. And I made a lot of blunders. I got a lot of things wrong. There was one terrible, curmudgeon editor at The New York Times, called Lester Markel. And I had to do a story one time on some project of his. He was in Paris, on some project; it may not have been to do with The New York Times. I’ve forgotten what it was, exactly. I was then sort of a young reporter, a leg man for TIME Magazine. And my editors said, “Go over there and see what that’s all about.” So I go over there, and I see this guy Markel. And I say to him, “Mr. Markel, can you tell me what this project is all about?”

And he said, “You see that table outside? It’s covered with literature about our project. Have you read any of that?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “I’ll tell you, young man. You go out and read, and when you have an intelligent question to ask me, you come back.”

With his daughter, Catherine
Used with Permission©

That was a great lesson. I was mortified, but it was a great lesson. He was absolutely right. I didn’t do my homework.

I learned from those things that you have to do homework. You have to — to be endowed with skepticism. I was sitting at the Ritz Bar with Hemingway, and I asked him, “What do you think is the attribute of a good reporter?”

And he said — one of those phrases he probably used a hundred times — he said, “What every reporter needs is a built-in bullshit detector.” Nice phrase. And that’s what you do, you do need it. A horse-shit detector. It’s always amazing to me how many reporters just swallow that stuff.

I think we just saw the need for that in the build-up to the Iraq War.

The build-up to the Iraq War was like the build-up to the Vietnam War, filled with deceptions and lies.


Coming Up: Stanley Karnow remembers Paris in the Fifties.

At home: Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission


Anonymous said...

Nicely done -- wonderful seeing you!

Anonymous said...

Reporters most emphatically are not historians. Historians have the advantage of exploring numerous primary and secondary sources and reconstructing events based on an intelligent reading and distillation of all the different -- often conflicting -- accounts and schools of thought. A reporter's perspective is considerably more limited: "I was walking down the street, and I saw X, Y, and Z . . ."

I have studied the Vietnam War and its aftermath for years, and I think the answer to one of the questions raised in this interview is obvious. The war could have been truncated, if not altogether avoided, by an overwhelming strike on Hanoi, instead of our foolhardy effort to win by chasing guerrillas through the jungles, and by removing civilians from villages, which necessarily alienated and angered a population whose entire way of life was based on Confucian precepts such as reverence for one's ancestors and the land they made fertile.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Rick --

Thanks for your analysis of the war. As for your assessment of the distinctions between journalists and historians, I'm intrigued -- because as I move from day-to-day reporter to biographer, the question interests me directly. (That is in fact why I raised it.)

Yet I suspect that Stanley Karnow's perspective, being that of one who has pursued both lines for far longer than either of us, will be of greater interest to other readers and of greater value in general than any comment you or I could make.

Anonymous said...

You're an intelligent person. Do you really believe that? That no matter how much I study the subject throughout my life (and I'm 37 years old), I will never have any grounds to challenge what he's said about the war?

-- Rick