Stanley Karnow, more than a mentor: Column

Thuan Le Elston
View Comments
Annette and Stanley Karnow celebrate his birthday in 1999 jointly with 1-year-old Hanh-Thien, held by parents Bob and Thuan Elston.

Fall 1994. I was a twenty-something who, out of curiosity, had returned to Vietnam, my birthplace. The phone rang at the apartment where my fiancé, Bob, and I were living above a bakery in Saigon. When Bob said I wasn't home, the caller said that he was on a reporting assignment, and that a mutual acquaintance had suggested contacting me. He identified himself as Stanley Karnow.

"Stanley Karnow?" Bob asked. "The Stanley Karnow whose Vietnam book is being pirated and sold here?"

Stanley got a big kick out of the idea. President Clinton had just lifted the postwar trade embargo, and a lot of American companies and tourists were flocking to the communist nation. Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it fell to the communists in 1975, was hosting a gold rush of capitalists and sentimentalists alike. Most of the expats living there needed books to help navigate this new frontier, and Stanley's even-handed, definitive Vietnam: A History was the bible for many of us.

That evening, after Bob and I met Stanley and his wife, Annette, we took them to a shop and found pirated copies of Vietnam. Stanley leafed through them and marveled that someone had meticulously photocopied his 768-page book from cover to cover and bound it. We introduced the store owner, who promptly asked Stanley to autograph several copies. The Pulitzer Prize winner signed them with glee, joking all the while about his copyright.

That's my first memory of Stanley, his generosity and his wicked sense of humor, which bonded our families through two decades of friendship. Annette, an artist and a former U.S. diplomat, died of cancer at the age of 81 in 2009, and I still wasn't over missing her when on Sunday, Stanley passed away from heart failure. He would have been 88 on Feb. 4.

What I learned

The Karnows were generous mentors. After Bob and I married and moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1997, they invited us to their home in nearby Potomac, Md. We thought they were just being polite. But one visit turned into many, and we couldn't get enough of the stories from Stanley's remarkable career as a correspondent-turned-historian.

To get a quick on-the-ground insight into the recent turmoil in Algeria, just read Paris in the Fifties, his memoir about being a Time magazine correspondent covering Western Europe and North Africa, just as Algeria was shedding French colonization.

Algeria was also where Stanley met Annette, a U.S. cultural attaché. They married in 1959 and moved to Hong Kong. That July, he visited South Vietnam for the first time and filed a dispatch about two Americans who were the first to die in what would become the Vietnam War. Stanley later wrote in his book: "Nobody could have imagined then that some 3 million Americans would serve in Vietnam -- or that more than 58,000 would perish in its jungles and rice fields. ... More than 4 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides -- roughly 10% of the entire population -- were to be killed or wounded."

The first time I heard the name Stanley Karnow, I was a high school senior in Phoenix, where my family had resettled after escaping the fall of Saigon in 1975. Eight years after the war ended, Stanley's series Vietnam: A Television History was airing on PBS, and it stirred up Vietnamese refugee communities all across America. They held protests against the documentary and accused Stanley of being too kind to the communist regime in Hanoi.

I didn't even pick up the companion book until after college, but it was the first book about the war that I didn't want to throw across the room precisely because I thought most of the others were too admiring of Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh fighters.

Stanley's Vietnam: A History was different. It included interviews with Vietnamese exiles and American leaders, diplomats and veterans, of course. But he also had returned to Vietnam in 1981 to interview communist officials as well as anybody brave enough to talk to him, a decade before Hanoi would reopen the country. The result was a frank assessment of the failures and missed opportunities on both sides. Even the names of the book's chapters provided exactly what I was looking for: The War Nobody Won. Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt. The Peace That Never Was.

The book helped relieve a lot of anger I had felt about the war. Ignorant decisions made by a few big people in Saigon, Hanoi and Washington resulted in the sacrificed lives and freedom of millions of little people. Including my family's. Stanley's meticulous storytelling of all three sides of the war -- my birthplace South Vietnam, the communist North Vietnam and the United States -- showed me how to forgive but never forget.

This is not to say I agreed with Stanley on everything about Vietnam. Actually, we disagreed at a very basic level.

In 2009, I read this in The New Yorker: Richard Holbrooke, then a U.S. emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan, "couldn't stop invoking the war of his youth. From Kabul, he called the journalist Stanley Karnow, an old friend, and put him on the phone with Gen. Stanley McChrystal to discuss the lessons of Vietnam." But the magazine article never said what the historian thought the lessons were. The next time we visited Potomac, I asked Stanley what he told the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. "Well, that we never should have been in Vietnam in the first place," he answered.

Stanley had arrived in Vietnam in 1959 fully supportive of the fight against communism. But soon, what he witnessed and wrote in his news dispatches helped change his opinion, as well as that of the American public. That war shaped how he felt about sending U.S. troops anywhere, be it Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran. If he were still alive, he'd say stay out of Syria, Libya, Algeria and Mali.

I can't speak for a child from any of those countries. But as a refugee who fled Saigon when I had just finished third grade, I see someone in the mirror who hasn't changed her mind, someone who still thinks the U.S. should have been in Vietnam in the first place, someone who can't forget that the leaders of both South and North Vietnam sacrificed their people out of vanity.

An annual tradition

Early in our friendship with the Karnows, our eldest son was born, and his birth date -- Feb. 4 -- pretty much guaranteed that every year, we'd throw a party to celebrate both Hanh-Thien's and Stanley's birthdays. Stanley, born into a Jewish family in 1925 in Brooklyn, N.Y., would grin and call our Vietnamese-American son 73 years his junior "my twin brother."

The last time I visited Stanley was last month. He had been getting weaker and wasn't driving anywhere anymore. I brought him my mother's Vietnamese chicken rice soup. After lunch, I showed him Facebook photos of my recent trip to Vietnam with Bob. Stanley hadn't been there for years, and he didn't know what to make of all the new skyscrapers. He stared extra long at our photo of the historic Continental Hotel, a French colonial icon in Saigon where, on the veranda, he and Annette used to share tea and cocktails. Bob had taken the photo at night, so the Continental was all lit up. "It looks too new," Stanley said. "All those lights. It used to be beautiful."

His old Vietnam is gone, and now so is he. Our family will miss you, Stanley. Your friendship was beautiful.

Thuan Le Elston, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is a member of USA TODAY's Editorial Board. She also had a speaking role in Oliver Stone's Vietnam War movie Heaven and Earth.

View Comments