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Stanley Karnow, 1925-2013

Karnow was a veteran and accomplished China-watcher and was one of those featured in segments of the USC U.S.-China Institute's Assignment:China series. Here are excerpts from the series.

January 28, 2013

Stanley Karnow, a distinguished journalist and author who covered Asia for many decades, died on January 27, 2013 at the age of 87. Karnow was particularly known for his work on Vietnam, both as a correspondent for Time magazine and the Washington Post, for a book on the history of the Vietnam war, and a widely acclaimed PBS documentary on the same subject. But he was also one of the most important “China-watchers” of his generation, covering the country from Hong Kong, traveling to China with President Richard Nixon, and writing an important history of the Cultural Revolution.

As the U.S.-China Institute was collecting material for our Assignment: China documentary film series on the history of American correspondents in China, Karnow sat down with U.S.-China Institute Senior Fellow Mike Chinoy for a long interview. Here are some excerpts from the conversation. Karnow was featured in the "China Watching" segment on the 1950s and 1960s and in "The Week that Changed the World" segment on the 1972 Nixon trip to China.

“So here I am reporting from Europe, North Africa and running around covering the Algerian War. As the joke goes, some editor in New York stuck a pin in a map and said, “We need a guy in Hong Kong.” The next thing you know, in 1959, I get transferred to Hong Kong for Time. Now I’m the bureau chief. I’m based in Hong Kong, but I have to cover China and Southeast Asia, so it’s an enormous beat. I do remember vividly arriving in Hong Kong in May of 1959 with my wife and getting off the plane at Kai Tak Airport, and immediately becoming thrilled and absorbed by the smells and sights of Hong Kong.”

“To work in Hong Kong, to cover China for the Luce Publications was a challenge because Henry Luce [the publisher of Time magazine] was a guy with particular ideas about what China was all about, having been born there and being fiercely anti-Communist. But he didn’t interfere too much on a daily basis with the kinds of things I did.”

“Luce was having a love affair with a woman called Lady Jean Campbell. He was married to Claire Luce, but he was having an affair with this woman She was much younger than he was. She was the grand-daughter of Lord Beaverbrook , and she jilted him. In order to recover from being jilted, he decided to go out to Asia on a trip. I was then the bureau chief in Hong Kong and my job was to squire him around. The first visit we had was to go to Taiwan.”

“Now Chiang Kai-shek is in Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek is his great hero. He put Chiang Kai-shek on the cover of Time magazine a number of times, with Madam Chiang and so forth. We go to Taiwan. We have an appointment to have dinner with Chiang Kai-shek the night we arrive. We go to the Grand Hotel and the baggage has not arrived at the hotel. The reason, of course, is we flew in, and when we got out of the airport in Taipei, some handler came and took us in a limo and took us to the hotel. We didn’t know where the baggage was. So here’s Luce and he’s fretting and pacing around, very nervous. He says to me, “Do you think they lost the baggage?” To which I said, “Well they lost the mainland didn’t they?”

“You could not have a serious conversation with Luce about China. But I do remember one thing that he said, which at the time I thought was really idiotic, but in retrospect I’m not sure it was so idiotic. He said to me once, “You know this Communism in China can’t last. “He says, ”The Chinese are natural capitalists, it’s not going to last, it’s not going to last.” Of course at that time I thought he was absolutely out of his mind, but in retrospect he wasn’t so wrong.”

“Now [starting in 1962] I was working for the Washington Post in Hong Kong. This requires a different kind of tempo from Time. Now you’re working for a daily newspaper, so it’s a 24-hour-a-day job. First thing I do was I got all my sources. Journalism is all access, sources. There’s a guy in the graveyard shift at Reuters, so I pay him. “Mr. Wong, call me if there’s anything hot.” So the phone next to my bed rings at four o’clock in the morning and Mr. Wong gets on the phone, he says, “very important story from Beijing.”
“What is it? “

“Mao Zedong says America should get out of Panama.”

“Thanks a lot, Mr. Wong, goodbye. Go back to sleep.”

But here’s China-watching. You’re working twenty-four hours a day. We have bodies floating into Hong Kong after the Great Leap Forward. I used to go to Macau, where you had hospices run by religious groups and they would pick up refugees and take care of them and they would let me interview the refugees. I got a lot of good stories out of them.”

“You’re gathering all this stuff. I had an assistant at one time, he was a Hong Kong kid. I said, “Put on some scruffy clothes and go over to Canton and come back and tell me what’s going on there.” So he comes back with whatever he could pick up, you know, all the turmoil in Canton.“

“So here’s the Cultural Revolution, it starts off and the Red Guard papers start coming in. The U.S. Consulate is translating the Red Guard papers and giving me copies of the translations. Then you have the FBIS [Foreign Broadcast Information Service- transcripts of Chinese broadcasts prepared by the U.S. government.] You have two types of FBIS – you have the public FBIS and you have the classified FBIS. And the classified stuff was very good. A lot of the classified stuff was translations of the Red Guard papers.”

“Then, there were the intelligence sources. For example, there was an American intelligence plane that flew up and down the China coast, and there was a guy in that plane. He was a source of mine. And they would be taping Chinese messages into China. Internal Chinese messages - they were monitoring all that stuff. So all that flow of material was coming. You got absolutely swamped by material, much more than any newspaper guy could possibly handle. You had to whittle it all down, figure out what’s important and what’s not important.”

“And also, you’re gathering string for something that might not seem like a story today, but might eventually turn out to be a story. And with all that, you had to use your imagination. It’s very peculiar. Here you are sitting in Hong Kong, covering these vast places, like sitting in Bermuda covering the United States. You’re outside of it, you’re not inside of it.”

“When I first went to Hong Kong, you had to be careful because the CIA guys were also trying to plant stories. This is the attitude of CIA guys, - now I [Karnow] am working for the Washington Post. The President of the United States is going to pick up the Washington Post and read it at breakfast. The guy in the CIA- if he sends it [his analysis] back through channels, it’s like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. If he leaks it to a reporter, the president is going to read it at breakfast the next morning. Now the reporter has to be very careful. He doesn’t want to end up being a conduit for the CIA guy, but on the other hand, he knows that the CIA guy has a lot of information that is very valuable. So what happens is, over time, you develop a relationship with the CIA guy in Hong Kong or wherever you are.”

“When we lived in Hong Kong, everybody was a part of the same…we were all a part of the family, the China watching family. The wives knew each other. The kids knew each other. You know you went to the beach with everybody, dinners with everybody. My wife would go crazy – “can’t you guys talk about something else besides China?”

 "I’ll show you the list with Nixon’s handwriting running through my name 'absolutely not.'"

“Who was going to go on the [1972) Nixon trip? Naturally, the [Washington] bureau chiefs are going go. Or you’re a White House correspondent. The China watchers, they don’t want China watchers on the trip. The White House correspondent for the Post comes up to me and says, “ this is my story but I’m going defer to you because you know more about it than I do” Not many guys would have done that. (But) Nixon doesn’t want me on the trip because I’m working for the Washington Post and he doesn’t like the Washington Post. So I’ll show you the list with Nixon’s handwriting running through my name 'absolutely not.' I’m on (Nixon’s) enemies list from my reporting from Vietnam.”

“What Nixon really wanted was a television extravaganza. He didn’t want print reporters. He didn’t care about print reporters. He cared about television. He wanted a television extravaganza. It had nothing to do with China watching. On the contrary, the least they wanted was any probing into what was going on in China. They wanted to make it a Nixon trip.”

“Now one of the things they’re trying to do during the China trip is they don’t want the press probing around. The least they want is the press to know anything about anything. We’re not getting briefed or anything. So what they do is they send out buses and they take the reporters like we’re a bunch of school kids to look at the sights. I remember we ended up at Beijing University, with some of the officials there. I asked a question about Nie Yuanzi [聂元梓, a prominent Cultural Revolution activist.] So you’re at the table with them and you start asking questions. “What ever happened to Nie Yuanzi?”

“Mr. Karnow have you tried this squab, the Sichuan squab?” They kept ducking every question.”

Stanley Karnow poses for a picture with President Nixon and the other journalists on the historic 1972 China trip.