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Remembering Journalist Stanley Karnow


Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, whose best-selling book "Vietnam: A History," was the basis of an acclaimed public television documentary series, died Sunday at the age of 87. His work as a foreign correspondent was centered in southeast Asia, where he spent more than three decades, starting in 1959 when he began his reporting from Vietnam.

Terry interviewed Karnow in 1989 about a subsequent book which chronicled another major American involvement in Southeast Asia titled "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines." The book won a Pulitzer Prize for history and was also the basis of a PBS documentary series which Karnow narrated.

The Philippines was a Spanish colony in the 19th century, but the U.S. annexed the country following the Spanish-American war and a bloody conflict with Filipino nationalists. For much of the early 20th century, the Philippines remains under American control. Karnow describes his period as America's only major colonial experience. He told Terry the American involvement was rooted in an entirely different conflict that began in Cuba during a period of tremendous American growth.

STANLEY KARNOW: The United States at the end of the in the closing decades of the 19th century was booming economically, industrializing very quickly, we had waves of immigrants coming to the United States adding to the labor force. It was a tremendously dynamic period in American history. And there was one faction in the United States in Washington, the imperialist faction, composed of people like Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Lodge of Massachusetts and others, who felt that we had to project this enormous industrial power abroad, that we had to go forth and become a world power.

There was another faction consisting of people like Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon, who said no, that's not the thing to do. The thing to do is stay at home. We have no business going and projecting our power abroad.

There was a very sharp debate over what to do and suddenly you had this rebellion in Cuba. The Cubans are rebelling against Spanish rule. And the Cuban lobby in the United States - there was a Cuban propaganda machine in the United States which was very, very effective supported by American interests, sugar interests, that had plantations in Cuba.

And through a series of accidents - and history is so often a series of accidents - we went to war with Spain over Cuba. The president of the United States at the time, William McKinley, was a conspicuously indecisive man who couldn't make up his mind. And he kind of got railroaded into the war.

The Philippines was a Spanish possession. Theodore Roosevelt, who was a young assistant secretary of the Navy, secretly ordered Commodore Dewey, who had a small squadron in Asia, to attack the Spanish fleet. And Dewey did. He sank the Spanish fleet in seven hours on May 1, 1898. Soon after, the Spanish surrendered and then everyone said, well, what are we going to do with these islands?

And McKinley couldn't even locate them on the map. After much debate, McKinley decided to annex, to keep the Philippines. And there we were. We got involved. And again, it's so typical of history in my estimation, that things that start out, events that start out accidentally, start out as expedience, start out as diversions - as this was - suddenly become dogmas. And we find ourselves stuck in this place, committed to this place. And so we have to begin to justify it. And the justification became one of: we will go in there and we will convert these people to our way of life.


You've described the Philippines as the United State's only major colonial experience. Now, we've had relationships with other foreign countries where we have exploited the country for our own benefit. But do you think our experience in the Philippines explains why that was our only major colonial experience?

KARNOW: The actual acquisition of territory began in 1899 when we went to war to conquer the country from a Filipino nationalist movement that had declared independence. And it was a very bloody war. It lasted for two and a half years. Something like 200,000 Filipinos were killed, most of them civilians. I think that when that was over, the atrocities of that war that were reported in the American press turned off Americans on territory conquest.

True, we have since tried to dominate countries politically or economically, overthrow their governments, manipulate their leaders - all the things that super powers do in smaller countries. But the public taste for the actual acquisition of territory, I think, was very much turned off. There is an anti-colonial tradition in the United States, having been a colony ourselves.

I don't think people were entirely comfortable with it during that conquest. And they weren't entirely comfortable with having a colony. It's interesting that the American officials in the Philippines from the very start, the turn of the century, never referred to themselves as colonial officials.

We never had a colonial office. We had a euphemism for it. We called it the Bureau of Insular Affairs, whatever that means.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KARNOW: The idea of being a colonial in the British or French sense never entered the heads of Americans. They thought they were there to do good. They were almost there as secular missionaries in a sense.

GROSS: You describe your new book as history written by a journalist. Do you think that journalists write history from a different perspective than historians do? And I'm wondering even if when you studied history when you were either in college or in high school, if there were things that didn't come to life that you've tried to bring to life as a journalist.

KARNOW: Journalists are historians. In a way, when you're working for a daily newspaper and you sit down at the end of the day to file your story about what happened during that day, you are in a sense a historian. If you work for a weekly, it's the same. The deadline's different. Macaulay, the British historian, once said that journalism is history under pressure, written under pressure.

What I try to do, and I've now in this book and in earlier books, is to try to write history as if it were contemporary, as if it were happening. As if I was a reporter in 1898 reporting on Dewey sinking the Spanish fleet.

DAVIES: Stanley Karnow speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1989. Karnow died Sunday. He was 87. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan considers the legacy of Jane Austen on the bicentennial of the publication of "Pride and Prejudice." This is FRESH AIR.

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