The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and his wife gave my family a history of friendship we won't forget.

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.

Journalist Stanley Karnow who wrote definitive history of Vietnam War dies age 87

Respected: Stanley Karnow's 'Vietnam: A History' is still seen as one of the most comprehensive histories of the Vietnam War
Respected: Stanley Karnow's 'Vietnam: A History' is still seen as one of the most comprehensive histories of the Vietnam War
Stanley Karnow, the award-winning author and journalist who wrote a definitive book about the Vietnam War, worked on an accompanying documentary and later won a Pulitzer for a history of the Philippines, died Sunday morning. He was 87.
Karnow, who had congestive heart failure, died in his sleep at his home in Potomac, Maryland, said son Michael Karnow.
A Paris-based correspondent for Time magazine early in his career, Karnow was assigned in 1958 to Hong Kong as bureau chief for Southeast Asia and soon arrived in Vietnam, when the American presence was still confined to a small core of advisers. 
In 1959, Karnow reported on the first two American deaths in Vietnam, not suspecting that tens of thousands would follow.
Into the 1970s, Karnow would cover the war off and on for Time, The Washington Post and other publications and then draw upon his experience for an epic PBS documentary and for the million-selling 'Vietnam: A History,' published in 1983 and widely regarded as an essential, even-handed summation.
Karnow's 'In Our Image,' a companion to a PBS documentary on the Philippines, won the Pulitzer in 1990. His other books included 'Mao and China,' which in 1973 received a National Book Award nomination, and 'Paris in The Fifties,' a memoir published in 1997.
A fellow Vietnam reporter, Morley Safer, would describe Karnow as the embodiment of 'the wise old Asian hand.' Karnow was known for his precision and research - his Vietnam book reaches back to ancient times - and his willingness to see past his own beliefs. 
He was a critic of the Vietnam War (and a name on President Nixon's enemies list) who still found cruelty and incompetence among the North Vietnamese. His friendship with Philippines leader Corazon Aquino did not stop him from criticizing her presidency.
A salesman's son, Karnow was born in New York in 1925 and by high school was writing radio plays and editing the school's paper, a job he also held at the Harvard Crimson. He first lived in Asia during World War II when he served throughout the region in the Army Air Corps. Back in the U.S., he majored in European history and literature at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1947.
Enchanted by French culture, and by the romance of Paris set down by Americans Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, Karnow set out for Europe after leaving school not for any particular purpose, but simply because it was there. 'I went to Paris, planning to stay for the summer. I stayed for 10 years,' he wrote in 'Paris in the Fifties.'
Exhaustive: Karnow's book is expansive, meticulously-researched and accurate
Exhaustive: Karnow's 1997 book is expansive, meticulously-researched and accurate
He began sending dispatches to a Connecticut weekly, where the owner was a friend, and in 1950 was hired as a researcher at Time. 
Promoted to correspondent, he would cover strikes, race car driving and the beginning of the French conflict with Algeria, but also interviewed Audrey Hepburn ('a memorable if regrettably brief encounter'), fashion designer Christian Dior and director John Huston, who smoked cigars, knocked back Irish whiskies and rambled about the meaning of Humphrey Bogart. Friends and acquaintances included Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and John Kenneth Galbraith.
Karnow's first book was the text for 'Southeast Asia,' an illustrated Life World Library release published in 1962, before the U.S. committed ground troops to Vietnam. 
It was partly a Cold War time capsule, preoccupied with Communist influence, but was also skeptical enough of official policy to anticipate the fall of a key American ally, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dihn Diem, an event that helped lead to greater American involvement.
Like so many others, Karnow initially supported the war and believed in the 'domino theory' that asserted one country's embrace of Communism would lead to others doing the same. But by war's end, Karnow agreed with the soldier asked by a reporter in 1968 what he thought of the conflict: 'It stinks,' was the reply.
'Vietnam: A History' was published in 1983 and coincided with a 13-part PBS documentary series. Like much of his work, Karnow's book combined historical research, firsthand observations and thorough reporting, including interviews with top officials on both sides of the war. 
Decades later, it remained read and taught alongside such classics as David Halberstam's 'The Best and the Brightest' and Michael Herr's 'Dispatches.'
'There are not many carefully delineated judgments in the book. But that is more a comment than the criticism it might be, for Mr. Karnow does not claim to have reached a sweeping verdict on the war,' Douglas Pike, a former U.S. government official in Vietnam who became a leading authority on the war, wrote for The New York Times in a 1983 review.
'Because he has a sharp eye for the illustrative moment and a keen ear for the telling quote, his book is first-rate as a popular contribution to understanding the war. And that is what he meant it to be.'
Full life: Karnow lived in Paris for ten years and worked in Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong and China
Full life: Karnow lived in Paris for ten years and worked in Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong and China
The PBS series won six Emmys, a Peabody and a Polk and was the highest-rated documentary at the time for public television, with an average of 9.7 million viewers per episode. Along with much praise came criticism from the left and right. 
The liberal weekly The Nation faulted Karnow for 'little analysis and much waffling.' Conservatives were so angered by the documentary that PBS agreed to let the right-wing Accuracy in Media air a rebuttal, 'Television's Vietnam: The Real Story,' which in turn was criticized as a show of weakness by PBS.
Karnow completed no books after 'Paris in the Fifties.' He attempted a study of Asians in the U.S., which he abandoned; a history of Jewish humor that never advanced beyond an outline; and a second memoir, with such working titles as 'Interesting Times' and 'Out of Asia.' 
He also cared for his ailing wife, Annette, who died of cancer in 2009. A previous marriage, to Claude Sarraute (daughter of French novelist Nathalie Sarraute), ended in divorce in 1955. Karnow had three children.
He was often called on for speeches, panel discussions and television appearances and asked for his opinions on current affairs. One query came in 2009, through his old friend Richard Holbrooke, at the time the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. 
Holbrooke wanted advice on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and put Karnow on the phone with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander. Karnow and the general discussed similarities between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam.
'What did we learn from Vietnam?' Karnow later told the AP. 'We learned that we shouldn't have been there in the first place.'

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Talking shop: Director Le Phong Lan (second right) and Pulitzer-winner Stanley Karnow (left) in Virginia, USA. — Photo courtesy VTV