The New York-born Karnow launched his career as a foreign correspondent after setting sail for Europe on a coal freighter a week after graduating in 1947 from Harvard University. He subsequently became known for his distinguished coverage of the Vietnam War, first for Time magazine and later for news outlets that included the Saturday Evening Post, The Washington Post and NBC News.
Filing dispatches from the Far East for nearly 15 years — from the earliest days of American casualties in Vietnam — he became one of an elite handful of influential journalists who challenged the official stance in Washington that the United States was easily controlling the “struggle.”
His Emmy-winning 13-part PBS series “Vietnam: A Television History” was one of the most widely viewed public-television documentaries ever when it first aired in 1983; his companion book, “Vietnam: A History,” sold millions of copies and was praised for its insight and comprehensiveness.
“In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,” the book for which he received the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history, earned praise as the best popular history of America’s relationship with the Philippines. Mr. Karnow synthesized three centuries of Filipino foreign relations into what critics described as a compelling read, with vivid portraits of the Spanish, American and Filipino leaders who shaped the country that would be the United States’ only colony.
“It is hard to think of anyone in journalism who has done more, over a longer period, to help Americans understand East Asia,” said Donald Emmerson, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies. In 2002, Mr. Karnow was the first recipient of the Shorenstein Award, a journalism prize given jointly by Harvard and Stanford universities to honor a body of work that illuminates coverage of Asia.
From his first stories out of post-World War II Paris, Mr. Karnow displayed a talent for aggressive reporting with vivid details and quotes. In Paris, he reported on the cultural and political figures who either lived in or passed through the City of Light — a breathless Audrey Hepburn at the beginning of her acting career, for instance, and an intoxicated Ernest Hemingway, who had just won the Nobel Prize for literature.
“Oh, that little Swedish thing,” Mr. Karnow quoted him as saying. “Gave it to the mayor of Havana.”
In 1959, he was sent by Time magazine to the British colony of Hong Kong. No Americans were allowed into China, so Mr. Karnow and other foreign correspondents watched from afar and wrote about what other outsiders were speculating.
Mr. Karnow called Hong Kong at the time a “sleepy colonial backwater”; he had enough time to try to help a restaurant learn how to serve Jewish deli food, he later recalled wryly. The failed venture, he said in speeches, showed how little he knew about the region he was supposed to be explaining to the Western world.