A Reputation in Tatters
I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen Ambrose the author of Undaunted Courage, the book that did more than anything, I think, to bring Lewis and Clark back from the dusty corners of American and Western history.
I have a vivid memory of visiting Ambrose at his summer place in Helena, Montana some years ago. It was a treat to be invited into his “office” – if I remember correctly a converted garage – where he wrote and where a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower hung prominently on the wall.
Ambrose was a little on the gruff side, outspoken, but still gracious. He signed a couple of his books for me that day. At least, that’s how I remember it going. Then again, maybe I embellished the memory a little in the interest of making the experience a bit more, well, interesting.
I’ve been questioning my own memory about that meeting since I read, with more than a touch of sorrow, Richard Rayner’s piece in The New Yorker making a very solid case that Ambrose fabricated (embellished, made up, lied about) the level of interaction he had with Eisenhower during the time he was writing the general-president’s biography. Until now, the Ambrose works on Eisenhower have been considered the definitive story of Ike’s military and political career. No more.
Rayner documents, with the help of the meticulous records Ike’s assistants kept, of the very limited amount of time the historian spent with the former president in the 1960’s. Ambrose claimed hundreds of hours. The records show maybe five hours. The documentary evidence even calls into question Ambrose’s oft told story about how he came to write about Eisenhower.
As a result, as James Palmer notes, “everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.”
Those who occasionally check in at this spot know that I am passionate about history. I have come to really disdain what some have called the American propensity for “historical amnesia.” It is a big part – and I don’t believe I overstate the case – of the reason our politics, our political discourse and our understanding of why things are as they are seems so limited so much of the time. A lack of historical perspective failed to inform the country about the dangers of going into Iraq, it recently led a governor of Virginia to proclaim Confederate History Month and forget to mention slavery, it permits a clown like Glenn Beck to get away with equating the Catholic (and other religions) tradition of social justice with “socialism.”
For the most part, Americans don’t know their history. So when popular historians like Stephen Ambrose find a wide following – he sold over 5 million books – a history buff can only rejoice that more people are paying attention. Except, what happens when the work of a popular historian is cast into serious doubt? And, not for the first time, regrettably.
In his OregonLive.com blog, Steve Duin recalls other of Ambrose’s misdeeds and the latest episode calls up his run-in with plagiarism related to his book about bomber crews in Europe during World War II. It is not a pretty record and his reputation as an historian, as they say, lays in tatters.
I have most of the books Ambrose wrote about Eisenhower. Until a couple of days ago, I thought of them as little temples to the times of a very important American. Now I’ll never think of those books the same way again. I’ll remember the kindness of their author, to be sure, but I’ll wonder what compelled him to mix fiction with history, particularly when the true story is so very interesting.
Winston Churchill famously quipped that history would be “kind” to him because he “intended to write it.” And, so he did producing one of the first and most voluminous histories of World War II.
Still, I can read Churchill knowing that what is on the page has been written by a participant in the great events; a participant colored by all his bias and desire to create a legacy and defend his actions. That doesn’t make Churchill’s version of history “bad” history, or less interesting, or without merit. You just know what you’re reading.
I used to read Stephen Ambrose’s words, naively it turns out, as the work of a keen, uninvolved, but still passionate, academically trained searcher for the “truth” in history. No more and that is a real shame.