Recently the New Yorker came out with allegations that Stephen Ambrose (famed WWII and Nixon Biographer) exaggerated his contact with Dwight Eisenhower, General of the Army and 34th President of the United States.  {See: Raymer, Richard, “Channeling Ike,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2010.}
The late Dr. Ambrose {1936-2002} was the author of some 25 books during his 40 year career.  He was one of the most popular World War II historians, the writer of Band of Brothers (2001), and the technical adviser to “Saving Private Ryan” Steven Spielberg’s D-Day blockbuster.  Ambrose’s three volume biography of Richard Nixon: {The Education of the Politician [1913-1962](pub.1983), “The Triumph of the Politician [1962-1974](pub.1987)”, “Ruin and Recovery [1974-1990](pub.1991)”} stand out as almost required reading for Nixon scholars.

Towards the end of his prolific career, Ambrose was accused of by his critics, and excused for being a virtual “history factory.”  A Stephen Ambrose Inc. who employed his children as research assistants.  {See: Plotz, David, “The Plagiarist: Why Stephen Ambrose is a Vampire”, Slate Magazine, January 11, 2002.}

The current controversy centers on the beginnings of Ambrose’s association with Ike in 1964.  Ambrose’s account, last stated in To America (2002), was that Eisenhower sought out Ambrose after reading his first book, Halleck: Chief of Staff (1962).  The recently retired Eisenhower was especially interested in Lincoln’s Chief of Staff’s story because Eisenhower was interested in writing a book about George Marshall, the Chief of Staff during the Second World War.  Eisenhower wanted Ambrose to work with him on his papers and finally his biography because he figured that Ambrose would be fair.  {See To America pp. 153-154}

Seven years later a different version of events emerged.  Last year, the deputy director of the Eisenhower Library, Tim Rives was looking for documents and the like for his exhibit on Ambrose’s writing on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Eisenhower’s biography.  Rives discovered letters in the archives of Stephen Ambrose soliciting contact with Eisenhower.  It was Ambrose who sent the Halleck book along to give Ike “the opportunity to see some of my writing.”  Another letter was more forward.  “It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II, I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career.”  The New Yorker article strongly states that Eisenhower never approached Ambrose, but the editor of the Eisenhower papers, Alfred Chandler, took Ambrose to see Eisenhower at Gettysburg.

This isn’t the most serious charge in the article. Although having boasted about hundreds of hours of interviews with Eisenhower, a recent search of the historical record might suggest otherwise.  Rives states that records of Eisenhower’s schedule for the years of 1964-1967 show that Ambrose met with Eisenhower three times, for a total of five hours.  These records show that Eisenhower was somewhere else or in other meetings, during some of the times Ambrose has listed as having an interview with him.

However, to read Ambrose’s writing through his biographies and in his account of his relationship with Eisenhower in Ambrose’s last book, it is difficult to discount Ambrose’s familiarity with his subject.  Eisenhower did write the foreword to Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point, (1966).  “To America” also describes discussions about more mundane things, such as Ike’s recommendations of restaurants in the area.  {p. 161.}   The New Yorker also brings up the point of just how much of Eisenhower’s career in the military and as President could be discussed in five hours.  Perhaps the author relied more on his knowledge of Eisenhower’s papers, and interviews with other principals than his five hours with Eisenhower.  The record only shows a difference in accounts, without displaying the motivation behind it.  Ambrose, like most biographers, never detailed what historical documentation he valued over others.

It is interesting to note that while Dr. Ambrose has dates for the interviews in the book in question Supreme Commander (1970); in subsequent books on Eisenhower such as the two volume biography and the consolidated Eisenhower: Soldier and President (1991), Ambrose only mentions “Interview with DDE” and doesn’t specify a date.  Maybe it is merely a mistake of a young historian who quietly learned his lesson.  We truly cannot know for sure, since the professor isn’t here to tell us.

Stephen Ambrose was no stranger to controversy about his scholarship.  In the recent piece in the History News Network, entitled “How the Ambrose Story Developed,” the articles cites seven Ambrose books that are in possible question for plagiarism.  According to an article in Forbes Magazine, this habit dates back to his Ph.D dissertation, Upton and the Army (1964). {See: Lewis, Mark, “Ambrose Problems Date Back To Ph.D. Thesis,” Forbes Magazine, May 10, 2002.}  Must we factor in these tendencies in our assessment of his historical analysis?

A few famous historians have been called on insufficient citation.  Most notably Doris Kearns Goodman, who had the remaining copies of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987) destroyed, made corrections to future editions, and owned up to the mistakes.  (See: Goodman, Doris Kearns, “How I Caused That Story,” Time Magazine, January 27, 2002.)

What is plagiarism?  According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, (as quoted in Wikipedia) it is the “use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”  My definition is simple.  It is the lifting of another person’s words, then representing them as your own.  When you describe a event in someone’s life that has been described by different authors…then one reaches a grey area of interpretation. How can there not be similarities?  This is illustrated when comparing Ambrose’s account of RNs hospital experience in 1975 in “Ruin and Recovery,” with a similar account 16 years earlier in Robert Sam Anson’s book, “Exile.”  {See Lewis, Mark, “More Controversy For Stephen Ambrose,” Forbes Magazine, January 9, 2002.}  While the examples in the article might be a case of insufficient citation, they do not reach the level of plagiarism.

However, making up dates for interviews is a different plateau of error.  While corrected quietly in future works; the sin of creating interviews in “The Supreme Commander” give the reader a false impression that he was writing with Eisenhower’s perspective. As mentioned earlier, for this latest controversy, Dr. Ambrose isn’t here to offer a defense, reason or excuse.

This whole Ambrose controversy should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us.  It is a reminder to tighten one’s craft.  Plagiarism, insufficient citation, and other errors can be taken care of in the cases of established historians like Goodwin, and Ambrose.  After all, the great publishing houses can repair the damage by correction.  While the established historians would be assessed by the totality of their work; these errors would be fatal to the career of the beginning historian and his or her first book.

Great care and attention must be put towards citation.  In my other vocation in the legal profession, proper citation is a given.  There are legal consequences for failure.  During the plagiarism charges regarding The Wild Blue (2001), Dr. Ambrose wrote on his website, “I tell stories.  I don’t discuss my documents.  I discuss the story.  It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take?  I am not writing a Ph.D dissertation.”  (Quoted from Kirkpatrick, David, “As Historian’s Fame Grows, So Does Attention to Sources,” New York Times, January 11, 2002.)

Fair enough.  While histories and biographies shouldn’t turn into dissertations; we as biographers and historians do write for two audiences.  One is the casual reader of history – who is looking for a good, interesting read without the distraction of footnotes within the text.  Current biographers such as Edmund Morris, Richard Reeves, and David McCullough use source notes at the back of the book rather than footnotes.

The other audience is fellow historians and students of history.  Accurately quoted and cited source materials; whether it is from a secondary source, or an interview, or letter is essential.  Doris Kearns Goodwin put it best when she said: “The writing of history is a rich process of building on the work of the past with the hope that others will build on what you have done. Through footnotes you point the way to future historians.”  (See: “How I Caused That Story.”)  After all, no writer of history or biography wants to jump in the abyss…

For the modern historian without Professor Ambrose’s reputation; the making up of interviews of their main subject would be an unpardonable offence.  With modern technology, there is no excuse for not accurately accounting for all interviews with your subject.  They must be treated and cited like any other document or secondary source material, with the date and place of interview listed.  This includes the extra step of transcribing of all interviews, a process that is invaluable for documentation.

The historical jury is still out on how Professor Ambrose’s scholarship will finally be judged.  In the end, after the author is long gone….the work must defend him.  As our work as historians and biographers must defend us.

Whenever I visit the Nixon Library, I always stop by President and Mrs. Nixon’s gravesite to pay my respects.  Once there, I sense an overwhelming responsibility.  The voice that tells me…  “Get It Right.”

Photo: Stephen Ambrose