U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lies, Damned Lies, And Stephen Ambrose: A Warning To The Profession

I just read this New Yorker story thanks to my e-friend and colleague, Kevin Levin. The gist is this: Stephen Ambrose lied, distorted, and embellished his level of personal contact with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in order to make a name for himself. Here are the lies:

(1) Eisenhower didn’t initiate contact with Ambrose, contrary to later stories by Ambrose.
(2) They met 3 times totaling 5 hours, not many times totaling hundreds of hours over 5 years.
(3) Ambrose was never alone with Eisenhower.
(4) Ambrose compounded his lies by distorting the nature and extent of the interviews in subsequent books, polluting the historiography of a generation.

Amazing. But what I find really interesting is that someone from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum didn’t expose this years ago. I mean, Ambrose has been on the list of suspect historians now for about 15-20 years.

I wonder what the most famous fraud or lie is in terms of U.S. intellectual historiography? – TL

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. It’s interesting and instructive to compare the public treatment of Ambrose to that of Michael Bellesisles. If you engage in academic fraud it makes an enormous difference who your friends are and on whose toes you step.

  2. Ben,

    All too true. Or, if you keep the supply chain happy (e.g. archivists, reviewers, the family, the publisher) and develop a reputation it’s amazing how long fraud and lies will go unnoticed/overlooked/undiscovered. I keep coming back to the fact that, in this case, it’s taken THIS LONG for this to be brought to light?

    – TL

  3. What I cannot understand is that Ambrose was not an old-fashioned newspaperman turned popular historian. He had a PhD and was teaching at Johns Hopkins when he began work on the Eisenhower biography. How in the world did this man, with his academic training, so compartmentalize his mind that he evidently came to believe that plagiarism and outright falsification were acceptable?

  4. Jack: Assuming we’re dealing with a rational actor, then this seems to be either an educational or moral defect. Ambrose either was inadequately trained on the nature of plagiarism, or did not agree that plagiarism is stealing (i.e. disagreed with the definition). Otherwise, the amateur psychologist in me says this is some kind of pathology (e.g. Ambrose believed he was above the law (legal or common/natural)). – TL

  5. Perhaps the real danger is that Ambrose dismissed the work of other historians when their books didn’t fit his glowing perceptions. In his rewrite of the once excellent “American Heritage History of World War II” he said there was no evidence of U.S. instigation of Pearl Harbor or advanced warning of the attack — newspapers all over the nation had predicted war with Japan a week before the attack and the FBI had also attempted to warn FDR, who said, confronted with a decoded Japanese diplomatic cable the night before Pearl Harbor — “This means war.” (Michael Sherry handled this superbly) Ambrose also discounted a half-dozen experts to assert that Meriwether Lewis had been murdered to affirm that his death was a suicide. He shrugged off the impact of the Morgenthau Plan on German prisoners after the war, pethaps over-stated by James Bacque but now generally understood to have been at least somewhat lethal…the list is endless.
    John Koster

  6. Stephen Ambrose was chosen to edit the Eisenhower Papers. The Eisenhower family even allowed Ambrose to use the Gettysberg family farm while undertaking this task.
    Stephen Ambrose taught American History at Johns Hopkins University while working on the papers.
    The character assination on this website comes years after Ambrose’s death. Read any of his books (“Undaunted Courage” is my favorite.) Read the footnotes, read about the students who retraced the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Ambrose, helping with the primary research that went into the book; and lastly read about that part of the Snake River which Ambrose and the students found to be very much like it was when Lewis and Clark’s canoed it. Then decide for yourself what kind of a writer, historian, and person Stephan Ambrose was.

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