This weekend, a new exhibit is opening at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. The opening prompts a reflection on one of the founders of that museum and its former President, historian Stephen E. Ambrose.
Ambrose was a best-selling author of books on Dwight D. Eisenhower and on American military history who advanced an overtly nationalist and politicized view of American history. He became famous as a historical consultant for Saving Private Ryan and the television adaptation of his Band of Brothers, as well as a television commentator on military affairs. His books celebrated American infantry soldiers as well as the United States Army, cementing the popular image of the Second World War as “the Good War.”
Fred Barnes’s review of Ambrose’s The Wild Blue, published in the Weekly Standard, broke the news about Ambrose’s plagiarism in 2002. Ambrose was accused of intentional and serial plagiarism of other historians’ research and writing. PBS reported on the Ambrose case, while Slate and Forbes condemned Ambrose’s plagiarism when allegations first surfaced. The History News Network published a detailed article in 2010 on how the Ambrose plagiarism story gradually developed.
Despite the massive evidence of Ambrose’s plagiarism, he was never punished. The American Historical Association, the national organization of professional historians, does define plagiarism, but has abandoned adjudicating plagiarism cases. Ambrose’s publishers continue to profit from publishing and distributing his popular books, without editing them to quote the passages that he lifted from other authors. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded Ambrose one of its prestigious National Humanities Medals in 1998, has never rescinded the medal and still lists his award statement on the NEH website.
Ambrose has also been accused of outright invention of source material. The New Yorker reported in 2010 on Ambrose’s fabricated interviews of Dwight D. Eisenhower used in his biography of the general. Eisenhower’s son has defended Ambrose, but historians are appropriately troubled by Ambrose’s sloppy or invented interview transcripts. The History News Network published a series of stories on the accusations in 2010.
While the accusations of source fabrication are shocking, the connection of plagiarism with a political agenda should be considered in detail. After all, Stephen Ambrose was cherry-picking juicy passages of text written by others in order to concoct a particular version of history. CBS reported in 2002 that Ambrose was working on a book on “his own transformation from a left-wing demonstrator to a super patriot,” eventually published as To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. This memoir has been perversely recommended as a historical text on some home schooling websites.
Clearly, Ambrose had a blatantly patriotic agenda to enshrine his vision of World War II as the “Good War” in most of his books, questioning their utility and relevance for historians and history students. As a history professor, I would never recommend an Ambrose book or adopt one in any of my courses.
Surely, the National World War II Museum, a museum dedicated to presenting the complex history of the war and educating the public, must want to avoid replicating Ambrose’s blindly patriotic historical vision in its exhibitions.
Read more about the new exhibit at the National World War II Museum in a separate post.