Eisenhower and My Father, Stephen Ambrose
The recent accusation that the late historian Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose, the author of numerous national bestselling books, was guilty of “fabricating” a relationship with former President Eisenhower has left readers to ponder its meaning. An examination of the evidence reveals a few mistakes which, while regrettable, hardly outweigh a towering legacy: through decades of scholarship, Ambrose pioneered the evaluation of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s career as a general and as a president.
In early 1964, at the start of his career Steve Ambrose (my father), accepted a prestigious appointment as a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and as the Associate Editor of the Eisenhower Papers. The latter job involved combing through thousands of documents encompassing Eisenhower’s distinguished career to create a multi-volume reference work for use by scholars. At the end of 1964 Ambrose had a meeting with Eisenhower.
Thirty years later, my father often said that the meeting had come about because Eisenhower had read one of his books, about a Civil War general named Henry Halleck, and had thought so highly of it that he had called the young historian to determine his interest in writing a history of his service as the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. The story contained an unfortunate exaggeration, since it is clear that Ambrose initiated the idea of writing the book in a letter to the president.
The story’s main point, however, is true. Before their first meeting on December 14, 1964, Eisenhower replied on October 19 to the young historian’s letter. The president liked Ambrose’s approach because “From the nature of your suggestion I recognize that your interest is only in the truth. This, together with the confidence I have derived from your work by reading your two books—especially the one on Halleck—give the reasons why I should be ready to help out so far as I can.” In short, the president had taken the measure of Stephen Ambrose and had decided to trust him to write his military biography.
The relationship between the former president and Ambrose lasted for several years. In their written correspondence, the historian asked detailed questions and Eisenhower gave substantive replies. These letters indicate that they also spoke on the phone. On at least one occasion Eisenhower encouraged Ambrose to “give me a ring.” The two men also met at the president’s home in Gettysburg. How many times they actually met is in dispute. Six discrepancies between the president’s schedule and Ambrose’s footnotes exist. As proof that the daily schedule was sacrosanct, an archivist at the Eisenhower Library recently claimed that Eisenhower’s “full schedule demanded that anyone wanting an appointment with him needed to begin the process months ahead of time.” In February 1967, though, three years after their relationship began, the president instructed Ambrose: “If you will call Miss Brown in my office I think we could set up an engagement on twenty-four hours notice.”
The six discrepancies (in a book containing 1,153 endnotes) remain a problem and the critics have made the most of them. Based upon some records that he acknowledged are spotty, the archivist proffered his opinions about what Eisenhower may have or may not have told Ambrose. The reporter, who wrote the story about the archivist’s allegations, included these speculations to prove that Steve Ambrose “fabricated” his relationship with Eisenhower. The reporter, however, admitted to me later that he had not examined all the evidence—he published what he had before someone else beat him to the punch.
The career of Stephen Ambrose deserved better. Two years after they met, Eisenhower wrote a forward for Ambrose’s book, Duty, Honor, Country, in which the former president praised his scholarship. Having one of the world’s most respected and popular men add his name to the cover of one’s book is the kind of thing all young historians covet, even though prominent historians of the day ranked Eisenhower’s importance near the bottom of the list of U.S. presidents.
An equally important contribution came a year later, in 1967, when Eisenhower read the draft of Ambrose’s first work to emerge from his years of research: Eisenhower and Berlin: 1945. In it, Ambrose began a reassessment of General Eisenhower’s handling of the end of the war. Ambrose challenged assertions made by the eminent historians John Toland and Cornelius Ryan. This was big time scholarship for a young historian. He was moving from assembling Eisenhower’s papers to interpreting them. General Eisenhower went through the manuscript line by line, writing notes in the margins. “I have written them very frankly and with no thought of modesty,” he wrote to Ambrose. The former president offered to show his notes to Ambrose so he could revise his book—but “only,” however, “after you have agreed to read them and then return them to me, without transfer of my notes anywhere else.” Since Ambrose had no copy he could not cite his source. In sum, Dwight Eisenhower was secretly helping Steve Ambrose take a big step forward in his career. It would be difficult to imagine a more emphatic endorsement.
It is clear, though, that Ambrose did not spend “hundreds of hours” with the president. This quote, used by the reporter, struck me and others who had worked with Steve Ambrose as strange, because we had never heard him say it. Both the reporter and the archivist told me where to find the quote. Ambrose said it to a group of high school students in 1998. He should not have said it. Like many an embarrassing moment, it lives online. Readers can decide for themselves, whether, out of a hundred TV appearances and a thousand more on radio and in print over the course of forty years, one exaggeration in an interview Ambrose did as a courtesy for some young people should be the measure of the man or his career. What kind of reporter uses this source to charge Steve Ambrose with misrepresenting his relationship in order to sell books?
The first five volumes of The Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower were published in January 1970 and were critically acclaimed. The editor, Alfred Chandler, kindly wrote his associate editor, Ambrose, “you should be pleased, as your work was certainly the core of the volumes.” That same year, after six years of immersion in the documents, Ambrose published his second book about Eisenhower. It debuted at a time when America struggled with the war in Vietnam and the public’s regards for its military leaders sank to new lows. Publishing a book entitled The Supreme Commander could not have been viewed as a path to fame and fortune. The New York Times reviewer stated “It is Mr. Ambrose’s special triumph that he has been able to fight through the memoranda, the directives, plans, reports, and official self-serving pieties of the World War II establishment…” to write “…an extraordinarily fascinating book.” Henceforth, General Eisenhower would no longer be portrayed as an officer who arrived in Europe ready to lead all Allied forces (as other historians had it), but understood as a man capable of growing into the job.
Steve Ambrose grew into his job in the 1970s, publishing a number of books that received critical acclaim before returning to Eisenhower at the end of the decade.
Ambrose’s two volume masterwork on Eisenhower was so significant that the staff of the Eisenhower Library celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its publication. In these books, Ambrose joined a handful of historians who proved that the common understanding of President Eisenhower as a befuddled golfer had been wrong. A decade of reading the documents—and becoming good friends with Eisenhower’s brother Milton and his son John—allowed Ambrose to reveal him as an active president, deeply involved in the creation and direction of his administration’s policies. The perception of him as an old duffer had been, in fact, created at least in part by the president himself. Eisenhower had astutely recognized that the country held him in such high esteem that he could ignore challenges that other presidents could not. Ambrose’s interviews with Eisenhower—whether through the mail, on the phone or in person—comprise only a sliver of the mountain of research upon which this work stands.
Throw out the hyperbole. What the archivist found and what the reporter wrote amounts to, by their own count, six questionable endnotes out of the thousands of endnotes in all of his books on Eisenhower. While it might be tempting to attribute these to typographical errors, the date of an interview with the former president was too important to get wrong. How to weigh these items in the light of his body of work is not a judgment, however, that should be left to a reporter and an archivist who wish to become the talk of the town. Stephen Ambrose wrote great books about Eisenhower. I find it unfortunate that my father did not take his own history, and how he came to meet the former supreme commander, as seriously as he took the subjects of his books. As for President Eisenhower, he kept a few treasured possessions from his decades as a public figure on a bookshelf in his private dressing room in Gettysburg, now a national historic site. Two volumes by Steve Ambrose stand there; one of them is Halleck.
HNN Special: Stephen Ambrose and President Eisenhower
- Timothy D. Rives: Ambrose and Eisenhower: A View from the Stacks in Abilene
- Ira Chernus: Ambrose on Eisenhower: The Impact of a Single Faulty Quotation
- Lori Clune: Stephen Ambrose's Falsifications of the Rosenberg Execution
comments powered by Disqus
Maarja Krusten - 5/23/2010
For Mr. Ambrose:
Interesting essay, thanks for posting it. I knew your father. I worked with him while I was employed from 1976 to 1990 as an archivist at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project. I stayed in touch with him, briefly and lightly, after I took a job as a federal historian in 1990. I have one or two notes from him from around 1993, when he spoke at the Society of American Archivists conference in New Orleans.
To my, the essence of Steve Ambrose is captured in a paragraph in a letter he wrote me on July 30, 1993, in which he wrote, “I have so often thought of you the past few years, because of your challenging me once on my more-or-less snide comment about the effectiveness of the annual Captive Nations resolutions. Like all those who love freedom, I’m so glad the Baltic States are now independent.”
Yes, it’s true, while “on duty” in the NARA Nixon project’s research room, I had told your father that I enjoyed the first volume of his Nixon biography. I added that I did have a quibble about the way he presented the Eisenhower era Captive Nations resolutions and offered an alternative interpretation of the reason for their issuance. (I followed such issues with interest, as my family background is Estonian-American). To his credit, Steve Ambrose took it well. He said he saw my point and that he would keep it in mind when he wrote about the resolutions in the future. I liked that. I thought it spoke well of him.
He noted in his 1993 letter to me of my colleagues at the archives that “Fred Graboske, Joan Howard, and Jim Hastings are some of the finest people I’ve ever encountered in a lifetime of working in historical documents and archives.” He had thanked “Clarence Lyons, Jim Hastings, Joan Howard, Maarja Krusten, Fred Graboske . . . Richard McNeill, Ray Geselbracht, Sue Ellen Stanley” in the acknowldegments to Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (published in 1991). He said of us not only that we were “indispensable” but added, “They also are friendly and helpful, characteristics I have encountered with the people working for the National Archives over the past thirty-five years. They are all professionals of the highest degree of competence.”
I note this because I have to wonder whether, if he were still alive, your father might have guided you to removing from your essay or revising the sentence in which you said, “How to weigh these items in the light of his body of work is not a judgment, however, that should be left to a reporter and an archivist who wish to become the talk of the town.” We’ll never know. What does seem to be the case, however, is that non has any evidence that Mr. Rives or anyone at the Eisenhower Presidential Library was motivated by a “wish to become the talk of the town.” That generally is not a part of the archival ethos. Historian-archivists are trained to go where the facts take them. They do not start out with thoughts of glory or any narrative that centers on themselves. Nor do they have a desire to paint a person one way or another. They start out with, “here’s the topic, what records do we have that shed light on them.” That really is all there is to it. As far as I know, that is all that was at play in what Mr. Rives describes of the stacks in Abilene.
I understand entirely why you view these issues the way you do. What you say certainly is something that fair minded people would and should consider. I hope you’ll consider also what I wrote about archivists and the archival ethos. Thank you again for writing this and to HNN for posting it.
Federal historian and former NARA Nixon project archivist
Maarja Krusten - 5/22/2010
That is irrelevant to the issue of credibility. Can't we be big enough here and look at systemic issues? Isn't that what we historians re trained to do?
Mary R. Sive - 5/22/2010
How much of Mr. Ambrose's apologia for his father can we believe if he cannot even spell "foreword" correctly?
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/22/2010
I was disappointed by a couple of your father's early best-sellers, and stopped reading him, feeling that he harbored political views which were too liberal for me. For some reason, though, I did read his book about the building of the U.S. railroads, and found that this one was a repudiation of the "robber barons" theme, quite unlike other modern treatments of that saga. Then I read a couple more of his later books and found them unobjectionable, too. He was obviously a very great storyteller, and I suspect his contemporaries in the small field of popular history writing may have turned on him with a vengeance because they, too, noticed his growing admiration for capitalism.
The unexpurgated diaries of General Lord AlanBrooke, published 30 years after the censored version which came out shortly after the war, also tell us that Eisenhower "grew into" the Supreme Commander job. Brooke, who was Churchill's George Marshall, had a very low opinion of all the American commanders, but grudgingly changed his mind about Eisenhower, and perhaps not about any of the others, including Marshall.
- Harvard's Steven Shapin Wins History of Science Award
- Middle East Studies Association Fights a Rising Tide of Critics
- Juan Cole says the postwar Middle East governments were modeled on the Soviet Union, though not communist (interview)
- Ted Widmer picks the 5 best presidential books worth reading
- AHA backs California's LGBT History law