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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

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