Over the past two decades, historians have gone from obscure scholars to media stars, as the 24 hour news cycle prompted TV news shows to bring the best-selling non-fiction authors out of the archives into the studios. There the masters of the past were suddenly opining on the present, as the likes of Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns became as ubiquitous as Pat Buchanan or George Will. The supposed wisdom and solemn reliability of historians has put them in other unlikely roles too, such as Truman biographer David McCullough lending his soothing baritone to the narration of Kan Burns’ epic Civil War documentary.
One of the catalysts for this development was the late historian Stephen Ambrose, who hit on a formula to make history both provocative and lucrative.. Ambrose turned himself into the troubadour of World War II, inspiring dramatic renditions of his books, such as “Band of Brothers,” and launching a “Greatest Generation” industry. Shortly before Ambrose died in 2002, a brief scandal erupted when it was revealed that one of his histories was significantly plagiarized (Kearns had one of her books similarly discredited), but he handled the potential disaster deftly, admitting that he inadvertently published some verbatim notes, and died soon enough thereafter that the scandal did little to suppress sales of the “Band of Brothers” DVDs. The truth was, however, that more than one of his books stole from other sources.
Now new evidence is making it clear that Ambrose, the historian pop star, was indeed a full-fledged fraud, raising the question, “Who are these guys?” And why should we trust them?
The British newspaper The Guardian has reported that Ambrose almost certainly didn’t spend “hundreds and hundreds” of hours conducting interviews with Dwight D. Eisenhower to research the biography of the former president, as Ambrose claimed. “I think five hours is a generous estimation of the actual time they spent together,” Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library, told the paper. “I personally would push it back to less than two or three.” Rives said he discovered Ambrose’s deception as the Eisenhower Library was researching an exhibition on Ambrose’s relationship with Eisenhower. The first clue was a letter from Ambrose, then teaching Johns Hopkins University, that requested an interview with Eisenhower for a biography. Ambrose had frequently told the story—on TV, of course— that Eisenhower’s former executive assistant had contacted him to request that he write the general’s life story after the assistant had read one of Ambrose’s Civil War histories. Then Rives found that seven interview sessions cited in the footnotes of “Supreme Commander” could not possibly have occurred, because Eisenhower was otherwise engaged. In other words, Ambrose lied. And what do we call a history written by a liar?
Ambrose’s dishonesty shouldn’t automatically tarnish his legitimate colleagues, but it is a wake-up call. Journalists and the public are understandably impressed by scholars, who, they assume, have the skills to look more deeply into the meaning of important events, if only because they are not slaves to the clock. But frauds can write books too, and just as we have recently had reason to question the veracity of some scientists, historians should not automatically be deemed wise and credible just because their books turn up on the Best Seller lists and they can turn a phrase. The news media have an obligation to check out these supposed experts, and the history establishment had better crack down as well. When a profession’s best-known stars are exposed as fakes and liars, it usually means that it needs to start reminding its members that cash, fame, and those TV gigs are supposed to be the rewards for ethical work, not the primary objective. The public and the media need to see clear and reasonable standards, such as full-disclosure of sources and notes, applied to historians and their work before they begin altering our opinions with their “insight.” When George Orwell wrote that “he who controls the past, controls the future,” he was stating a fact. Fake historians are dangerous.
Right now, our historians need to pay less attention to the past, and work to ensure their discipline’s transparency, integrity and honesty in the present.
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