Last of the Ambrosia
In the Last Book Before His Death, America's Feel-Good Historian Tries to Reconcile with the Past
Stephen Ambrose's final book is a curious legacy. It is a book that, like Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, its author wrote against the big clock, knowing that it would serve as his last testament about his prosperous career as an American historian. Death was not the only shadow under which he wrote, however. In the year before his death in October, critics accused Ambrose of plagiarism, finding evidence that he had borrowed long passages from another writer in the composition of his book on George McGovern's World War II exploits, The Wild Blue. Ambrose plausibly attributed the lapse to poor note taking, but his accusers saw in the incident proof that Ambrose had forsaken the serious pursuit of historical truth in order to churn out patriotic bestsellers devoid of scholarly merit.
Ambrose makes no mention of the scandal in To America, but does offer a lengthy defense of both the way he chose to pursue his craft and the way he saw and taught American history (at Johns Hopkins University, among other institutions). The myths and realities of America's past bitterly divide scholars, students, and the general public. On one side are those who believe that however magnificent its achievements (the Constitution, the defeat of Nazi Germany, the martini), there is an irredeemable ugliness at the heart of the American enterprise: slavery, patriarchy, exploitation, hubris. Challenging this conviction are those who argue that despite its past wrongs and present missteps, the United States has been a noble experiment that continues to stand as an example for the rest of the world. Ambrose attempts to find a middle ground in this debate, reconciling his unabashed love for America with his recognition of its dark past.
At first, To America threatens to be a tired anti-PC rant. Ambrose expresses dismay that Thomas Jefferson has been cut from some reading lists to make room for Native American perspectives and because he owned slaves. Despite Jefferson's many hypocrisies, Ambrose argues, he was a great man who must be understood within the context of his times. "Few of us," he writes, "entirely escape our times and places," ignoring Jefferson's many contemporaries, like John Adams, who did just that and condemned slavery.
In subsequent chapters on Andrew Jackson, George Custer, and the railroad barons of the 19th century, he follows the same line of reasoning: Yes, injustices were committed, but these were men of vision who advanced the cause of America and its ideals, even if they did not personally uphold those ideals. The writing in these early chapters, and indeed through much of the book, is repetitive and inelegant, and the historiography lax. Readers who stayed awake during their freshman survey of American history are not likely to learn anything new about the subjects he discusses here.
Of more interest are the chapters on World War II, the subject that made Ambrose a household name in the 1990s through his three books on D-Day and his well-publicized role as Steven Spielberg's consultant for Saving Private Ryan. Ambrose explains the roots of his passion for the conflict: the pure heroism of the citizen-soldier, coupled with the importance of that one event on world history. Writing about his 1983 interviews with British and German veterans, he also betrays remarkable ignorance for a military historian three decades into his career: "My respect for all of them shot up. My respect for the American fighting men did not go down, but I did realize that other countries could also produce superb fighting men."
But for Ambrose, World War II is something more than a heroic military struggle--it is the crucible in which America's past crimes were burned away, allowing the American Spirit (Ambrose usually capitalizes the phrase) to rise unencumbered. He writes that during the war, "America began the overdue work of dealing with its sins and failures. . . . [A]fter the war there was openness, the civil rights movement, women's liberation. . . . All this started with the way in which America fought the war, as an open, free society of people who volunteered."
To America takes on a religious aura in its forgiveness of America's treatment of Africans and other immigrants, Indians, other nations, and women. "We are right," he concludes, "to remain the most optimistic of people." More than any other historian today, Ambrose influenced how Americans see their past. Though he will never be considered a consequential scholar--his most important work was as an archivist editing Dwight Eisenhower's papers--he made history interesting to millions of readers, no minor accomplishment. But the Ambrosian view of history inculcates a patriotism that borders on arrogance. Whether this will serve us well in the trying years ahead remains to be seen. Personally, I'd prefer a guide to our past who was not so enamored of it. But Ambrose is right that knee-jerk hostility will serve us no better.