David's Bookclub: Eisenhower in War and Peace

Suddenly we are knee-deep in full length-biographies of President Eisenhower. Jean Edward Smith's new biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace, follows biographies by Jim Newton published in 2011, Carlo d'Este in 2003, and Geoffrey Perret in 1999.

Why so many?

The biographical world is coping with the academic question marks over the two-volume authorized biography of Dwight Eisenhower published by Stephen Ambrose in 1984.

Ambrose was one of America's most cherished popular historians. His speciality of course was the history of World War II, and he narrated that story as the children and grandchildren of the World War II generation most enjoyed hearing it narrated: highlighting acts of heroism by ordinary soldiers, the U.S. war effort always at the center of the story, albeit with generous nods to the supporting roles of allies, especially Britain.

Ambrose's writing remains a pleasure, but it's a pleasure with a problem - actually two problems, one serious; the other, very serious.

The serious problem:

Before his death in 2002, Ambrose was detected in regular acts of plagiarism. David Plotz of Slate describes what happened after Fred Barnes detected plagiarism in the pages of Ambrose's history of B-24 bomber crews, The Wild Blue.

Ambrose ducked plagiarism No. 1, but then Forbes.com's Mark Lewis started digging. On Monday, Lewis revealed that Ambrose lifted sentences from Jay Monaghan's Custer biography in his 1975 book Crazy Horse and Custer.Two days later, Lewis exposed Cases 3 and 4—pilferage in 1997's best seller Citizen Soldiers and 1991's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery. And today the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick discovered five more swiped phrases and passages in The Wild Blue. Ambrose's patriots can't fall back on the factory defense anymore: Two of the cases occurred when Ambrose was an obscure professor, before he became Stephen Ambrose Industries.

Plagiarism is a serious intellectual and academic transgression. It is theft of another's work. When done by a very famous writer like Ambrose to less famous people, it has the special ugliness of a theft by the rich from the poor, like the story of the stolen ewe lamb with which the prophet Nathan reproached King David.

Yet from the reader's point of view, plagiarized work can remain informative work. The teller may be corrupt, but the tale is still valid.

Much more serious is the insertion of false work into true. Ambrose, it turns out, was guilty of that as well. As reported in the New Yorker in 2010:

More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-span or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969. …

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled and his activities were documented by his staff, particularly by his executive assistant, Brigadier General Robert L. Schulz, who kept meticulous records of his boss’s schedule and telephone calls (now part of the Abilene archive). These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together. The footnotes to Ambrose’s first big Eisenhower book, “The Supreme Commander,” published in 1970, cite nine interview dates; seven of these conflict with the record. On October 7, 1965, when Ambrose claimed that he was interviewing Eisenhower at Gettysburg, Ike was travelling from Abilene to Kansas City. On December 7, 1965, another of the purported interview dates, Eisenhower was at Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and saw only General Arthur Nevins, his neighbor and farm manager; George Allen, a golf and bridge pal; and Gordon Moore, his brother-in-law. He dined that evening with his son, John Eisenhower. On October 5, 1967, rather than hobnobbing with his young biographer, Eisenhower met with General Lucius D. Clay, the former military governor of occupied Germany and a close friend, and, after Clay left, he talked politics over the phone with Walter Cronkite and called his attorney to discuss a trust fund for his grandchildren. The former President was very busy that day, but he didn’t meet with Stephen Ambrose. On October 21, 1967, another footnoted Gettysburg date, Eisenhower was on vacation at Augusta National Golf Club. He was still there on October 27th, when Ambrose claims that he again interviewed his subject in Gettysburg.

Is it possible that Ambrose met with Eisenhower outside office hours? John Eisenhower told Rives that such meetings never happened: “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.” John Eisenhower, who is now eighty-seven, liked Ambrose, and he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.

Ambrose continued to draw on his supposed Eisenhower interviews in subsequent books, including the two-volume biography, although in the later footnotes the specific dates were replaced with vaguer notations, such as “Interview with DDE.” As the citations grew more nebulous, the range of subjects that the interviews allegedly covered grew wider: the Rosenberg case, Dien Bien Phu, Douglas MacArthur, J.F.K., quitting smoking, the influence of Eisenhower’s mother, Brown v. Board of Education, and so on.

Frankly, I was one of those duped by Ambrose's concocted interviews. For years, I carried around in my hand the seeming "knowledge" that Dwight Eisenhower held private qualms about the desegregation of American schools. True, school desegregation was ordered by a Supreme Court whose chief justice was appointed by Dwight Eisenhower. True, school desegregation was enforced by federal appellate judges appointed by him. True, Eisenhower had despatched federal troops to Little Rock to enforce a judicial order.

But according to his official biographer, Eisenhower had - during the convulsions of the civil rights era of the mid-1960s - expressed sympathy for white parents who didn't want their little girls to sit next to black boys.

This we now can see was not true. Stephen Ambrose lied to each and every reader of his biography. He libeled the memory of his biographical subject. And as with plagiariam, Ambrose's habit of falsification and the propensity to error was a repeat offense.

I witnessed this fault close up in an incident that I don't believe has ever been written before.

Over the year 1987-88, I worked at a venerable Canadian general-interest magazine, Saturday Night. During my employment, the magazine underwent a change of ownership and change of management. The new editor was naturally eager to make a big splash. He reacted with enthusiasm when a notorious Toronto crank approached him with the manuscript of a book containing a shocking allegation:

In the years after World War II, the US forces had held many hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war. It had always been presumed that these POW camps were operated reasonably humanely. But no! The crank insisted that in fact thousands - many thousands - of German prisoners had died of totally preventable diseases and under-nourishment. The Americans had been operating … wait for it … death camps. Just like Hitler. And the orders came from the very top: General Eisenhower.

The new editor's delight in this coup was only very thinly covered by his pretense of sadness and horror. My reaction was very different. I knew the author to be an unreliable person. I very much doubted that the negligent homicides of thousands of people go unreported for four decades. Along with others in the office, I called foul.

The decision was made to appeal to a higher authority: the great Eisenhower biographer, Stephen Ambrose. The editor consulted him. I can still remember the letter from Ambrose that the editor triumphantly - sorry, I meant sorrowfully - showed me. It amounted to Ambrose's full imprimatur. The biographer expressed his own personal outrage that his hero could have been guilty of such a terrible act.

The excerpt provided the cover of our magazine. It caused great controversy, as desired. It gained the crank a book contract. (That book, Other Losses, still circulates in Holocaust denial circles.)

And of course, as soon as it was exposed to the light of day, the story disintegrated. The author's statistical claims were based on wild extrapolations from a few fragmentary and unreliable sources. The book was written with zero awareness of the general crisis of hunger and disease in the first months after the end of the war - nor that German food supplies in 1944-45 had been obtained largely by wrenching them from the mouths of other, even hungrier, peoples. When the pillage stopped, Germany faced sudden famine.

The final spadeful of dirt over the reputation of the book was shoveled by Stephen Ambrose himself, in the New York Review of Books of February 24, 1991. Other Losses, Ambrose then said, was

worse than worthless. It is seriously - nay, spectacularly - flawed in its most fundamental aspects. Mr. Bacque misuses documents; he misreads documents; he ignores contrary evidence; his statistical methodology is hopelessly compromised; he makes no attempt to look at comparative contexts; he puts words into the mouth of his principal source; he ignores a readily available and absolutely critical source that decisively deals with his central accusation; and, as a consequence of these and and other shortcomings, he reaches conclusions and makes charges that are demonstrably absurd.

Ambrose quickly disposed of the embarrassing fact that the Canadian edition of Other Losses carried a blurb from him on the cover: "taken out of context and used without permission." (I'm relying on my own memory here, but I believe that the blurb was a quote from the approving letter Ambrose sent to Saturday Night. It's very possible that the author of the book did not ask further permission.)

In 1988, Ambrose hailed the allegations in Other Losses as a "major historical discovery." At the opening of a 1990 conference of historians summoned by Ambrose to examine the book, an embarrassed Ambrose was still defending the book as "an important story that I, and other American historians, missed altogether." By early 1991, Ambrose had put on his hanging cap.

The world needed a better Eisenhower biographer than this, and the cumulative efforts of the above-mentioned four writers represent the attempt to provide it. I've read just one of the four, Jean Edward Smith's.

Smith - who served in the draft army of the 1950s and has previously written biographers of the soldier-president Ulysses Grant and the soldier-statesman Lucius Clay - is a harsh critic of Eisenhower's military competence, but a generous evaluator of the Eisenhower presidency. Smith regards Eisenhower as one of the most successful presidents of the 20th century, who reduced Cold War tensions internationally and led the country to prosperity and greater social justice at home.

Smith's main focus, however, is Eisenhower's long pre-history: the years of incubation in the army that produced the future "hidden hand" president, the master of indirection, self-concealment, conciliation, and coalition who rocketed from staff officer to Supreme Allied Commander in the space of just a few months. Talk about "leading from behind"! Eisenhower was a genius at avoiding premature commitment, mobilizing consent, and responding to political opportunities. Smith makes plain his superior regard for Bernard Montgomery and George Patton as military commanders. Eisenhower's job, however, was as much diplomatic as military, and at that he excelled.

He excelled again as president Here Jean Edward Smith stakes a bold case for Eisenhower as the defining "modern conservative" president. Eisenhower launched the Interstate highway program in large part as a self-conscious Keynesian economic stimulus to cope with the build-down after the Korean war. Eisenhower pushed the St. Lawrence Seaway, an infrastructure problem that would have seemed historic but for the upstaging comparison to the Interstates. Eisenhower de-racialized the Social Security program, by extending it to cover domestic servants, farmworkers, and other groups excluded by Southern Democrats from the FDR program of the 1930s. Otherwise, however, Eisenhower held the line on most spending - especially military spending - in pursuit of a balanced budget that would eventually enable him to lower inherited wartime taxes.

Eisenhower was the antithesis of a culture warrior. The first Republican to run strongly in the South, he spoke and thought of the American nation always as a unity. One comes away from this book feeling again the absurdity of the proposed Frank Gehry monument to Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. That monument presents Eisenhower, among other things, as a simple Kansas farm boy. A simple man is just what Eisenhower was not. He was a man of guile and maneuver - guile and maneuver inspired, fortunately for us all, by a deep commitment to peace and social stability. Now to read some of those other Eisenhower biographies. Now for the historical profession to come to a deeper reckoning with the doubtful legacy of Stephen Ambrose's library of works.