Death of historian Stephen Ambrose a cause for reflection
By Mark Storer
October 15, 2002
Stephen Ambrose brought history to everyone. As Robert Frost made poetry accessible, Ambrose made history readable. As a writer, I can say that he has had a profound influence on me. His story of Lewis and Clark, “Undaunted Courage,” was the first book of his I read, and when I read it, I felt the passion for the subject I have come to love come to life.
I got to know these two American icons and felt the strength of their commitment and the depth of Lewis’ tragic life after the Voyage of Discovery. Ambrose’s death is most unwelcome, most sad and is cause for reflection.
Ambrose believed deeply that American history made a difference in the world.
His single-minded dedication to the D-Day Museum in New Orleans was a testament not only to the greatest generation, but also to the man who fought to keep their memories alive. It’s no coincidence that the film “Saving Private Ryan” came out when it did, at the time of the museum opening and Ambrose’s book “Citizen Soldiers,” a history of the soldiers of World War II, got serious attention. He was an adviser on the film and is partially responsible for bringing so much of the story to life.
Ambrose believed, as do most historians, that it is in the reflection of things past that we can prepare for the future. He also championed the cause of saving vital American historical sites, particularly the Lewis and Clark Trail through the West, and he gave himself to the media endlessly in pursuit of these passions.
He was dogged by a plagiarism charge that he owned up to in recent years. He had been writing prolifically and in his research, he did indeed directly copy some of his consulted works. But the point is made; he owned up to it, apologized for it, took responsibility for the mistake and brought to the equation a kind of grace and humility that were most welcome in a time of corrupt politicians, liars and swindlers in business and hypocrites in office.
There was no one who was more disappointed in the plagiarism charge against Stephen Ambrose than Stephen Ambrose.
Though his love for history was unrelenting, his disdain for revisionism was just as clear. Ambrose wasn’t interested in the marble men of the past, but in the human toils and greatness found in weakness that so much of history represents. Ambrose wrote lucidly on the subject of war and peace and wasn’t fooled by a revisionist movement that sought to paint Americans as the bad guys of the world.
Ambrose worked at remembrance of American and Allied power in World War II and how that power was responsible for bringing a deadly and evil regime to an end. The United States and her Allies stopped Adolf Hitler’s march across Europe. With all the nuances and crevices of human depravity that were part of the Hitler regime, Ambrose wrote clearly that democracy was, in the end, the victor. Freedom was established largely through the use of American power, and Ambrose knew that.
Writing about history, about current topics and events was what I always wanted to do after college. When I was introduced to the works of Ambrose some 10 years ago, I knew that I had found a kindred spirit. His death saddens me, but through his work and his legacy left behind in countless years spent preserving and defending history, something of Ambrose, the great man, great writer and human being, lives on.