Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Boston Globe reported that American historian Joseph J. Ellis had frequently lied to his students and others about serving in the Vietnam War. Ellis also lied about, or greatly exaggerated, his participation in other major events of the 1960’s, including the peace and Civil Rights movements. The Ellis scandal sparked a heated debate about ethical issues of personal and professional integrity for academics.

Summary of Event

By mid-2001, Joseph J. Ellis must have felt a quiet satisfaction after twenty-nine years as a respected historian, teaching at Mount Holyoke College. A fifty-seven-year-old Yale University-educated professor of history at a prestigious women’s college in central Massachusetts, Ellis was among the best-known and most respected faculty members on campus. He had risen rapidly at Mount Holyoke. By 1978, within six years of his arrival, he was chairman of the history department, and by 1980 he was dean of the college faculty. For eight months in 1984, he was the interim college president. Robinson, Walter V. Creighton, Joanne V. Velzen, Dick van Ellis, Joseph J. Boston Globe [g]United States;June 18, 2001: Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying[03080] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;June 18, 2001: Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying[03080] [c]Publishing and journalism;June 18, 2001: Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying[03080] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;June 18, 2001: Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying[03080] [c]Education;June 18, 2001: Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying[03080] [c]Ethics;June 18, 2001: Award-Winning Award-Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis Is Accused of Lying[03080]

Ellis’s scholarship and teaching credentials also were outstanding. His biography of Jefferson, Thomas Thomas Jefferson, the latest of his eight books on early American history, had just won the Pulitzer Prize. His teaching, as measured by course evaluations, ranked consistently among the finest in the college. However, his claim to have seen combat in the Vietnam Vietnam War War apparently aroused suspicion. Alerted by an anonymous tip, Boston Globe investigative reporter Walter V. Robinson began to check the authenticity of some of Ellis’s stories, recounted not only in class but also in interviews with reporters. The award of a Pulitzer Prize to Ellis convinced Robinson to complete and publish the results of his investigation on the celebrated scholar.

Robinson’s article, “Professor’s Past in Doubt: Discrepancies Surface in Claim of Vietnam Duty,” broke on page one of the Boston Globe on June 18, 2001. The article stated that over a period of close to twenty years, Ellis had persistently lied about his wartime experiences to his classes at Mount Holyoke. The charges stunned Ellis’s students and colleagues. Most agreed that he was a gifted storyteller. His lecture style was dynamic and was enriched by humor and personal anecdotes. He seemed to empathize with the people and topics he was discussing. Course evaluations described him as displaying a close personal relationship with his subject, leaving a kind of “you-are-there” impression with his audience. However, at some point Ellis crossed the line. In his Vietnam in American Society course, he began to claim by the early 1980’s that he had taken part in combat operations and top-level planning in Vietnam.

As detailed in the Boston Globe article, Ellis claimed that he had parachuted into Vietnam in 1965 as a young platoon leader with the fabled 101st Airborne Division. He claimed also to have led a mop-up operation in the vicinity of My Lai Vietnam War;My Lai massacre My Lai massacre in March, 1968, shortly before the massacre in that Vietnamese village. Finally, he claimed that he had served in Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City) on the headquarters staff of General Westmoreland, William William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The Boston Globe reporter found no evidence to support these assertions but much to contradict them. Records show that in 1965, the year Ellis said he was a paratrooper in Vietnam, he was a graduate student at Yale University, where he remained until 1969.

Ellis had graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1965 with a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) commission but had deferred active military duty until the completion of a doctorate in history from Yale. He did serve in the military from August, 1969, until June, 1972, but within the United States, teaching military history at the U.S. Military Academy West Point at West Point, New York, his entire tour of duty. Following his honorable discharge in 1972, Ellis began his teaching career at Mount Holyoke College.

Ellis told other tall tales over the years. He claimed, for example, that in 1964, prior to his military service and while still an undergraduate at William and Mary, he had trained activists in the Civil Rights movement. Once again, the Boston Globe could find nothing to corroborate Ellis’s claim. In addition, Ellis said that he had returned deeply disillusioned from Vietnam, and after his honorable discharge he had led antiwar protests. No one who knew him at the time could remember any active interest by him in the peace movement.

The revelations of the Boston Globe stunned Ellis’s students and colleagues, as well as many others elsewhere who knew Ellis as a brilliant scholar. He admitted his guilt and asked for forgiveness. He later called his actions “stupid and wrong” but referred only to “personal shortcomings” as an explanation of his conduct.

Initially, the president of Mount Holyoke College, Joanne V. Creighton, defended Ellis as honorable and questioned whether the Boston Globe’s exposé had served the public interest. However, as criticism intensified from media editorials and national professional groups, Creighton appointed a faculty committee to examine the issue. The verdict did not favor Ellis. In announcing the decision, Creighton cited Ellis’s repeated serious breaches of faculty responsibility to the truth. She then suspended him without pay for one academic year, ordered that he no longer teach the Vietnam course, and stripped him of his endowed chair, which was a special badge of distinction for a professor. Ellis accepted the punishment.

Impact

Reaction to the Ellis scandal was mixed. While many students and faculty at Mount Holyoke objected to the severity of the penalties, others, mainly off campus, believed that he had been treated too leniently. A few regarded Ellis’s offenses as so severe as to bar him from teaching. An official of the American Historical Association American Historical Association (AHA) argued that Ellis’s behavior was a flagrant violation of the AHA code of ethics. He stated that the intellectual integrity of the classroom must never be compromised, just as historical scholarship must never be distorted or falsified. An exhaustive search of Ellis’s voluminous publications found no evidence that his scholarship had been tainted by his delinquencies in the classroom. There the matter rested.

In looking at why Ellis lied to his students, it is possible to infer that he intended to make the sad lessons of Vietnam more urgent and memorable. There was general agreement that his “first-person” descriptions gave a vivid immediacy to his lectures. Perhaps Ellis was guilt-ridden because he had remained safely at home while others were serving and dying in Vietnam.

A more complex explanation was that Ellis had come to half-believe the lies he had so often repeated. According to this view he had sought to reinvent himself by fashioning an alternate identity in a fantasy world. Ellis may have developed the illusion that he had personally participated in what were arguably the three central events of American society during the 1960’s: the Vietnam War, the peace movement, and the Civil Rights movement.

Finally, Ellis himself weighed in as to why he had lied so blatantly. He confided to an interviewer in 2004 that he had grown up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. He said that this was probably why he had been plagued all his life by a sense of insecurity and self-doubt. He attributed much of his compulsion to overachieve to a lack of self-confidence combined with a constant craving for approval. Ellis’s self-assessment is intriguing although it did not fully explain why he so casually risked self-destruction over fabrications so easily disproved.

While the Ellis scandal did, for a time, engender serious discussion about intellectual honesty and dishonesty in college classrooms, it soon became clear that many academics made a practical distinction between dishonesty or deception in the classroom and the much more stringent standards that applied to academic publications. Ellis’s defenders argued that despite his classroom tales, he did not break any law.

In 2002, Ellis resumed teaching at Mount Holyoke, and in 2005 he regained the endowed chair he had lost in 2001. His biography of Washington, George George Washington, written during his year under suspension, secured his reputation as among the most talented biographers and historians of his generation. Robinson, Walter V. Creighton, Joanne V. Velzen, Dick van Ellis, Joseph J. Boston Globe

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burkett, B. G., and Glenna Whitley. Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Honor and Its History. Dallas, Tex.: Veritas Press, 1998. Published prior to the Ellis scandal, this work exposes dozens of bogus claims to combat action in Vietnam. Also examines various motives of those who falsified their Vietnam service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffer, Peter C. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. In the wake of the Ellis scandal, Hoffer checked Ellis’s publications for evidence of plagiarism or serious distortions but found no evidence that Ellis went beyond his sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maslin, Mark. “Biographical Fraud and Traumatic Nationalism: Joseph Ellis’ Vietnam Testimony.” Biography 29 (2006): 605-614. Discusses various explanations for Ellis’s serious ethical lapses and examines his publications to detect whether his classroom fabrications were echoed in his scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Walter V. “Professor’s Past in Doubt: Discrepancies Surface in Claim of Vietnam Duty.” Boston Globe, June 18, 2001. The article that broke the story of Ellis’s years of lies and fabrications.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiener, Jon. Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 2005. A detailed analysis of court documents and other evidence in the fraud scandals of historians. Includes the chapter, “Lying to Students About Vietnam: The Mythic Past of Joseph Ellis.”

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