Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Weekly Standard reported that Stephen E. Ambrose, one of the most widely read scholars of American history, had plagiarized material from a closely related historical work for one of his own best-selling military histories, The Wild Blue (2001). Subsequent investigations revealing that Ambrose had plagiarized other works damaged his reputation as an academic historian but had little negative impact on his popularity with general readers.

Summary of Event

One of the greatest writers of popular American history, Stephen E. Ambrose became the center of a plagiarism scandal that broke in an article first posted on the Web site of The Weekly Standard on January 4, 2002. The scandal, which sent shock waves through the history profession, also encompassed his colleague Doris Kearns Goodwin the same month. Before the scandal broke, Ambrose, who began his career teaching at the University of New Orleans, had earned fame and fortune writing numerous books on popular topics in military and political history, most of which sold millions of copies. His major works include Undaunted Courage (1996), Band of Brothers (1992), D-Day (1994), and Citizen Soldiers (1997). [kw]Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism, Historian Stephen E. (Jan. 4, 2002) [kw]Plagiarism, Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of (Jan. 4, 2002) Ambrose, Stephen E. Wild Blue, The (Ambrose) Ambrose, Stephen E. Wild Blue, The (Ambrose) [g]United States;Jan. 4, 2002: Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism[03130] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Jan. 4, 2002: Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism[03130] [c]Education;Jan. 4, 2002: Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism[03130] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Jan. 4, 2002: Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism[03130] [c]Plagiarism;Jan. 4, 2002: Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism[03130] [c]Publishing and journalism;January 4, 2002: Historian Stephen E. Ambrose Is Accused of Plagiarism[03130] Childers, Thomas Barnes, Fred

As his fame grew, Ambrose retired from his academic position and went into business for himself as Ambrose & Ambrose, Inc., which included his son, Hugh, as his agent and all of his children as research assistants. Ambrose, who saw and promoted himself as a storyteller, increasingly became a cottage industry in the field of popular history, and his publications correspondingly increased during the 1990’s. He also served as a tour guide and film consultant and wrote books that included textbooks and personal memoirs. His most famous effort in the area of entertainment was as a consultant for the film Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan (film) (1998) and the television miniseries Band of Brothers Band of Brothers (television) (2001).

Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, revealed in “Stephen Ambrose, Copycat” that the popular writer had closely copied passages from Thomas Childers’s Wings of the Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II (1995) for The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany (2001), a popular book essentially about the same subject. Barnes’s story in The Weekly Standard, actually a review of these two books, not only cast a shadow on academic history but also further separated Ambrose from the profession.

The scandal centered on both Ambrose’s overuse of quotations from Childers’s book—the story of the World War II bomber crew of Childers’s uncle—and from Ambrose’s failure to properly identify them as quotations. What indicated that Ambrose’s work was more than a matter of simple oversight or sloppiness was the frequency with which he appropriated Childers’s material without acknowledging the source and his substitution of close paraphrasing for actual quoting of the secondary material.

Because Ambrose had relied heavily on Childers to access the primary sources he indirectly quoted, Ambrose was seen as a popular historian profiting from the hard work and original research of a historian who was less well known. Beyond the immediate issue of plagiarism, the scandal included Ambrose’s attempt to defend himself and deflect the issue. He tried to deny that what he did was plagiarism, noting that he gave generous credit to earlier works in his book’s acknowledgments, and he insisted that the lifted materials represented a small percentage of all he had written. He also argued that he was not “writing a Ph.D. dissertation” and accused his accusers, particularly academics, of having an agenda against him. At the same time, Ambrose’s publishers tried to play down his wrongdoings, suggesting that the issues in question were mere oversights. Furthermore, Ambrose made no offer to search out other errors, even after he conceded those already exposed.

Childers, though outraged, initially chose not to speak publicly against the widely acclaimed Ambrose. A professor of German history at the University of Pennsylvania who had decided to put aside his usual scholarship to write a more personal history based on his uncle’s letters, he understood he was in many ways following Ambrose’s path. As publicity over the scandal increased, however, Childers spoke out, and Ambrose’s scholarly reputation was increasingly called into question.

Eventually, Ambrose would deny that he was an academic writer, although the public would continue to see him as just that. Academic historians, too, considered him an academic writer, although Ambrose initially had the support of prominent academic historians such as Eric Foner, a past president of the American Historical Association American Historical Association. Although Ambrose had not been on the faculty of any university for years, his academic pedigree was widely recognized enough that people began to ask whether he got away with plagiarism because he had no position to lose. However, Ambrose’s reputation continued to suffer, as revelations emerged that he had copied sources beyond the Childers book.

Ambrose was soon accused of plagiarism in writing other books, most notably Upton and the Army Upton and the Army (Ambrose) (1964), which had been based heavily on Peter Michie’s The Life and Letters of Emory Upton, published in 1885. These discoveries led to further criticisms of Ambrose’s scholarly methods. In Upton and the Army, Ambrose had followed his by-then familiar pattern of giving effusive credit to a source that he then failed to properly cite. Further investigation of Upton and the Army revealed the more egregious lifting of sources that went well beyond Michie.

Ambrose never fully recovered from the scandal. In February, 2002, one month after the story of his plagiarism broke, he announced that he was abandoning his works in progress to focus on his memoirs; six months later he died of lung cancer. Although his books continued to be widely read, his reputation as America’s topmost authority on military history was permanently damaged. Remaining is the nagging question of why he did what he did. One possible explanation was the pressure he felt to produce. Also, many have argued that because he was no longer an academic historian—that he was not affiliated with an educational institution—he likely believed that he did not have to abide by the ethics and rules of academia.

Impact

The Ambrose scandal had a significant impact on the public’s perception of history and on the self-perception of historians as a whole, especially in regard to the line between academic and popular history. In particular, the scandal has raised the question of whether celebrity historians such as Ambrose should be treated differently than their less-famous colleagues.

Aside from the fact that Ambrose was accountable to no academic institution, the success of his plagiarism also raises the issue of the complicity of editors and publishers when dealing with a writer of Ambrose’s stature and popularity. Additionally, some commentators have suggested that had the history profession not chosen to make an issue of the plagiarism, Ambrose might have suffered far less consequences.

Finally, beyond the question of plagiarism, the scandal raised the issue of whether history writing, even popular history writing, is about more than simply collecting, arranging, and rehashing established facts. In the end, while academic historians have distanced themselves from Ambrose and his work, his books remain popular with general readers, most likely because they have not heard of the scandal. Ambrose, Stephen E. Wild Blue, The (Ambrose)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen. The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Ambrose’s popular account of World War II bomber pilots that became the source of the plagiarism scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Fred. “Stephen Ambrose, Copycat.” The Weekly Standard, January 14, 2002. The article, written as a review of Ambrose’s The Wild Blue and Childers’s Wings of the Morning, which broke the scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Childers, Thomas. Wings of the Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II. New York: Perseus, 1995. The original account of a World War II bomber squadron from which Ambrose copied material for The Wild Blue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Belleslies, Ellis, and Goodwin. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003. A close examination of the state of the American history profession, with a focus on problems of fraud and fabrication and their resultant scandals, including that of Ambrose.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skinner, David. “Cheating History: Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin—The Historians Who Let Us Down.” The Weekly Standard, November 29, 2004. Focuses on a dozen key controversies ranging across the political spectrum and representative of a wide variety of charges of falsifying work or other academic fraud.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, John. Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 1995. A study of academic scandals in the fields of history and the humanities. Includes the chapter “The Plagiarists: Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose.”

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