I am the deputy director and supervisory archivist of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abliene, Kansas. In the April 26, 2010, edition of the New Yorker magazine, I was quoted extensively in an article (“Channeling Ike,” by Richard Rayner) about claims made by the late Stephen E. Ambrose and his purported relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower; there are problems relating to the dates Ambrose claimed he interviewed Ike and the scholarly annotations concomitant to those supposed interviews.
The article and subsequent news stories and interviews have spread the story around the world over the last few weeks. Both supporters and critics of Mr. Ambrose have encouraged me to discuss the background of this story and to comment on the Ambrose-Eisenhower relationship to the extent that it can be documented in the holdings of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. I am pleased to do so, but before I tell the story I must first say that the opinions expressed below are mine alone and not those of the Eisenhower Presidential Library or its parent federal agency, the National Archives and Records Administration.
One of our tasks as a presidential library is to develop and host public programs. These programs include high-profile events, such as our May 8, 2010, commemoration of the sixty-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E Day) which featured Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as keynote speaker. Other events are less grand, and feature speakers such as myself. This was the case last fall when we hosted a program to discuss the influence of the books of Stephen Ambrose on the historiography of General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The program came about by accident. We hold three book talks a year in cooperation with the Abilene (Kan.) Public Library. The talks center on an Eisenhower-related book. We had hoped to have an Eisenhower family member speak at the November talk, but were forced to change plans because of a scheduling conflict just a few weeks before the advertised date. It was too late to cancel the event and so staff began brainstorming for a replacement program. I recalled that we were near the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Ambrose’s two-volume Eisenhower biography, and for lack of a better idea, suggested we host a retrospective on Ambrose’s works. We assembled a discussion panel that included two retired Eisenhower Presidential Library archivists. The archivists had spent most of their careers working with researchers following Ambrose’s lead, and held interesting perspectives on his work. A third panelist, described as a general reader and avid Ambrose fan, completed the panel. I moderated the discussion, which we called “Stephen Ambrose: The Peoples’ Historian,” and which took place on November 10, 2009.
We use public programs as a way to publicize our archival holdings. The non-researching public is rarely exposed to this side of our operation, and we have found table-top displays of facsimile documents a convenient way to introduce them to our rich collections. Given Ambrose’s oft-told stories of his relationship with Eisenhower I assumed finding interesting documents would be an easy task. It was, but the results were not I expected.
As recounted in the New Yorker, the records I found did not substantiate Ambrose’s account of how he met President Eisenhower, nor did the records support his claims to have interviewed Eisenhower extensively over four or five years. Furthermore, according to the records, Ambrose never met with President Eisenhower alone. The Ambrose-Eisenhower relationship I discovered in Ike’s post-presidential records, it must be said, differs radically from the one described by Ambrose in his writings and in numerous interviews.
Yet it must also be said I found in those same records an Ambrose-Eisenhower relationship that Ambrose never discussed publicly, a relationship that was too complicated to be described in the confines of the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section. That relationship will be the subject of this essay. A note on sources before I begin: the letters cites below are all from Eisenhower’s Post Presidential papers, 1961-1969. I will provide specific citations to interested readers.
The documented Ambrose-Eisenhower relationship was formed in the context of Eisenhower and his lieutenants’ efforts to shape and defend his political and military reputations. It is not a stretch to describe these efforts as a war. The war was fought on several fronts in various ways and campaigns, including the writing of presidential memoirs, the opening of a presidential library and museum, the publishing of Eisenhower’s papers, and the recruiting of friendly intermediaries in the press and the academy. Some of these intermediaries were drafted. Some, as we will see, eagerly volunteered.
As Eisenhower and his inner circle of friends, family, and advisors saw it, the need to defend his reputation began during the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy accused the Eisenhower administration of allowing a “missile gap” to grow between the American and Soviet arsenals. Criticism of the Eisenhower years as an era of inaction and passive conservatism by other prominent Democrats also bothered the Eisenhower forces.
The criticism convinced Eisenhower to begin writing his presidential memoirs immediately. His son, John S. D. Eisenhower, resigned his Army commission to help with the project. The memoir team, led by John with research and secretarial assistants, moved into its Gettysburg, PA, office the Monday following Kennedy’s Friday inauguration. There was no time to waste.
The urgency was based on the fear that the criticism voiced in the campaign would permanently shape the public’s perception of the Eisenhower administration; its history would be written by its enemies. Ike’s brother, Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, the president of the Johns Hopkins University, shared this fear. Milton approached him with a proposal to open up a second front in the war on the critics. The sooner the records of the administration were available to scholars, Hopkins historian David Donald had told Milton, the better for Ike’s reputation. Milton asked his brother on March 9, 1962, to consider “a ten year research and publishing effort which would result in the publication of your principal papers.” Milton promised Ike the project would not interfere with his memoirs or the presidential library nearing completion in Abilene. President Eisenhower agreed and the project was soon underway.
In the meantime a fresh attack on Eisenhower’s reputation would push the Hopkins project in a more ideological direction. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., published a poll of presidential rankings in the July 29, 1962, New York Times Magazine. The poll of the forty-eight historians ranked Ike a lowly twenty-second out of the thirty-one presidents it examined.
“Nobody in his right mind would consider these evaluations anything like valid,” John Eisenhower wrote a friend, “but it seems to me that if we’re not careful, this can well be the image by which people see his performance in the future…. The reason I trouble you with this complaint,” John said, “is that it seems to me that there must be some way of getting more articulate Republicans—or at least conservatives—to fight against the super-liberalism that seems to have gripped our educational
With this concern in mind, John pushed his uncle that fall to ensure that a conservative historian would be hired to run the Hopkins project. “In a Churchill letter the other day,” John said by way of an example, “I ran across the statement ‘Thank God you are at the helm.’ A friendly editor will find a way to work this into the background; an unfriendly one will give it the deep six.” (It is not in the Hopkins volumes because Eisenhower did not write it; he received it.)
“At the moment,” Milton replied, “I am waiting on nominations from Dr. David Donald, who is a fairly conservative fellow and who is wholly sympathetic to the idea of having a top man who has been friendly to the Eisenhower philosophy.” Donald suggested historians Elting Morison, Clinton Rossiter, and Forrest McDonald. “I’m sure,” Milton wrote, “you would also be enthusiastic about Dr. Alfred DuPont Chandler, Jr…. He helped [Elting] Morison edit the Theodore Roosevelt Papers. I am told he is a conservative.”
Chandler, who would earn fame as the dean of American business historians, accepted the offer, and became editor in 1963. After a few months at the helm, he wrote John Eisenhower on April 8, 1964, to update him on the progress of the project and to inform him that he hired an associate editor, a man who would go on to become Eisenhower’s greatest champion, Stephen Ambrose. “At 28,” Chandler said, “Ambrose is one of the leading young military historians in the country. He has written biographies of Halleck and Upton and is now writing a history of West Point.”
Ambrose arrived at Hopkins that summer. After only a few weeks on the job, he took the bold step of introducing himself to Eisenhower. “Dear General Eisenhower,” he wrote on September 10, 1964, “I have been appointed the Associate Editor of the Eisenhower Papers, under Dr. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. It is a very great thrill for me to … work on your papers.” Ambrose’s six-week immersion in Ike’s papers had given him the feeling he knew the General “intimately.” So well did Ambrose believe he knew Eisenhower he thought “it only fair that you have an opportunity to see some of my writing.” One can doubt Ambrose’s logic here, but not his confidence. “I am taking the liberty of sending you two of my books,” Ambrose said, “each a biography of a nineteenth century general—one is about Henry Halleck, the other Emory Upton.”
Eisenhower thanked Ambrose in his reply of September 16, 1964, and noted, “So far the two books you mention have not arrived in my office. However, I assure you that I will read them with the greatest interest because I never tire of reading biographies or memoirs of our Civil War generals.” The books arrived at Gettysburg on September 24, 1964. The Halleck biography Ambrose sent still sits on a shelf in Ike’s home at the Eisenhower National Historic Site, according to the museum curator.
Ambrose allowed Eisenhower a few weeks to read the books before writing him again and making another confident request of the General. His letter of October 15, 1964, praised Ike for his war work between Pearl Harbor (December 1941) and June 1942, when Eisenhower took command of the European Theater of Operations. “It is an aspect of your career that I think has been inexcusably overlooked.” Compliment in place, Ambrose starts the wind up to his pitch. Marveling at the speed at which the nation mobilized for war in 1941 as compared with the slower pace of 1861, Ambrose draws a parallel with the progress at which World War II history and biography is being written. “It took almost forty years to publish the Official Records of the Civil War; the U.S. Army in World War II has of course been appearing at a rapid pace. The records are also being made available to the historian much sooner than was the case in the nineteenth century.”
To Ambrose the conclusion was obvious: “the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II.” Now comes the pitch. “I would like to begin a full-scale, scholarly account of your military career.” Ambrose assured Eisenhower he wasn’t after money or permission to write the “official biography.” But he reminded the General that because of his access to Eisenhower’s papers at the Hopkins project he had a “great advantage over any historian who might be contemplating a similar work.”
Ike in return praised the two books Ambrose sent him—“especially the one on Halleck”—and added that “when the time comes and you want to do a military biography of me I shall be glad to be as cooperative as I can.” But he also warned the young historian, “I doubt that I could be available before next spring .” Ike’s availability would prove so elusive over the remaining four years of his life that Ambrose only saw him a few times.
The records verify three face-to-face meetings between the men. The first was on December 14, 1964, at Eisenhower’s Gettysburg office. John Eisenhower arranged the thirty-five minute meeting for Drs. Chandler and Ambrose. The purpose was to discuss Eisenhower’s work with the Operations Division (OPD) in the early days of World War II and for him to “meet Dr. Ambrose” in person. A second meeting, arranged by Milton Eisenhower, took place on July 6, 1966, when Eisenhower, Chandler, and Ambrose, met for a photography session to promote the Hopkins publication project.
Ambrose asked for the third and final meeting, according to the records. Ambrose wrote Eisenhower in early February 1967 requesting an appointment to interview him for his military biography. Eisenhower replied on February 9 that he might find time to speak with him in May. But when Ambrose heard nothing for several months, he wrote Ike’s secretary, Lillian Brown, on April 26 asking her to schedule an appointment. “I am primarily interested in the unity of command concept, the development of operations in Northwest Europe, and in the wisdom of the decision for TORCH,” Ambrose said (TORCH was the code name for the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942).
Brown passed the request to Eisenhower, who told her on May 25, “Let him ask [for a specific date] unless I volunteered when to tell him to come.” On June 15 Brown relayed the request to Eisenhower’s personal gatekeeper, executive assistant Robert L. Schulz, for his approval, noting that “DE has said yes.” Schulz told Brown to wait for further word from Ambrose “per DDE note.”
The long-suffering Ambrose wrote again on September 9 to ask if “it would be possible to see the General sometime this fall.” Schulz finally approved October 11, 1967, at 9:30 a.m. as the time for Ambrose to have his “DDE biography” appointment with Eisenhower. Schulz also approved the inclusion of Joseph Hobbs, an assistant editor on the Hopkins project, who wanted to ask the General about his wartime associate General Walter Bedell Smith. After more than eight months of negotiation, Ambrose was finally granted a shared hour—possibly one hour and fifteen minutes—with Eisenhower. It should be noted that Ambrose could have met with Eisenhower alone during this time but elected to share it with a colleague.
Ambrose’s difficulty in scheduling an interview with Eisenhower is puzzling given the various ways the two men were working together prior to and during this time. Ambrose was, of course, the associate editor of Eisenhower’s papers. But he was also acting as the General’s point man in another campaign in the war for his reputation.
The attacks on Eisenhower had grown sharper and more threatening in 1965 and 1966 largely because of the publication of four books: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days (1965), Theodore Sorenson’s Kennedy (1965), Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People (1965), and Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle (1966).
Schlesinger and Morison damned Eisenhower with all the sneering condescension a New Frontiersman could muster for the squandered opportunities of 1950s and the “Laodicean drift” of his administration. Morison in particular drew Eisenhower’s anger, inspiring the president to fire off a Memorandum to the Record and send it to his library in Abilene for posterity (“In my opinion the author is not a good historian, not that I condemn it as a whole but because in those events with which I am personally familiar he is grossly inaccurate.” June 9, 1965).
The Sorenson book blamed Eisenhower, among other failings, for the botched invasion of Cuba known as the “Bay of Pigs.” Eisenhower flatly rejected this claim. To answer Sorenson’s charge, he relied on a technique that has come to define his presidency, and which will shed light on his relationship with Stephen Ambrose. That technique was famously described by political scientist Fred Greenstein as the “hidden hand.”
One aspect of the “hidden hand” is the use of intermediaries to fight your battles. Eisenhower abhorred public fights and did not respond directly to Sorensen. He instead summoned a friendly journalist, Earl Mazo, to his Gettysburg office and gave him an exclusive interview. Mazo in turn reported Ike’s version of events. Ike had given him the story but retained control over the quotes he could use and the slant of the piece. He also made sure Mazo hammered home his main point: “There was no tactical or operational plan [to invade Cuba] ever discussed” on his watch. The article, “Ike Speaks Out: Bay of Pigs was all JFK’s,” appeared in the September 10, 1965, edition of Newsday.
Eisenhower’s chief complaint about the increasing flow of books coming out about his military and political careers was that few of the writers bothered to get the story from him. He pointed to Ryan’s Last Battle as an example. “The trouble is,” Ike wrote a friend in April 1966, “is that no one ever seems to take the time to go to anyone of the American High Command to find out exactly what information we worked on at the time, under what conditions we were making plans, and what was the basic character of the mission assigned to us by our bosses.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Ryan’s editor, Michael Korda, sent the uncorrected proofs of the Last Battle to Gettysburg in early March for Eisenhower’s review. But Eisenhower was recuperating from illness in California and never saw them (Korda, coincidentally, would publish his own Eisenhower biography in 2007). Had Ike received Korda’s package he might never have begun the collaboration that distinguishes his relationship with Stephen Ambrose.
The Eisenhower-Ambrose relationship had progressed little following their December 1964 introduction. According to the records, they had not seen, written, or talked to each other since then. This began to change in early 1966 when Eisenhower received the galley proofs of Ambrose’s West Point history, Duty, Honor, Country from the Johns Hopkins University Press. Ike wrote Milton Eisenhower on January 29, “I find the document, with one exception, remarkably accurate and interesting.” The “one exception” was a perennial sore point with Ike, that as a soldier he lacked political judgment, especially in regards to the intentions of Soviet leaders. Ike responded to Milton with what amounted to a three-page memorandum to the record documenting his early awareness of Soviet treachery. This seems an odd response to a sibling only if you forget that Ike knew that whatever he wrote was for the ages. Eisenhower tacked on a postscript, also written with an eye on that horizon where future historians would gather to judge him: “On page 102 of the galley, in the second paragraph at the end of the fifth sentence there is a typographical error; the word should be ‘understand’ not ‘understanding’.” Clearly, Ike was saying, I am a man on whom nothing is ever lost.
Eisenhower’s response to the West Point manuscript, though overwhelmingly positive, panicked its young author. “He was profusely apologetic,” Milton told Ike, “for he did not intend to give the impression that you … lacked political judgment. He wants to write you, presumably after changing the offending sentence.” Ambrose removed the disputed passage. Eisenhower wrote the book’s foreword, something he did for few writers.
If this was a test, Ambrose had passed it. And the summer of 1966 would see him begin a new and truly cooperative relationship with Eisenhower. Milton would no longer separate the men as a go-between. Ambrose would work with Ike directly. Eisenhower would need the extra help in the next phase of his campaign to protect his legacy, and the direct line of communication to Ambrose would improve the rate he could return fire on his critics.
The battle for Eisenhower’s reputation intensified that summer. The Schlesinger and Sorenson memoirs were still riding high on the New York Times best-seller list. They were joined in May by Ryan’s Last Battle, which soon moved to number one. Ryan presented an old charge but a new threat. The author of The Longest Day, a popular account of D-Day that sold more than five million copies, Ryan threatened to spread the charge of Eisenhower’s political naiveté and misjudgment to millions of readers around the world.
Ryan’s criticism was this: because Ike was duped by Stalin and stopped his forces at the Elbe River seventy miles short of Berlin, he was responsible for the Cold War problems that beset Germany after the war. Ryan also charged Eisenhower with an excessive fear of a “National Redoubt” of Nazi troops in Austria and Bavaria, and thereby wasting troops that could have been used to capture Berlin. If Eisenhower had realized that Stalin’s objectives late in the war were political rather than military, he would have taken the city and the world would be a safer place.
Eisenhower counterattacked with a review essay written by Ambrose in the Wisconsin Magazine of History entitled “Refighting the Last Battle: The Pitfalls of Popular History.” The piece appeared in the summer 1966 issue. The essay had been discussed in telephone calls, manuscript reviews, and correspondence between Ambrose and Eisenhower.
The records don’t tell us exactly when the planning for this campaign began. Eisenhower and Ambrose met in person, along with Alfred Chandler, on July 6, 1966, for a publicity session to push the Hopkins project. Did they discuss Ryan then? The Berlin book was in the news, and the charge of poor political judgment was one Ambrose was acutely aware of, given Ike’s reaction to his West Point manuscript. But we just don’t know. The records do tell us, however, that Eisenhower called Ambrose on August 9, 1966, at 10:20 a.m., only to learn that he was out of the office on vacation, and that he called again on August 11 at 10:40 a.m. We do not know the length of this conversation (Eisenhower’s schedule notes that he went to lunch at 12:30. He and Ambrose could have spoken for as long as an hour and fifty minutes). But we do know what they discussed over the phone that day from an August 18 letter from Ambrose to Eisenhower thanking the General for his help on the manuscript and noting that he had “made all the changes in the article that your very good comments called for.” Ironically, Ike’s “very good comments” on the manuscript (specifically that taking Berlin “would not have had any effect on the subsequent ‘cold war’.”) were made too late to affect the published version of the essay.
Ike had apparently received a copy of the manuscript sometime prior to August 9. But who initiated the contact? This remains a mystery, but my money would be on Eisenhower. Ike’s post-presidential records contain numerous examples of him reaching out to authors to make sure they knew and disseminated his version of events. It’s a trait of the “hidden hand” style. He was also by now familiar enough with Ambrose to know he had a smart, ambitious, hard-working, and eager-to-please ally at his disposal. Who better to send into the breach?
The Last Battle review is interesting in that Ambrose questions Ryan’s stylistic technique as much as he does his facts. He criticizes him for using “a device often employed in … political novels—an abundance of detail.” This technique gives such stories an “aura of verisimilitude,” Ambrose writes. “Anyone who knows the size of the star of the epaulettes of a Russian field marshal,” Ambrose says, “or the make of Stalin’s favorite pipe, surely must be on firm ground when he quotes entire paragraphs of Stalin’s conversation.” Eisenhower, in his comments on the manuscript, also raised an eyebrow at the reputed Stalin quotes: “How silly can a writer be?” Ike asked. “Was he there?”
Ambrose also accuses Ryan of overdramatizing the importance of taking Berlin. Even if the Allies had captured the city, they would have been obligated to withdraw to predetermined zones of occupation after the war. “The drama in all phases of World War II is inherent,” Ambrose writes. “No author needs to exaggerate, overdramatize, or invent, for the straight story is better than any imaginable one.”
Eisenhower’s decision to stop the Allies short of Berlin captured Ambrose’s imagination. Displaying the productivity that would put so many of his books on the best-seller lists in the years to come, Ambrose expanded his interest into a monograph on the Berlin decision. Once again he had Eisenhower’s help in its preparation.
Eisenhower received the Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945 galleys from W.W. Norton and Company at his winter home in Palm Desert, California. He wrote Ambrose on February 28, 1967, that he had read the manuscript and made a few notes. “I have written them frankly and with no thought of modesty,” Ike said. “If you want them I shall be glad to send them on but only after you have agreed to read them and then return the document to me, without transfer of any notes anywhere else.” The galleys are in the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Eisenhower’s comments would have as little effect on the final manuscript as his annotations on the Ryan review had on the final version in the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Ironically, Ambrose includes one of Eisenhower’s notes from his review of the Ryan essay in the Berlin book (see page 87).
Ambrose replied on March 6, 1967, thanked Eisenhower for his comments on the manuscript, and added, “I will of course abide by the conditions you specify; specifically, I shall read your notes and then return the document, without copying anything you wrote.” And then he writes a prophetic sentence that expresses the legacy of the Ambrose-Eisenhower relationship. “I must in fairness add a warning… what you say will undoubtedly influence my future work on this subject.” It did obviously, and it paid Eisenhower in dividends of generous appraisals from Ambrose for many years, dividends that are still accruing to his reputation, and dividends that informed our discussion of Stephen Ambrose last November.
We are still left with a mystery, however. How could Eisenhower be so distant when Ambrose wanted to interview him for his biography but so accessible when he wanted Ambrose to fight his battles? The records suggest that Stephen Ambrose knew two Eisenhowers, whose willingness to see or write him was contingent on the immediacy of the action. Given the heat of battle in the mid-1960s, when Eisenhower’s reputation as a military and political leader was under fire in bestselling books, one Eisenhower called the young historian to come to his defense. But when the battle lay safely in the distance, outside the sound of trumpets, another Eisenhower, ensconced in Gettysburg or Palm Desert, had little time or use for conscripts or volunteers.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Blog LV (55): Stephen Ambrose: A Rebutal
In Blog XLVIII, this blog explored the question of Stephen Ambrose's profesional and ethical behavior. Ambrose had a highly successful career and could serve as a good role model for those wishing to interact with the wider public. A number of issues have arisen, though, that must give all of us pause. In Blog LIII, this forum reproduced an essay his son and former collaborator, Hugh Ambrose, wrote defending his father, and which served as a counterargument to charges that he fabricated sources, specifically the number of meetings he had with Dwight D. Eisenhower. The following essay is from Timmothy D. Rives, the deputy director of the Eisenhower Library. Rives was responsible for finding the evidence that brought Ambrose's fabrications to light initially. His essay is basically a rebuttal to the argument that the younger Ambrose offered. This article originally appeared on the History News Network as "Ambrose and Eisenhower: A View from the Stacks in Abeline":