To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian by Stephen E. Ambrose

“Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong.”

― Dwight D. Eisenhower

No one can ever truly be unbiased.  It goes against everything that makes us human.  But objectivity is a skill that can be learned and applied.  It’s one of the best assets in the toolbox of the historian.  It’s what allows us to read their work with the understanding that they’ve done the research, that they’ve become an authority on the subject in the process of creating that work.

But have you ever wondered who the historian is?  This book provides an opportunity to get to know one of the more authoritative and bestselling historians of the past fifty years.  Stephen E. Ambrose has written works that formed the basis for HBO’s series Band of Brothers and the feature film Saving Private Ryan.  His works include biographies of Eisenhower, Nixon, and a book on the parallel lives of Custer and Crazy Horse.  He has written of officers and enlisted men, of allies and enemies, of civilians, of World War II and the Civil War.  And as you might imagine, between the interviews, the research, and the events of the world unfolding around him, Ambrose had stories to tell.

He tells his personal stories, of his family, his college years, and how he rose to prominence as one of the nation’s leading historians.  Ambrose, who passed away in 2002, leaves this book as the last word on his experiences as he sees them.

I found the tone and spirit of this book to be very similar to Dan Rather’s book What Unites Us.  And indeed, there is a kindred spirit between the journalist and the historian that I respect, especially in regards to research and fact-finding, and in the objective interpretation of that information.  The difference, of course, is that the historian has the luxury of time and hindsight, where the journalist operates with immediacy by comparison.  The historian will sometimes spend a decade on a subject to produce a single work.

I have read a couple of Ambrose’s books in the past, long before I had this site.  Coming to this book was almost an answer to a prayer as much as it was a reunion with an author whose work I’ve respected and enjoyed.  Right now, with some of the things I’ve been reading, and with a family that mirrors the violent stalemate of this country, it’s hard for me to sometimes reconcile the concept of patriotism with some of the darker points in our history.  While going through this book, Ambrose’s views were incredible to me.  They made perfect sense, as though in many cases he gave voice to ideas I’d struggled with.  Other things I didn’t so much agree with him, but I at least I could see why he thought as he did.  There was a moderation there that is sorely missed in the nation’s narrative right now.

That said… there’s a permanent stain on the man’s record now that he is not alive to counter or defend.  The possibility exists that the lengthy interviews with Eisenhower that launched his career to prominence may have been faked.   Worse still, the news story in the link I just provided also reveals that he admitted to plagiarizing some of the material in one of his books.  It’s tough to learn something like that.

I find myself having to reconcile more things now in light of this information.  His information is generally beyond question and still authoritative.  How he got it is another matter entirely.  And clearly, his reputation as a storyteller is still intact, just not for the reasons we thought.  It’s sobering.  It’s disappointing.  And somehow it doesn’t take the wisdom out of many of the conclusions he’s drawn from the facts he’s compiled.  Part of me is left questioning whether or not someone else drew those conclusions for him.  Even so, it’s excellent insight, no matter where it originates.  In light of that, I’m not calling this a complete loss.  I still enjoyed the book.  But, sadly, I’ll never be able to read another of his histories… certainly not objectively.  I was prepared to add more of his books to my Freedom and Equality Library.  Now even this one has been removed.

11 thoughts on “To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian by Stephen E. Ambrose

  1. I’m going to have to cruise the library for this – if for no other reason than I would love to have some balance in the point of views around me. It seems like every one I know is super polarized, and I don’t like it. What the heck happened to moderation?

    Liked by 1 person

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