Stealing Private Ryan: History profs on the Ambrose plagiarism scandal

“Up, up, up, groping through the clouds for what seemed like an eternity. . .. No amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered. B-24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds all over the sky.”

“Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered- B-24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds over here, over there, everywhere.”

Few people have read the first passage. It is taken from page 83 of University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers’ 1995 book Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II. The book sold only 15,000 copies in hardcover.

Many more, however, have read the second passage. Readers can find it on page 164 of historian Stephen Ambrose’s new book The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys who Flew the B-24s over Germany. At the beginning of the year, it was ranked twelfth on The New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list. This achievement was largely due to the popularity of Professor Ambrose, an historian at the University of New Orleans and the author of some 25 histories, including a series of wildly popular accounts of D-Day and its aftermath.

It doesn’t take a doctorate in history to see that something is amiss here. On Jan. 5, The Weekly Standard reported that a number of passages in Ambrose’s Wild Blue, including the one above, were almost identical to passages in Childers’ earlier work. Attribution was scant: footnotes after the passages cited Childers, but no quotation marks were used. Highly descriptive phrases authored by Childers were passed off as Ambrose’s own. It stank of plagiarism.

On Jan. 6, Ambrose released a statement to The New York Times, apologizing to Professor Childers, claiming that the omission of quotation marks was accidental and vowing to correct the mistakes in future editions of the book. Most members of the historical community were willing to take Ambrose’s apology at face value.

“If you count the thousands of pages of history he’s written in the past three decades, if this is the only time he’s screwed up, he’d be as pure as Caesar’s wife,” said James Wood, a professor of history at Williams.

However, this was not the only time Ambrose screwed up, according to Forbes magazine. Over the following two weeks, the financial magazine dug up five more Ambrose books with lifted passages. Crazy Horse and Custer, Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, Citizen Soldiers, Undaunted Courage and Nothing Like It in the World all feature narratives and descriptions almost identical to those in previous books. As in The Wild Blue, passages are footnoted, but readers are led to believe that the language is Ambrose’s own.

In a year which has seen a rise in plagiarism cases before the Williams College Honor Committee, it is fitting that America’s most beloved historical writer should be dragged before the court of public opinion. And he is not the only one. In its Jan. 28 issue, The Weekly Standard will report that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin used almost identical tactics as Ambrose in her 1987 history The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, with passages blatantly lifted from several different books.

The controversy has ignited a large-scale debate at the University of Pennsylvania, Childers’ home institution, but little notice has been taken by Williams students. Veteran members of the history department, however, who must police both themselves and their students in research and writing, differ dramatically on the fallacy of Ambrose and Kearns-Goodwin.

In the better-known case of Ambrose, most historians still believe that the D-Day dramatizer did not maliciously plagiarize from his sources. They blame his over-reliance on research assistants as well as his extremely high output.

Wood, the author of a recent book on military tactics in the Wars of Religion, takes a more lenient stance towards Ambrose than some of his colleagues. “If anything, it’s just a warning that if you’re really pushing out the books, you can make mistakes,” he said.

Charles Dew, a professor of history and the author of several books on the Civil War, regards Ambrose’s behavior as a more serious breach of scholarly conduct.

“What happened is the result of someone writing so many books so fast,” Dew said. “You can’t do the research yourself that you’d have to do to publish at the pace Ambrose was publishing. I see this as an almost inevitable self-inflicted wound. It is your responsibility as the author to make sure that everything in a book with your name on it is correctly presented.”

James MacGregor Burns, a professor of history emeritus and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, issued a statement to the Record which presented a more moderate view: “Footnotes are the building blocks of history, and any inadequacy there threatens the validity of the whole enterprise. I do feel that historians should make full use of the work of other historians, both in recognition of their contribution and the importance of their ideas, but obviously full credit should be given. When an historian has written a particularly felicitous paragraph, that should be quoted in full, and of course, accurately.”

All three professors agree that Ambrose committed some form of plagiarism. At worst, Ambrose’s popularity will suffer. For a student caught plagiarizing, however, the consequences may be far more severe. A repeat offender, like Ambrose, might face expulsion. If Stephen Ambrose were a Williams student rather than America’s favorite historian, would he get off so easily?

“I think in a case like that, I’d bring it to [his] attention. But the real problem with students is you can go on the Internet and get a copy of a [previously written] paper, and that has happened. There are mistakes, and then there’s unethical plagiarism that borders on the criminal,” Wood said.

Dew once again took a more damning view of Ambrose’s particular behavior.

“Any Williams student who did what he did in a paper would be before the Honor Committee. It can’t be laughed off or explained away,” he said.

In the end, the Ambrose incident should serve to remind students and historians that plagiarism can be committed even at the highest levels. As for Ambrose, who has made a living on stirring and evocative narration, the results of this fiasco will not be pleasant. Happening upon a particularly moving passage in one of his books, readers may now stop to question whether the words are really Ambrose’s.