Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose, a former history professor who wrote pedestrian, scholarly biographies of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon that are on college reading lists, has discovered gold in writing popular history on topics ranging from the explorations of Lewis and Clark to B-24 bomber runs over Germany in World War II. Many of his popular works have become best-sellers, making him wealthy.
Shakespeare said, “The purest treasure these mortal times afford is spotless reputation.” Stephen Ambrose’s reputation is no longer spotless, thanks to the revelation by Fred Barnes, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, that Dr. Ambrose’s most recent best-seller, The Wild Blue, The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany, included some passages that had been copied almost verbatim from a 1995 book, Wings of Morning, by Prof. Thomas Childers of the University of Pennsylvania. Childers told the story of his uncle’s experiences as a member of a B-24 bomber crew in World War II.
Barnes pointed out that the stories were quite different, Ambrose telling the wartime experiences of former U.S. Senator George McGovern. He cited only four descriptive passages in the Ambrose book that were not enclosed in quotation marks that were virtually identical to passages in the Childers book They totaled 256 words, but that was enough to sustain the charge of plagiarism.
Ambrose promptly apologized to Childers, saying, “I made a mistake for which I am sorry. It will be corrected in future editions of the book.” Prof. Childers told the New York Times, “I think it is a classy thing to do, and I appreciate it.” But he later changed his mind after learning that Ambrose had told the Times that he didn’t consider his mistake plagiarism. According to the Times, Ambrose said “that if he came across passages…that fit the story he was telling, he would drop the passages into his text and credit the book in footnotes.” Childers didn’t like that, and he decided to quit using books by Ambrose in his course on World War II.
With Ambrose having admitted that he sometimes appropriates the words of others without putting them in quotes, it is not surprising that examples of this were soon found in other books he had written. Mark Lewis, writing for Forbes.com, found them in three other books by Ambrose-Crazy Horse and Custer, in which passages totaling 216 words were borrowed from a biography of Custer by Jay Monaghan; Citizen Soldiers, in which Ambrose acknowledged in an author’s note that he had stolen material shamelessly from Beyond the Beachhead by Joseph Balkoski; and the third volume of his biography of Richard Nixon which Mark Lewis says, without giving examples, “contains numerous sentences and passages that are identical or very similar to parts of Robert Sam Anson’s biography of Nixon.”
The New York Times in a story on January 15, said that most universities are strict in “forbidding students from using published materials without thorough attribution.” It cited a student who objected to there being a double standard for Stephen Ambrose, asking what kind of message that sends.
A much more powerful version of that message was sent 15 years ago when scholars were collecting and preparing the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. for publication. They discovered that much of King’s doctoral dissertation was plagiarized. This was kept secret for three years. The Wall Street Journal broke the story in November 1990. It reported that large parts of King’s dissertation were taken from a dissertation submitted to Boston University three years earlier by a student named Jack Boozer. He and King had the same doctoral adviser, who approved King’s dissertation despite its similarity to Boozer’s. Another professor had called the plagiarism to King’s attention and advised him to remedy it. Nothing was done, but Boston University gave King his doctorate anyway.
Claybourne Carson, who headed the King papers project, had all of King’s scholarly papers checked and annotated to provide the attribution that King had omitted. This took nearly two years because of the large number of annotations required. Nothing like that would be needed to remedy the plagiarism so far found in Stephen Ambrose’s books. Fred Barnes has said that it was no big deal, and he’s right. But King’s plagiarism was a big deal. It will forever tarnish the reputations of the Boston University professors and their student, the only American except George Washington to be honored with a national holiday. Shakespeare followed “spotless reputation” with the line, “That away, we are but gilded loam or painted.clay.”