Stephen Edward Ambrose (January 10, 1936 – October 13, 2002) was an American historian and biographer of U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. He was a long time professor of history at the University of New Orleans.
Ambrose received his Ph.D. in 1960 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He served as a professor of history at several universities from 1960 until his retirement in 1995, having spent the bulk of his time at the University of New Orleans. For the academic year 1969-70, he was Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College. In 1970 while teaching at Kansas State University, Ambrose was asked to resign after having heckled President Nixon during a speech that the president gave on the KSU campus. He also taught at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Early in his career, Ambrose was mentored by World War II historian Forrest Pogue. He was the author of several bestselling books about the war, including D-Day, Citizen Soldiers and The Victors. Other major books include Undaunted Courage, about Lewis and Clark, and Nothing Like It in the World, about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. He was the founder of the Eisenhower Center and President of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the military adviser on the movie Saving Private Ryan and was an executive producer on the television mini-series that was based on his book, Band of Brothers.
Former president and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower requested Ambrose as his biographer after admiring his work on Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff, which was based on his doctoral dissertation. The resulting Eisenhower biographies were generally enthusiastic but contained many criticisms of the former commander in chief.
Ambrose also wrote a highly regarded three-volume biography of Richard Nixon. Although Ambrose was a vehement critic of Nixon's, the biography was lauded as being fair and just regarding Nixon's presidency. However his Band of Brothers (1993) and D-Day (1994), about the lives and fates of individual soldiers in the World War II invasion, catapulted him out of the ranks of academic history and into mainstream American culture. The mini-series 'Band of Brothers' (2001) lionized American troops and helped sustain the fresh interest in WWII that was stimulated by the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, and the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004.
Ambrose has received criticism from American veterans. Veterans of troop carrier units that transported paratroopers in the American airborne landings in Normandy have severely criticized Ambrose for portraying them as unqualified and craven in several of his works, including Band of Brothers and D-Day, and for characterizing them as "cranks" when they asked that he change the passages. Mark Bando, a published historian of the 101st Airborne in World War II, maintains a Web site ("Trigger Time") that, while often praising Ambrose, also notes numerous discrepancies and some apparent fabrications, many of which have disturbed other veterans of the 101st.
It is said that Ambrose organized his entire family into a sort of "history factory" and began turning out popular books of history like The Wild Blue. In 2002, Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing several passages which he footnoted but did not enclose in the required quotation marks.
Ambrose also appeared as a historian in the landmark ITV television series detailing the history of World War II, The World at War.
In 1995, Ambrose urged that retired General Colin Powell seek the presidency. The historian said that he would back Powell on either major party ticket. Powell declined to seek the presidency.
Ambrose, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2002. The condition deteriorated rapidly, and, seven months after the diagnosis, he died at the age of 66, leaving behind his wife Moira and children Andy, Barry, Hugh, Grace, and Stephenie. Later that year, Ambrose was posthumously awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for Distinguished Public Service from the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
In 2002, Ambrose was found to have plagiarized several passages in his book The Wild Blue. Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard reported that Ambrose had taken passages from Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II, by Thomas Childers. Ambrose and his publisher, Simon and Schuster, released an apology as a result. Ambrose had only footnoted sources and did not enclose in direct quotes significant passages taken from Childers' book.
While Ambrose downplayed the incident, stating that only a few sentences in all of his numerous books were the work of other authors, Forbes's investigation of his work found similar cases of plagiarism involving entire passages in at least six books and found a similar pattern of plagiarism going all the way back to his doctoral thesis.
He offered this defense to the New York Times:
The "History News Network" web site of George Mason University, however, in a web article entitled "How the Ambrose story developed", detailed seven of Ambrose's works that had plagiarized at least 12 authors.
Ambrose was also accused of using shoddy research in his works. Historians claimed that Nothing Like it in the World contained significant errors, as put forth in a report by Matthew Barrows in the January 1, 2001 edition of The Sacramento Bee, which listed some 50 text pages and six photo captions in which Ambrose "erred, misstated the facts or used quotes that cannot be substantiated with facts." According to Barrows, Ambrose cited his son Hugh as the primary research assistant for the book and chose not to respond. On January 11, 2001, Lloyd Grove, in The Washington Post column "The Reliable Source," reported that a co-worker found a "serious historical error" in the same book and that "a chastened Ambrose" promised to correct the error in new editions.
Ambrose also became the target of controversy in 1995 from U.S. Army Air Forces veterans who objected to his characterization of C-47 pilots as untrained and incompetent in the Normandy invasion. A letter-writing campaign noted that Ambrose did not interview a single troop carrier pilot among the 1,642 participating in Operation Neptune, nor did he consult official records, relying instead only on anecdotes of some paratroopers critical of the jumps. It also accused him of "reneging" on promises to correct the record before his death.
A similar controversy ensued when Ambrose, in two separate accounts, implied cowardice by a British coxswain of a landing craft during the landings at Omaha Beach. One writer claims that the first account, involving a Capt. Zappacosta from B Company, was apparently drawn from a writing by S.L.A. Marshall. The second of Ambrose's two accounts may have been drawn from the oral history of Sgt. J.R. Slaughter, D Company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division, who confirmed publicly that when his landing craft 100 yards from shore, the coxswain said he was going to lower the ramp and begin offloading, and only continued on to shore after another sergeant in the craft held a gun to the coxswain's head and ordered the coxswain to go in further.