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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874

Stephen E. Ambrose has enjoyed a brilliant career as a historian. In the past three decades, he has published a flood of books, on topics ranging from World War II to the lives and presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon to the explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He now enjoys the status of an éminence grise, secure in his achievements and honors, and appears regularly as an authority on National Public Radio and on PBS documentaries. Although Ambrose shows no signs of slowing down, he has reached a point in life where it is fitting for him to take stock of his work—hence his slim volume of essays, Americans at War. The essays are as varied as the subjects Ambrose has addressed over the course of his career. They run from an appreciation of Ulysses S. Grant’s generalship at Vicksburg to a revisionist appraisal of George Armstrong Custer through essays dealing with various aspects of World War II and Vietnam, culminating in a meditation on the future of war. They offer the reader a succinct precis of Ambrose’s scholarly interests. Much more important, they offer clear insight into Ambrose’s vision of history and the historical enterprise.

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In a brief introduction, Ambrose recounts how he became a historian. He graduated from high school just as the Korean War ended. Rather than entering the Army, as he expected to do, Ambrose enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. The son of a doctor, he assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, but introductory chemistry and physics undermined the charm of medicine for Ambrose. He succumbed instead to the allure of history. The history department at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950’s was staffed by men at the head of their fields. Many were gifted teachers. Outstanding for Ambrose was William B. Hesseltine, an authority on nineteenth century America. Hesseltine lectured brilliantly on the Civil War. When the young Ambrose questioned some of his judgments, Hesseltine challenged his student to prove him wrong; out of the exchange, a historian was born. Ambrose became enraptured by the drama of the past and the pleasures to be had in revealing its riches. As an undergraduate, he talked his way into Hesseltine’s graduate seminar. He traveled to Louisiana State University to earn an M.A. degree under the tutelage of T. Harry Williams, another Hesseltine student, then returned to the University of Wisconsin to complete his Ph.D. under Hesseltine’s direction.

Ambrose learned many lessons from Hesseltine. Above all, he came away with the conviction that people, not impersonal forces, make history. Hesseltine was a “great man” historian; he held that the past was the record of human decision and action. He argued that behind every social or economic phenomenon could be found the human energy of a leader. In many ways, this was an old- fashioned point of view, even in the 1950’s. From the nineteenth century onward, waves of intellectual convention have offered a variety of explanations for historical development, from the zeitgeist of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel through the economic determinism of Karl Marx to the sociological interpretations of Max Weber. Grand theories of historical causality also provide the cerebral appeal of holding out codes that offer the promise of deciphering the complexities of the historical record. Hesseltine would have none of this. For Hesseltine, the Civil War was not the result of a clash of discordant economies or social systems; it was instead a war brought on by the fallibility of men and resolved through the labors of individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

In carrying on in the tradition of his teacher, Ambrose has defied academic fashion. He has never won the reputation of being on the “cutting edge” of his profession. What Ambrose has lost in academic cachet, however, he has gained in intellectual substance. His emphasis on the human element in history puts him in a great tradition of historical writing reaching back to the Greek and Roman origins of the discipline. Ambrose has always been engaged in a moral as well as a scholarly enterprise. His work addresses fundamental questions about human character and the nature of human choice. Ambrose’s books capture the drama of historical experience. The subjects of his investigations are actors, responsible moral agents who enjoy or suffer the consequences of their decisions. As with a good play, the theme of one of Ambrose’s books may be broadly comic or tragic, but the mainspring of the action always lies in the hearts of the protagonists. In large part because of his humanistic orientation, there has always been a strong biographical bent to Ambrose’s work. He finds it easier to understand great events through the prism of a significant life, hence his distinguished studies of Eisenhower and Nixon.

Ambrose has, however, at least to a degree departed from Hesseltine’s example. Although he has devoted much of his career to studying famous leaders, he is also deeply conscious of the importance of the role played in history by ordinary men and women. Without the sacrifices of countless unsung heroes, the best- laid plans of celebrated statesmen and commanders would come to nothing. This homely truth is almost a cliché, but Ambrose goes beyond it. He is aware of the complex, and at times delicate, relationship that exists between leaders and led. The flow of command does not run only one way. Leaders, if they are to be effective, always have to be conscious of the desires of their followers. A vital component of leadership is reconciling public aspirations with official needs. Great leaders are those who best come to embody the wider dreams of their age.

If Ambrose’s approach to history has always been from a biographical perspective, the subject that he has returned to again and again is war. Ambrose came of age in an era overshadowed by war and the threat of war. He was a boy during World War II, and his father was away as a doctor with the Navy. He missed participating in the Korean War by a year. As a young professor, he watched the Vietnam War. In the intervals between shooting conflicts, the Cold War hovered ever-present in the background. War is a terrible scourge, as Ambrose is quick to acknowledge, but war’s significance in human affairs cannot be denied, and its challenges offer full scope for the entire gamut of human possibility. War brings out both the best and the worst in people and as such is a phenomenon that a historian with Ambrose’s interest in leadership and human character could not avoid.

Ambrose is particularly interested in the ways Americans and their democracy have confronted the stress of war. Having lived through a range of American responses to conflict, from the patriotic exaltation of World War II to the profound internal divisions of the Vietnam era, he brings to his scholarship the insight born of experience. Ambrose has come to believe that democracies, for all their problems, are far superior to nations with other forms of government at making war. This flies in the face of expectations that autocratic states, with their much more centralized and focused chains of command, would be more efficient in war-making. Ambrose believes that the very centralization of autocratic states is in the end their Achilles’ heel. Amid the crises of war, autocracies prove to be far less flexible and resilient than democracies. They prove less able than democracies to mobilize their full human potential, because only in democracies do citizens become part of a team, ready and eager to devote their individual insights and skills to the common cause. The result of such teamwork is an explosion of energy, best exemplified for Ambrose by the tremendous outpouring of American industrial and military power during World War II.

The essays in Americans at War are well suited to illustrate Ambrose’s contributions to his profession. They date from various periods in his career and capture the enthusiasms of his youth as well as the mature reflections of a seasoned historian. They also reflect his interest in biography. Among the generals given careful treatment are Ulysses S. Grant, George Armstrong Custer, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur. His interest in the roles of ordinary people caught up in war also is well represented, as in an essay on the home front during World War II that contains recollections of his own childhood. The moral drama faced by men and women at war is explored in several essays. Among these are an essay on the end of World War II in Europe, which addresses Eisenhower’s decision not to strike for Berlin in 1945; another on the use of the atomic bomb to end the war in the Pacific; and one on the choices facing Richard Nixon when he attempted to bring an end to the Vietnam War by ordering the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. An essay on the My Lai massacre examines the same sort of moral dilemmas, only from the perspective of men lower in the chain of command. A number of these essays touch on Ambrose’s appreciation for the advantages of democracy in war. An essay on signals intelligence in World War II celebrates the ingenuity democracies are able to bring to bear in solving wartime problems.

Perhaps the most emotionally evocative essay in the book, and one that illustrates all of Ambrose’s concerns as a historian, is a piece titled “D-Day Revisited.” In this essay, Ambrose returns to the beaches of Normandy. He has visited Normandy numerous times while researching his histories, but, as he states, he never fails to discover some new insight on these trips. Once again he tours the old battlefields and meditates on the extraordinary courage of the men who stormed Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe in 1944. Only in retrospect does an Allied victory in Normandy seem inevitable. Ambrose, inspecting the formidable remains of the German fortifications on the beaches, reminds his readers that victory was anything but assured for the troops who waded ashore amid a hail of enemy fire. Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of Allied forces in Europe, was careful to keep in his pocket on that day a paper containing a statement accepting full responsibility for failure. Ambrose is full of admiration for the citizen soldiers who scaled the cliffs at Omaha Beach and surmounted German obstacles elsewhere during the landing. As Ambrose takes his readers from one site to another—once bitterly contested scenes of battle, now peaceful French countryside—he remarks that the ghosts of the Americans who died to free these places can still be felt. It is a moving observation, elegantly written, and a fitting end to a masterful essay.

Whatever the future may hold for Ambrose, readers will be able to measure something of his contribution to American history and letters through this choice collection of essays. Americans at War is a welcome monument to a superb American historian.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. October 26, 1997, p. H6.

Oregonian. December 28, 1997, p. D6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, September 8, 1997, p. 64.

Time. November 24, 1997, p. 108.

Times-Picayune. November 2, 1997, p. D6.

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