Stephen Ambrose Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen Ambrose 1936-

(Full name Stephen Edward Ambrose) American historian, biographer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Ambrose's career through 2000.

For nearly forty years, Ambrose has been the author of several major historical and biographical works that focus on significant events in American history. He has written multivolume biographies of United States presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, popular narrative studies of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the opening of the American West, and vivid accounts of World War II combat. Ambrose has also amassed the world's largest collection of oral histories related to a single battle, the D-Day invasion, which he used as source material to write D-Day, June 6, 1944 (1994). Ambrose's military expertise came to the attention of director Steven Spielberg, who relied on Ambrose as a historical advisor for the acclaimed film Saving Private Ryan, the plot of which was partially drawn from Ambrose's writing about the Normandy invasion. Often praised for his balanced perspective and the narrative skill with which he presents individuals and historical events, Ambrose is among the most widely read professional historians in the United States.

Biographical Information

Born in Decatur, Illinois, Ambrose was the son of family physician Stephen Hedges Ambrose and Rosepha Ambrose. Early in Ambrose's life, the family moved to Whitewater, Wisconsin, where he attended high school. He matriculated at the University of Wisconsin as a pre-med student, but after he enrolled in a history class, Ambrose became so enthralled with the subject matter that he changed his major. He received a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1957, the same year that he married Judith Dorlester. Ambrose received a master's degree from Louisiana State University in 1958, but returned to the University of Wisconsin for his doctoral work, which he completed in 1963. From 1960 to 1964 he served as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in New Orleans and wrote his first book, Halleck (1962). This admittedly minor work was to have great implications for Ambrose's career, as one of its few readers was former President Eisenhower, who was so impressed by Ambrose's historical approach that he hired the then-28-year-old Ambrose to edit his papers. Ultimately, Ambrose became Eisenhower's official biographer. Ambrose has since spent thirty years researching the former president, leading to the completion of at least fifteen works about Eisenhower himself, his family, and events in which he played a pivotal role. Ambrose worked as an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University from 1964 through 1969. While at Johns Hopkins, he published three more works of history, Upton and the Army (1964), Duty, Honor, and Country (1966), and Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945 (1967). In 1966, Ambrose's wife died and one year later, he married Moira Buckley. After leaving Johns Hopkins in 1969, he spent a year as the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the U.S. Naval War College and another year at Kansas State University as the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of War and Peace. During his career, Ambrose took advantage of several visiting professorships throughout the United States and Ireland. The bulk of his academic career, however, has centered around his alma mater, Louisiana State University (now known as the University of New Orleans), where he taught from 1971 through 1995 and currently remains as a professor emeritus. He founded the Eisenhower Center at the University as well as the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. In addition to authoring more than twenty-five books, Ambrose remains a frequent contributor to both scholarly and popular historical journals and newspapers. He currently lives in Helena, Montana.

Major Works

Ambrose has spent the majority of his career concentrating on the history of the United States, with particular interests in World War II, Eisenhower and Nixon, and the exploration of the American West. His work has been heavily influenced by his strong personal belief in the merits of democratic society and his great respect for the individuals who defended the United States against totalitarian regimes. His World War II histories include Pegasus Bridge (1984), Band of Brothers (1992), Eisenhower and the German POWs (1992), D-Day, June 6, 1944, Citizen Soldiers (1997), and The Victors (1998). Band of Brothers is a personal story of war seen through the eyes of the men of E Company, 101st Airborne Division, who were responsible for holding Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and for capturing Berchtesgaden, Hitler's mountain hideaway. Eisenhower and the German POWs, co-edited with Gunter Bischof, cites abundant historical evidence to refute the assertions of author James Bacque that President Eisenhower was responsible for the deaths of perhaps one million German POWs in the waning days of World War II. D-Day, June 6, 1944 approaches military history unconventionally, by focusing on the experiences of common Allied soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and second lieutenants rather than generals or political leaders. In Ambrose's opinion, the creativity of these foot soldiers and platoon commanders was essential to the Allies' victory over the Germans. The text of D-Day is drawn from more than 1,000 oral histories of soldiers present at Normandy on the day of the invasion. Citizen Soldiers also recounts the experiences of ordinary soldiers, from June 7, 1944, through the surrender of Germany. This work reiterates Ambrose's thesis that it was the basic decency, moral determination, and flexible thinking of young American men that led to the Allied victory.

Ambrose's acclaimed biographies include a two-volume work about Eisenhower—Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 (1983) and Eisenhower: The President (1984)—and a three-volume work on Nixon—Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962 (1987), Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 (1989), and Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (1991). Ambrose portrays Eisenhower as one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, a man born to lead and a chief executive who, contrary to some contemporary opinions, held his hand firmly at the helm throughout his two terms in office. While researching the Eisenhower administration, Ambrose also became fascinated with one of the most villified political figures in American history—Richard Nixon, who served as Eisenhower's vice-president before ascending to the presidency himself. Ambrose was drawn to Nixon not out of admiration, but through curiosity about what went wrong during his presidential administration. The resulting three volumes constitute a perceptive portrait of a man who is considered one of the most complex political figures in U.S. history.

Ambrose's historical works about the American West—Crazy Horse and Custer (1975), Undaunted Courage (1996), and Nothing Like It in the World (2000)—are vivid narratives that portray the different kinds of personalities who overcame the many physical obstacles to America's westward expansion. Undaunted Courage, perhaps one of Ambrose's most highly regarded works, attempts to restore the reputation of Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition that was originally conceived by Thomas Jefferson. The work recounts the importance of Lewis's shared leadership with William Clark, the friendship between the two men, Lewis's excellence as a natural scientist, and his tragic demise. In Nothing Like It in the World, Ambrose celebrates the legions of anonymous workers who performed the backbreaking labor needed to build the transcontinental railway and describes the engineering, building, and financing decisions that occupied the men leading the effort. Ambrose's historical expertise has also drawn the attention of the producers and directors of various television documentaries and motion pictures. In 2001, the pay cable network HBO (Home Box Office) and director Steven Spielberg produced a ten-hour television mini-series adaptation of Ambrose's Band of Brothers.

Critical Reception

Ambrose's work has been hailed by many critics for its balance, its even-handed approach to men and events, and its engaging narrative presentation. Ambrose's biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon are widely regarded as definitive works on their subjects. Some reviewers have noted that Ambrose's willingness to criticize Eisenhower (his personal hero) and to express admiration for Nixon (a disgraced president) testifies to his judicious and objective historical approach. While his military histories of World War II, notably D-Day and Citizen Soldiers, have attracted considerable praise, some critics maintain that Ambrose tends to romanticize war, overlooking the reality of atrocity on all sides. Other reviewers have faulted Ambrose for not being sufficiently sensitive to political correctness. Also, because Ambrose is unabashedly patriotic and often reveres historical figures, some critics find his works long on adulation but short on analysis. However, it has been noted that Ambrose was unafraid to assail Eisenhower's handling of Joseph McCarthy and the growing civil rights struggle, despite his deep admiration for the man. Ambrose has been criticized for his failure to rely on primary sources, even when they are available, and for sometimes glossing over or omitting key points of history. Ambrose's books are written primarily for a popular audience rather than a scholarly one, and Ambrose has lamented the trend in contemporary historical writing toward focusing on theory rather than narrative.