Lori Clune is a lecturer in history at CSU Fresno and a PhD candidate at UC Davis. Her dissertation is entitled "Executing the Rosenbergs: A Transnational History."
I met Stephen Ambrose when I was a young, idealistic graduate student attending my first American Historical Association conference in the late 1980s. He graciously shared his paper – and enthusiasm – with the groupies he attracted. Years later, his Rise to Globalism was on my coffee table so often that I have a photo of my then two-year-old son “reading” it. It is safe to say his work played a role in my decision to study history.
The New Yorker’s recent allegations that Ambrose manufactured interviews with – and likely quotes from – Eisenhower (“Channeling Ike,” by Richard Rayner, April 26), combined with earlier accusations of plagiarism, have tarnished his reputation. In my research on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (arrested for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1950 and executed in 1953), I have recently discovered instances where Ambrose also fabricated information from written documents.
In chapter thirteen of Ike’s Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment (1981), Ambrose explains in two footnotes that his section on the Rosenberg case is based on his interviews with Eisenhower and Attorney General Herbert Brownell, and Eisenhower’s memoir of White House years 1953-56, Mandate for Change (1963). On page 182 of Ike’s Spies Ambrose writes:
I do not believe any part of these statements to be true. While we cannot know what Eisenhower or Brownell told Ambrose when interviewed, in Mandate for Change Eisenhower makes no mention of advisers urging clemency because Ethel was a mother, or for any other reason. For Cabinet recommendations, I attempted to corroborate Ambrose’s account with Cabinet meeting minutes. The minutes from the two meetings where the Rosenberg case was discussed (12 February 1953 and 19 June 1953, the day of the executions) contradict Ambrose’s assertions. According to the Cabinet minutes of Staff Secretary L. Arthur Minnich, no one expressed support for clemency when asked at the February meeting. During the June meeting, U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and presidential advisor C.D. Jackson suggested the need for an additional presidential statement on the case, but no one recommended clemency. According to Attorney General Herbert Brownell’s oral history housed at the Eisenhower Library (interview by Ed Edwin, 5 May 1967, OH-157, 3 of 5, 189-196), Brownell stated (page 193-4):
Another example comes from Ambrose’s discussion of the Rosenberg case in Eisenhower: The President, Volume Two (1984). On page 84 Ambrose writes that on the day of the executions Eisenhower
While small examples, these hint at a much larger problem. Ambrose not only fabricated interviews with Eisenhower, he manufactured written evidence relating to his presidency as well. I found these discrepancies in just a few hours in one little corner of Eisenhower’s career, the Rosenberg case. If we all investigate the pieces we know best, a clearer picture will emerge. Perhaps the examples I have from the Rosenberg case are unique. I fear, however, that for today’s graduate students Ambrose will be known more for plagiarism and falsified evidence than for his popular narrative prose.