L'historien américain Stephen Ambrose est connu pour de grandes fresques historiques centrées sur la Seconde Guerre mondiale où il a mis en scène avec beaucoup de talent les vertus et les qualités du combattant de l'US Army.
La biographie du commandant en chef des Alliés occidentaux Dwight D Eisenhower faisait également partie de ses sujets de prédilection non seulement grâce à sa connaissance des archives mais aussi grâce à ses nombreux entretiens en tête à tête avec ce militaire devenu président des Etats-Unis.
Lorsque l'écrivain canadien James Bacque a publié son célèbre Other Losses où il défendait la thèse que le commandant en chef occidental était directement responsable de la mort de milliers de prisonniers allemands, laissés délibérément sans nourriture, c'est Stephen Ambrose qui est monté au créneau pour défendre la mémoire d'Eisenhower.
C'est le New Yorker, sous la plume de Richard Rayner, qui a finalement révélé les découvertes d'archivistes de la bibliothèque présidentielle qui gère les papier laissés par le généralissime. Dans le cadre de la préparation d'une exposition, les chercheurs ont confronté l'emploi du temps du président avec les prétendus entretiens obtenus par Stephen Ambrose, dévoilant ainsi le pot aux roses.
Pour faire bref, voici les principaux reproches faits à Ambrose :
• Contrairement aux affirmations de Stephen Ambrose, ce n'est pas le président qui a pris l'initiative de contacter l'historien.
• Ils se sont rencontrés en tout et pour tout trois fois, pour un total de moins de cinq heures. L'historien bidonneur a prétendu avoir eu des entretiens avec Eisenhower durant des centaines d'heures.
• Ces entretiens ne se sont jamais déroulés en tête à tête, mais toujours en compagnie de tiers.
• Les travaux d'Ambrose sur Eisenhower sont constamment renvoyés en note à des entretiens fantaisistes avec son sujet ce qui interdit désormais aux autres historiens de prendre ses livres comme source pour leurs propres recherches.
Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that. Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.
“I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography,” Ambrose said in a C-SPAN interview in 1994. In another interview, he added, “I thought I had flown to the moon.”
In Ambrose’s oft-repeated telling of the tale, Eisenhower contacted him after reading his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s chief of staff. “I’d walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes,” Ambrose told C-SPAN. “I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office.”
Last November, Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, in Abilene, Kansas, moderated a panel that celebrated Ambrose’s writings, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of his two-volume Eisenhower biography, a work that is still regarded as the standard. Rives was looking for items to put on display at the event when he came across previously unpublished source materials that debunk the Boswellian tale that Ambrose loved to tell.
In a letter dated September 10, 1964, Ambrose, having recently joined a team of historians at Johns Hopkins who were preparing Eisenhower’s papers for publication, wrote to the former President, introducing himself: “For the past six weeks I have been reading your World War II correspondence and feel I am getting to know you intimately; therefore I think it only fair that you have the opportunity to see some of my writing.” He enclosed two books, one the biography of Halleck. About a month later, on October 15th, Ambrose sent another letter. “It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II,” he wrote. “I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career.”
The two men finally met two months later, on December 14th, when Ambrose’s boss, Dr. Alfred Chandler, took him to Gettysburg. “I want the General to meet Dr. Ambrose,” Chandler wrote in a letter to Eisenhower’s office.
Rives was interested to discover that, contrary to Ambrose’s claims, Eisenhower never approached him to write his biography. By telephone the other day from his office in Abilene, Rives said, “And, I’m sorry to say, these weren’t the only problems.”
Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled and his activities were documented by his staff, particularly by his executive assistant, Brigadier General Robert L. Schulz, who kept meticulous records of his boss’s schedule and telephone calls (now part of the Abilene archive). These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together. The footnotes to Ambrose’s first big Eisenhower book, “The Supreme Commander,” published in 1970, cite nine interview dates; seven of these conflict with the record. On October 7, 1965, when Ambrose claimed that he was interviewing Eisenhower at Gettysburg, Ike was travelling from Abilene to Kansas City. On December 7, 1965, another of the purported interview dates, Eisenhower was at Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and saw only General Arthur Nevins, his neighbor and farm manager; George Allen, a golf and bridge pal; and Gordon Moore, his brother-in-law. He dined that evening with his son, John Eisenhower. On October 5, 1967, rather than hobnobbing with his young biographer, Eisenhower met with General Lucius D. Clay, the former military governor of occupied Germany and a close friend, and, after Clay left, he talked politics over the phone with Walter Cronkite and called his attorney to discuss a trust fund for his grandchildren. The former President was very busy that day, but he didn’t meet with Stephen Ambrose. On October 21, 1967, another footnoted Gettysburg date, Eisenhower was on vacation at Augusta National Golf Club. He was still there on October 27th, when Ambrose claims that he again interviewed his subject in Gettysburg.
Is it possible that Ambrose met with Eisenhower outside office hours? John Eisenhower told Rives that such meetings never happened: “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.” John Eisenhower, who is now eighty-seven, liked Ambrose, and he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.
Ambrose continued to draw on his supposed Eisenhower interviews in subsequent books, including the two-volume biography, although in the later footnotes the specific dates were replaced with vaguer notations, such as “Interview with DDE.” As the citations grew more nebulous, the range of subjects that the interviews allegedly covered grew wider: the Rosenberg case, Dien Bien Phu, Douglas MacArthur, J.F.K., quitting smoking, the influence of Eisenhower’s mother, Brown v. Board of Education, and so on.
Tim Rives, who still considers himself an Ambrose fan in spite of these discoveries and the various brushes with plagiarism that Ambrose had later in his career, said, “The discussion of so many diverse subjects in less than three hours strains credulity.” He pointed out how minutely Eisenhower’s busy schedule was documented. “He answered letters for the first hour of the day, before receiving guests,” he said. “On doctor’s orders, he napped after lunch. He greeted more visitors after his nap, or took telephone calls, which could reach more than three thousand a month. A quick round of golf might follow the workday.” He went on, “This full schedule demanded that anyone wanting an appointment with him needed to begin the process months ahead of time. His declining health also limited access, especially for scholars. He simply didn’t see that much of Stephen Ambrose.”