April 27, 2010 -- The late Stephen Ambrose, one of America's most popular and prolific historians, fabricated numerous interviews he held with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, says an historian who cites newly-discovered documents recording the handful of meetings between the two men.
Ambrose, the bestselling author of the World War II histories "D-Day" and "Band of Brothers," said that he had conducted "hundreds and hundreds" of hours of interviews between 1964 and 1969 while working on "Supreme Commander," the two-volume biography of the general-turned-president that would catapult Ambrose to the top ranks of American historians.
But when a researcher at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum earlier this month went to pull minutes of those meetings from the libraries archives, he found what amounted to less five hours' worth of interviews.
"It was entirely by accident," said Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kansas. "I just stumbled over the documents. We were holding a program at the library about Ambrose and Eisenhower. We typically display documents in an exhibit along with the program. I've read all of Ambrose's accounts of Eisenhower. But when I looked at the documents there was plenty of material that just didn't match up."
Ambrose, who died in 2002, said he was approached by Eisenhower in 1964 to become his biographer, a request that changed his life and made him at one point perhaps the most famous historian in the United States.
"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.
"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." Eisenhower had a home near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in his later years. He died in 1969.
Rives says Ambrose's account is contradicted by the meticulously-kept documents recording Eisenhower's correspondence and schedule.
On Sept. 10, 1964, Rives says the library's records show that Ambrose, part of a team of historians at Johns Hopkins University reviewing Eisenhower's papers, sent the former president a letter and a copy of his book.
"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," wrote Ambrose, who enclosed a copy of his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, Abraham Lincoln's chief of staff.
Rives said Presidents, even in retirement, keep carefully annotated schedules. According to the records, he said, there is no way Ambrose could have conducted the lengthy and regular interviews he claimed.
"The presidential appointment books and supporting files are comprehensive. We know when, on which dates, and for how long they met with each other. There were only three meetings in person and one phone call, and Ambrose was never alone with him," said Rives.
According to Rives, Ambrose probably spent less than five hours in total speaking to Eisenhower.
Footnotes in Ambrose's "The Supreme Commander," published in 1970, cite nine interview dates with Eisenhower. Rives says Eisenhower's schedule, however, shows he was doing other things on seven of those dates.
Later histories cite undated interviews with Eisenhower, during which Ambrose said the two men discussed a wide range of topics including civil rights, John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower's childhood and the Vietnam War.
"It's hard to believe they could have discussed so many topics in so little time," Rives said.
Most of the correspondence between Ambrose and Eisenhower consisted of requests for meetings by the historian, said Rives. It took nine months of letters before the busy and sometimes ill Eisenhower had enough free time to give Ambrose even one of the three interviews Rives said are confirmed to have happened.
Rives said he did not know if Ambrose found information elsewhere and wrote that he got it from interviews with Eisenhower, or whether some of what he wrote was simply made up.
Ambrose became a model for contemporary writers of popular history. His success allowed him to leave academia and become a regularly-quoted personality who frequently consulted directors like Stephen Spielberg on big-budget World War II films.
In 2002, Ambrose admitted to plagiarizing portions of "Wild Blue," his history of the B-24 bomber, blaming shoddy attribution.
Douglas Brinkley, who was mentored by Ambrose and hand-picked to succeed him at the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, would neither defend nor assail his old mentor.
"Steve was a great, riveting storyteller," Brinkley wrote in an e-mail. "Sorry to see him take this hit."