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Conversation: Stephen Ambrose

David Gergen, longtime NewsHour contributor and professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, talks with historian-writer Stephen Ambrose about his newest project.

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  • DAVID GERGEN:

    Stephen Ambrose, thank you for joining us.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    Thanks for having me.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    In May, your doc told you that you had cancer, an advanced case of lung cancer, and that you might not have many more months to live. Afterwards you told The Los Angeles Times this: "After I got through the shock, the outrage, the 'how can this be happening?', I got to thinking, 'screw it; in the time I've got left, I'm going to write my love song.'" And that's what you've been doing. Tell us about the love song.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    It's an account of the parts of American history that appeal to me, because I've changed my mind so completely on them. I used to teach in World War II that Hiroshima was a terrible mistake on the part of the Americans– that it was done because we wanted revenge; it was done to show the Soviet Union that we had this new weapon and we weren't afraid to use it– that it was done for all the wrong reasons.

    Well, I've learned a lot about the Japanese government at that time since then; learned a lot about the war since then, and I would teach it entirely different today. It was absolutely necessary. Truman did the best thing that he could have done for the United States and for Japan, and it did bring about an end to the war that otherwise would not have happened except for an American invasion of the home islands, which would have been the biggest invasion ever, and would have led to the greatest battle that has never been fought, the Battle of Tokyo. We were saved that because of what happened at Hiroshima.

    There's so many other things. I used to teach about how the men who built the transcontinental railroad got filthy rich out of it because the government gave them all this land and gave them the bonds to build this railroad, and they had a monopoly and they charged all the traffic could bear, and that led to the populist party and the Progressive Party and all the sins of the robber barons that were coming down on their head because of the way they ran that railroad. Well, since I used to teach it that way, I've done a lot of research on the building of the railroads, and everything I said was wrong. These people were taking terribly big risks when nobody else would, and you couldn't get the government to invest money in it. They would give away land, of which it had… still does; the federal government owns more land than anybody else.

    But a great deal of it still belongs to the railroads because they can't sell it because it's out in the desert, and it's not sellable. The robber barons were a blessing to America. Now, they got filthy rich out of building those railroads, that's for sure. But they should have gotten filthy rich out of doing it because it was their money that had been risked, their reputation, and they built it, and they created a situation in which you could get from New York to San Francisco in a week.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    So this… this is really a love song to America.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    Oh, yeah.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    It's the realization you've had over the years, some 30-plus years as an historian, that it's basically a very positive epic, what this country is all about.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    The best in the world. There are many reasons for it, and I write about them in this book: The Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, what they did and the government they set up and how they did it. And I don't want to get into details on this, but they created a nation that had many sins, slavery being number one; the discrimination against minorities and women and so on. There's quite a lot. They haven't all been solved, but many of them have been.

    This is a country that can change faster and quicker in the right direction than anybody else in the world. We are the world's leaders because we live in the best country that ever was. It is the richest and it is the freest, and we have extended that freedom. When I was a kid, there were no black athletes in professional sports. When I was a kid, no Asians could come into this country as immigrants, and damned few Central Americans could come in. It was Europe, or forget about it; you're not coming to the United States.

    When I was a kid, the only jobs women had were schoolteacher or a clerk or a salesperson, or housewife. That was it. And look at the changes that have happened in this country in the last 50 years, 60 years, and that are continuing to happen. And that's not going on anywhere else. Nobody can keep up with us on this. The reasons for it are the twin pillars that the founding fathers created. It's going to be a democracy. Now, they didn't really mean that. They didn't have women voting. Blacks didn't vote. Immigrants couldn't vote. But all white males could, and that has now been extended so that everybody is a part of the democracy and gets to vote — universal education. This is unique to the United States.

    In many ways, it remains so. You're going to get educated if you live in this country. There's not very many other places that can say it. Canada can, of course, but not too many others. And the third pillar: Freedom of worship. This is the first country that ever had that. Even the mother country had an established church that everybody had to pay a tithe to and everybody had to subscribe to. And everybody was told what to think. But because of Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers, in this country you can be a Muslim; you can be a Buddhist; you can be a Congregationalist; you can be a Presbyterian; you can be a catholic; you can be a Jew; you can be a atheist; you can be whatever you want. That's the foundation on which the great success of this country rests.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    That… I remember the first time we met. It was in the Clinton White House, and you came as the President was preparing to go to the 50th anniversary of D-Day. And you told the story of Normandy to the President in the White House theater. And you said that these were the sons of democracy who got off those boats, and that that was the turning point in western history, in your judgment, and it had everything to do with democracy.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    Absolutely. Hitler, when he declared war on the United States, 10 December, 1941, made a bet that "my kids raised under the Nazi youth will always outfight those American kids raised as Boy Scouts." Well, Hitler lost that bet. The American soldier turned out to be far superior to the German soldier, as he came to be also in the Pacific against the Japanese. Many reasons for it, but chief among them is that they took responsibility for themselves and for those around them– the guy over here and the guy over there.

    In the German army or the Red Army, the Russian Army, or the Japanese army, if a lieutenant got killed, the platoon was leaderless. Nobody stepped forward to take control, and the officer from the brigade had to come down and so on. In the American army, the sergeant would take over immediately, or sometimes it could be a private that was going to take over immediately. But they could see what needed to be done and decide, "we're going to do this; instead of sitting around and cowering down with the shells coming in, we're going to do this; we're going to do that; we're going to charge up here." And the Normandy invasion, initially the Germans pinned down all these people along Omaha Beach, and there was barbed wire and there were minefields, and then you had to go up a very steep bluff that had a lot of trenches in it.

    It was a World War I kind of a setting. And there was no retreat. You couldn't run. You couldn't get out of there. It was a private over here and a sergeant over here and a lieutenant over here and a corporal over there who said, "screw this, man. If I'm going to get killed, I'm going up that hill and take some Germans with me. Come on, who's coming with me?" And they would just start off, and others would get in behind them, and up they would go, and they took the hill in that way. That would not have happened in other armies, but it happened in the American army.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    Why would it not have happened in another army?

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    Because they're not trained to take that kind of responsibility because of what Hitler had bet. That's what you learn in the Boy Scouts: Somebody's got to take command here; now whoever it's going to be, what are we going to do next? And he says what we're going to do next, and off you go. And I get asked it a lot: Do you think today's kids could do D- Day over again? And the implication from the questioner is "I know that they couldn't; they're too soft; they're too effeminate; they've been brought up too rich; they think only of themselves." My answer is always, "you're damned right they could," because right like their grandfathers or their fathers, they are the children of democracy. And if democracy is under attack, they'll go out and fight for it.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    You know I have to ask you this question, so permit me. As you look back, how do you think about this charge that swirled around and basically has gone away now that you copied too many things or copied some passages without giving full annotation to it?

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    It's not true. Plagiarism is using somebody else's words, pretending that they're your own, and profiting from it. I have never done that, and I never will do that. And those passages that they found, six or seven of them, I'll tell you how they found them: From the footnote. And the footnote tells you, "this came out of this book, and that's where that sentence came from."

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    The other allegation sometimes out there is that, well, you turned out a lot of books to make a lot of money, but I gather you've given a lot of money away. You helped start the D-Day Museum and have given a lot of money away to other folks.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    In the last period of time– I don't know, five, seven years or something– I've made about $10 million in royalties and speaking fees. I've given $9.5 million of that away to the National D-Day Museum, to American rivers, to the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commission, to the University of Wisconsin, and so on.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    I meet veterans from World War II around the country, and they so frequently say, in effect, "Stephen Ambrose gave us our voice." Is that one of your greatest satisfactions as an historian?

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    I didn't give them their voice. They have their own voices, and they speak out with them. I listen. I'll tell you what my greatest satisfaction is: I know how to listen and I know how to pick up good lines, and then I know how to weave them into a story. It's very nice that they say that, but it's not true.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    Stephen Ambrose, thank you very much.

  • STEPHEN AMBROSE:

    Sure.