For decades, author Stephen Ambrose has held forth on war, peace, politics and the American way. He knows where we've been, fears where we're going.

HISTORY WILL BE THE JUDGE

November 24, 1997|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

Stephen E. Ambrose went a long way after Baltimore.

Thirty years ago he was a restive young associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University, writing quarrelsome articles for a now defunct newspaper.

He wrote about high politics, peace and war, the betrayal of the nation's trust by those rascals in Washington, "the future of mankind." That sort of stuff.

The newspaper was The Evening Sun, and Ambrose's pieces appeared on the editorial page.

Ambrose was an intellectual controversialist at work in a turbulent time: the late Sixties and early Seventies. But he was always driven by the best of motives: To reconcile the contradictions that history and human affairs present. To identify the sham in public affairs. To explain -- to the degree he understood himself -- what was happening to people younger than himself trying to plan a future as the shadow of Vietnam and the fog of hedonism engulfed them, and racial dissent jarred their understanding of the world.

Ambrose never won tenure at Hopkins. It was the university's loss, for he has done well.

Today he is a millionaire historian, busy writing the narrative of the national experience. He's produced 18 books of history. His subjects include the lives of presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, the adventure of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He tells the stories of the Allied invasion of Europe, and the experience of American GI's in Normandy and beyond, the citizen soldiers of the 1940s.

Not many historians become millionaires, or write best sellers, or see their work transcribed for television, as Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage," the tale of Lewis and Clark, was by

filmmaker Ken Burns.

Why him? Maybe because he has been drawn to truly epic tales of the sort that stir the blood and enliven the mind. They are stories of his own people, Americans, whom he regards as such. He recounts and narrates and celebrates -- yet without losing control of what he perceives as the true version of events. Some things, he believes, demand celebration.

His newest book is "Citizen Soldiers." It is about the American men put ashore at Normandy in June 1944, who wrested the continent of Europe from the grasp of Adolf Hitler and his invincible "perfect" soldiers -- men who were more experienced in war, more thoroughly trained and, in many cases, better equipped and armed.

These American troops, Ambrose believes, raised a moral light in the world unseen before, a light grown dimmer almost year by year. In an interview in Washington recently, he used a little pedagogical progression, from high point to low, to illustrate just how stark that degeneration has been.

"Think back to 1945," he instructs. "It was the worst year in the world's history. More people were killed than in any year in history. Think of a squad of soldiers with rifles in Europe, only 12 men with a 19-year-old corporal as their leader. What was the response to the sight of that squad by different people?"

Terror was the response, he says: Terror by Germans if it were a Russian squad. Terror by Poles or Russians if it were German. Plain terror because the arrival of such men meant the certainty of rape, pillage, houses burned down, the meaningless killing of people.

"That was the response, with one exception. The sight of a squad of American soldiers in Europe meant candy, cigarettes. Liberation. That's exactly how it was. It was the proudest moment in our history."

"Then," Ambrose continued, "think of a similar squad of GI's in Vietnam. What did it mean to the Vietnamese? It meant rape, pillage, houses burning down, meaningless killing. Why? What happened?"

Somewhere along the way, Ambrose says, Americans stopped believing. The disillusionment began at the end of the Eisenhower presidency, he believes.

"Three men came along: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon." True leadership vanished.

Having advanced that conviction, Ambrose introduced a strange contradiction, one of several he turned up during the interview. It was triggered by the following question:

Who was the worst president the United States ever had?

It's a hard one. He advances the name of James Buchanan, then thinks a little more on it, and makes another choice.

"In a way the worst was, to my way of thinking, also one of the best. Lyndon Baines Johnson."

Johnson? Ambrose seems almost surprised by his own choice.

"Try to imagine an America without Medicare and Medicaid," he says. "Try thinking of an America where black people couldn't vote in certain states." He paused and added: "Then think of Vietnam."

There's just no escaping it. Nothing is cut and dried.

Militarism alive and well

During his years as a young academic historian raging in the pages of The Evening Sun, one of Ambrose's favorite targets was the military-industrial complex -- that insidious partnership between those who make the weapons of mass destruction and those who deploy them -- that Dwight Eisenhower warned of so apocalyptically before his departure from the White House.

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