Review: To America
December 6, 2002
To America: Reflections of an Historian, By Stephen Ambrose (Simon & Schuster)
[By Ed Chinn]
Stephen Ambrose has long been one of America's favorite historians. He is perhaps best known for his World War II books, such as Citizen Soldiers, D-Day, and Band of Brothers. Those books brought him into greater fame though a creative association with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (Ambrose was a consultant for Saving Private Ryan and HBO's Band of Brothers). He was also Dwight Eisenhower's personally chosen biographer and Nixon's personally despised one. My own favorite of his books is Undaunted Courage, the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
In April of last year, the 66-year-old Ambrose was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Oct. 14, 2002. In those six months, he wrote To America: Reflections of an Historian.
To read his last book is like sitting by a fireplace with him, listening to his stories, his views of history, and his great love for his family and his country. At 250 pages, this book is thin by Ambrose standards (his three volumes on Nixon contained 2,155 pages!). However, it covers a lot of historical ground: from the founding fathers to the future of warfare, from the battle of New Orleans to the battle for civil rights. While unavoidably brief, it provides insightful glimpses of a panorama of American leaders: Jefferson, Washington, Custer, Crazy Horse, Eisenhower, Nixon, Andrew Jackson, Martin Luther King, Grant, the Roosevelts, Truman, MacArthur, LBJ, JFK and many unheard-of soldiers, friends and other supporting players in great historical dramas.
Ambrose was a very complex man. And, he fully accepted complexity and contradiction in others. He examines the parallel racism and expansive vision for America in Jefferson. As a pony-tailed, liberal professor in the 60s, Ambrose hated Richard Nixon. Fifteen years later, he finished his voluminous bio of Nixon with the last sentence: "When Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained." Although Nixon refused to even correspond with him, Ambrose reflects great admiration of—even affection for—him.
In unparalleled fairness and objectivity, Ambrose carries a coexisting respect for Crazy Horse and Custer. He also gives due honor to the "robber barons" who financed the building of the railroads. And, admittedly liberal, Ambrose consistently rejects political correctness (he even dares to dispute the notion that the Native Americans were great environmentalists). Once, as a teacher, when he encountered a student's rejection of George Washington "because he was a slave holder," Ambrose told the kid: "Listen, he was a leader in our Revolution, to which he pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor. Those were not idle pledges. What do you think would have happened to him had he been captured by the British Army? I'll tell you. He would have been brought to London, tried, found guilty of treason, ordered executed, and then drawn and quartered. Do you know what that means? He would have one arm tied to one horse, the other arm to another horse, one leg to yet another horse, and the other leg to a fourth. Then the four horses would have been simultaneously whipped and started off at a gallop, one going north, another south, another east, and the fourth to the west. That is what Washington was risking to establish your freedom and mine."
The best part of the book, and more than sufficient reason to buy it, is Chapter Nine: “The Legacy of World War II.” Here, Ambrose is the proud, unapologetic American. Although certainly not blind to our problems and faults, Ambrose passionately blows the smoke away from the historical revisionism, which casts doubt on America's unique goodness. In this imagined fireside chat with him, one can almost see him pounding the arm of his rocking chair and shouting, "America's young men had gone to Europe not to conquer, not to enslave, not to destroy, but to liberate, and no country in the world had the resources of spirit to do what America did. America turned West Germany from a Nazi dictatorship into a democratic state, then made it into a model that all the Central European countries occupied by the Soviet Union, including East Germany, envied … it sounds too good to be true. It happened. While the Soviets were looting, raping, pillaging in eastern Germany, Poland and elsewhere, the Americans were feeding, rebuilding, restoring.
"In 1945, the sight of a group of teenage German, or Japanese, or Red Army troops, in uniform, armed, brought terror to civilians in France, Belgium, Holland, Korea, the Philippines, China, Germany, Poland, elsewhere … A squad of American soldiers meant candy, C rations, cigarettes, freedom. It was true in France, Belgium, Italy, the Philippines, China, even Germany and, after 1945, Japan."
He carries an implicit challenge to anti-Americanism: Come on, show me the conquered lands and peoples who suffer under the domination of America! "Around the world—even in Russia—there is nearly virtual agreement that if there is to be only one superpower, then thank God Almighty that it is the United States," he says.
One scene is particularly moving. An American GI, part of the Japanese occupation and assigned to a little village, starts bouncing a baseball off the side of a building. One teenage boy sees him. Before long, boys come out of nowhere, with old gloves and sticks (as bats) wanting to play. The soldier found better gloves and bats. "A few days later, they had laid out a baseball field and were playing the game," Ambrose writes. It is a quintessential manifestation of the American spirit and how it seems to take root in the most unlikely places.
Finally, the book is an eloquent picture of Ambrose's own character. Although the entirety of this book was written with the knowledge that he was dying, he never mentions it. Aside from the dedication to a medical team, Ambrose does not reveal one thing about his disease or terminal condition. He seems to have learned a lot from those thousands of war veterans whom he interviewed: The real story is not about me!
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