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Jewish World Review June 20, 2001 / 30 Sivan, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history? -- IF anyone these days is more revered in American society than the doctor, it is the historian. Bolstered in the electronic age by appearances as narrators on television, historians like David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose have become American icons of truth and dependability.

McCullough's latest biography of John Adams and Ambrose's sagas of World War II American gallantry have earned them special places in today's public life, well beyond the old image of the reclusive and sheltered academic poring over obscure documents and rewarded mainly by the recognition of their colleagues and other bookworms.

So has it also been lately, if on a slightly lesser scale, about "Founding Fathers: The Revolutionary Generation," Joseph J. Ellis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History earlier this year for his best-selling book, and before that celebrated for a 1997 biography of Thomas Jefferson.

According to a thorough examination of Ellis' past by reporter Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe, Ellis in his personal life has been given to stretching and fabricating the truth in several aspects, most notably in claiming to have served in the Army in Vietnam when military records indicate he did not. Ellis has confirmed the story, saying "I deeply regret having let stand and later confirming the assumption that I went to Vietnam."

The disclosure is particularly troubling in light of the fact that Ellis, an esteemed professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, has been teaching one of the school's most popular courses, on Vietnam and American Culture, and using recollections of his nonexistent experiences in Vietnam to interest and engage his students.

In an interview last year with another Globe reporter, Ellis said he went to Vietnam in 1965 as a platoon leader and paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and, motivated by his experience, became active against the war at Yale, where he spent four years earning a doctorate in history.

It turned out Ellis, commissioned a second lieutenant after ROTC training at William and Mary, got an active duty deferment that enabled him to go to Yale, where he wasn't known as a antiwar activist.

Other minor discrepancies included an Ellis claim that he played football in high school and scored the winning touchdown in the season's final game, when records show his school lost that game and there was no evidence he was even on the team.

Ellis responded to the Globe story by saying, "I'll have to suffer the consequences," but it is uncertain what if any they might be. Mount Holyoke president Joanne V. Creighton praised Ellis, saying he had "earned a reputation for great integrity, honest and honor" and that the college "is proud to have him on our faculty."

Just why a man of such notable achievement would not only fabricate military experience but also go on to incorporate it into his teaching is both puzzling and sad. There have been more than a few other stories in which political figures seeking public office have embellished or even invented military service, but they had a motive - election - if not exactly a noble one.

Voters these days are accustomed to politicians exaggerating their resumes or plagiarizing others' remarks, an offense that drove Sen. Joe Biden out of the 1988 presidential race. They even seem willing on occasion to swallow politicians making up whoppers, such as Ronald Reagan's contention that he witnessed the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, when the closest he got to a real war experience was making military training films in Hollywood.

The historian ranks took a previous hit two years ago when Edmund Morris, another winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History for his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, created an uproar in the literary world by injecting himself and others as fictitious characters in his supposedly nonfiction book, "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan." He acknowledged it openly, but that didn't save him from criticism, which likely will be regurgitated upon publication soon of his second volume on Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, there are precious few lines of work in these cynical days that hold the wide esteem of the American people, and the writing of history is one of them. Ellis' prize-winning efforts have not themselves been questioned, but the credibility of historians generally is not helped by the embarrassment of an eminent practitioner caught bending the truth about himself.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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