I confess to a bias where Ambrose is concerned. I majored in history at UNO, where I enrolled in several of his courses. He became my teacher and my friend. Along with several other UNO historians, most notably the late Joe Logsdon, he gave me a genuine appreciation for history -- not the ancient, textbook kind but the living, breathing kind.
Steve Ambrose understood America as well as anyone. He believed that our nation was not built on the lofty notions of liberty and equality -- though we cherish those ideals -- but rather on something much more fundamental, much more human: America was built on optimism. We believe in ourselves. We believe we can do anything we set ourselves to doing. We believe we can and will make things better. We have more than a sense of purpose; we have a sense of destiny. By sheer force of American will, we endure and, ultimately, prevail.
This optimism, this boundless hope, took shape in a century in which America's very surroundings shouted limitless possibilities. In his best-selling homage to Meriwether Lewis, Undaunted Courage, Ambrose wrote often of America's great optimism and how it mirrored the borderless expanse known as the Louisiana Territory. "The sense of space that is so American" is how he described it in a Gambit Weekly interview in 1997.
He framed his subjects in similar terms.
Of Jefferson, whom he greatly admired, Ambrose wrote: "In an age of imperialism, he was the greatest empire builder of all. His mind encompassed the continent." And of Lewis: "He was exactly what Jefferson wanted him to be, optimistic, prudent, alert to all that was new about him ... . His ambition was boundless. His determination was complete. He could not, would not, contemplate failure."
In Ambrose's view -- like Jefferson's, no doubt -- America was destined to grow, to prosper, and to lead the world. How could it be otherwise? Thus did Lewis' explorations in the early 19th century foster our nation's dominance in the next century -- The American Century.
Ambrose embraced this view of America and preached it passionately, whether by telling the stories of famous Americans like Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, or those of ordinary Americans like the men of Easy Company (in Band of Brothers). In every case, Ambrose brought history to life by telling it on a personal level. He engaged his readers and his students by taking them into the lives of his subjects.
Ambrose's lectures were legendary for the way he captivated his audiences, whether he was speaking in a classroom, a banquet hall or a television studio. "I'm just a storyteller," he often said of himself. That's true in the same sense that Ike was just a soldier.
In the early days of his career, Ambrose wrote of larger-than-life figures, particularly Eisenhower, who hired the young historian to be his official biographer in 1964. He also wrote a three-volume biography of Richard Nixon, whom he initially detested but eventually came to admire (but not love).
Later, in his books and on the lecture circuit, Ambrose sang the praises of everyday Americans, particularly those who won the war that saved democracy. He celebrated their stories at every turn, culminating in the establishment of the UNO Eisenhower Center, which recorded thousands of individual stories from WWII veterans, and the National D-Day Museum, which brings those stories to life and preserves them in perpetuity.
"It all came down to a bunch of eighteen-to-twenty-eight-year-olds," Ambrose wrote in D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. "They were magnificently trained and equipped and supported, but only a few of them had ever been in combat. Most ... had never heard a shot fired in anger. They were citizen-soldiers, not professionals. ...
"They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other young men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought. They were soldiers of democracy. They were the men of D-Day, and to them we owe our freedom."
Near the end of his life, Ambrose battled two demons: cancer and questions about the integrity of his scholarship. Critics claimed he had used the words of others without giving proper credit. In the end, the controversy amounted to little more than omitted quotation marks (footnotes gave proper credit in each case). Ambrose shrugged it off and said he would let the public decide. His forthcoming book, his last, will be his final tribute -- and gift -- to his favorite subject. To America: Personal Reflections of a Historian will be published next month. It is destined be a bestseller.
In the end, Ambrose succumbed to cancer at the age of 66. But in his books and lectures, at the Eisenhower Center, at the D-Day Museum, and in the hearts and minds of his students and readers, Stephen Ambrose's love affair with America will endure and, ultimately, prevail. In that sense, Ambrose became his subject. Something tells me that's exactly how he wanted his own story to end.