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Stephen Ambrose's Literary Theft

Updated on August 15, 2015
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Plagiarism is on the rise, or is it? A careful look at it shows that more and more writers are being exposed as word/idea thieves. Even the award winning ones featured in the most reputable of locations and given Pulitzer prizes are found guilty. The best of the best can be caught with the hand in the plagiarism jar. Yet they still claim they are innocent. Such is the case of award winning author, Stephen Ambrose.

Who is Stephen Ambrose

This is an author who if you aren’t reading the genre they are prolific in then you probably haven’t heard of them. He is well known in the nonfiction historical writing circles. His list of works include:

  • Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945
  • Upton and the Army
  • Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point
  • Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors

These are just a few of his works and doesn’t include those he co-authored or edited. It goes without saying that this is a veteran author. In fact, he has done more than just write books. According to the National Geographic website, he has founded the National D-Day Museum and the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. In addition to that, he has served as a consultant on several major motion pictures and has even won an Emmy for a mini-series. Add that to the awards he has won:

  • Department of the Army Ward for Distinguished Public Service,
  • National Humanities Award
  • Teddy Roosevelt Award

...just to name a few. (

So, for one so prolific, why would he lie to the public and steal from other authors?

The Sin of Plagiarism

Plagiarism in the book world is taking exact words or ideas that aren’t your own and claiming them to be yours. Okay, they don’t even have to be exact. They can be just close enough to know you didn’t pull it out of your own head to be considered plagiarized.

How can you avoid plagiarism if you are researching a topic? Be careful to cite and give credit. Researching is time consuming and involves a lot of notes. When you copy words or ideas from someone else, make sure you write down where you got it from. It's that simple.

But taking what isn’t yours is stealing, right? So, we can accuse Stephen Ambrose of sinning by plagiarizing other people’s works?

Ah, it is not so simple.

Did He Really Plagiarize?

That is the question. It is a very debated one.

He says he did not. He was very adamant that he did not steal from others. Okay, he says it was more an issue of “faulty attribution” because he did not put quotation marks around text he took from another source though he felt his footnotes explaining where he got it was enough. ( He argues that was enough to free him from the accusations of plagiarism.

But as the sharks began to gather, they found more pieces of plagiarized meat floating about. In fact, they found many examples of where Ambrose claimed the use of other people’s words. The evidence began to pile up

Again, Ambrose claimed it was all an accident. Can there be too many accidents? I say yes. Once can be excused depending on the degree of the plagiarism. But multiple ‘accidents’? I don’t think so.

Publishing words without the proper citation is wrong. If it is bad enough to get you kicked out of the best schools in the country, why should published authors be exempt?

The Result

Not too much happened though it did cause a stir in the literary world. Mr. Ambrose was well-known and well-published.He wasn't a newbie trying to make a break into the literary world especially the non-fiction arena which is much harder. He was somebody in that circle.

While the revelations rippled across the nation, not many people paid attention. It was pushed even further away when Mr. Ambrose died. His books are still available. Very little has been noticed by the general public.

But there was some more long-lasting effects. The revelation of his plagiarism pushed other authors into the spotlight. Ms. Goodwin found herself in a similar boat as she used words that were not her own and claimed a footnote was enough. The number of authors caught using other people’s words is increasing.

Do We Let Him Off?

Mr. Ambrose has passed on. Yet his work is widely acclaimed. Should we let him off? Should we let it pass because he has left us or because he stresses it was an accident?

If the author had submitted his books for a college paper, he would have been expelled. Maybe that is all the answer we need.

Did Mr. Ambrose plagiarize?

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    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      I hate the fact that when someone is popular, they aren't held accountable for their actions. If colleges would not accept the work, then we shouldn't. It's like telling kids that it's okay to lie as long as you don't get caught and then just say it was a mistake. Own up to it and fix it.

      Thank you for your comments.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      He never did admit to it. Was always adamant that the footnotes were enough.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      I'm so glad you wrote this piece and took on a very sensitive subject. While I admire his sentiments and like his work, he did plagiarize. Did he do it intentionally? Probably not. But as he got older, he relied more and more on his son and staff (his son recently passed as well). He did a lot to get veterans their just due and for that I will be forever grateful but you can't take other writers' material and not note it.

      The real life Band of Brothers had mixed feelings about him. They were happy he was willing to publicize their exploits, but Winters described him as arrogant. I got to meet Buck Compton a few years and he was telling us of the "literary license" that both Ambrose and the movie took in the story. He was a "popular" historian, and we need to judge him that way. However, he made a lot of money and his works must face scrutiny because of it.

    • profile image

      Kevin Goodwin 2 years ago

      He will not and has not been able to overcome this issue and he did deserve the punishment for his actions.