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To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian by Stephen E. Ambrose

Rating: (Recommended)


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Spirit of Optimism

To America is a patriotic song of optimism as Stephen Ambrose’s farewell book to his many readers. Unclouded by issues of plagiarism, these reflections provide a backdrop for how this engaging writer found a point of view and a voice that’s been loved by millions of people. Ambrose has consistently found the good in people and events, and has brought personal stories that epitomize a time and place to the foreground in telling us our history. Readers come away from an Ambrose book feeling good about America, Americans and our tremendous individual and collective achievements. Some of us read Ambrose to feel better.

Here’s an excerpt about one of Ambrose’s favorite and most admired subject, Dwight Eisenhower (p. 118-9):

On September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, serving as an aide to General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, wrote his younger brother, Milton. He said it scarcely seemed possible "that people that proudly refer to themselves as intelligent could let this situation come about." He blamed Hitler, "a power-drunk egocentric, one of the criminally insane, the absolute ruler of eighty-nine million people." That is when he made the prophecy I have already quoted, "Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy." Eisenhower was born in Texas in 1890. He grew up in Abilene, Kansas, almost in the exact center of the lower forty-eight states. His father was a foreman in the local creamery. He went to public grade and high school, then got a free college education at West Point. From 1913 on he was a professional soldier. He served on posts across the United States, in Europe, in Panama, in the Philippines.

In the summer of 1943, following the German surrender, Eisenhower was commander of the American Zone in occupied Germany. He told his staff officers then that "the success or failure of this occupation can only be judged fifty years from now. If by then the Germans had a flourishing, stable democracy, we will have succeeded."

One of Eisenhower's first acts was to call the members of the German press corps into his headquarters. He told them that Germany had to have a free press if it was going to become a democracy, and specifically that if he did something they disagreed with he wanted them to criticize him in their newspapers. The reporters were astonished. They had been working for the Nazis for twelve years; here was their conqueror telling them to be critical of him.

He called in the leaders of the German labor unions and told them that their job was to represent their workers, not the government. They had been working for the Nazis for twelve years, they were also astonished. Next he called in the schoolteachers and told them to encourage their students to think for themselves.

Eisenhower meant what he said about the need for democracy in Germany. In 1959, to his Secretary of State, Christian Herter, who had just told him that the Christian Democrats in West Germany were afraid of reunification with East Germany because they feared that the Socialists in West Germany would combine with the communists in East Germany to defeat the Christian Democrats in a free election, he replied, "If they get a true free unification, then they have to take their chances on politics."

His response was perfect. I think of something a German student said to me in 1980, at the University of Munich: "You Americans sometimes seem to forget, you liberated us too." A Japanese student might say the same thing.

Until another historian comes along with the skill to take episodes, people and events, and describe them in ways that are memorable and meaningful, readers will miss Stephen Ambrose, and reading To America is a fitting way to say good bye to him.

Steve Hopkins, December 23, 2002


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2003 issue of Executive Times


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