NEW ORLEANS — As plagiarism accusations pile up against historian Stephen Ambrose, few in the best-selling author’s former hometown or at the National D-Day Museum he has founded here are ready to condemn him.
“So what if he plagiarized? Everyone plagiarizes to some extent,” said Gene Hagemeier, 69, of Columbus, Ohio, a Korean War veteran who toured the museum last week. “He has raised awareness of history among a whole new population of Americans.”
Five books by Mr. Ambrose are under question: “Nothing Like It in the World,” “Citizen Soldiers,” the third volume of Mr. Ambrose’s Richard M. Nixon trilogy, “Crazy Horse and Custer” and “The Wild Blue,” his latest best seller.
Forbes.com reported Thursday that “Nothing Like It in the World,” the 1999 best seller about the transcontinental railroad, contains numerous passages similar to passages in David Lavender’s “The Great Persuader,” about railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington.
Mr. Ambrose, author of more than 25 books, said he cited all of the works from which he borrowed text, but was apparently careless in the extent to which he specified passages used almost verbatim.
Using artifacts entrusted to him by World War II veterans he interviewed for his best-selling “D-Day,” he founded what is now a $30 million museum in New Orleans, where from 1971 to 1995 he taught full time at the University of New Orleans. Since it opened less than two years ago, the D-Day museum has drawn more than 500,000 visitors in this tourist-dependent city.
Mr. Ambrose, who remains a professor emeritus at UNO, has been “a great friend to this community. … No one wants to see Mr. Ambrose’s numerous achievements diminished by the present allegations,” the Times-Picayune wrote in an editorial Jan. 11, after four of the five plagiarism accusations had surfaced.
The newspaper lamented carelessness by Mr. Ambrose in failing to adequately credit the authors whose words he used, but said it was “hard to believe that Mr. Ambrose acted with malice.”
Even more defensive was Michael Sartisky, president of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
“Considering the prolific and highly public nature of Stephen Ambrose’s publications, it seems pretty clear that at worst he was sloppy rather than felonious,” he wrote in Sunday’s Times-Picayune.
At the University of New Orleans, criticism of Mr. Ambrose was so light one professor said such mistakes happen “all the time” in popular history that the chairman of the history department wrote the Times-Picayune to clarify the school’s position.
“We want to leave no doubt among our students and readers that we abhor such a practice, and it is not to be condoned,” wrote professor Warren M. Billings.
One of the more critical voices has been UNO’s student newspaper, the Driftwood.
“For students, verified acts of plagiarism can be grounds for being expelled. … Professors lacking the clout that comes with best-selling books and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood lose jobs over this sort of thing,” wrote Driftwood Editor Nathan Ballingrud.