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Historian Stephen Ambrose Dies of Lung Cancer

Aired October 13, 2002 - 08:22   ET


RENAY SAN MIGUEL, CNN ANCHOR: We wanted to a -- take you back to the developing story that's broke within the last half hour here. Historian Stephen Ambrose, author of more than 25 books of American history, including the "Band of Brothers," which was made into an award-winning series on HBO, has died this morning. He -- after a battle with lung cancer.
Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian, who we interviewed in the last half-hour about the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis rejoins us now from New Orleans. Also, Stephen Ambrose co- wrote the book that Douglas Brinkley also wrote, "The Mississippi and the Making of the Nation from the Louisiana Purchase to Today."

To have this happen here, you know, just all of a sudden, suddenly obviously your thoughts, we need to get your thoughts on what -- on your work with Stephen Ambrose, his writing, and him as just as a person.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, I think Steve's one of the great American historians. And he's been having an incredible struggle with the battle of his life with lung cancer. It's been a kind of week-by-week process for him, and he's ended up working very hard the last months. We had launched this "Mississippi River Book," and we were very excited about it. He was finishing up a memoir, which he did finish, his reflections as a historian.

And it's just very sad, because when we were doing "Mississippi River Book" just a year, year and a half ago, how vigorous he was. He was always known for being kind of a rough and ready historian. I think America's great populous historian who always paid homage to the regular people. His best books like "Band of Brothers" and "Citizen Soldiers" didn't just focus on the, you know, leading generals like MacArthur or Patton in the Second World War, but on the regular soldiers of America. He's done more to rebring a conscientious to the great contribution of those veterans have made than virtually anybody.

And of course, he was also the biographer of Dwight Eisenhower, hand picked by Eisenhower. Wrote two magnificent volumes, and then three incredible volumes on Richard Nixon, which will be in print forever, and are really the number one sources to go to if you're looking at either of those presidencies. And one could go on and on with the number of important books that he wrote.

SAN MIGUEL: And there was the, you know, the whole kind of refocus, getting America and a new generation to refocus on the sacrifices of the World War II generation -- started with "Citizen Soldiers," it can be argued, "Saving Private Ryan," which he also was involved with...


SAN MIGUEL: ... I believe as a consultant, and then talk also about his work with the World War II museum, I believe that's down there in New Orleans, right?

BRINKLEY: Yes, well -- Steve had a great insight, and then, that was in 1982, it dawned on him, wouldn't have been great if we had captured the voices of them men of D-Day, just like -- on tape. Nobody had ever went and interviewed all of these veterans, and he always thought, "Boy, I would have loved to have heard the tape recollections of somebody in the Civil War who fought at Antigo (ph), or Vicksburg, or Gettysburg.

So, he went in our center -- I'm director, I took over from Stevie, Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. We have thousands of oral history testimonies of reminiscences of the veterans of the Second World War. Well, Steve used all those to produce books like "Citizen Soldiers" and "Band of Brothers," "Pegasus Bridge."

And he then had another great insight, and that was, you know, this is -- D-Day is not understood in the United States, and we need to build a museum for it. And because New Orleans is where Andrew Higgins and the Higgins boats were first tested, the landing craft for the Second World War, along with his friend Nick Muller (ph), they together went in and built here the national D-Day museum, which has been a stunning success and it's really eventually becoming the museum of the Second World War. And Steve was the heart and soul, the fund- raiser, the impresario of the entire museum.

So he didn't just write books, but I think he, you know, or -- and he built a museum that will be a lasting monument to him. But his real tribute is he cared about the American reader. He cared about that people got -- understood America history in their homes, and the public embraced Steve Ambrose, I think, more than any other historian ever. His books constantly hit number one in the best-seller list, because he was an excellent prose stylist, a brilliant storyteller, but his love for America came through on every page that he wrote.

SAN MIGUEL: It seems almost a shame to bring up this next question, and we'll make it the final question, because I've read "Citizen Soldiers," and you're right, it focused so much on the people, not just the tactics and maneuvers and the generals, but also a the rank-and-file in the infantry that took part in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. But one of the last topics involving, one of the last issues involving Stephen Ambrose, were the charges of plagiarism that he had faced. How do you believe he faced that? How was he reacting to that?

BRINKLEY: Like he did everything. I think it stung, but he brushed it off, you know, just like a lot of noise, you know, he -- out of writing all those books, people were starting to, kind of, look for Waldo, if you'd like in his prose, and I think it stung, but it seems to be a very minor issue when one looks at the full blossom of his literary output and what he's meant for so many people, and how he's redefined that so-called "second generation," and his books are ones that will be in print for a long time, and he'll be sadly missed as a teacher and a friend by really thousands of people.

SAN MIGUEL: Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian, who co- wrote with the late Stephen Ambrose the book, "The Mississippi." Thank you so much for joining us this morning. Sorry it has to be such a sad topic, but we appreciate your insights into the late Stephen Ambrose.

BRINKLEY: Thank you.

SAN MIGUEL: Take care.


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