HISTORIAN Stephen Ambrose did the right thing and did it graciously. He acknowledged that his best-selling book on B-24 crews in World War II, "The Wild Blue," contains passages almost identical--and in the case of a few sentences and phrases, absolutely identical--to those in "Wings of Morning," a 1995 book about the last American bomber crew shot down in Europe during the war. The passages, sentences, and phrases were not put in quotes, so they appeared to have been written by Ambrose. "I made a mistake for which I am sorry," Ambrose said in a statement released to the New York Times. "It will be corrected in future editions of the book."
Ambrose's apology was extraordinarily prompt. The story of similarities between his book and "Wings of Morning," written by University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers, appears in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Ambrose's publisher, Simon & Schuster, was shown examples of similarities last week. The publisher initially issued a statement saying Ambrose's use of Childers's material was appropriately footnoted. Ambrose was said to be out of the country, but the Times later obtained the statement of apology from him.
The copying without quotations was inadvertent, Ambrose said. Childers said he believes this to be the case. How could such a thing happen inadvertently? Ambrose, one of America's most popular historians and author of a string of bestsellers, has become an industry. He gives numerous speeches, conducts or sponsors tours, promotes public interest in World War II and other historical subjects, and advises Hollywood filmmakers on World War II movies. All of this leaves less time for writing. Nonetheless, he publishes a new book practically every year, raising the possibility that attribution of Childers's was lost in the rush to publication. Ambrose's earlier works on World War II were impressively researched, but "The Wild Blue" is not. So far, Ambrose hasn't explained publicly how the problem occurred. Childers, by the way, is a talented historian in his own regard. He's also a much more elegant writer than Ambrose. His "Wings of Morning" is the first in a planned trilogy on World War II.
Ambrose's popularity is unlikely to be seriously dented by the controversy. He has a number of major achievements as a historian and author of more than 25 books. Two of his World War II books, "Band of Brothers" and "D-Day June 6, 1944," are compelling narratives certain to be read for years to come. By concentrating on common soldiers and airmen, Ambrose has almost single-handedly shifted the focus of World War II histories away from the military brass. And he can also take credit for stirring the interest of the book-reading community in World War II.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard