BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Stephen Ambrose, author of "D-Day, June 6, 1944," you say in the preface that you have taken eight trips to the battlefields, over Omaha?
STEPHEN AMBROSE, AUTHOR, "D-DAY, JUNE 6 1944: THE CLIMACTIC BATTLE OF WORLD WAR II": Oh, yes. I lived there one summer. I walked every inch of the beach. I went swimming, pretending to be a soldier and charging ashore through the surf. I wanted to climb Pointe du Hoc, but I didn't do it. I really wanted to, and I gave it a shot, but I was too old and too fat.
LAMB: Where is Pointe du Hoc?
AMBROSE: It's in between Omaha and Utah beach. It's about a hundred-meter-high vertical cliff. I tied a rope at the top and ran it down to the bottom, and I tried to pretend to be a ranger. I got about halfway up, and I decided that this was a mistake so I came down again.
LAMB: How many are alive today that climbed Pointe du Hoc?
AMBROSE: About 260 climbed, and I would expect that about 60 of them are still alive. About half of them never got through the sixth day of June, and of the 260 -- 200 were either killed or wounded. So not a lot.
LAMB: You also mention -- and then we'll come back to that -- in the preface the number of 1,380 accounts of oral histories that you have.
LAMB: How many of those did you do?
AMBROSE: Five hundred, maybe, and then my assistants maybe did another couple of hundred. Then I did a bunch by telephone, and then some of them were written. Some guys didn't want to be interviewed, but they were willing to write about it.
LAMB: How come?
AMBROSE: They'd break down, even this long after the event. They'd start thinking about their buddies who fell to the left of them and the right of them, and they can't handle it.
LAMB: Where were you on D-Day?
AMBROSE: In Whitewater, Wisconsin. My father was in the Pacific. I was 10 years old, and I was doing what I could for the war effort. I had a victory garden; I collected tin cans. We used to save the tin foil from the chewing gum and get great big balls of it, and we would turn it in. I'm not sure that it was anything more than a morale booster for the kids. I guess they made use of it. But we felt very much a part of the war effort.
LAMB: I talked recently with John Keegan, the historian. He was about the same age.
AMBROSE: We're exactly the same age.
LAMB: Do you know him?
AMBROSE: Oh, yes, sure.
LAMB: You quote him in the book.
AMBROSE: Oh, yes. We're in the same racket. We've been doing this for a long time.
LAMB: He said he got interested because there are lots of American soldiers in his village of Taunton. How did you get interested in this subject?
AMBROSE: I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography. He had read a couple of my Civil War books. "Yes, sir," said I, and it got started there. I mean, you can't do Eisenhower's biography and not be interested in D-Day.
LAMB: Do you remember the first time you met him?
AMBROSE: Certainly. It was in his office in Gettysburg. We talked for a whole afternoon about what access I would have, what papers would be available to me, what would be involved in doing this work. At the end of that conversation, he said, "I notice you're teaching in New Orleans. Did you ever know Andrew Higgins?" "No, Sir," I said. I knew who he was, but he died in 1959 and I didn't move to New Orleans until 1960. "Well, that's too bad," Eisenhower said. "He's the man who won the war for us." Well, my jaw just dropped at a statement like that from a source like that.
LAMB: Here is a picture, by the way. What are these?
AMBROSE: That's the Higgins assembly line in New Orleans. That's where they turned out the landing craft, and that's what he said. He said, "If Andy Higgins hadn't designed and built these landing craft, we never could have gone in over an open beach. I don't know how we ever would have gotten back into Europe," he said. That got me very interested in Mr. Higgins, and we followed that up at the Eisenhower Center. I've had graduate students do various studies of the Higgins boat yard, and one of them, Jerry Strahan, just this spring published a biography of Andrew Higgins.
LAMB: What did he have that was so special when he built those -- is this the LCVP that he built?
AMBROSE: That's it, Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel. He had been building flat-bottomed boats for the exploration of the oil companies in the swamps of Louisiana in the late 1930s, so he was into flat-bottomed boats already. The Marines came to him in 1939 and said, "We're going to get into the war, and we're going to need landing craft. You're doing the best flat-bottomed boats around. Will you enter a competition?" and he did. The Navy Bureau of Ships didn't like his boat, but the Marines loved it and they insisted on it. It was a 32-foot boat -- it carried a platoon of men; 30 men and two officers -- a flat bottom with a steel ramp and made out of plywood. Very cheap construction. Very simple design. A floating cigar box is what it is. But it was a boat that could handle heavy seas; it could go through a surf. It could go into a beach, drop that ramp, and you've got 30 men charging out of that boat, going right on into the enemy position.
Then, and this was the key to the thing, he developed a system. He had a protected propeller on it so that he could go right on into the sand and bottom-out on it, drop an anchor, a stern, as he went in. Then he put a little Briggs & Stratton motor on the back of that boat, and he could winch himself off with that Briggs & Stratton, pull that boat back off the sand, and then -- here was the key to it all -- turn in the surf and get headed back out again without broaching when it was broadside to the surf, go out to the mother ship and pick up another load. Higgins had 80 employees in 1939. The Marines went for this boat. The Army loved the boat. Orders were placed. Higgins expanded from a little almost ma-and-pa kind of a factory into an assembly plant. He had four different ones in New Orleans, some of them under canvas, 30,000 employees, and he turned out 20,000 of these landing craft in the course of the war.
He was just a genius at design and a genius at production. He was a lousy businessman, and he went bust after the war. But he's the man who won the war for us.
LAMB: Now, you're doing something at the...
AMBROSE: We're building a museum in New Orleans, the National D-Day Museum, on the site where Higgins built some of these boats and tested them. It's bigger than just honoring Higgins' industry. It's going to honor all of American industry because you've got similar figures. We had no landing craft at all -- none -- in 1940. We had 30,000 in 1944. We virtually didn't have an air force in 1940. By 1944 we were building 8,000 planes a month. Some of these were big four-engine bombers. So we want to honor American industry for what it did to make D-Day possible, and Higgins is the man we center our attention on.
But there was Henry Kaiser and there was Henry Ford and General Motors, and everybody pitched in -- and then the men of D-Day, of course, and what they did. So we're building this museum in New Orleans. It will be the only museum in the United States that is devoted exclusively to World War II and the only museum in the world that has as its central theme one day in the world's history. But what a day.
LAMB: Why was it a great day?
AMBROSE: You know, you can't exaggerate it. You can't overstate it. It was the pivot point of the 20th century. It was the day on which the decision was made as to who was going to rule in this world in the second half of the 20th century. Is it going to be Nazism, is it going to be communism, or are the democracies going to prevail? If we would have failed on Omaha Beach and on the other beaches on the 6th of June in 1944, the struggle for Europe would have been a struggle between Hitler and Stalin, and we would have been out of it. If Stalin had won, the Iron Curtain would have been on the English Channel. If Hitler had won, I don't think he would have been able to take Britain, at least not in the immediate future, but he would have gone all the way to the Urals. Hitler's plan was to turn the problem of conquering America over to the next generation, utilizing the resources that he intended to have as a part of the greater German Reich as a result of victory. It really did turn on getting ashore and penetrating that Atlantic Wall.
Now, once that Atlantic Wall was penetrated and we had a beachhead and you could begin to move from England into the continent, this tremendous outpouring of America's factories that we had managed to get over to England by winning the battle of the Atlantic in 1943, if you penetrated the Atlantic Wall then it was no longer a question of who was going to win. It was when is the end going to come. Germany could not possibly prevail against -- but if Rommel stopped them cold on the beaches -- this was an all-or-nothing operation. Eisenhower, when he took command in January of 1944, said, "This operation is being planned as a success. There are no contingency plans." Had they stopped him -- and they came very close to stopping him -- we would not have been able to mount another operation in 1944. This was Hitler's great chance to win the war -- stop them in June of 1944 on the Atlantic coast, then he can move 11 panzer divisions to the east. Eleven panzer divisions might well have swung the balance on the eastern front, or they might have had another effect. They might have led Stalin to conclude, "Those blankety-blank capitalists. They're up to their old tricks. They're going to fight till the last Red Army soldier. To hell with that. I'm going to cut a deal with my friend Adolph again, just like we did in 1939. We'll divide Eastern Europe between us." That wouldn't have lasted. Sooner or later they would have clashed, but the democracies wouldn't have been in on it anymore.
LAMB: I want to ask you a question, and I don't know that this is fair to you, but of all the 1,380 accounts and the 500 that you did -- oral histories -- the first question is, are they all stored somewhere?
AMBROSE: Oh, yes, absolutely. They're in the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, and they'll be a part of the national D-Day museum when we get it built. That's what they're there for, and it has been extraordinarily satisfactory to us this year, because ABC has come down, NBC, CBS, CBC, BBC, the works, have come down and mined our archives, and they can come in. "Do you want a story from the rangers? Here, we've got maybe 300 rangers all told" -- no, not that many -- 100 rangers all told. They read one, "God, this guy is great. Where do I find him?" We'll give them his name and his address and telephone number, and the network will go out and do an interview with him. And it's just great for these guys. I mean, they just love it, being able to go on national television and tell their stories. As I say, it's just immensely satisfying to us. But it's for 13 years that we've been collecting these in obscurity, looking forward to the 50th anniversary. And it's not just the television, it's the newspapers and it's book writers and scholars of all kinds, and they're all coming to New Orleans because we have the most accounts from eyewitness sources -- "I was there" -- of any single battle in history.
LAMB: What are some of your favorites?
AMBROSE: Oh, there are so many. Those Higgins boats may have won the war for us, but every man who went in on one hated them. They were flat-bottomed, they did this in the waves, the gunnels were only 6 feet high, the waves were washing over. Everybody was seasick -- everybody. The decks were just awash in vomit. There was no place to sit down on these boats. They were like sardines packed into them, and everybody was sick. One guy told me the story, he said, "I'm from Omaha. I'd never been on salt water before. Everybody around me was getting sick, and I was holding on. I was proud of myself. The guy next to me took his helmet off and upchucked into the helmet, and I held on even when that happened. I wondered, Why the hell is he bothering to do that since the deck is already awash in vomit? And then he reached into his helmet and he pulled out his false teeth and popped them back into his mouth, and I lost it all when that happened."
Ken Russell was another favorite. Ken was from Tennessee. He was 18 years old. He was in the airborne, and as they were flying across the Channel he was struck by the thought, my high school class is graduating tonight. He came down in Ste.Mere Eglise, where there was a fire on the edge of town in a hay barn, set by a tracer bullet. He watched as the guy next to him got hit in his gammon grenade, coming down in his parachute, and that set off -- they all were carrying land mines underneath their reserve chutes, and that grenade set off that land mine, and just suddenly the guy wasn't there. It was just an empty parachute. He looked to his right, and his buddy over to his right was being sucked into the fire. The fire was drawing oxygen and drawing parachutists into it. He screamed once, Ken says, and he screamed once more and then he disappeared into the fire and he didn't scream anymore. Ken came down onto the steeple of the church at Ste.Mere Eglise.
Now, this is famous from Cornelius Ryan's book and Darryl Zanuck's movie, but actually, it was more than one guy. It wasn't just John Steele who was caught on that roof. Ken Russell also was. He's hanging there, trying to get to his trench knife so he can cut himself loose from his risers, when a German sergeant came around the corner. Ken says, "I'll never forget him -- blue-eyed and red-haired." And this German sergeant pulled up his Schmeisser -- a machine pistol -- to shoot Russell and Steele, hanging there on the steeple, and Sgt. John Ray from Homer, Louisiana, came down right behind that German. The German turned and cut him, as I gather from Ken's story, almost literally just cut him in half with a burst from that Schmeisser, turned back to shoot Russell and Steele, and Sgt. Ray, in his dying gasp with his guts spilling out, got that .45 out and shot that German in the back of the head.
Then Ken cut himself loose from his risers, and in the process he cut off one of his fingers and didn't know it for the next three hours. He ran. He said, "I was the loneliest man in the world." He ran through the village, got to the edge, and there was a German Flakwagen, a 20mm gun, shooting up at the Dakotas, the C-47s bringing in the American airborne. Ken says, "I did what I was trained to do. I pulled the pin on my grenade and tossed it up there on that platform, and they weren't shooting anymore." Then he saw a German runner on a bicycle, obviously carrying a message, and he pulled up his M1 and shoots him. Now, all this happens before 5 a.m. from an 18-year-old kid. Gee, with soldiers like that, it's no wonder we won the war.
LAMB: By the way, you say you don't agree entirely with "The Longest Day," Cornelius Ryan's book. What are the differences in what you've found?
AMBROSE: First of all, Ryan didn't have access to anything like the number of sources that I did. Ryan interviewed 250 men.
LAMB: When did he write that book?
AMBROSE: In 1955-57. Ryan didn't know about the Ultra secret, for example. There is an awful lot of high command stuff that Ryan never knew about. I'm not knocking Ryan's book. It was an inspiration to me. I read it when it first came out. I saw the movie, like everybody else in this country, and I loved the movie.
LAMB: He's dead.
LAMB: And what was the Ultra secret?
AMBROSE: The Ultra secret was the breaking of the German enigma code. The Germans had this fabulous encoding system which they thought was the best in the world, and they were right. It was. They also thought it was unbreakable, and they were wrong about that. Ryan didn't know that we knew so much about the Germans. The biggest disagreement that I have with Ryan -- it's not a disagreement; it's where he was wrong. He just didn't have the full story.
For example, he missed Ken Russell. He didn't interview him, so he didn't know that there was not just John Steele hanging from that church steeple. But Ryan and Zanuck then repeated this in the movie and presented the battle as if it went according to plan. The plan was, at Omaha Beach, to go up the draws, up the ravines. Little dirt roads ran up them. The bluffs were too steep for a vehicle. A man can hardly get up them. So everybody was supposed to go up these ravines. The whole movie turns on this incident, with Robert Mitchum in the end encouraging a couple of lieutenants to get up there and get those torpedoes under that barbed wire and then get the TNT up to the antitank obstacles at the head of the ravines and blow them up.
And that happens as a climax in the movie, and Robert Mitchum says, "Let's go on up that hill," and it's like the cavalry to the rescue. Guys from all over the beach start yelling like banshees and start moving up that draw. It's a great movie scene, but nothing remotely like that ever happened in fact. What happened in fact was, those ravines were much too well-defended to get up. The tanks that the infantry were told were going to be coming in with them, beside them -- these swimming tanks, these Shermans that had the inflatable rubber skirts around them, 32 of the 35 of them sank. There was no way to get up the ravines, and the true story of what happened at Omaha was much more inspiring than the way Daryl Zanuck presented it.
The true story is, junior officers and noncoms who had been college students two years before and had ROTC commissions pinned down at that sea wall and couldn't retreat, couldn't go back -- it was just chaos back behind them -- couldn't, as the plan called for, go up the draws. They were getting butchered where they were at the sea wall because the Germans had it all zeroed in with their mortars that were coming down on top of them. And, "Over here, Captain," "Over here, Lieutenant, over here." A sergeant looked at this situation and said, "The hell with this. If I'm going to get killed, I'm going to take some Germans with me." And he would call out, "Follow me," and up he would start. Hitler didn't believe this was ever possible. Hitler was certain that the soft, effeminate children of democracy could never become soldiers. Hitler was certain that the Nazi youth would always outfight the Boy Scouts, and Hitler was wrong.
The Boy Scouts took them on D-Day. Joe Dawson led Company G. He started off with 200 men. He got to the top of the bluff with 20 men, but he got to the top. He was the first one to get there. He's going to be introducing President Clinton tomorrow at Omaha Beach. John Spaulding was another. He was a lieutenant. Many of them are nameless. I don't know their names. I've talked to men who've said, "I saw this lieutenant and he tossed a grenade into the embrasure of that fortification, and out came four Germans with their hands up. I thought to myself, hell, if he can do that, I can do that." "What was his name?" I will ask. "Geez, I don't know. I never found out his name. I never saw him before, and I never saw him again, but he was a great man. He got me up that bluff."
LAMB: Let me go back to when you were 10 years old in Wisconsin, on D-Day. Why were you there?
AMBROSE: My father was in the Pacific, in the Navy, and it was my grandmother's hometown. My mother had three boys, and she was working in the local defense plant and Grandma could take care of us during the day while she worked. It seems in my memory that every night we had tuna fish and noodles, with stale potato chips crumbled on top, and we would groan at the sight of another tuna fish. And my mother would say, "Think of the poor, starving children in Europe." I'm not bragging on her. There were millions of American women doing that.
One of the features of D-Day is, we were all involved. I was making the contribution that a 10-year-old could make; my mother was making the contribution she could make. Women all over this country were working night shifts in the factories, turning out munitions or boots or binoculars or any of the other myriad items that troops need to go into battle. And then they were working days, volunteers at the Red Cross rolling bandages. When the news came to this country on the morning of June 6 that the invasion had started, there was an overwhelming impulse to go to church or synagogue and pray, and what these people prayed was, "God, I hope I did it right. The bandages that I rolled, the bullets that I made are going into battle, even as I am here praying. Please, God, let me have done it right."
LAMB: How long did you stay in that town, by the way?
AMBROSE: Whitewater? I stayed until I went to college, because when Dad came home from the war he liked that town better than the one we had left before the war. He was a doctor, and he set up a medical practice in this small town.
LAMB: Was he drafted into the Army?
AMBROSE: No, Sir. He enlisted on December 8, 1941.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to him about his experience?
AMBROSE: Sure, of course, but it was in the Pacific. It wasn't in the European theater.
LAMB: Did you ever do the oral history like you've done on 1,300 others?
AMBROSE: No, I didn't. I've never touched the Pacific because I'm an Eisenhower man, and it's too big a war to be an expert on the whole of it.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
AMBROSE: The University of Wisconsin.
LAMB: When do you remember first getting interested? You say you were a Civil War historian.
AMBROSE: I first got interested in military history and history in general as a sophomore. I was a pre-med. I was going to follow in my father's footsteps. Then I went into a course in American History that the university required you to take, which I thought was -- you know, I wanted to take biology and anatomy and embryology. But they forced you to take a history course, so I just willy-nilly signed up for one. I walked in, and the professor -- his name was William B. Hesseltine -- had been talking about three minutes, and I wasn't a pre-med anymore. I was a history major. After that lecture I went up to him, and I said, "I want to do what you do for a living. How do I go about doing that?"
LAMB: Why did he impress you?
AMBROSE: Oh, he was a great lecturer. He was a great teacher of writing. He was not really a very good writer himself. I continued at the university for my Ph.D., and he was a real bear on writing. He would come down on you so hard. We used to go in and see him and say, "But Dr. Hesseltine, look at this book you've done. It's not all that good. How can you be demanding so much of us?" And he would smile and say, "You've got a better teacher than I had." He had, at one time in a seminar, Harry Williams, Ken Stampp, Dick Current, Frank Freidel and three other men who won Pulitzer Prizes in history, all in one seminar.
LAMB: In what year did you get your Ph.D.?
LAMB: What then?
AMBROSE: I went to the University of New Orleans and began teaching and writing.
LAMB: Why did you pick UNL?
AMBROSE: Because in my junior year in college at Christmas vacation time I hitchhiked down to New Orleans with my roommate Dick Lamm, who later went on to great fame as governor of Colorado, and when we left Madison it was 40 degrees below zero. I'm not talking wind chill; I'm talking the real thing. We got down to New Orleans, and it was just gorgeous. I thought, gee, they let people live here? And, plus, New Orleans is New Orleans, and I'm a small-town boy from the Midwest. You walk down Bourbon Street, and it makes an impression on you. So from the beginning I wanted to get a job in New Orleans. I had fallen in love with the city, and I'm still in love with it, hopelessly, lo these many years later.
LAMB: How big is the school, by the way?
AMBROSE: Twenty-five thousand.
LAMB: Is it a state school?
AMBROSE: Yes. It's part of the LSU system.
LAMB: I counted in the front of your book 16 books, plus this one. Is that right, 17?
AMBROSE: That sounds pretty good.
LAMB: Which one sold the most?
AMBROSE: Gee, I couldn't tell you -- oh, "Rise to Globalism," certainly, by far. I'm sorry. That's a book on American foreign policy that is widely used as a textbook, and it's now in its ninth printing. It's been for 18 years a standard, really, around the English-speaking world. It's been a fabulous -- it put five kids through college for me.
LAMB: I started to say earlier, I've got another book that you did, one of the many that's on former President Nixon, and in the introduction you say that "it's a lonely life that you spend, five-and-a-half or six days a week at a typewriter, and you wonder if anybody ever reads what you're going to write" and in the last month you can't turn on television, pick up a newspaper without seeing you or your name. What happened?
AMBROSE: I guess I just kept at it.
LAMB: Why all of a sudden are you on "Nightline," on CBS, at the Nixon funeral?
AMBROSE: In this past couple of months Nixon died, and I knew when he died that I was going to be getting a lot of calls from reporters and that the television people would want me on, and that happened. And that period stretched out because he was comatose for four days, and then they stretched the funeral. He died on a Friday and they didn't bury him until the Wednesday, so that stretched out into quite a long period. Then these Haldeman diaries came out, and I had done an intro for them, so Koppel put me on "Nightline" two nights in a row and I've been besieged with calls from reporters on the Haldeman diaries. And then here comes D-Day. I've been planning this book for 13 years, and I knew 13 years ago I wanted to have a big book on D-Day to come out in the period of the 50th anniversary. It's the coincidence of Nixon having died and the Haldeman journals coming out at the time that the D-Day book aired.
LAMB: Where is this picture from?
AMBROSE: Frank Capa took that picture, and there is a wonderful story with it. He is a famous photographer. Perhaps the most famous war still shot of the 20th century is from the Spanish civil war. Everybody knows it. It's the Spanish soldier getting killed, and Frank Capa took it. He went in on D-Day with the first wave at the toughest part of Omaha Beach, and Capa shot, I think it's eight rolls of film, and then holding his camera high over his head he went running back out to an LCT. There are a couple of his pictures. I interviewed a guy who was in the LCT who helped Capa back over the side. They took him out to an LST, and from there he got to England toward dark on D-Day. He got on the train in Portsmouth and ran up to London, got to the development studio. The kid doing the developing was so anxious to see these pictures that he overheated them, and the emulsion melted down and they all came out blurry. Only eight of them came out. The kid ruined all the others, and Capa was just furious because he's shot clean. But it turned out that that blur to these pictures suited perfectly Omaha Beach, so that's undoubtedly the most famous picture from the invasion.
LAMB: When you go in the book stores today -- I just happened to walk by a book store this afternoon -- and it's just full of D-Day books. What's different about this book that you've done from all the rest, and what's new in here?
AMBROSE: Well, first of all, it's based on a much broader set of interviews than anybody else's. I mean, I've done four or five, 10 times as much interviewing as anybody else, and it covers every level. My interviews on D-Day begin with the supreme commander. I spent five years working with him, interviewing him, and it goes down to the lowest private. And I've been studying this battle and the whole war for such a long time. I know a great deal about Operation Fortitude, the deception plan, for example. I've written separately on that subject. I know an awful lot about the enigma system. I know an awful lot about how these plans developed. And I know a lot about the politics of World War II. I've been writing about the grand strategy and the diplomacy of World War II for a long time.
What sets this book apart from the others is the breadth of the coverage of the thing. This isn't just D-Day. This book starts in 1940 with the British being kicked off the beaches at Dunkirk and beginning to plan how to go back. And the Americans get into the war, and immediately General Eisenhower in a February 1942 note to General Marshall said, "We've got to go to Europe and fight. That's the only way we're going to win this war." This book has a long account of the two years leading up to D-Day that the others don't have. So, it's the breadth of the book.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to Dr. Forrest Pogue. Who is he?
AMBROSE: He was the first historian of D-Day. He later went on to become George Marshall's biographer. He also wrote the official history of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, but on D-Day he was working the other end of the chain of command. On D-Day he was an Army historian on an LST hospital ship, just off-shore, and as the first wounded came back on D-Day, if they were lightly wounded and they got patched up and they were able to talk, Forrest started interviewing them in the afternoon of D-Day about what happened that morning. He went on to do a lot of interviews and became one of the founders of the Oral History Association and to become, in my view, America's best historian.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
AMBROSE: Yes, he is still alive, and we will be together at Omaha Beach on D-Day, tomorrow.
LAMB: Where does he live?
AMBROSE: He's moved to Kentucky. He used to live in Washington. He lived in Washington until about two years ago.
LAMB: I have a strange feeling I passed him every day in the building I lived in here, 20 years ago. Did he live in Arlington, Va.?
AMBROSE: That's where he lived, 111 Army-Navy Drive. That's it. He is a great man.
LAMB: I saw an article about him a couple of months ago, or maybe a year ago, about George Marshall.
AMBROSE: He did a four-volume "Life of George Marshall," which is one of the classic American biographies. Forrest had exclusive interviews with Marshall that stretched over a 10-year period, and that's awfully good.
LAMB: Go back to General Eisenhower. What was he like to know?
AMBROSE: He was without any question the most impressive man I've ever met. Monty once said of Eisenhower, "He has but to smile at you and you trust him at once," and I certainly had that experience of Eisenhower. Monty said, "He has the power of drawing the hearts of men toward him as the magnet attracts the bits of metal." He was wonderfully concerned; he was marvelously concentrated. I was just a kid. I was 30 years old when I was interviewing him. I'd walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes. And he talked about what I wanted to talk about. There weren't any coughs and there wasn't any shifting of position and there wasn't any looking off to see what an aide over here or over there was doing. There wasn't any looking at the watch. It was straight on. "Let's talk about what you want to talk about. My time is valuable, your time is valuable, let's get at it." He was a man who had great concern for others. I was teaching at Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office, and he used to worry about where I would eat on the way home. He would warn me against certain restaurants, because he had made that drive so many times. Can you imagine?
LAMB: This is kind of a leap, but you write in one of the Nixon books about your wife being a great help to you, but she didn't care a whole lot for Richard Nixon. I don't know that I got that strong of a statement out of you. What did you think of Richard Nixon, and what did Mr. Eisenhower think of choosing him years later? Did you ever talk to him about Richard Nixon?
AMBROSE: Not very much. I was interested in the war in the years that he was still alive. Remember, he died in 1969. Nixon had only been president for less than a year when Eisenhower died. Eisenhower was ambivalent about Nixon, as most people who knew Nixon were. He admired certain things about Nixon; he regretted quite a lot about Nixon. He found it amazing that Nixon could live a life without any personal friends. He used to shake his head at that. "I don't understand how he could do that." He used to say that Nixon spends too much time trying to look like a nice guy instead of just being one. For myself, I began as a Nixon-hater. I went to the University of Wisconsin. I was a liberal, and I thought Nixon was just the worst of the worst -- a man without character, a man who everything he did was contrived. There was no spontaneity to the man, as far as I could see. Everything was done on the basis of, will this hurt or help Dick Nixon politically. So I was right up there with the Nixon-haters until I began working on him. Now, when I wrote about Ike ...
LAMB: How many books about Ike?
AMBROSE: Three -- I had to look for things to criticize because I knew I wouldn't be believable if I didn't have something critical to say about the man. But Nixon was just the opposite. I started off looking for things to admire in Nixon, because I knew I was going to be critical about an awful lot in his career. I was a bit surprised, and even more, to find there was a great deal about Nixon that I admired. I came out of the whole experience not liking Mr. Nixon. He never wanted to be liked, anyway -- he wanted to be respected and admired -- and I came out of eight years of working on Nixon respecting and admiring him for many things. There is always another side to Nixon. I'm not saying that he was innocent; I'm not saying he got railroaded. He should have been driven from office, and he did an lot of terrible things in his career, but he did an awful lot of good things, too.
LAMB: Who is Moira?
AMBROSE: That's my wife.
LAMB: How much does she have to do with these books?
AMBROSE: Indispensable. At the end of every day I want to hear how it came out. One of the things that drives me as a writer is curiosity, and I never can know what really happened until I sit down and have to write it up. After I've spent eight, 10 hours at the typewriter, I'm dying to hear what I wrote. I don't want to just read it; I want to read it aloud and get a reaction and a response. So at the end of her day, she sits down with me, and if I've done 10 pages that day or 15, she listens and then she jumps me. She's always accusing me of triumphalism and making me cut back on that. I like to fly the flag high, and Moira wants to be a little more critical than that.
LAMB: It's Moira, spelled M-O-I-R-A.
AMBROSE: Yes, Irish for Mary.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
AMBROSE: We met in Baltimore. My first wife had just died. I had two kids.
LAMB: What year?
AMBROSE: 1964. Her husband had run off, leaving her with three kids. We lived in the same block, didn't know each other. We came together, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
LAMB: Now, you also cite, I think, Stephanie and Grace.
AMBROSE: Yes, those are our daughters.
LAMB: That you had together.
AMBROSE: No. I had two kids, she had three, but we've got five kids.
LAMB: What did Grace and Stephanie have to do with the books?
AMBROSE: Stephanie does a lot of research for me, and Grace has done quite a lot of research for me. I pay them handsomely. Some might say I overpay them. But they do very good work. One of my favorite chapters in here, for example, in the D-Day book, is "D-Day on the Homefronts." It opens with a scene from Helena, Montana. I had asked Steffie, "Go through the local paper and tell me what happened in Helena on D-Day," and she came up with this just crackerjack of a story that opens the book. Grace has done similar research for me in my other books.
LAMB: That chapter, as you can see here, it's greatly underlined ...
AMBROSE: It was great fun writing that chapter.
LAMB: Let's go back to that. "The official Nazi news agency" -- it looks like "Trans-Ocean" -- "was the first to announce the invasion."
LAMB: What was the premise of this chapter? What did you try to do with this chapter?
AMBROSE: I just wanted to know the answer to what happened around the world as the news came, and I just walked my way around the world. New York, of course, was a magnet to me because you got so much coverage. You got the Times. They did a great editorial that began on June 7, "This is the moment for which we were born."
You had the New Yorker, and the New Yorker had a wonderful "Talk of the Town" the week after D-Day. And there was so much going on in New York in World War II. It was really the world capital, even more so than it was to be after the war. I went to little towns in Ohio and little towns in Virginia and cities like Chicago or Columbus, Ohio. I just wanted to see what happened in those cities.
And then I started going around the world. In Rome there was already a celebration going on -- they had just been liberated -- and it just got bigger. And Anne Frank. I got out the diary, because I remember vaguely in the back of my mind that she had written something about D-Day. Well, it turns out to be -- I mean, you have to be a stone not to cry at that Anne Frank entry on D-Day. Gertrude Stein was up in the hinterlands where Italy and Switzerland and France come together, trying to just get through World War II. I've always liked her writing, and I wanted to see what it was like for Gertrude on D-Day. Well, she gave me a hell of a good story, about the Germans bowing to her because she was an American. Bowing to them -- they'd never done that before. And her friends calling her on the telephone and saying, "Congratulations on your birthday." "Well, it wasn't my birthday, but we knew what they meant."
LAMB: There is a headline here -- the Wall Street Journal headline ...
AMBROSE: I love that one.
LAMB: ... "Invasion's Impact" -- this is D-Day or the day after, I guess.
AMBROSE: June 7.
LAMB: "Invasion's Impact Marks Beginning of End of War Economy -- New Problems for Industry."
AMBROSE: That's called putting first things first. That's Wall Street's business.
LAMB: The New York Daily News threw out its lead articles and printed in their place the Lord's prayer?
LAMB: Would that happen today?
AMBROSE: You'd have to have a D-Day to find out, and we're never going to have a D-Day again. It was a unique moment in world history. A couple of scenes from those home fronts that are very dear to me, one in Canada. The French-speaking delegate, the leader of the French, got up and asked permission on this day to sing the "Marseillaise," and it was granted. For the first time in the French Parliament the "Marseillaise" was sung, followed by "God Save the King."
Franklin Roosevelt put together a prayer that morning. They got it to all the radio networks who broadcast it through the day, very slowly so people could write it down. Remember, in those days we had afternoon editions of the newspapers, and the afternoon newspapers printed that prayer. At 10:30 Eastern War Time, Roosevelt went on the radio and led this nation in prayer, and from what I can tell from my interviews -- and I remember this myself. I can remember being on my knees with my mother when this prayer was read by Roosevelt on the radio, and we all joined in. It was the most wonderful moment of national unity.
LAMB: And you remember.
AMBROSE: I remember doing the prayer. I remember being on my knees with my brothers and my mother, and we had the radio on. I remember it was CBS.
LAMB: John Eisenhower graduated from West Point on that day?
AMBROSE: Yes, on that day, and his mother was there for the graduation.
LAMB: Mamie Eisenhower.
AMBROSE: Yes. Two days later General Eisenhower, who was never one to overstate things, sent a telegram of congratulations on the graduation, and said, "I'm sorry I couldn't have been with you, but I had some other things to do."
LAMB: There is a story that you have in a footnote, "If we should meet an officer who ranks above me but below you" -- do you want to tell it?
AMBROSE: John was just out of West Point. He was very rank-conscious, and they were walking down the streets of London. John said, "Dad, if we meet an officer who ranks below you but above me, what do we do? Who salutes first?" Ike scoffed and said, "John, there is not an officer in this theater who doesn't rank below me and above you."
LAMB: Why did he decide to fly his son, who was a brand-new second lieutenant, all the way over to Europe just to spend three weeks over there?
AMBROSE: He didn't. General Marshall did. John showed up as a surprise to his dad. Marshall arranged that John should have his furlough after his graduation in Europe with his dad. It was typical of Marshall to have that kind of thoughtfulness.
LAMB: "The Atlantic Wall" -- these are your words -- "must therefore be regarded as one of the greatest blunders in military history." First, describe it.
AMBROSE: Well, it's hard to describe briefly. It was the greatest construction project of all time. This was way bigger than the Great Wall of China, way, way bigger than the Maginot Line. People who go to Europe today aren't aware of it because so much of it was underground, and some of it had been blown over with sand, but it's still there. It will be there forever.
LAMB: And it goes from where to where?
AMBROSE: It goes from the North Sea down to the Spanish border, and at every conceivable site of a landing -- that is, any place where the cliff wasn't absolutely vertical -- they had out to sea underwater obstacles with mines on them to blow up the landing craft at the water line, antipersonnel mines, antitank mines, barbed wire, antitank ditches, more barbed wire, more mines.
Looking down on all of these beaches where it was possible for a landing craft to come in, they had big fortifications. I mean, concrete 24 inches thick, with steel reinforcing rods running all through them. People who have been to that coast in Normandy know, they took direct hits from 14-inch shells and survived. Beautifully built fortifications, set up to fire enfilade down the beach. They had holes in the ground surrounded by cement, and they could set mortar crews in there. So those mortar crews were invulnerable. They had a spotter who was right up on the edge, and he'd call out the coordinates -- they had zeroed all this in advance -- and drop that shell in there, and off it goes and they knew where it was going to hit. That only begins to describe the complexities of the Atlantic Wall.
The problem with the Atlantic Wall was, it had no depth to it. Once through, you were through. There wasn't anything behind it. And once through, the guys to the left on the Atlantic Wall and to the right were immobile. They didn't have organic transportation. They didn't have trucks, they didn't have Jeeps, they didn't even have bicycles. They were just stuck in the thing. So once through you were through, and that was the victory on D-Day. We got through the Atlantic Wall. Not very far. The British were supposed to get to Cannes on D-Day. They didn't get there until July, but they got through the Atlantic Wall. The Americans at Omaha were supposed to get seven or eight kilometers inland. They got less than a kilometer inland, but they got through the Atlantic Wall. Germany put such a tremendous effort into the thing, and it didn't hold up the allies for even a morning. We paid a price, 10,000 casualties, but we got through.
LAMB: How did you decide what went into this book? Was it hard?
AMBROSE: I sat down with the transcripts of all 1,300 interviews and read them through.
LAMB: How many pages?
AMBROSE: Some of them 50 pages, some of them only 10. The average would be 20 pages.
LAMB: You read them all.
AMBROSE: I read them all through, and in that first serious read-through -- because I had been collecting them and reading them as I went along -- at that first serious read-through I put maybe half of them aside. What I was looking for was phraseology or anecdote. Then I read again the half that had survived the first cut, and I cut it again by half. Then I read the 300 or so that remained with a marker and started marking and divided them up into Navy, Air Force, Rangers, 16th Regiment, 116th Regiment, set them down and sat down at the computer and started trying to put the story together. I was talking earlier about my curiosity -- I wanted to know what happened on the beach. I knew what happened from Ike's point of view. I'd known that for a long time. I wanted to see how it played out in action. That's where I got all these surprises on what happened and found out that what Ike had thought had happened, what Cornelius Ryan had thought had happened, what Zanuck thought had happened wasn't what happened.
LAMB: Where did you do this?
AMBROSE: I have a cabin in northernmost Wisconsin that I go to in the summers where I do almost all of my writing, and I just sat there and did it.
LAMB: Why did you pick that spot to do it?
AMBROSE: It's been in our family for -- I've spent at least a part of every summer of my life there. My grandfather purchased -- it's 20 acres with a small lake. My grandfather was in the Corps of Engineers in 1938, so he had a salary, and this place came up for sale for the back taxes, $161. He bought it, and he built this log cabin, and it's now become mine and it's where I go in the summer.
LAMB: Can you write anywhere else?
AMBROSE: Sure. I have an office in Bay St. Louis where I live during the fall and winter. One book I started -- I did a book called "Pegasus Bridge," which was the action that opened this D-Day, and I spent a month in Britain interviewing the survivors of the company who pulled this off -- 30 of them, one day each. Then I guess I spent about two weeks with the company commander, John Howard. I was there two months, and all I was doing was absorbing, absorbing, absorbing. The day came to leave. We were in a hotel room out by Heathrow, ready to go. I woke up at 3 a.m. with my head just full of these stories. It was a little room, there wasn't any place to go and I didn't want to wake Moira up. I went into the bathroom, sat down on the john, took out a yellow legal pad and started writing. It came time to wake her up, 7 a.m. I did; we got dressed, got in a cab, went out to the airport. I'm writing in the cab as we go out. We got to the airport, got checked in, sat down to have coffee and I did some more writing. Got on the plane, flew home to the States -- I'm writing the whole time. As the plane landed in New York I had the first chapter done.
LAMB: Obviously, you get excited about putting the words on paper. How do you get your reward? Not just in your head, but do you see it anywhere? What's the best thing anybody can say to you?
AMBROSE: Oh, I get lovely letters from people from all over, and it just means the world to me. People say nice things to me about the books. They tell me that they've read them and they enjoy them, and that's the big, principal payoff. It especially comes with veterans. It most especially comes when veterans tell me that you've got it right. I did a book recently called "Band of Brothers" about a company in the 101st Airborne. One of the things that they did was, in their training they had to run up a mountain, down by Toccoa, Georgia, every morning. I've had seven rangers who have been through the Benning Jump School write to me and tell me they read that book, and after they graduated from jump school they went straight up to Toccoa to see if they could run up or not with a full pack. Now, that's pretty satisfying.
LAMB: With all the exposure over the last month, is your recognition factor going up when you travel?
AMBROSE: Yes, it is, and I don't like this taste of celebrity-hood.
AMBROSE: I like being a writer, and I was a pretty well-known writer before this last month, but nobody knew my face. I wish it were back to that way, and it will be as soon as we get past June 6.
LAMB: Can I ask you a question about the Haldeman diaries?
LAMB: I know that's not the book, but this came out in the middle of all this. We'll show the audience what it looks like if they haven't seen it. Jo Haldeman, the wife of the late Bob Haldeman, says that Bob Haldeman wouldn't agree with some of your conclusions. What are those?
AMBROSE: Number one, my conclusion is that he was guilty. Jo will not accept that, and he never would accept that. I used to argue with him about it, that, "You didn't go to jail for nothing, Bob."
LAMB: Guilty of what, by the way?
AMBROSE: Guilty of covering up a crime, which is what he was accused of; guilty of perjury, both in court and before the Ervin Committee.
LAMB: If someone hasn't been paying any attention to what these diaries are, a 30-second thumbnail sketch of what are they?
AMBROSE: Haldeman kept a diary every night of his period of chief of staff, which ran through the whole of the first Nixon administration and into the first six months of the second Nixon administration. Every night he dictated an entry to the diary that ran to sometimes an hour's worth of dictation. It's a marvelous insider's look at American politics as it is played at the center.
LAMB: How did you get involved in this? You have a foreword and an afterword.
AMBROSE: I had done a lot of interviewing of Haldeman in my work on Nixon, and we had gotten along quite well together, actually. He had consulted me a bit about this, and then when he died, before this book was published, Putnam's asked me if I would write an intro and a conclusion to it. I said, "I will if you'll guarantee me that the whole diary is available to my fellow historians." They said, "Absolutely, it is. It's going to be on CD-ROM so that historians are free" -- this is about 20 percent of the whole of the diary, but the whole thing is now available to historians. And I said, "The other condition is that I can't have a censor on this. I know that Jo is not going to like some of the things that I am going to say about her husband, but she is not going to have a censorship on it or I'm not going to do it." I was perfectly delighted they gave her a chance to do some writing in there and to say that she thinks I'm wrong about some things.
LAMB: I underlined this -- I don't remember why -- "So he concludes the more a person is educated, he becomes brighter in the head and weaker in the spine."
AMBROSE: That's Nixon that Haldeman is writing about there. Oh, it's full of stuff like that -- terrible stuff on the blacks, terrible stuff on the Jews, terrible stuff on the Ivy Leagues, terrible stuff on America's elite. It's astonishing how many people Nixon hated, and it all comes through in this diary. What also comes through is what a hard worker he was and how much he did accomplish, so this is the real thing you're seeing here. It's a unique document. We have no other chief of staff who kept such a document.
LAMB: With all your books, 17 books, what more do you want to do?
AMBROSE: I'm right now into chapter 16 of a biography of Meriwether Lewis, which has been a dream of mine since 1976. We -- Moira and I and our kids -- wanted to do something special for the 200th birthday of the United States, something other than watching fireworks and getting drunk. We decided we were going to go to Lemhi Pass, which is on the Idaho-Montana border. It's the place where Meriwether Lewis became the first American to cross the Continental Divide. We camped up there that night, and we had the most gorgeous night, with the stars. You could reach up and touch them. We brought some booze along, and we had some students with us, and we got royally drunk and sang "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs, lying on our backs, looking at these stars.
I've wanted to write about Lewis for a long time, and for one reason or another -- I was going to write about Lewis when I finished with Ike, and Alice Mayhew, my editor, said, "No, Steve, you've got to do Nixon next." I said, "Alice, I don't want to do Nixon. I don't like Nixon." You know, that's a big undertaking, to write a biography. She said, "You've got to do it." I said, "No, I'm not going to do it." Then she got me. She said, "Where else will you find such a challenge as this?" So I did the Nixon. That meant putting off the Meriwether Lewis. Then it was time to write the D-Day book, as I absolutely had long since planned to spend 1991 and 1992 and the first part of 1993 writing about D-Day. Well, I've got D-Day behind me, and now it's Meriwether Lewis.
LAMB: Where would you put the D-Day book in your accomplishments?
AMBROSE: I always think my last book is my best. So right now it's my best, but this Meriwether Lewis book, wait until you see it.
LAMB: What's the best thing about that so far?
AMBROSE: Lewis' relationship with Thomas Jefferson. I love writing about Thomas Jefferson, and he had a very special relationship with Meriwether Lewis. They were neighbors. Lewis' father died when Lewis was very young, but he had been a friend of Jefferson's. Then Lewis was Jefferson's secretary for two years, living with him in the White House, just the two of them. You know, Jack Kennedy had that great line, when he had the Nobel Prize winners for dinner at the White House. He said, "There has never been such a gathering of brains and talent in this house since Thomas Jefferson dined alone." The only thing wrong with that line is, Thomas Jefferson never dined alone. He dined with Meriwether Lewis.
LAMB: Our guest has been Stephen Ambrose. You can find him at the University of New Orleans, and a lot of other places, and this is what his newest book looks like, "D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II." We thank you for joining us.
AMBROSE: Thanks for having me.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.