Disarming History

How an award-winning scholar twisted the truth about America's gun culture -- and almost got away with it.

"Real historical writers probe factual uncertainties, but they do not invent convenient facts and they do not ignore inconvenient facts. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts."

-- William Kelleher Storey, Writing History

When the Playboy interview with Michael Bellesiles appeared in January 2001, the Emory University history professor was riding high. He was basking in the heady glow of rave reviews and a media blitz hailing his book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, as a "tour de force" that "changes everything." Bellesiles claimed to have discovered that, contrary to accepted opinion, guns were scarce in early America and Americans were uninterested in owning them. "The notion that a well-armed public buttressed the American dream," he assured readers, "would have appeared harebrained to most Americans before the Civil War." It was all an "invented tradition," with historians joining "actively in the mythmaking." Reviewers of Arming America were quick to point out the "inescapable policy implications."

The Playboy interview ended with Bellesiles' challenge to the powerful gun lobby: "As for the NRA [National Rifle Association], when anyone talks about the history of guns in America, they're going to have to give me evidence -- facts, not folktales." Three months later, despite growing skepticism, Arming America was awarded Columbia University's prestigious Bancroft Prize for the best work of American history published in 2000. It seemed the question of what was fact, what fiction, had been settled.

Bellesiles had flung his challenge at a political organization, but unfortunately for him it was the scholarly community that picked it up. The evidence he had presented for his groundbreaking theory was investigated first by experts from a range of disciplines and political viewpoints; then by a special symposium in a learned journal; and finally, as a result of the disturbing findings, by the professor's university and an outside panel of scholars that it appointed. The results are now in: Bellesiles' arguments are based on wholesale misuse of evidence and, in some cases, no evidence at all. The "invented tradition" is fact, the professor's version a folk tale.

The same month that Playboy published its interview with Bellesiles, my review of Arming America appeared in reason, one of the first publications to expose his errors. (See "Concealed Weapons," January 2001.) It formed part of what was to swell into an astonishing stream of revelations, most of which were immediately branded by Bellesiles and his supporters as politically motivated or trivial. Scholars and reporters who asked about Bellesiles' sources were treated to continually changing stories about where his research was conducted and the locations of his materials. Their inquiries were greeted, by turns, with injured innocence or vicious invective. Bellesiles had, he said, accidently stepped "into a minefield."

Bellesiles maintains that his book has been subjected to unfair, unprecedented scrutiny. The problem, he told a British reporter last spring, is that there are "some topics which perhaps should not be addressed," that "this is a dangerous environment [in which] to talk about firearms." While Bellesiles admits to some errors in a handful of paragraphs, his response to the unfavorable report of Emory's investigative committee insists, "The overwhelming bulk of the evidence in support of this book's thesis remains unchallenged."

As we'll see, not only have virtually all aspects of his work been "challenged," but Bellesiles' critics have discovered wholesale and systematic misrepresentation of the historical evidence. If anything can be learned from this extraordinary episode, in which one of the most extravagantly praised scholarly books in many years has been exposed as one of the most fraudulent, it is the importance of maintaining rigorous intellectual standards even when they work against one's political preferences.

Scholarly Scandals

Before we consider the bizarre twists and turns of the Bellesiles saga, the case should be put in context. Although the Arming America story ranks as the worst scandal to hit the American historical profession in recent memory, while it was unfolding three distinguished historians were exposed for dishonesty of one sort or another.

First came Joseph Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, winner of the National Book Award for his biography of Thomas Jefferson and of a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. In Ellis' case the integrity of his scholarship was not in question. Instead it was the stories of his experiences in the Vietnam War with which he regaled his students that proved his undoing. In June 2001 The Boston Globe revealed that Ellis' actual military experience consisted of ROTC at William and Mary College and teaching history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Although he claimed to have served in Gen. William Westmoreland's Vietnam headquarters and as leader of a platoon that passed near My Lai shortly before the 1968 massacre there, military records show that he never left the East Coast. In August 2001, as critics began to find more and more discrepancies in Bellesiles' work, Ellis was suspended for a year without pay.

In January 2002 it was the turn of Stephen Ambrose, the best-selling author, co-author, or editor of an astonishing 35 books over some 40 years. The first revelation was that his latest book, The Wild Blue, contained extensive text from the work of others. Forbes.com writer Mark Lewis discovered that The Wild Blue contained passages from at least nine of the 28 books cited in the endnotes. These nine were the only books of the group that Lewis was able to check, but he posited that if a similar pattern were found in the other 19 books, "That would leave Ambrose open to the charge that he did not write Wild Blue so much as edit it."

Next, passages copied from the work of other scholars were found in five of Ambrose's other books. Ambrose remained unrepentant, insisting until his recent death that he had done nothing wrong, since he had acknowledged the various authors in his notes. Nevertheless, he presented their prose as his own, a clear case of plagiarism as the academy defines it and as every college freshman is expected to understand it. Some commentators have attributed Ambrose's copying to the pressure to churn out new books once his work began earning millions for himself and his publisher. With a small army of his children enlisted as research assistants, Ambrose & Co. had become something of a cottage industry. Yet similar "borrowing" has been found in books written before the historian's career took off, even as early as 1970. For 30 years Ambrose had gotten away with plagiarism. Whoever originally wrote the text, Ambrose's books continue to be sold under his name, earning money for his estate and his publisher, Simon and Schuster.

That same January, Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of successful biographies of Lyndon Johnson, various Kennedys, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, television regular and Harvard overseer, was found to have taken numerous passages in her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds from a book by Lynne McTaggart on Kathleen Kennedy. McTaggert had accepted a settlement from Kearns Goodwin and her publisher years before. Kearns Goodwin blamed the problem on sloppy note taking. She claimed she couldn't tell which of her handwritten notes were her own prose, which copied verbatim from her sources. To her credit, she never argued that copying was legitimate. She asked her publisher, also Simon and Schuster, to destroy its copies of the book and to publish a corrected edition, and she set her researchers to work combing the text for "borrowed" passages.

Kearns Goodwin, like Ambrose, has had defenders. In March 2002 she discussed her confusion over her notes in an address at the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota, and afterward the audience gave her a standing ovation. But a week later The Harvard Crimson called for her to resign as a Harvard overseer. An editorial on the front page of the student newspaper cited Harvard policy: "For students who have committed plagiarism any letter of recommendation written for or on behalf of Harvard College -- including letters to graduate schools, law schools, and medical schools -- will report that you were required to withdraw for academic dishonesty." "Why then," the editorial asked, "should an adult, much less a professional historian, continue in her position in the University without consequence?" There have been consequences. Kearns Goodwin is on leave from her post at PBS's The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, invitations for speaking engagements were withdrawn, and she has resigned from the Pulitzer Prize board (though she has been welcomed back to Meet the Press as an occasional commentator).

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