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Joseph Ellis: the Vietnam wannabe

Joseph Ellis What an amazing story. Here's the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, winner of the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling biographer of The Founding Brothers, and leading proponent of the theory that Thomas Jefferson fathered black slaves -- exposed as a fraud!

Claiming to have been a platoon leader in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division, he kept Mount Holyoke students and faculty members spellbound with yarns of his adventures in 'Nam. In fact, he spent his entire military career lecturing at West Point. (He got a reserve commission in 1965, presumably through ROTC, but was allowed to defer service for four years while working on his doctorate.)

More than that, he apparently also lied about enlisting in the anti-war movement after he got home, about helping David Halberstam write The Best and the Brightest, about his experiences in the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s, and even about his high-school football career.

Where this really gets interesting is the fact that Ellis loaned his name and position to the theory that Thomas Jefferson was the father of some of the children of Sally Hemings, girlie slave. This story, you may remember, broke on the eve of Bill Clinton's impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives for lying about his sexual liaison with a 21-year-old intern. Hey, said the spin doctors--no big deal! Everybody does it! Look at Thomas Jefferson--he fathered slaves!

Ellis was up front about the parallel. Here's what he wrote on the subject: "President William Jefferson Clinton also has a vested interest in this revelation.... Jefferson has always been Clinton's favorite Founding Father. Now, a sexually active, all-too-human Jefferson appears alongside his embattled protege. It is as if Clinton had called one of the most respected character witnesses in all of U.S. history to testify that the primal urge has a most distinguished presidential pedigree. The dominant effect of this news will be to make Clinton's sins seem less aberrant and more palatable. If a vote against Clinton is also a vote against Jefferson, the prospects for impeachment become even more remote."

(It turned out that the proof of Jefferson's dalliance was much less convincing than Ellis made it appear at the time. His co-author, pathologist Eugene Foster, told the British science journal Nature that the DNA evident hadn't proved Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings's children. It merely showed that he was one of twenty-five males in the Jeffersonclan who might have been the father.)

As a comical sidebar, given the way matters have turned out, Ellis even criticized Jefferson for shirking the defense of his country. Writing in the present tense so beloved by pop historians, he commented: "Jefferson ... doesn't become a soldier. He is young enough to do so. Many of his friends are doing that. And, truth be known, he is criticized within the Virginia aristocracy for shirking his duties.... He had been elected governor of the state, and in that period of time when he is governor, Virginia is invaded by a British army and Jefferson himself is chased out of the capital and they burn the capital around him. He flees to Monticello. And the stories at the time were that Jefferson was a coward.... When he runs for office later on, they keep calling this moment back to him that he didn't serve. It would be like now if somebody missed service in Vietnam, and basically being told, Where were you when it was time to be counted?" [boldface added].

When the Boston Globe outed Professor Ellis, Mount Holyoke leaped to his defense: "Professor Joseph Ellis is one of the most respected scholars, writers and teachers in the nation," said prexy Joanne Creighton. She questioned the newspaper's motivation and said the school is "proud to have him on our faculty." Later, Creighton backpedaled and promised an investigation, which resulted in a year's suspension for Ellis.

Ellis himself had the following to say, before disconnecting his telephone: "I deeply regret having let stand and later confirming the assumption that I went to Vietnam. For this and any other distortions about my personal life, I want to apologize to my family, friends, colleagues and students. Beyond that circle, however, I shall have no further comment." How about that?

In a letter to the New York Times, a colleague came to Ellis's defense, arguing that the fact that he's a liar in his personal life in no way invalidates his historical writings. To say otherwise, the good prof declared, is to engage in "the politics of personal destruction." Ellis's publisher, the very respectable firm of Knopf, argues that his fakery is a "personal crisis" that doesn't "bleed over" into his professional life.

What's this all about? Why has the Ellis story received so little attention in the mainstream media? Why does Ellis get a free pass for an offense that would ruin a physicist or a Republican congressional leader?

No doubt it has much to do with the fact that Ellis was an absolute prize for the folks who dodged military service in the 1960s, and who later ruled the thinking at Mount Holyoke and the New York Times. All the Good People were against the Vietnam War -- that went without saying. But here was something even better: Joseph Ellis was not merely against the Vietnam War, but he served heroically in it! He was a war criminal! And best of all, he repented and became an anti-war activist! He became one of us, Muffy! It's hard to see one of your prize exhibits go down in flames.

* * * *

After a year of "reflection and repair," in the words of Mt. Holyoke's president, Professor Ellis was welcomed back to the classroom in September 2002. The reflection, presumably, was on the part of Ellis, while the repair was to Mt. Holyoke's tarnished image. He was reappointed to his endowed chair as Ford Foundation Professor of History in 2005, and retired from the faculty in 2012. It's easy to gain forgiveness if you're on the correct side of the ideological divide. -- Daniel Ford

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