Joe Ellis: The Danger of Playing a Role as a Public Intellectual


Peter C. Rollins is Regents Professor of English and Film Studies at Oklahoma State University and Editor of Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. He is a Vietnam veteran. He wrote and directed Television's Vietnam: The Impact of Media (SONY Video). His next book is Vietnam in American Popular Culture: Problems of Focusing on our First Television War, which explains how Vietnam has been interpreted by journalists, scholars, and filmmakers.

Historian Joseph Ellis, under a dark cloud for lying about Vietnam service, is a real loss to the Amherst community because he was a"perfect" Vietnam veteran. Before it was exposed one year ago that he had lied, Prof. Ellis conformed to the stereotype demanded by local academics: on the one hand, he was (putatively) a combat veteran who had experienced all the horrors of Vietnam we know about from Oliver Stone's film," Platoon"; yet he took an anti-war stance we have come to admire from seeing it so defiantly portrayed by Tom Cruise in"Born on the Fourth of July." Such a person ratified the decision of many faculty members not to serve in the military during the Vietnam Conflict. He was a comfort to have in the history building and, for a time, in the Dean's office.

There is another dimension to this issue which connects to a theme that has surfaced at some time in almost every monthly in the last few years--the theme of the Public Intellectual. As an admirer of Edmund Wilson and his writings, I have always taken an interest in these discussions, but there is always something unconvincing about them. American intellectuals tend to feel irrelevant and outside the mainstream of ordinary experiences--they yearn to jump into the fray and be a part of the action. This kind of frustration--and the analysis of it--can be traced back to the debates before WWI between Randolph Bourne and John Dewey (later insightfully analyzed by the late Christopher Lasch). Bourne argued that there can be real dangers for intellectuals who crave to be a part of the"real world." When they step out of their ivory tower, they are tempted to surrender what they have most to contribute--their intellect, their critical skills, their mastery of the factual details of history. Bourne believed that Dewey and his fellow Editors at the New Republic were making such a surrender in order to influence national policy as America approached participation in World War I.

I wonder if the two competing interests did not intersect at some point for Joseph Ellis. Here he was studying"engaged" intellectuals such as Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison, yet he was, essentially, a bookish person who spent his military tour of duty (honorably) as a teacher of history at West Point. It must have been frustrating to see those young men and women march off to the battlefields of Vietnam while he remained behind, speculating about Thomas Jefferson's ideas, Jefferson's enigmatic personality--and, years later, Jefferson's (supposed) illicit sex life.

The Amherst community may have invited him to bundle these concerns. Ellis could draw upon his knowledge of Vietnam to teach classes on the conflict and could add to his self-image (and campus kudos) by depicting himself as a combat veteran who had both"touched the elephant" of combat, but not without sharing the local community's abhorrence of"America's longest war." In so doing, he could display himself as a man of action and conscience rather than as a mere researcher, satisfying--albeit by bogus means--what Mark Twain called"the one master impulse: the necessity of securing one's self-approval" ("What is Man?").

The reason why I link this issue to the Amherst area is that I went for a job interview--indeed, my very first--to a school in Western Massachusetts during the Vietnam conflict. I had been a platoon commander in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam and was proud of my service. During one of the interviews, the Vice President of one of the major schools in the area told me that"We do not want your kind around here..." When I asked him what he meant, he said"We do not want you war criminals around here, you fellows who served in Vietnam." This gratuitous rebuke was so shocking, I did not know how to respond, although I pointed out that the issue was irrelevant to my qualifications for the job advertised at his school. (In giving me a focus and a cause, I have since decided that he was my best friend, although not intentionally so. I have since produced movies, articles, conferences, anthologies on the Vietnam conflict...Alas, I confess that he turned me into a"public intellectual" on the subject of Vietnam!)

Let me try to weave these themes together in relation to Joseph Ellis. American intellectuals are often ashamed that they are not in the marketplace or the political arena where they could"make a difference." As Randolph Bourne argued, it may be that they ought to sit on the sidelines and do the work that they do best--and let the chips fall where they may. Joseph Ellis was tempted to be a"public intellectual" both by his studies of our eighteenth century leaders and by the Vietnam agon. He constructed a persona for himself which would"sell" in Amherst, the persona of a combat veteran who resembled Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic or the John Voigt character Jane Fonda's"Coming Home." This persona was a man of principle and no bookworm; he was a living part of history, dispensing wisdom to the students of Mt. Holyoke and Amherst Colleges who flocked to his courses on"Vietnam and American Culture." Yet he could hold his head high in the local faculty club because he had been a vocal opponent of an unjust war. Indeed, he was a rival to Thomas Jefferson, that"American Sphinx," because Jefferson had shown a Clintonesque, amoral side by impregnating a slave, Sally Hemings.

In the light of the Joseph Ellis controversy, I would suggest that academic newsletters and magazines think twice before printing further articles about"public intellectuals" and rethink what it is that intellectuals do: they study and they think; they share their ideas orally and in print. They do not have to be public figures and they do not have to be the scorers of winning touchdowns or warriors who cut a figure for the local crowd---in this case, for Ellis, the local peace crowd. They genuinely should prize the insulation the university gives them and, if they step forward on public issues, they should be wary about bringing those positions into their classrooms. (Too much propagandizing goes on there now.)

And everybody needs to know that the Harris Pollsters found, after a broad survey, that 90% of Vietnam veterans are proud of their service and do not believe that their country took advantage of them. If this statement seems contrary to accepted perceptions, we need to swing back to such popular films as"Platoon,""Born on the Fourth of July," and"Coming Home"--films which defined a contemporary activist mold into which Joseph Ellis squeezed himself so that he could be like those"founding brothers" John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other heroes of America's mythic past--when words and actions somehow merged and thinkers could be doers.