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.

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Herbert Barger - 8/11/2004

Professor Rollins has Professor Joseph Ellis definined well in his excellent summation of this "wantabe man for all seasons." Yes, he was exposed in the excellent Boston Globe article for his lies about his non-existant Vietnam ssrvice and other personal lies. Some historians and others have stated that these lies did not carry over into his writings and other areas.

This disclosure alone was plenty but let us add on some more lies he told in his writings about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Since he had written a book on Jefferson, he had become somewhat of an authority on everything Jefferson. He told me after I asked why he had turned 180 degrees from his former thoughts as mentioned in his book. This "great" Jefferson careful researcher had NO knowledge of a small book produced at the University of Virginia Press and researched by former Monticello Director, Jim Bear, Jr. and Bernard Mayo. This book, "Thomas Jerfferson and His UNKNOWN Brother" outlines many letters between the two brothers, but Professor Ellis knew anything of it (he told me).

Thus when the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study results were announced in Nature Journal, he immediately became an "authority" on Jefferson and was asked to write an article in the November 5, 1998 issue which immediately was a lie. DNA did NOT show that Thomas Jefferson was proven to have fathered Sally Hemings children as written in the co-authored damning article by Professor Ellis and Dr. Landers of M.I.T. I know all the inside shennagings about this fiasco because I personally assisted Dr. E. A. Foster with the test. Dr. Foster later explained what he "really" found in the tests in the N.Y. Times and because of my complaints about the false and misleading original Nature article of November 5, 1998 Dr. Foster further clarified what the results "actually showed" in a later article of January 7, 1999 (very little was mentioned by the media of this important article.)

Professor Ellis was now on "cloud nine" in the media, print and electronic, personal appearances, news broadcasts, book tours of his "Founding Brothers", etc. He was again spreading incorrect statements about the Jefferson-Hemings affair. He moved on to the Library of Congress book to further give "his version" of Jefferson. On one broadcast he was heard to say, "the matter is now settled and he is moving on."

I can tell the reader that the matter is far from being settled and that a panel of 13 prominent scholars produced the Scholars Commission Report and took the Monticello in-house Report to task for being biased, one sided and researching with a pre-determined outcome for their report. This Monticello group actually DELETED from their final report a very critical Minority Report by a long time employee, Dr. Ken Wallenborn, until I heard of this underhanded attempt to censor this important work and reported it to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation ("Memorial" has since been deleted from their title), an an apology was given Dr. Wallenborn by Monticello President, Dan Jordan.

Just as in medicine ALWAYS demand a "second opinion".....it has saved Mr. Jefferson from certain further degradation by historical revisionists using the current political correctness attitude.

Members of the Monticello Association (descendants of Thomas Jefferson), having spent 3 years reading the Monticello Report, the Scholars Commission Report and using their own resources, overwhelmingly voted to NOT accept applications for membership in their family association.

The DNA Study has been little understood by the public and all they have had to assess the issue is what the media has "spoon fed" us. Monticello management is remiss in telling the public that there is NO proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered ANY Hemings child, much less the one probability but possibly ALL of her children. Now that is a large statement for a well known head of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Monticello President, Dr. Daniel Jordan to make. There is NO fact about ALL because only one was DNA tested. Dr. Jordan was told by myself that after a long search I had found another Hemings male that would qualify for a test, but he even REFUSES to ask the Hemings for permission to get the DNA. I informed 8 of their family members to grant permission myself and originally they orally granted permission, but upon furnishing official forms, NOT ONE, has given permission. One spokesperson told me, "we are happy with our ORAL history and will never grant permission for gathering the DNA of William Hemings buried in a cemetery in Leavenworth, Kansas. Meanwhile Hemings and Woodson family members (the Woodsons were completely eliminated by the DNA test), continue to write inaccurate books and participate in presentations before public groups stating they are Thomas Jefferson descendants.

Herb Barger
Jefferson Family Historian

Kevin Boyle - 6/20/2002

Professor Rollins is certainly right to say that Joe Ellis is a member of the Amherst community. His argument that the community contributed to Ellis' actions is much more problematic.
To be sure, Professor Rollins was treated very badly when he interviewed for a job in the area some thirty years ago. He assumes, however, that the attitudes he found then are still in place all these years later. Amherst remains a liberal place. And it has its share of anti-war activists. But the intellectual community here is complex and diverse; there is no set standard, no litmus test, that Ellis had to meet so he could hold his head high in local faculty clubs. Folks don't spend all that much time in the faculty clubs pressing each other about the details of their past.
I can offer a bit of relevant testimony. I teach modern American history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I've done research on Vietnam and teach it in my classes. I knew Joe Ellis taught a Vietnam course at Mt. Holyoke. But I knew absolutely nothing about his military record until the story broke last year. It never occured to me to ask him about it. I suspect the same is true for most of us here in the area. We didn't look to Joe Ellis as a the perfect Vietnam veteran, as Professor Rollins says. We didn't think about his veteran status at all.
Kevin Boyle
Associate Professor
Department of History
University of Massachusetts

R. B. Bernstein - 6/19/2002

Prof. Rollins's use of Amherst actually does make sense:

* Mount Holyoke College is only 9 miles from Amherst College.

* Both schools are part of the Five-College Consortium (with Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst).

* Prof. Ellis guest-taught at Amherst as well as at Mount Holyoke.

As for Prof. Rollins's generalizations about the Amherst-area academic community, I am not so sure, but then again I graduated 25 years ago.

R. B. Bernstein
Adjunct Professor of Law, New York Law School
[Amherst '77]

Edward Furey - 6/19/2002

I'm not quite sure what all this Amherst talk is about. Joseph Ellis is a tenured professor at Mount Holyoke, holding the Ford Foundation Chair in American History, teaches at Mount Holyoke, was a dean at Mount Holyoke, and was suspended from Mount Holyoke, where, I presume, he will return to resume his duties next fall.

Emiliana P. Noether - 6/18/2002

Whatever explanations may be offered to try to explain Ellis'
deliberate deception to create a fictitious persona for himself, the fact remains that he lied. He misled generations of students, colleagues, and friends and that cannot be pardoned. As a practicing historian for the past fifty years, I find no extenuating circumstances in the case of Ellis.

William Heuisler - 6/18/2002

Wonderful analysis, thought and tear-provoking. Your last comment about most Viet Nam veterans being proud was something I had sensed, but had never before seen in print. My buddies and I have always been proud of our service and our Corps. We assumed we were a minority because of the incessant self-fulfilled Cassandras of the Left. I've heard Oliver Stone was a Marine. Now I wonder. Bill Heuisler, 1695349