Mt. Holyoke prof. caught lying about Vietnam heroism

by Tracy Landers | 6/29/01 5:00am

Shock and disappointment spread throughout Mount Holyoke College recently as news broke that Pulitzer-Prize winning professor of history Joseph Ellis had, for over a decade, lied to students and fellow colleagues about his involvement in the Vietnam War.

According to school officials, Ellis embellished his popular class on the Vietnam War with fabricated tales of his combat experience. Last week, The Boston Globe cited documents showing that Ellis had never served in Vietnam.

Ellis issued an apology for misleading students and others, and Mount Holyoke College has announced that Ellis will no longer teach the class on Vietnam and American Culture.

These compensations have done little to stem campus-wide debate over ethics, methods of teaching and Mount Holyoke's celebrated honor code.

"He should most certainly be held up to the Honor Code standards that everyone in the MHC community pledges to live by," a student wrote recently on a college Internet message board, on which dozens of students and alumni have posted comments about Ellis.

"Whatever other skills he may have, truth is the foundation of academia and he has forsaken that," another student wrote.

Mount Holyoke's honor code requires that students act "responsibly, honestly and respectfully in both [their] words and deeds." The code does not appear to apply to the faculty.

Complicating the matter are Ellis' 29 years of service to the college. His 1997 National Book Award and this year's Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Gentlemen" gave him a prestigious position at the college.

Ellis served as dean of the faculty from 1980 to 1990, and helped hire more than half of the 180 full-time faculty members there now.

"Joe Ellis has been a star, our star, from the time he came to Mount Holyoke in 1972," reads the citation he received upon winning the Faculty Prize for Scholarship last year.

Quoting a colleague, the citation adds that Ellis "has a dazzling imagination, always responsibly exercised, that finds more in the documentary evidence than most manage to discover."

The question asked by many is, why would Ellis invent a heroic past that included a tour of duty as a paratrooper in Saigon, involvement in the civil-rights and anti-war movement and even a big role in a high school football game?

Some suggest that he is a typical egomaniacal historian, whose vanity allows for distortion of the very truth which should be the historian's guiding principle.

Other historians ascribed his lies to guilt over having been behind a lectern at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point while other young men risked their lives in combat. Others talked about the pressures of becoming a celebrity academic.

Some historians and students who took his Vietnam class feel Ellis' fabrications were a kind of legend, an embellishment of his own life, done in the name of teaching. In postings on the Internet, some students wrote that as long as he didn't falsify historical events, his statements about having seen combat were not unethical.

Ellis has violated the American Historical Association's code of ethics, association officials say, but Mount Holyoke wants to evaluate his misrepresentations in a campus context.

"I don't know of any precedent for something like this," said Stan Rachootin, a biological science professor who serves on the faculty committee. "There's a lot of concern here. Are we inventing a code that wasn't there? Are we finding him in violation of it? I don't know."

These concerns stem from the fact that Prof. Ellis' abuses of truth were restricted to his own life and had no bearing on his work. "There's no presumption that he has falsified the historical record," said David M. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University.

"Falsifying one's own past is its own discrete problem ... Possibly, this may be an instance of the perverse and paradoxical truth that a flawed human being can make a great scholar," Kennedy added.

Ellis foreshadowed his own downfall in his recent Pulitzer Prize winning book, which portrays the lives of seven Revolutionary leaders.

"Jefferson was the kind of man who could have passed a lie detector test confirming his integrity, believing as he did that the supreme significance of the larger cause rendered conventional distinctions between truth and falsehood superfluous," Ellis wrote.