Senator Fulbright Had a Global Vision
Exchange program is an ambassador for US ideals
WHEN J. William Fulbright died Feb. 9, not only the nation, but the world marked his passing. Few Americans have had an influence on United States relations with peoples across the globe to match that of this Arkansan.
Senator Fulbright had two abiding interests: international educational exchange and the constitutional prerogatives of the US Senate. In the later years of his life, he was particularly proud of the former.
In 1946, Fulbright became aware of the growing US reserves of nonconvertible foreign currencies being accumulated through the sale of military and agricultural surpluses. He conceived the idea of using these funds to bring students and scholars from abroad to the US and to send Americans overseas to study and teach.
The Fulbright program was born. Later supported by appropriations, it became one of the most extensive and successful stimuli to worldwide learning in history. By the end of 1994, more than 200,000 Fulbright fellowships had been awarded for activities in 130 countries.
The Fulbright program involved more than a transfer of academic knowledge. Developed in the period of decolonization, it gave opportunities to those from newer nations to learn about the US - terra incognita for most in the colonial world. At the same time, American experts brought to these nations techniques and ideas vital for their development. Scientists and engineers joined those in the humanities in this global movement.
The program was nonpolitical. In countries where the selection of those to study abroad traditionally had been a matter of family and politics, the Fulbright program sought to broaden opportunities through choices made by nonpolitical, binational commissions. Sending teachers and lecturers abroad from the US who were not screened for their political views demonstrated the breadth of American freedom.
The authority of the Senate and its potential for international influence represented Fulbright's other great interest. As a congressman in 1944, Fulbright introduced the resolution that led to support for organizing the postwar United Nations. Without doubt he had in mind the failure of the Senate after World War I to endorse US participation in the League of Nations.
In his Senate years from 1945 to 1974 - 16 of them as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - he strongly supported negotiations with the Soviet Union and a prudent use of US power abroad. He was instrumental in gaining ratification for arms-control treaties that laid the foundation for later US-Soviet negotiations. He was skeptical of those who characterized all communist countries as serious threats to the US; he believed distinctions were essential for a wise approach to national security. In the 1950s he was one of the few senators with the courage to stand up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his hunt for communists in the US government.
Above all, Fulbright fought for recognition of the Senate's role in the conduct of foreign policy. He reacted strongly against presidential appointees who acted as though Senate confirmation was a foregone conclusion. In his quiet, dry manner, he challenged administration witnesses on actions taken without proper consultation with the Congress.
In one lengthy series of hearings, co-chaired with Sen. Stuart Symington, he reviewed commitments made to other nations during the Eisenhower administration that, in his view, circumvented the treaty process.
His most prominent challenges to executive policies came during the Vietnam War. Although he had sponsored the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, which gave President Johnson the authority to intervene in Vietnam, he subsequently opposed the war, which he felt was unjustified and was tearing the nation apart.
Fulbright believed strongly that the power of the United States to influence others lay more in demonstrations of its free institutions than in the use of force. Thousands in the world have a better view of America because of his ideas.
At a time when politicians are pressing for a more unilateral approach to the world, Fulbright's vision is still relevant.