The Complicated History of J. William Fulbright, by Bill Wanlund

Dr. Lonnie Johnson could have reminisced about his 22 years as Executive Director of the Austrian Fulbright Commission when he spoke Oct.2 at The George Washington University. He didn’t.

Instead, he told October’s First Monday Forum, cosponsored by PDCA, the USC Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, about Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, a man of vision with a strong sense of political survival, traits which combined to give him what Johnson calls a “complicated history.”

Fulbright died in 1995, but his name survives in his namesake international academic exchange program, now 77 years old and globally recognized for its excellence. Fulbright had been shocked by the horrors of World War II -- he called the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 “the immediate cause of my effort to set up an educational exchange program” which he saw as contributing to peace by fostering intercultural understanding.
Fulbright nursed that program into law the following year “by a combination of guile and procedural finesse,” Johnson said, describing the bill that created it as “two pages of terminologically dense legislation” which Fulbright guided through the Senate with no floor discussion and no roll call vote. He later remarked that he didn’t want to risk an “open appeal to the idealism of my colleagues” to get the bill passed. Johnson said, “An influential Senator told him later he would have killed the bill instantly had he understood it in the first place.”

In the 1960s Fulbright’s commitment to peace won him praise for his principled opposition to what Fulbright referred to as America’s “tragic and unnecessary” war in Vietnam. Fulbright’s dissent also caused a “colossal” falling-out with his long-standing personal and political friend, President Lyndon Johnson.

That was Fulbright: an educator, a dissenter, a liberal icon. But there was another piece to the public Fulbright -- one which Johnson called his “deplorable record on civil rights.” That record included being one of the 19 Senators and 81 House Members signing the 1956 Southern Manifesto which opposed Supreme Court decisions declaring racial segregation of public places to be unconstitutional and commended “the motives of those States which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means.” He also voted against the Civil Rights Bills of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, all of which were passed into law.

The seeming yin-and-yang disconnect between the “good” and “bad” Fulbrights caused an epidemic of exploding pundit heads. There was a whiff of hillbilly derision mixed with respect: The Saturday Evening Post called him the “Egghead from the Ozarks.” Life magazine described him as “an aloof, thorny, unpredictable intellectual, shaped by Oxford and the Ozarks.” A 1955 Harper’s article about him was headlined “Arkansas Paradox.”

Johnson acknowledges that Fulbright was “confounding and paradoxical,” saying “It was an established part of his public political persona.” He notes that Fulbright belonged to a small group of lawmakers known as “gradualists” who favored incremental over radical social change, and wanted to slow integration to enhance its acceptance, in recognition of “the slow conversion of the human heart.”

Fulbright never publicly apologized for his voting record, Johnson says. To the extent he talked about it, he justified it in terms of sober political expediency. In The Price of Empire, a book in which Fulbright discusses his political career, he said, “If you oppose your constituents too directly on an issue too close to their hearts, you are not going to get elected,” and his constituents “were not about to be persuaded on civil rights.”

Carl Marcy, Chief of Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1955-73 [Fulbright was its chairman from 1959-74], said Fulbright “thought he had a compact with the people of Arkansas that, if he represented their feelings on the issues closest to their hearts, they had allowed him as the other part of that contract to act as he should act in the field of foreign policy.”

“Fulbright knew exactly what he was doing,” Johnson says. “He was confronted with a moral dilemma and he made the decision to stay in office and get reelected. Remember, Arkansas voted in the 1968 Presidential election for [then-Alabama Governor] George Wallace, whose slogan was ‘segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ Fulbright saw race as a tremendous liability, and was constantly afraid of being undercut from the right.”

Realizing later in life that his civil rights record would “cast a dark shadow on his career,” Fulbright said: “I don’t think that the gradualist school I belong to…will receive the approval of history.”

True that. His shining record as a devotee of peace was what most of America knew about Fulbright – until the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the main campus of the University of Arkansas, his alma mater, students and faculty demanded the statue erected in his honor be torn down and that the school’s Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and Fulbright Peace Fountain be renamed. In the end, those steps were never taken, in part because of a newly-enacted state law protecting statues of Arkansans. In the end, the University published a contextualizing “Fulbright Paradox” that puts Fulbright’s civil rights record in the narrative along with his meritorious accomplishments.

The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs [ECA], sponsor of the Fulbright Program, perhaps assessing the national Zeitgeist, began to systematically erase the Senator’s biography from the program’s website and promotional literature. Johnson says that by the program’s 75th anniversary in 2021, nothing was left of Senator Fulbright on ECA’s version of the program but his name. Credit for creating it had been shifted from Fulbright to the collective “Congress.” His name was removed from the captions of iconic photos illustrating the program’s history, such as the one in which he is looking over the shoulder of President Harry S Truman as he signed the 1946 legislation that created the program. Another is a photo of Jeff Davis Jr., the first Fulbrighter on record with a disability, being escorted in London by an unidentified man – yes, it was Fulbright. “One way or another,” Johnson says, “Fulbright was out of the picture.”

He had been transformed from inspiration to adjective.

Johnson calls ECA’s reframing of the Fulbright program by ignoring Fulbright’s accomplishments “the most radical form of historical revisionism: Erasure from the public record to falsify the past.”

The Bureau has gone even further to redefine the program, Johnson says. The Fulbright Foreign Students Board [FFSB], which issues administrative guidelines for the program, said the program’s image needed refreshing. The firm contracted by ECA to do the refreshing recommended a new narrative it said would resonate with “Gen Z students”.  Over objections by Fulbright advisory groups, ECA approved the rebranding, creating a new narrative which Johnson calls “ahistorical, apolitical and vacuous” and “based on a market survey with a certain demographic in the United States. It reflects a lot of U.S. political tension which is difficult to put in the forefront of the entire exchange program.”

Johnson hopes that ECA can correct the record.

“Institutions speak with authority; they’re silent with authority too,” Johnson says. “This ECA decision was done without discourse, but we can still have that conversation.”

Click here to watch a recording of the FMF discussion.
Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. His column, "Worth Noting", appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and the PDCA Blog; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.