Fulbright, J. William

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J. William Fulbright

Born April 9, 1905
Sumner, Missouri
Died February 9, 1995
Washington, D.C.

U.S. senator from Arkansas, 1945–1974

J. William Fulbright was the U.S. Senate's best-known critic of American policies in Vietnam during the mid-to-late 1960s, when U.S. troop commitments reached their peak. His views, which received added attention because of his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made him one of the most controversial members of Congress during the Vietnam War era.

From professor to politician

J. William Fulbright was born April 9, 1905, in Sumner, Missouri. The son of a prominent farmer and a journalist, he was an excellent student and athlete in high school and at the University of Arkansas. After graduating from Arkansas in 1925, he earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Pembroke College at Oxford University in England. He earned a master's degree at Oxford in 1931 before returning to the United States. In 1932 he married Elizabeth Williams, with whom he eventually had two daughters. Two years later he received a law degree from George Washington University.

After briefly working as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, Fulbright accepted a teaching position at George Washington University. In 1936 he moved to the faculty of the University of Arkansas, where he quickly emerged as one of the school's most respected professors. In 1939 Fulbright was named president of the University of Arkansas, but his time as president was marked by internal disagreements over university policies. He lost his position at Arkansas in 1941.

In 1943 Fulbright entered Congress as a Democratic representative from Arkansas. The young politician made his mark soon after his arrival in Washington, D.C. He impressed his colleagues with the depth of his knowledge and his style. In September 1943, he introduced landmark legislation that led to the formation of the United Nations. Fulbright's role in the creation of the United Nations transformed him into "an instant celebrity" in Washington, D.C., noted Haynes B. Johnson and Bernard M. Gwertzman in Fulbright: The Dissenter.

Makes his mark in U.S. Senate

After serving one two-year term in the House of Representatives, Fulbright used his national reputation to win an open seat in the U.S. Senate. The Arkansas Democrat assumed his Senate seat in 1945 and kept it for the next three decades.

During his early Senate career, Fulbright continued to concentrate much of his time and energy on U.S. foreign policy and international relations. In 1946, for example, he established an international fellowship program to encourage the exchange of scholars between America and other nations. This initiative, known as the Mutual Educational Exchange Program or the Fulbright Program, provides grants for American students to study overseas and for foreign students to continue their education in the United States. Since its inception, an estimated two hundred thousand students have participated in the program, including such famous figures as poet Maya Angelou, former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou. Today, the Fulbright Program continues to provide students in America and around the world with opportunities to visit and study in foreign lands.

In the 1950s Fulbright's influence over American foreign policy continued to grow. Unlike many of his colleagues, he adopted a moderate position on "Cold War" issues. (The Cold War was a period of intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in which both nations competed to spread their political philosophies and influence around the world.) Fulbright disagreed with other politicians who regarded the Communist political philosophy as a terrible and immediate threat to the security of the United States. But at the same time he supported U.S. efforts to protect itself from the Soviet Union, the world's greatest Communist power.

By the late 1950s Fulbright was known as one of the Senate's leading scholars on international relations. But he also became known during this time as an opponent of civil rights legislation that aimed to eliminate segregation (separation by race) and other laws that discriminated against blacks. In fact, Fulbright became an important member of a group of Southern lawmakers who worked for years to defeat the civil rights movement. For example, he signed the 1956 "Southern Manifesto," a document in which Southern politicians bitterly condemned efforts to end segregation. In addition, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But despite the resistance of Fulbright and other southern lawmakers these landmark pieces of civil rights legislation were passed into law. Today, Fulbright's opposition to the civil rights movement is regarded by many historians as a dark stain on an otherwise distinguished Senate career.

Awarded chairmanship of important committee

In 1959 Fulbright was named chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful committee that helped shape American foreign policy around the world. As chairman, the Arkansas senator exerted great influence over the committee's activities on a wide range of policy issues. Fulbright's responsibilities in this regard soon led him to turn his attention to events in Vietnam.

A long-time colony of France, Vietnam had won its freedom in 1954 after an eight-year war with the French. But the country had been divided into two sections by the 1954 Geneva Peace Accords. North Vietnam was headed by a Communist government under revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (see entry). Leadership of South Vietnam, on the other hand, was given to politicians who promised to build a democracy.

The Geneva agreement provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 so that the two sections of Vietnam could be united under one government. But South Vietnamese officials refused to hold the elections because they believed that the results would give the Communists control over the entire country. This stand was supported by the United States. American strategists believed that if South Vietnam fell to communism, Communist movements might sweep through all of Southeast Asia and increase the international influence and prestige of Communist China and the Soviet Union.

When the South refused to hold elections, North Vietnam joined with Viet Cong guerrillas in the South to overthrow the South Vietnamese government by force. The United States responded by sending money, weapons, and advisors to aid in South Vietnam's defense. In the early 1960s this assistance increased at a very rapid rate. But despite growing U.S. involvement, South Vietnam continued to teeter on the brink of collapse.

Fulbright and Vietnam

In 1964 Fulbright and most other American lawmakers expressed firm support for President Lyndon Johnson's (see entry) introduction of U.S. forces into South Vietnam. In fact, the Arkansas senator sponsored the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Johnson later used as his legal authority for waging war against North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies. This resolution was passed by Congress in August 1964, after U.S. Navy ships based in Vietnam allegedly came under attack from North Vietnamese forces. It authorized Johnson to take "all necessary measures" against further attacks. Today, however, most historians believe that the U.S. Navy vessels were never attacked.

"When I look back on [my sponsorship of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution], I couldn't have made a greater mistake," Fulbright stated in The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. "I consider that as my greatest mistake in the Senate, to believe what they [the Johnson administration] said and not take it skeptically and examine it. They made it appear that this was very important to support the President and that if he had the backing of this great country, that we could make North Vietnam understand that the United States couldn't be pushed around in this fashion and that they would in effect sue for peace, and it would end the thing [the war] there . . . . There's no excuse for my stupidity in going along with the administration. I shouldn't have . . . . I was mistaken and I'm sorry and that's all I can say."

In 1965 the Johnson administration began pouring U.S. troops and weaponry into Vietnam at a furious rate. Around this same time, Fulbright began to express private doubts about the wisdom of America's growing military presence in the conflict and its ability to win the war quickly. He also rejected the Johnson administration's description of the war as a Cold War clash of great strategic importance to the United States. Instead, Fulbright came to regard the war as a regional struggle that should be settled by the Vietnamese people without outside interference.

In late 1965 Fulbright reluctantly decided that he needed to express his growing concerns about the Vietnam War in public. "Fulbright dreaded the thought of bringing on himself the firestorm of pressure and controversy that would certainly be triggered by publicly criticizing the war policies of a still-popular president," wrote Eugene Brown in J. William Fulbright: Advice and Dissent. "Yet, he could not much longer suppress his own gnawing doubts about the wisdom of committing America's power and prestige to the military determination of what he was coming to view as a localized political conflict."

Fulbright holds Senate hearings on the war

In January and February of 1966 Fulbright arranged for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold public hearings on American military involvement in Vietnam. These televised hearings, which featured testimony from both critics and supporters of U.S. war policies, attracted considerable attention all across the United States. In fact, the hearings are widely credited with increasing public skepticism about the Johnson administration's handling of the Vietnam War.

Over the next few years, Fulbright became one of the Senate's most visible critics of American intervention in Vietnam. He repeatedly charged that Vietnam's future should be determined by its people and argued that the country's form of government simply was not that important to America's own future. "The war in Indochina is a bad investment of our resources and our talents," declared the senator, who called for negotiations that would enable the U.S. to withdraw from the conflict.

Fulbright's outspoken criticism deeply angered Johnson, his administration, and millions of Americans who supported U.S. intervention in Vietnam. But his stand made him a hero to the nation's fast-growing antiwar movement and helped convince other lawmakers to oppose the war. In the meantime, Fulbright detailed his views on Vietnam and other foreign policy issues in several books, including the 1967 bestseller The Arrogance of Power.

Fulbright's condemnation of the Johnson administration's policies in Vietnam became even stronger during the late 1960s, when escalating U.S. intervention triggered massive protests and divisions in America's streets and neighborhoods. "By committing half a million of our young men to bloody and endless combat in these distant jungles our leaders have converted a struggle between Vietnamese for possession of the Vietnamese land into a struggle between Americans for possession of the American spirit," Fulbright declared in a March 1968 speech on the Senate floor.

In January 1969 Richard M. Nixon (see entry) succeeded Johnson as president. After Nixon assumed office, Fulbright continued his calls for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. In addition, he urged his Senate colleagues to increase the Senate's involvement in shaping America's relations with other nations. He believed that if the Senate assumed a more active role in American foreign policy decisions, America would be less likely to get involved in conflicts like the Vietnam War in the future.

In 1974 Fulbright lost his bid for a sixth term as senator. This defeat ended his fifteen-year chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and convinced him to retire from public life. In 1988 he suffered the first of a series of strokes that put him in poor health. In 1993 President Bill Clinton—who had worked as an intern in Fulbright's Senate office in the early 1960s—presented the former Arkansas senator with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his distinguished Senate career. He died two years later in Washington, D.C., of complications from a final stroke.


Berman, William C. William Fulbright and the Vietnam War: The Dissent of a Political Realist. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1988.

Brown, Eugene. J. William Fulbright: Advice and Dissent. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1985.

Fulbright, J. William. The Arrogance of Power. New York: Random House, 1967.

Johnson, Haynes Bonner, and Bernard M. Gwertzman. Fulbright: The Dissenter. New York: Doubleday, 1968.

The Vietnam Hearings. Introduction by J. William Fulbright. New York: Random House, 1966.

Woods, Randall Bennett. Fulbright: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.