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Fulbright, J(ames) William

Fulbright, J(ames) William

(b. 9 April 1905 in Sumner, Missouri; d. 9 February 1995 in Washington, D.C.), Arkansas Democratic politician who served for thirty years in the U.S. Senate, exhibiting an independence that infuriated several presidents.

Fulbright was one of six children born to Jay Fulbright and Roberta Waugh Fulbright. The family moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1906, and his father combined large-scale farming with banking, lumber, and other enterprises that made him one of the richest men in Arkansas when he died in 1923. While his mother struggled to retain control of the family’s business empire, he attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, combining average grades with an exceptional talent for football. He graduated with a B.A. degree in political science in 1925. That same year he won a Rhodes scholarship and spent three years studying history and political science at Oxford University in England. After returning to the United States, he met Elizabeth (“Betty”) Williams, a vivacious intelligent heiress to a large Philadelphia fortune and married her on 15 June 1932.

After receiving a law degree from George Washington University in 1934, Fulbright went to work in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. In 1935 he left this position to teach law at George Washington University, but within a year he returned to Arkansas to teach at the University of Arkansas Law School, participate in the family’s businesses, and spend time as a gentleman farmer. Fulbright ended this decade by becoming president of the University of Arkansas at age thirty-four.

His mother’s close friendship with the governor of Arkansas, Carl E. Bailey, and her control of an influential newspaper, the Northwest Arkansas Times, had much to do with this controversial appointment. Although he was reluctant at first, Fulbright decided to make the most of the job. In his speeches he deplored the negative self-image of Arkansas and became a proponent of inspiring young men to seek political careers. After a heady two years in the limelight, Fulbright’s reign came to an abrupt end in 1941, when Governor Bailey lost his bid for a third term. The new governor, Homer Adkins, made firing the young president his first order of business.

This taste of public life was a turning point for Fulbright. In 1942 he ran for Congress in the Third District of Arkansas and was elected in a near-landslide. The voters liked his call for the United States to fight a “creative war,” making plans for future peace a vital part of the wartime agenda. In Congress, Fulbright offered a brief resolution calling for an international organization dedicated to preserving peace, and the Fulbright Resolution was passed in June 1943. The resolution made him an instant celebrity, praised by such disparate power centers as the White House and Life magazine, and it was a landmark step toward the creation of the United Nations.

In 1944 Fulbright ran for the U.S. Senate and easily defeated Governor Adkins, his opponent for the Senate seat. In his first Senate speech Fulbright criticized the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt for bypassing Congress in the peace-planning process. When the United Nations took shape in 1945, Fulbright expressed public enthusiasm and private disappointment. He deplored the emphasis on national sovereignty and the great power veto.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States had large amounts of surplus property abroad. Fulbright proposed a law that would place the money from the sale of this material in a fund to support an international exchange program for “students in … education, culture, and science.” He won bipartisan backing from figures such as former president Herbert Hoover. On 1 August 1946 the bill became law, launching what would soon be called the Fulbright Program. Expanded by future congresses, it financed the exchange of more than 200,000 foreign and American scholars in Fulbright’s lifetime.

When the Republicans won both houses of Congress in the 1946 elections, Fulbright suggested that President Harry S. Truman resign and appoint a Republican president to lead the executive branch and thereby reduce partisan bickering. An infuriated Truman called Fulbright “an overeducated Oxford SOB.” Fulbright’s relations with the White House did not improve when he undertook an investigation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that revealed widespread corruption in the granting of federal loans. Fulbright did support President Truman’s decision to resist communist aggression in Korea. But when the People’s Republic of China entered the Korean War in late 1950, the senator called for the evacuation of U.S. troops. Fulbright was ignored by the White House and almost everyone else.

In the Senate, Fulbright was among the first to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reckless attempts to smear liberals as communist sympathizers. He repeatedly criticized the confrontational anticommunism of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. Fulbright confounded his liberal admirers by signing the 1956 Southern Manifesto, which denounced the Supreme Court for ending segregation and creating “chaos and confusion” in the states of the old Confederacy. Nevertheless, in 1959 the Democratic majority leader of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, made Fulbright chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

In this powerful role Fulbright at first showed a surprising readiness to support confrontational tactics. During the 1963 Cuban missile crisis, he urged President John F. Kennedy to invade Cuba. He backed the decision to defend South Vietnam against communist insurgency and supported President Lyndon Johnson’s expansion of the war. But Fulbright broke with the administration when Johnson used troops to restore order in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965, claiming dubious evidence of a communist conspiracy.

The senator’s scathing indictment of the president and his advisers inspired savage retaliation from Johnson supporters. Fulbright and his Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff responded by subjecting the war in Vietnam to the same hostile scrutiny. A climax of sorts was the committee’s February 1966 hearings on Vietnam, during which Fulbright subjected Secretary of State Dean Rusk to a ferocious cross-examination. His subsequent speech argued that the war was a blunder, which created a national sensation.

Fulbright’s criticism coincided with rising disillusionment with the war. He became a spokesman for those Americans who called for a drastic change in U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis communism. But Fulbright’s conservative southern roots made him a flawed leader. Many wondered how the man who called for an end to the war so that the United States could spend more money on social programs for the poor could vote against open housing bills and a rise in the minimum wage.

Republican president Richard Nixon was a more formidable opponent than Lyndon Johnson. Nixon’s 1969 appeal to the “silent majority” and his announcement of a gradual withdrawal of American troops outmaneuvered Fulbright and his allies on the Foreign Relations Committee. From 1970 to 1971 Fulbright assailed the “myth” of an international communist conspiracy and called on Americans to accept a communist Vietnam, which offered no threat to America’s vital interests. “Fulbright Would Surrender,” declared a headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

On the domestic front, Fulbright alienated many Arkansans by voting against two Nixon appointees to the Supreme Court, both conservative southerners. An attempt to stage a recall election sputtered into ominous life. But Fulbright continued his offensive against Nixon’s policies, especially after the president invaded Cambodia in 1970 to attack communist base camps and after ensuing protests led to the death of four students at Kent State University. Nixon proved to be in closer touch with the majority of Americans. In 1972 the president won a massive victory over the Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, a wholehearted advocate of Fulbright’s stance on Vietnam.

A few months later Fulbright demonstrated his relative indifference to partisan politics by congratulating Nixon when he announced a settlement with North Vietnam. The precarious peace soon vanished in the quagmire of the Watergate scandal. Nine months after Nixon resigned as president, the Republic of South Vietnam succumbed to a renewed communist offensive in April 1975.

By that time Senator Fulbright had discovered that Arkansans felt little gratitude for his long struggle for a rational foreign policy. He had angered many Jewish voters by calling for an evenhanded approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and remarking that “the Israelis control the policy in the Congress and the Senate.” Running for reelection in 1974 against a popular governor, Dale Bumpers, Fulbright went down to a lopsided two-to-one defeat. His embittered wife refused to go back to Arkansas, and the Fulbrights spent the rest of their lives in Washington, D.C., where he practiced international law and continued to speak out on foreign policy.

Fulbright suffered a severe stroke in 1993 that left him in a wheelchair; he died in his sleep two years later. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred in the Fulbright family plot in Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville. President Bill Clinton, who had awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, delivered a eulogy at Washington’s National Cathedral.

A conservative intellectual, Fulbright based his opposition to the Vietnam War on its unconstitutional reliance on undelegated presidential power. He never called the war immoral or advised drafted men to refuse to serve, but he also never apologized for his opposition to civil rights legislation, insisting he remained unconvinced of its effectiveness. Few deny Fulbright’s profound impact on a generation of political thinkers. Senator Frank Church of Idaho said, “When all of us are dead, the only one they’ll remember is Bill Fulbright.”

The University of Arkansas has 1,100 linear feet of the Fulbright papers. Additional material is in the files of the Truman, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Nixon libraries. Fulbright’s writings include his many speeches, most of which are in the Congressional Record, and occasional articles for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. Perhaps most noteworthy is his New Yorker article “In Thrall to Fear” (8 Jan. 1972), which contains his reflections on U.S. foreign policy since 1945. His books include Old Myths and New Realities (1964), The Arrogance of Power (1967), The Pentagon Propaganda Machine (1970), The Crippled Giant: American Foreign Policy and Its Domestic Consequences (1972), and The Price of Empire (1989), which he wrote with aide Seth P. Tillman. The papers of aide Carl Marcy in the National Archives are also valuable. By far the best biography is Fulbright by Randall Bennett Woods (1995). Also valuable is Woods’s J. William Fulbright, Vietnam, and the Search for a Cold War Foreign Policy (1998). The best early study is Fulbright the Dissenter by Haynes Johnson and Bernard M. Gwertzman (1968). There have been many magazine articles about Senator Fulbright; among the best are Stewart Alsop, “Mr. Dove and Mr. Hawk,” Saturday Evening Post (18 June 1966), and Charles McCarry, “Mourning Becomes Senator Fulbright,” Esquire (June 1970). Lengthy obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 10 Feb. 1995).

Thomas Fleming

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