William Fulbright, Critic of Cold War Policy, Dead at 89 : Politics: Ex-senator, a noted segregationist, created student exchange program.
Former Sen. J. William Fulbright, an urbane intellectual from rural Arkansas who became one of the most influential shapers and strongest critics of America’s Cold War foreign policy, died Thursday at the age of 89.
In a congressional career that covered parts of four decades, Fulbright concentrated his energies on establishing support for an assertive American role in the world. He wrote a resolution as a freshman member of Congress that helped provide the foundation for U.S. involvement in the United Nations, sponsored the international scholarship exchange program that still bears his name and eventually rose to a position of preeminence in the American foreign policy establishment as Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
But his greatest renown came, not as a builder of U.S. policy, but as its most influential opponent at one of the periods of its greatest distress--the war in Vietnam.
In a series of nationally televised hearings starting in 1966, Fulbright’s committee subjected senior Lyndon B. Johnson Administration officials to unprecedented public cross-examination, galvanizing public opposition to the war and hastening the process that uraveled Johnson’s presidency. His initial support for Johnson’s policies--particularly the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that the Administration cited as legal justification for the war--was his worst mistake in public life, Fulbright later said.
Fulbright’s hearings were “the first time that organized congressional opposition had been put together at a senior level. It legitimized dissent,” said Stanford University historian Barton Bernstein. “When the criticism came from the Congress, it was far more devastating than when it came from the campuses or the streets.”
The attacks on Vietnam policy, amplified in a series of lectures that Fulbright turned into a book, “The Arrogance of Power,” established Fulbright as a leader among those who supported U.S. involvement overseas but sought to temper what they saw as American over-reaching.
To Johnson, those critiques made Fulbright a detested enemy. But to many who opposed the war, he became a champion.
Among those who idolized the senator was a young part-time aide and Georgetown University student from Arkansas--Bill Clinton. In an interview during the early days of his presidential campaign in 1991, Clinton spoke of Fulbright, recalling how he would stay late working in the senator’s office and watching him wrestle with the decision to challenge Johnson over the war. The experience, Clinton said, turned his own ambitions toward politics.
“If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t be here today,” Clinton told reporters at the White House after Fulbright’s death.
At the same time, Fulbright’s career contained a deep moral schism. His foreign policy idealism made him a hero to American liberals in the 1960s and 1970s. But his stubborn support for segregation in his native South and his participation in Southern filibusters against civil rights legislation left many of those followers deeply discomfited.
Fulbright and his supporters argued that his position on segregation served a higher good.
“He rationalized his position by saying that he had a powerful position from which to influence U.S. policy and that raising his voice on behalf of civil rights legislation wouldn’t accomplish much since the Southern position was doomed anyway,” recalled former Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), who preceded Fulbright in opposition to the Vietnam War, but opposed him on civil rights. “Somewhat painfully, I have to concede he probably made the only choice that was open to him.”
Indeed, notes Merle Black, a Emory University professor, Fulbright’s stance was in line with that of nearly all other Southern Democrats in his day. Of senators from the South in the 1960s, only Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.) and Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.) voted for the civil rights bills that Johnson sent to Capitol Hill. Both lost their seats as a result.
In the end, however, Fulbright’s opposition to civil rights helped defeat him. In 1974, Arkansas’ popular governor, Dale Bumpers, challenged him in the Democratic primary.
As governor, Bumpers had put an end to his party’s segregationist heritage, and in the primary he won heavy support among black voters. That, plus a sense among many Arkansans that Fulbright’s concentration on international affairs had put him out of touch with local concerns, ended his career in political life.
That career had begun 32 years earlier after Fulbright, at the age of 37, was fired from his job as president of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
James William Fulbright, the son of a locally prominent family, had been one of the university’s best-known graduates--a handsome, brainy and gifted athlete who quickly became a star football player, captain of the tennis team, student body president and president of his fraternity.
After graduation in 1925 at the age of 19, Fulbright won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, where he graduated in 1928. On returning to this country, he obtained a law degree from George Washington University, worked briefly at the Justice Department, joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas law school and in 1939 became the university’s president.
But the university board of trustees was controlled by Gov. Homer Adkins, whom Fulbright’s mother had denounced in the local newspaper, which was owned by the Fulbright family. In 1941, on commencement day, the trustees requested his resignation. Fulbright refused.
“I told them it would make it much plainer to the public if they just fired me,” Fulbright said later. “So they did.”
Fulbright’s mother challenged him to run for office. And in 1942, he sought and won a seat in the House of Representatives. Two years later, he ran for the Senate, defeating Adkins in a bitter campaign in which each man, in the style of the times, competed to “out-seg” the other with declarations in favor of white supremacy.
While still in his first Senate term, Fulbright obtained enactment of a law, popularly named the Fulbright Act, that provided for the largest international student exchange in history.
To date, more than 65,000 U.S. students and professors have studied overseas under the program and more than 100,000 people from abroad have received Fulbright funds to study in the United States.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in Washington on the day of Fulbright’s death, was only one of many foreign leaders who cited the scholarship program in taking note of his passing.
“For many Germans, for many Europeans, Sen. Fulbright was a man who we did not know personally, but he was someone who gave a signal after the Second World War and after the end of the Nazi barbarism,” Kohl said at the White House. “I’m saying this as a member of a generation who, even when they were students, wanted nothing more than to obtain the Fulbright Scholarship.”
Fulbright, himself, often said he regarded the scholarship program as his greatest achievement.
“We must find a way to adjust international relations without resorting to an arms race or to warfare,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1982. “These student exchanges have done much to promote understanding. If we are predestined to commit world suicide, then this is the approach to prevent it.”
While his scholarship program drew broad praise, Fulbright’s often-prickly personality and patrician demeanor frequently drew him into quarrels with other politicians.
In 1946, when Democrats lost control of Congress, Fulbright said that President Harry S Truman should step down and appoint a Republican to succeed him, arguing that U.S. leaders should follow the British parliamentary tradition of resigning after an electoral defeat. Truman responded publicly that Fulbright did not know his U.S. history. The President’s private comments were said to be unprintable.
A few years later, when Fulbright headed a Senate investigation of the government’s Reconstruction Finance Corp., disclosing influence peddling and gifts of mink coats and freezers to some of Truman’s close friends and associates, Truman dismissed Fulbright’s report on corruption as “asinine” and called the senator “an over-educated s.o.b.” A generation afterward, Johnson delighted in ridiculing Fulbright as “Sen. Half-bright.”
Fulbright acknowledged that he could often be difficult to get along with. “I’m abrasive, I know,” he once remarked in discussing his talent to rub some people the wrong way. “I don’t know why that is.”
After losing his seat in the Senate, Fulbright became a partner in Hogan & Hartson, a prominent Washington law firm, was a lobbyist for the United Arab Emirates and the Council of European and Japanese National Ship Owners Assn. and accepted awards from many countries for his efforts in foreign affairs.
In the last two years, Fulbright was weakened by strokes and seldom appeared in public, although he did attend Clinton’s inauguration. He is survived by his widow, Harriet Mayor, whom he married in 1990, and by two married daughters from his first marriage. His first wife, the former Elizabeth Williams, died in 1985.
Lauter reported from Washington and Folkart from Los Angeles.
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