31 July 2021

J. William Fulbright: Our Mixed American Legacy

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[One of many Fulbright programs] “Each year some 800 faculty and professionals from around the world receive Fulbright Scholar grants for advanced research and university lecturing in the United States. Individual grants are available to scholars from over 155 countries. Individuals who meet the eligibility requirements apply for grants through the Fulbright commission/foundation or public affairs section of the U.S. embassy in their home countries.” [One of many Fulbright programs] “Each year some 800 faculty and professionals from around the world receive Fulbright Scholar grants for advanced research and university lecturing in the United States. Individual grants are available to scholars from over 155 countries. Individuals who meet the eligibility requirements apply for grants through the Fulbright commission/foundation or public affairs section of the U.S. embassy in their home countries.” https://cies.org/non-us-scholars

We can’t escape it. We are people of our time and place. This often makes for spectacular blind spots in our worldview. For example, how can you be at the same time a politician like J. William Fulbright with an expansive vision for international cooperation after World War II and then oppose a Supreme Court decision to integrate schools in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and then fight civil rights legislation tooth and nail in the 1960s?

 I read an article in Foreign Affairs the other day by Charles King, Georgetown University Professor of International Affairs and Government. His title: “The Fulbright Paradox: Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism.” [I’ll be quoting from the article in the Foreign Affairs July/August 2021 issue, pp. 92-106]. I instantly agreed with him that this topic is timely. In his words,


“Fulbright’s ideas were shaped at a time of party polarization and chin-jutting demagoguery unmatched until the rise of Donald Trump. His life is therefore an object lesson about global-mindedness in an age of political rancor and distrust – but not exactly in the ways one might think” (93).


The paradox in question, or Fulbright’s blind spot, I will argue, has been dramatically exposed for a majority of white Americans today following the unprecedented protests for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in May 2020. Most of us now recognize that racism in this country is baked into many of our institutions and laws – hence the expression, “systemic racism.”


J. William Fulbright’s globalist vision

The senator from Arkansas (1945-1974) who has served the longest as chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was no doubt one of the great American globalists of the 20th century. A great admirer of President Woodrow Wilson, he managed to found the greatest academic scholarship and exchange program, which Congress named after him. Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State has awarded a variety of grants to more than 400,000 academics from over 160 countries of the world. Every year, about 3,000 American students and scholars travel the world to do research and build greater trust and understanding all over the globe. Their motto is “Connecting People. Connecting Nations.”

In fact, Fulbright was a born leader with a lofty vision. Graduating from the George Washington Law School in 1934, he worked as an attorney in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. He then left Washington to teach law at his Alma Matter, the University of Arkansas. After just three years (1939), he was appointed president of the university. To this day, he was the youngest university president at 34. Yet from the start, his vision was global. As World War II broke out in Europe, he publicly declared that the U.S. should enter the war alongside the Allied forces. He was now feeling a pull to enter politics.

Fulbright was elected in 1942 as a Democratic representative, becoming a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He quickly became an outspoken freshman lawmaker. In particular, he drafted a resolution in 1943 that passed the House (Fulbright Resolution), which called for greater involvement in peacekeeping efforts overseas and strongly urged the U.S. to join the United Nations.

It didn’t hurt either that Fulbright had been a Rhodes scholar, meaning that he was granted that prestigious scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Oxford University. That must have been a factor in his endeavor, soon after his election to the Senate in 1944, to establish what has become by far the most important American academic exchange program.

But almost from the beginning, his globalist vision and this program in particular, put him in the crosshairs of another Senate powerhouse: Senator Joseph McCarthy who in the early 1950s had devoted his career to expose and punish any Americans of influence who were deemed to have communist sympathies. He had chaired the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for that purpose and “had upended lives and destroyed careers.” Charles King picks up the narrative at this point:


“By January 1954 . . . the committee was up for reauthorization. When senators’ names were called to approve a motion to keep it going, only one nay came from the floor: that of the junior Democratic senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright. ‘I realized that there was just no limit to what he’d say and insinuate,’ Fulbright later said of McCarthy. ‘As the hearings proceeded, it suddenly occurred to me that this fellow would do anything to deceive you to get his way.’ Within a year, Fulbright had helped persuade 66 other senators to join him in censuring McCarthy and ending his demagogic run. By the spring of 1957, McCarthy was gone for good, dead of hepatitis exacerbated by drink” (92).


McCarthy, as you might have guessed, was categorically opposed to the Fulbright program. He believed that those “scholarship recipients were America-haters who promoted communism.” Fulbright once dryly responded to his objection in a hearing, “You can put together a number of zeros and still not arrive at the figure one” (93).

In the 1960s, Fulbright took aim at the Vietnam war and “he convened a series of Senate hearings that interrogated the war’s origins, its cost in lives and prestige, and pathways to ending it. The televised hearings, which ran intermittently from 1966 to 1971, brought high-level debate about the conflict into American living rooms.” King figures that these hearings were instrumental in changing middle America’s mind on the war. President Johnson tried to persuade one TV network to play I Love Lucy reruns instead of these live debates. Within a month of hearings Johnson’s “approval ratings on the war slid from 63 percent to 49 percent.” He was right to be concerned. One 27-year-old John Kerry, for instance, came representing Vietnam Veterans Against the War and posed a question that stunned the nation, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Fulbright’s influence on this issue was heightened by his initial position of support for the war in 1964, but with Nixon in the White House in 1969, Fulbright had become “an antiwar activist.” I love this commentary by King on the constitutional role of Congress in limiting the powers of the presidency:


“The counterculture had the streets, but Fulbright had the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate hold the presidency to account, even when both institutions were controlled by the same party. It was an enactment of the founders’ vision that has never since been equaled” (96).


God’s justice and the nations

In his concluding paragraph, King writes that “Fulbright’s biography is evidence that the best of what the United States produced in the last century was inseparable from the worst – a complicated, grownup fact that ought to inform how Americans approach everything from education in international affairs to foreign-policy making” (106). And that “best” has to do with what several generations of people worldwide have experienced through the Fulbright scholarships, grants, and cultural outreach. His main point in writing this article is to argue that Fulbright, like his globalist peers, had a huge and ugly blind spot – racism; but he also founded an institution that put bright and eager Americans in touch with young leaders in many other countries, breaking down barriers and stereotypes and creating a momentum toward further constructive partnerships. But notice: this was shouldered by the U.S. government. So his final point is this:


“And to generations of people in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, Fulbright’s most enduring contribution is something that the United States now has an opportunity to bring back home: the astonishing, liberating idea that governments have a duty to help their people lose their fear of difference” (106).


That phrase “lose their fear of difference” is the very tip of a gigantic iceberg of human attitudes and behavior. We humans construct our identity from being part of a family, a tribe, a religious or political grouping, and even a nation – and all of this often in opposition to “the other,” in all of these categories and more. But it’s not just about highlighting difference and thereby polishing our own brand. It’s about power too. Minorities and weaker groups have historically suffered from exploitation, oppression – even to the point of genocide in many cases – at the hands of groups in power.

Allow me to interject some thoughts from the Hebrew prophets here. Their unanimous message is that God rules over the nations and will judge each one justly. One of the criteria for that judgment is how the weak, the poor and oppressed are treated, either within their own borders or how they treat other nations they conquer. For example, one of the four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah (songs attributed to the future Messiah) puts it this way:


“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.
    He is my chosen one, who pleases me.
I have put my Spirit upon him.
    He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.
He will not falter or lose heart
    until justice prevails throughout the earth.
    Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction” (Isaiah 42).


In Ezekiel, where I have been reading lately, we find a number of prophecies addressed to various nations. Several of the smaller neighbors of Israel (like Ammon, Philistia, Moab, and Edom, or the descendants of Jacob’s twin brother Esau) will be wiped out and disappear because of their “bitter revenge and long-standing contempt” for the people of Israel (Ezechiel 25). Others like the wealthy coastal city state of Tyre on the Mediterranean will be destroyed by the Babylonians, because of its arrogance, greed, and exploitation of lesser powers (chapters 26-28). Egypt promised to help the Kingdom of Judah (the last remnant of Israelite rule) when Babylon came to crush it, but in fact didn’t lift a finger. Its land will become desolate as a result, many will be killed and others will be scattered to many lands. But, unlike most of the others, God promises to restore its fortunes in the near future; however, with this warning: “It will be the lowliest of nations, never again great enough to rise above its neighbors” (Ez. 29:15; four chapters are nevertheless devoted to God’s messages to Egypt).


Fulbright, a man of his times and place (the South)

I am reading Charles King’s essay on Fulbright in light of the Hebrew prophets. Yes, he was indeed “a man of his times and his place,” as I will explain. But his views on race, especially in light of the millions of white Americans marching in our streets with their black and brown compatriots in 2020 to call for an end to systemic racism, shine a light on “America’s Original Sin,” as I explained in early 2019. The prophets’ mission was to deliver God’s message to the people and those messages were predominantly negative. God was exposing their sins so that they would repent and thereby avoid the harsh judgment against them, ominously looming on the horizon.

The parallels with “critical race theory” (CRT), this movement started in legal studies in the 1970s but mostly spearheaded by human rights activists, are obvious. As within any other movement, there is a healthy diversity of views and I certainly would not endorse all of them. But the basic intuition and direction of research in this growing subdiscipline is exactly what the Hebrew prophets would say in our day: to lay bare the assumptions of white supremacy that have guided this nation from the start and the strategies that were put in place along the way to bolster a system that favored the power of white Americans and sidelined the descendants of the slaves whose forced labor by all accounts multiplied this country’s wealth and established its power. White supremacy and the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery (see this piece about how churches are taking a stand against this) also gave rise to the idea of Manifest Destiny which was simply a justification for the ruthless dispossession, oppression, and killing of millions of Native Americans.

Even one of the central concepts of CRT, intersectionality, can be discerned within those prophetic texts. This is the concept that the rich oppressing the poor is not just about attitudes of prejudice, greed, and pride in the hearts of the rich. It is also about how justice is trampled in the courts and how laws can often be drawn up so as to increase the power and wealth of the elites at the expense of the poor. In other words, racism and exploitation of the lower classes can easily be woven into a society’s institutions and laws. Intersectionality also means that the weakest members of society all suffer from the abusive power of the dominant group – women, people of color, and the lower classes in general.

As John Dawson, the New Zealand missionary in Watts, Los Angeles, wrote in his 1994 book, Healing America’s Wounds, unless the American church (and society as a whole, I would add) openly recognizes, repents of, laments, and makes amends for the heinous crimes committed against the African slaves and the Native American peoples and their descendants (including the Jim Crow laws, the redlining of cities, and the myriad other ways the Indian nations were driven off their lands, their children put into boarding schools “to kill the Indian” in them, etc.), the nation as a whole will continue to be broken, at war with itself. This includes the dozens of new laws in Republican-majority states to disenfranchise voters of color.

As you read Dawson's book, you begin to feel that there’s an eerie “disturbance in the force,” in Star Wars parlance. Past sins of injustice fester like a cancer in the body politic, in society at large, and inhibit healing and true thriving as a nation. Ezekiel reminds us that God will also judge the United States. More likely, he has been judging it all along, but he longs for its people – starting with its leaders, including in the church – to confess and lament these sins publicly and make restoration. Then there will be healing.

That’s why I see God’s Spirit in 2020 using that tragic series of police killings of black men and women as a tipping point to send crowds of mostly white people into the streets. In God’s providence, it was a revelation for many of us white Americans. We were listening to our compatriots of color and were beginning to take in many of the injuries done to them, almost on a daily basis, and the fact that many of these indignities stem from disparities that often begin at birth in poor neighborhoods high in crime, and continue with decrepit schools and a reduced chance to go to college and succeed. We also began to shudder at “the talk” black parents have to have with their children about how to deal with the police, and especially when they begin to drive.

 But we must not stop here. The Spirit is calling us to take up the hard work of facing the racism, the injustice and the rampant inequality, and fix it in the very structures of society. Consider joining a movement like the one cosponsored by the Rev. William J. Barber II, which builds directly on the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before his assassination in 1968.

Now back to Fulbright. Charles King shows that U.S. foreign policy should not be “narrated” from New England but rather from the American South. As many historians have shown, the great wealth that came from such commodities as cotton and tobacco – both produced by slaves – ensured that southern politicians in Washington were great advocates for free trade, which requires broad international alliances and a stable world order. But the motive was not about promoting mutual respect among nations. Senator Jefferson Davis, who had been slated to become the first president of the Confederate South, had this to say about relations with Latin American countries. Spreading democracy was nowhere in his thinking, as we see in this 1858 speech:


“Among our neighbors of Central and South America we see the Caucasian mingled with the Indian and the African. They have the forms of free government, because they have copied them. To its benefits they have not attained, because that standard of civilization is above their race” (98).


King shows that these racist ideas spread after the Civil War:


“The South didn’t so much lose the Civil War as outsource it, spreading new theories and techniques of segregation beyond the region itself. Domestically, the Jim Crow system cemented the legal, economic, and political power of whites, as did the brutal counterinsurgencies against Native Americans fought by the regular military on the western plains. Places that had no association with the old Confederacy, from Indiana to California, rushed to create their own versions of apartheid, including prohibitions on interracial marriage and restrictions on voting” (99-100).

Historians have also brough to light the kind of values that motivated and undergirded American military interventions in Cuba, Hawaii, Haiti and the Philippines: “manliness, white supremacy, and faith in one’s own noble intent, even when other people experienced it as terror.” American policy, whether at home or overseas, was, in the words of diplomat and political scientist Paul Reinsch in his 1900 textbook World Politics at the End of the Nineteenth Century: “a harsh and cruel struggle for existence . . . between superior races and the stubborn aborigines” (100). This worldview makes the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII seem quite natural. As war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote from the Pacific theater at the time, “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive, the way some people feel about cockroaches and mice” (100).

It was against this backdrop that the great black scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the American Journal of Sociology in 1944:


“The power of the southerners arises from the suppression of the Negro and poor-white vote, which gives the rotten borough of Mississippi four times the political power of Massachussetts and enables the South through the rule of seniority to pack the committees of Congress and to dominate it” (100).


But after WWII it was the reality of decolonialism that gained the ascendancy, and the courageous stand taken by African Americans against race-based segregation and dispossession was making world headlines. This wasn’t lost on the Soviet Union. In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court by the U.S. Justice Department on the occasion of the Brown v. Board of Education case, we read that “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith” (101). The cat is out of the bag, as it were, and American leaders knew that a tarnished reputation was a huge handicap in the ideological battles of the Cold War. The same can be said today with regard to ascending world power China. But as mentioned above, today's extreme political polarization is also a welcome opportunity for Russia, Iran, and others to use the internet to divide us even more.


Parting words

Charles King has a personal connection to Fulbright: he grew up in the Ozarks of Arkansas on a property adjacent to that of the Fulbright family. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, studied at Oxford, was a Fulbright scholar, and lived for many years in Washington. But the two men are from different eras. King's latest book (2019) was a New York Times bestseller: Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. He knows that when it comes to these issues of equity and social justice, he stands on the shoulders of many who went before him, starting with many Black and women scholars.

Yet there is another way to escape from the confines of place and time, and especially in this subject of becoming good world citizens, aware of the many strong ties that bind us all together, including civil society activism for better governance, social justice and peace, and the fight against climate change. One of the best tools to strengthen and extend this movement is one’s religious faith in a Creator who loves each and every one of His creatures. In my recent book I argued that Christians, Muslims and Jews share that double mandate from God: love for Him, and love for our neighbor. The Hebrew prophets remind us that not just each person but each nation will be judged. Therefore, together with people of goodwill everywhere, whether religious or not, let’s build together on this foundation of human solidarity and dignity, practicing justice and love for the sake of all. This might just be the only way our descendants will survive and even thrive.