William Fulbright was one of the most prominent US senators of the century. As chairman of the Senate Committee for Foreign Relations he made himself a hero to peace activists in the 1960s for his criticism of the "arrogance of power" displayed in the Vietnam war.
He had first made the news in 1943, while a Congressman for Arkansas, as the writer of a brief resolution calling for the establishment of the United Nations. In 1944, he quit his House of Representatives seat and became the junior Democratic Senator from Arkansas. In 1946, Senator Fulbright, who earned two degrees at Oxford University as a scholar in the mid-1920s, introduced a bill establishing a scholarship programme that provided government grants for the international exchange of 120,000 students over the next 30 years. The successful Fulbright fellowships have been described by a Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, as ``the largest and most significant movement of scholars across the face of the earth since the fall of Constantinople in 1453". Fulbright alumni include many heads of state.
In the early 1950s Fulbright was the only US Senator to vote against appropriations for Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious red-scare campaign. He received truckloads of hatemail in response, much of which came from Dallas, Texas, where the reactionary Dallas Morning News described him as a ``red louse''. The Hunt family from Dallas, ultra-conservative oil millionaires, spent large sums of money in unsuccessful efforts to defeat Fulbright in Arkansas elections. In October 1963, during a visit by President John F. Kennedy to Arkansas, Fulbright repeatedly urged the President to cancel a planned trip to Dallas, arguing that the city was a physically dangerous place for liberals. The visit went ahead and the President was assassinated while driving through downtown Dallas.
But it was in the 1960s and 1970s that Fulbright took on his greatest challenge - leading the Congressional opposition to the use of presidential power to make foreign policy. He opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the armed intervention inthe Dominican Republic in 1965, and, in the late 1960s, took on Presidents Johnson's and Nixon's war against Ho Chi Minh's forces in Vietnam.
In 1966, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fulbright challenged the legality of US military intervention - President Johnson ignored the Senator and ordered US planes on bombing missions over North Vietnam. But in 1969 even Fulbrightwas, like so many members of the Congress, seduced by the promises of Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser. Kissinger convinced Fulbright that Nixon was truly determined to ``de-escalate'', and so, when approached by a Rand Corporation expert,Daniel Ellsberg, who had a study titled ``The Pentagon Papers'' that suggested Nixon would, in fact, seriously escalate the conflict, Fulbright declined to release the study in the Senate. Ellsberg gave the ``Papers'' to the New York Times whose publication of the study is now believed to have helped undermine whatever support existed for the Nixon/Kissinger escalation strategy.
By 1970 the world was in shock over the massacre by US troops of civilians at My Lai. Fulbright, who had been briefed by staff members about ``America's secret war'' against Laos, moved a resolution challenging Nixon's authority to commit US forces to combat in another small South-East Asian nation.
``The problem of maintaining both the independence and the neutrality of Laos has faced us with very complex issues,'' the US ambassador to Laos, William H. Sullivan, testified at one of Fulbright's many hearings on the war. The committee chairman replied: ``Independent of whom?'' Sullivan conceded that the Soviets had not violated the 1962 Geneva accords on Laos, so Fulbright repeated his question. Sullivan repeated his answer, with the clear implication that the US must bomb Laos in order to preserve its neutrality. For years Fulbright continued these hearings but it was, as the journalist T.D. Allman put it, ``a dialogue of the deaf".
In his book Unmanifest Destiny (1984), Allman argues that one reason the US unleashed such mayhem on South-East Asian ``communists'' was that the nation had created such vast stockpiles of weaponry in its decades-long obsession with ``containing'' the generally non-expansionist Soviet Union that there was a built-in imperative to use them. ``We are at last beginning to understand the significance of stockpiles,'' Allman quotes Fulbright as observing during one of the Senator's committee hearings.
On domestic matters, Fulbright was a contradictory figure. He voted against bills that sought to integrate schools and promote civil rights of African-Americans, a stance that allowed the otherwise liberal Democrat to be re-elected from the generally segregated state of Arkansas in 1950, 1956, 1960 and 1968. Even so, in 1964 he wrote: ``The children who go to bed hungry in a Harlem slum or a West Virginia mining town are not being deprived of food because no food can be found to give them; they are going to bed hungry because, despite all our miracles of invention and production, we have not yet found a way to make the necessities of life available to all of our citizens - including those whose failure is not a lack of personal industry or initiative, but only an unwise choice of parents.''
In 1974 Fulbright was defeated in the post-Watergate election that saw the demise of many candidates who were seen as ``Washington insiders''. He retreated to a private law practice.
Senator Fulbright's political career was distinguished by the fact that, unlike most of his colleagues, he always saw his country as part of a wider world. In his book Old Myths and New Realities (1964), he wrote: ``We are inclined to confuse freedom anddemocracy, which we regard as moral principles, with the way they are practised in America - with capitalism, federalism, and the two-party system, which are not moral principles but simply the preferred and accepted practices of the American peoples.''
While many prominent Americans applaud the Senator for having taken many such principled but unpopular positions, few have the courage to emulate him.
Phillip FrazerReuse content