Bill Fulbright (1905–1995)

aka: James William Fulbright
aka: J. William Fulbright

James William Fulbright was and remains among the best-known Arkansans. As a Democratic U.S. senator, he was a force for change. Like his Oxford tutor, R.B. McCallum, Bill Fulbright believed that a “Parliament of Man” was possible, that educated, enlightened human beings were able to recognize that their individual interests and were inextricably bound up with the well being of the community. The crux of that education was knowledge about and appreciation of other cultures. Tolerance, peaceful coexistence, respect for human rights, and collective security are Fulbright’s bequests to the nation and the world.

Fulbright was born on April 9, 1905, in Summer, Missouri, to Jay and Roberta Fulbright. In 1906, the family moved to Fayetteville (Washington County), where his father developed a business empire that included a bank, a bottling company, a lumberyard, and the local newspaper. His mother was a civic leader. After his father’s death in 1923, Fulbright’s mother also became a businesswoman and newspaper editor. As a journalist, she gained a good deal of political power.

Fulbright attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville from the time he enrolled in the experimental kindergarten run by the College of Education until his graduation with a bachelor of arts degree in history in 1925.

In the fall of 1925, he enrolled at Oxford University in England, having been awarded a Rhodes scholarship. After graduating from Oxford with a BA in 1928, he met journalist M. W. Fodor in Vienna and accompanied him in the spring of 1929, touring southeastern and central Europe and meeting with leading politicians. He received an MA from Oxford in 1931.

During a business trip to Washington DC, Fulbright met Elizabeth Kremer Williams. They were married on June 15, 1932, and the couple had two daughters.

Fulbright received a law degree from George Washington University in 1934 and was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia in the same year. He worked as an attorney in the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division from 1934 to 1935, when the National Recovery Administration for which he worked was declared unconstitutional. At that point, he took a position teaching at George Washington University and, in 1936, began teaching at the UA Law School.

In 1939, Fulbright was named president of UA. At thirty-four, he was the youngest college head in the United States. His selection probably had more to do with his mother’s substantial political clout than with his academic and administrative record. When Homer Adkins, whom the Fulbright-owned newspaper had bitterly opposed, became governor of Arkansas in 1941, he packed the university’s Board of Trustees and had Fulbright removed from his position.

In 1942, Fulbright ran successfully for U.S. House of Representatives from the district comprising northwest Arkansas. His time at Oxford studying modern European history and his travels in Europe had generated a deep interest in international affairs. Soon after his election, he made a name for himself by cosponsoring the Fulbright-Connally Resolution that supported membership in a post-war collective security organization that became the United Nations.

In 1944, he captured the Senate seat held by Hattie Caraway, beating the incumbent and two other candidates, including his nemesis, Homer Adkins. In 1946, he sponsored legislation creating the Fulbright Exchange Program to foster international understanding among college students and prepare them to pursue enlightened foreign policies as political leaders. Or as he put it, “If large numbers of people can learn to know and understand people from nations other than their own, they might develop a capacity for empathy, a distaste for killing other men, and an inclination for peace.” Since its inception, that program has produced more than 150,000 alumni from the United States and some sixty other countries.

Fulbright gained national attention by challenging and eventually helping to censure Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Fulbright was the only senator to vote against appropriations for McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Investigative Subcommittee, and he helped put together the bipartisan coalition in Congress that eventually condemned McCarthy on December 1, 1954.

While Fulbright worked on behalf of Arkansas agriculture and industry, his most notable service was as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a post he held from 1959 to 1975—longer than any other chair of that committee in history. During this time, he supported the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO, and he defended executive prerogatives in foreign policy against isolationists who wanted to retreat within Fortress America. With his support, the Truman administration formulated and implemented the policy of containment, intervening on the side of the pro-western monarch in the Greek civil war and helping both Turkey and Iran fend off Soviet efforts to convert them into protectorates.

He came to be known for his advocacy of a land-for-peace settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict and his support of détente with the Soviet Union. But he is probably best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

In February 1966, under Fulbright’s leadership, the committee held televised hearings on the war. The misgivings expressed there began the national debate on the wisdom of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia. From then until the end of Lyndon Johnson’s term as president, Fulbright worked to dismantle support for the war. In 1967, he published The Arrogance of Power, a sweeping critique of American foreign policy that sold 400,000 copies.

In 1956, Fulbright signed the Southern Manifesto, a call by Southern representatives and senators for resistance to court-ordered school integration, and he did not vote for a civil rights bill until 1970. And yet he had played a key role in toning down the Southern Manifesto and, deeply affected by the killing of four African-American girls in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, he provided behind-the-scenes help on civil rights measures to both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. During Nixon’s tenure in office, Fulbright led the way in defeating the nomination of G. Harold Carswell, an outspoken opponent of the civil rights movement. He also combated the John Birch Society, the Christian Crusade, H. L. Hunt, Strom Thurmond, and the other organizations and personalities that made up the radical right of the period.

After Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency, Fulbright used the Constitution as a rallying point to align conservatives and liberals behind his national commitments resolution that required explicit congressional approval for an executive commitment of aid or troops to a foreign power. Its passage in 1969 paved the way for the War Powers Act of 1973, which clarified the respective powers of the Congress and the presidency in declarations of war and deployment of troops.

Fulbright lost his Senate seat to Arkansas governor Dale Bumpers in 1974; for the next twenty years, he played the role of elder statesman, addressing the world from his office in the Washington DC law firm of Hogan and Hartson. In 1981, the UA College of Arts and Sciences was named for him, and in 1993, President William Jefferson Clinton, one of Fulbright’s proteges, presented him with the Medal of Freedom.

Betty Fulbright died in 1985 of congestive heart failure and complications from diabetes. In 1990, Fulbright married the former Harriet Mayor, then the executive director of the Fulbright Alumni Association. Following a massive stroke, Fulbright died on February 9, 1995, at his home in Washington. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville.

The themes that more than any other dominated Fulbright’s public life and work were cultural tolerance and international cooperation. During his thirty-two years in Congress, the former Rhodes scholar appealed to the peoples of the world but particularly his countrymen to appreciate and tolerate other cultures and political systems without condoning armed aggression or human rights violations.

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

Brogi, Alessandro, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J. Snyder, eds. The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power, and Ideology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019.

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

Gibbons, William Conrad. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1984.

J. William Fulbright Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Johnson, Haynes, and Bernard M. Gwertzman. Fulbright: The Dissenter. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Co., 1968.

Lazarowitz, Arlene. “A Southern Senator and Israel: Senator J. William Fulbright’s Accusations of Undue Influence over American Foreign Policy in the Middle East.” Southern Jewish History 14 (2011): 119–154.

Syrtsova, Yekaterina. “J. William Fulbright and the Rhetorical Dimensions of His 1942 Congressional Campaign.” Flashback 64 (Spring 2014): 3–26.

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

Randall Bennett Woods
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Rebecca Haden
Fayetteville, Arkansas

Last Updated: 10/18/2017