J. William Fulbright was a prominent and gifted American statesman of the 20th century. His unequaled contribution to international affairs and his tenure as the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee distinguished his political career of over thirty years in the United States Congress. He had profound influence on America’s foreign policy, and his vision for mutual understanding shaped the extraordinary exchange program bearing his name.
J. William Fulbright was born on April 9, 1905 in Sumner, Missouri. He received his B.A. degree in Political Science (1925) from the University of Arkansas and his M.A. degree from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He studied law at George Washington University in Washington, DC. During the 1930s, he served in the Justice Department and was an instructor at The George Washington University Law School. From 1939 to 1941, Fulbright was president of the University of Arkansas, at the time the youngest university president in the country.
Fulbright ran for political office in 1942 and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he entered Congress in January 1943 and was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee. In September of that year, the House adopted the Fulbright-Connally Resolution supporting an international peace-keeping mechanism encouraging United States participation in what became the United Nations. His leadership on this issue brought national attention to Congressman Fulbright.
In November 1944, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served there from 1945 through 1974, becoming one of the most influential and best-known members of the Senate. His legislation establishing the Fulbright Program passed the Senate by unanimous consent in 1946. The first participants in the Fulbright Program went overseas in 1948. Approximately 310,000 “Fulbrighters,” 116,900 from the United States and 192,800 from other countries, have participated in the Program since its inception more than sixty years ago.
In 1949, Senator Fulbright became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 1959 to 1974 he served as chairman of the committee.
His Senate career was marked by notable instances of principled dissent. In 1954, he was the only Senator to vote against an appropriation for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was chaired by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy; and, in 1961, he lodged serious objections to President Kennedy in advance of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
He was particularly in the spotlight as a powerful voice in the turbulent Vietnam War era, when he chaired the Senate hearings on U.S. policy and the conduct of the war. In 1963 Walter Lippman wrote of Fulbright: “The role he plays in Washington is an indispensable role. There is no one else who is so powerful and also so wise, and if there were any question of removing him from public life, it would be a national calamity.”
After five consecutive terms in the U.S. Senate, Fulbright served as counsel to the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson and remained active in support of the Fulbright Program. He received numerous awards from governments, universities, and educational organizations around the world for his efforts on behalf of education and international understanding. In 1993, he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.
Senator J. William Fulbright died on February 9, 1995 at the age of 89 at his home in Washington, DC.