The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote on the competing realities of the legacy of Senator J. William Fulbright. However, as good I think King’s “The Fulbright Paradox – Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism” is in correcting some of the fallacies, problems, and inflationary tales around the Fulbright legacy, he repeats a myth that is central to the Fulbright story. Inexplicably, King also fails to convey Fulbright’s rejection that Russia and communism pose a threat to US national security. While King goes a good way to correct the selective biographical stories of Fulbright that should generally get the label of hagiography (or even cult-like) for their selective telling in elevating Fulbright to deity, King’s essay requires a few corrections, clarifications, and filling in of omissions. That said, King’s essay should be required alongside the number of biographies of Fulbright.

This will not be a complete review of King’s essay vis a vis Fulbright’s historical record. Below are just a few, quickly jotted notes touching on what may be considered the high points.

“Because of the scholarships that he established…”

King repeats the propaganda (yes, I used that word) around Fulbright and exchanges prevalent in the discourse around “public diplomacy” and exchanges. King’s complete sentence reads, “Because of the scholarships that he established by an act of Congress just after World War II, Fulbright was close to a household name before people quite knew why… It would eventually grow into the world’s largest foreign scholarship program, supported bilaterally by Washington and partner governments.” This is simply false; this narrative is the product of Fulbright’s ego.

The funding and scope of the so-called Fulbright Act, so named by the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, William Benton, was minuscule and narrowly defined compared to the vastly larger program already underway and seeking legislative authority. This larger program was proposed by Rep. Karl Mundt, first in a bill he submitted in March 1943 and then again in a bill he submitted in January 1945, with the latter getting picked up. Mundt’s bill was similar to bills submitted by Rep. Jerry Voorhis in June 1941 and March 1942 (Voorhis, by the way, was defeated by Richard Nixon in 1946; Nixon and Mundt would later co-sponsor legislation prohibiting the employment of communists.) Mundt’s bill sought to authorize the exchange of student-teachers training to teach in middle and high schools between nations of the Pan-American Union. This bill was expanded eventually to cover the world and to include technical, cultural, and institutional connections and also information programs, including libraries, books, and eventually radio broadcasting.

President Truman, with Sen Fulbright and Assistant Secretary Benton, signs the Surplus Property Act into law
President Truman, with Senator J. William Fulbright (left) and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton (right), signs the Surplus Property Act into law. Image source: Truman Library

In July 1946, though the Mundt bill, then named the Bloom bill for largely political reasons, had passed the House by a comfortable majority but failed to be heard in the Senate for strictly partisan reasons, though misinformation had a role. The result was the Surplus Property Act, aka the Fulbright Act aka Public Law 584, was passed before the Mundt-Bloom-later-Smith-Mundt Act, aka Public Law 402, was passed. Even though the Bloom bill did not pass, the programs it authorized were running based on appropriations. (For convenience, I will refer to the Mundt bill as the Smith-Mundt Act though realize that contemporary reference to the bill and act typically left off Sen. H. Alexander Smith’s name.)

The Fulbright Act was a complicated and arduous program that provided limited benefit. While it is accurate to say that it complemented the Smith-Mundt Act’s exchanges, it is also true that the Fulbright program relied on and required Smith-Mundt Act monies to operate.

First some background the Fulbright biographies tend to skim if not ignore outright. First, the Military Affairs Committee’s (now the Armed Services Committee) interest in the Surplus Property bill proposal was primarily as a relief valve. There was concern that the number of requests under the GI Bill was going to overwhelm US colleges and universities. Further, they sought an option for the number of GIs requesting to study abroad. I am not sure where the idea of using the sale of military surplus equipment came from as I have not researched this, but I think it is interesting that on 9 April 1945, Mundt introduced a resolution calling for the establishment of an International Office of Education following discussions at the San Francisco conference around the United Nations. This office was to be an international, not US, body “for the purpose of advising together and to consider problems of international educational and cultural relations throughout the world and more particularly to organize a permanent international agency to promote educational and cultural relations, the exchange of students and scholars, and the encouragement within each country of friendly relations among nations, peoples, and cultural, groups…” At the end of the month, Mundt learned Fulbright, along with Senator Taft (whom Mundt discussed the resolution with on 16 April), were going to jointly introduce Mundt’s resolution in the Senate. Mundt, the former school teacher, may have given the short-term university lecturer and president an idea.

The Surplus Property Act was configured to utilize surplus military equipment abroad to acquire foreign currency, limited amounts of which would be used for educational exchanges. But the process was complex. To use the surplus funds, the other nation needed to sign an official agreement with the Secretary of State, the surplus goods needed to be accounted for and sold (a responsibility assigned to the State Department through this legislation), and the monies (in foreign currency) had to be verified by the Treasury. The highly restrictive administrative burden of the program (identifying assets, selling assets, confirming funds, executive agreements signed by foreign ministers) meant slow progress to support a small number of people. The Mundt program did not have these barriers. Mundt funding did not require ministerial agreements and could happen with the approval of local leadership, program officers, and the like. While Fulbright monies were restricted to individuals in higher education, the Mundt monies included educational, cultural, technical, and institutional inter-changes and funded individuals and institutions.

So what was the Fulbright program doing? Two years after it was launched, the program was technically available in four countries, in this order: China, Burma, Philipines, and Greece. This means that surplus assets were identified in these countries, these assets were sold in local currency these monies had been verified as existing, and a ministerial-level agreement was signed between nations. But in mid-1948, the Fulbright program was only operating with China and Burma but “only tentative proposals have yet been received” from the other two countries. As per the program requirements, each country had a cap of program duration and money. In other words, these were not to run as long as there were assets to be sold.

In mid-1948, the Fulbright program partially funded the following:

  • 20 US graduate students to study in China
  • 20 US professors to study in China
  • 10 US research scholars to study in China
  • 6 US librarians to staff “three library institutes”
  • Provided travel grants for 30 Chinese students and professors (remember Fulbright is college-level)
  • Provided grants to 100 Chinese students to study in American schools IN China
  • Provided two grants for two English teaching staff positions at two Chinese universities.

The numbers for Burma were about 10-25% of the positions in China.

So how did the Smith-Mundt Act fit into this? In the case for US students traveling abroad, they relied on the Smith-Mundt Act to get to the foreign land as the foreign currency was not going to be used for travel within the US or for expenses in the US. This is reflected in the list below, which is taken from a House Foreign Affairs Committee report from mid-1948. This is less than six months after the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act but remember the act gave legislative authority to programs that were already happening.

  • Round-trip travel from home in the US to point of embarkation to the foreign land: Smith-Mundt Act
  • Round-trip travel from point of embarkation to the foreign port of entry: Fulbright Act
  • Tuition or professional salaries abroad: Fulbright Act
  • Maintenance abroad (various fees): Fulbright Act
  • Continuing Expenses in the US (because life at home still has expenses… incidentally, some but few wives traveled with Fulbright scholars): Smith-Mundt Act
  • Incidentals (books, supplies): both Smith-Mundt and Fulbright Act

For the foreigner traveling to the US, which was very limited under the Fulbright Act, here is how the expenses were covered:

  • Round-trip travel from foreign home to US point of entry: Fulbright Act
  • Travel within the US from point of entry to the destination: Smith-Mundt Act
  • Tuition at US institution: Smith-Mundt Act
  • Maintenance: Smith-Mundt Act
  • Continuing expenses in home country: Fulbright Act
  • Incidentals (books, supplies): Smith-Mundt Act.

In addition to educational exchanges, the Smith-Mundt Act funded science and technical programs: census procedures, civil aviation training, industrial training, training in labor-related fields from apprenticeships to setting labor standards to collecting statistics to women’s working conditions and beyond, laboratory standards and testing, public administration, social welfare including maternal and child health, translation and printing of publications, and a load more and around the world. Below are some random examples I picked from the extensive list of positions in dozens of countries around the globe to be funded by the Smith-Mundt Act at the same time the Fulbright Act was supporting the above:

  • Italy funded for 10 positions in industrial training
  • Lebanon: 2 positions for Anthropology
  • Afghanistan: 1 position for census procedures,
  • India: 2 positions for metallurgical and fuels research
  • Syria: 12 positions for agricultural science
  • Philippines: 11 positions for agricultural science, 3 for land management (and more).

To reiterate, the above list is far from inclusive and only a tiny glimpse into the countries covered and a fraction of the positions funded for the countries mentioned. For example, the Philippines received funding for 51 total positions, Syria 19, Lebanon 12, India 32…. For China, there were 33 “scientific and technical” positions funded plus 40 “in-service training” positions. Many if not most of these positions were exchanges in their own right: the sending of an American, either a US government employee or an American specialist to work with with the foreign scientific, technical, educational, and institutional sectors. Today, we are more likely to refer to these programs not as “public diplomacy” but foreign aid to develop local capacity, under the Smith-Mundt Act, they were one and the same. Note that none of these figures include the educational exchanges or cultural programs funded by and/or conducted under the Smith-Mundt Act’s authorities.

Because the Bloom/Mundt bill was not passed in July 1946, a number of programs relying on that bill were shuttered or threatened. For a small glimpse into the expansive nature of the Mundt bill, it authorized the detail of US Government personnel to governments outside of the Western Hemisphere, continue the exchange of science leaders with China (which ended in June ’46 due to a lapse in authority), funding for American Universities abroad, and international cooperation work of 26 other government agencies, all of which would end without the Mundt bill. The bill also granted the authority for government agencies to accept foreign money. For example, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (today known as the FAA) was asked by the Canadian government to erect a radio beacon to guide Canadian planes flying the Great Lakes. The Canadian government would pay but the authority to accept the money was in the Mundt bill. The ability of the US to cooperate with other countries on scientific and education matters was through this bill. It was imperative to build this cooperate in the wake of the war with European countries “when the loan of technicians and professors to devastated areas might influence their form of education (and their use of American products and American standards) for the next 50 or 100 years.” A State Department official noted that, “Our political office for Near Eastern Affairs is worried, for example, about an agricultural mission sent to Arab countries under emergency funds last year. This type of mission, invaluable to political relations, must be withdrawn until [the Mundt bill] is passed.”

Why don’t we associate the Mundt name with these programs? Because Fulbright virtually erased Mundt’s name and elevated the mythology of the Fulbright name with the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, aka the Fulbright-Hays Act. The Fulbright program didn’t “grow into the world’s largest foreign scholarship program,” as King wrote, because the egomaniac Fulbright erased the name of the larger program.

(There may be some revisionist glorification of the Fulbright — or any exchange — program going on as well with regard to personal experiences. A 1958 analysis of Midwesterners who received four overlapping awards of the Fulbright and Smith-Mundt programs from 1947-1955 provided some interesting insights. The scope of the study did not include the administrative realities or that the former program relied on the latter program as the study focused on participant perceptions. Interestingly, there were a lot of adverse consequences of studying abroad: difficulties with colleagues who did not have the opportunity – 95%; administrative superiors not in favor of the overseas opportunity – 95%; experience abroad is not highly regarded in field – 88%; going abroad interfered with research – 92%; participating in the program hindered my professional career – 97%. However, despite the negatives for the professional scholar, the experience abroad tended to ignite interest in foreign lands when the participant shared their experiences with their home community. Interestingly, about half of the participants from Arkansas moved out of the state on their return after their foreign trip.)

“In the 1950s, the program put Fulbright himself squarely in McCarthy’s sights. Scholarship recipients were America-haters who promoted communism…”

King’s portrayal here elevates Fulbright as some kind of fighter, which goes with the overall genre of Fulbright the fighter, the “dissenter,” the whatever. It also elevates one of McCarthy’s many plays for attention and it was most certainly not a new tactic. The resistance to exchanges was heated when debating the Mundt exchanges in 1945, 1946, and 1947 and they were the same as McCarthy’s recycled rhetoric: we will bring foreign influencers into our nation who will corrupt our youth and our institutions. These arguments were quickly overcome usually with the argument that our society and culture are strong enough to withstand the threats, but also because monitoring and protections were written into the Mundt bill, protections that did not exist before the bill. That the hamfisted lying McCarthy relaunched them is nothing special but indicating they are special reveals the extent we have forgotten the relevant history, in part because of Fulbright.

“Fulbright pressed for engagement with the Soviet Union during the Cold War…”

This is my second favorite point and it is a sanitized version of his beliefs. Fulbright outright rejected the idea that Russia and communism were inherent threats to the US. In 1962, Fulbright declared that we “must learn to overcome our emotional prejudices against Russia” so that in time the Communists will learn to trust us. He also declared, “I refuse to admit that the Communist dogma per se is a threat to the United States.” Fulbright would not accept Russia either desired or intended to expand or interfere with democracy, “Those who attribute to the Soviet leaders a permanent and unalterable determination to destroy the free societies of the West, are crediting the Soviet Union with an unshakable constancy of will that, so far as I know, no nation has ever before achieved.” As Congress pressed forward with a plan to better defend against Russian, and to a lesser extent Chinese, political warfare in 1959-1962, Fulbright opposed the idea and single-handily killed it. (See the “Freedom Academy” in

In the mid-1960s, he increased his attacks on USIA and sought to shut it down. He argued that making USIA and VOA material available to American citizens placed VOA as an arbiter of truth while the chairman of the US Advisory Commission on Information, now the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, asserted that for reasons of the recently passed Moss Act, which we refer to as the Freedom of Information Act, and for oversight, the material should be available, though not broadcast, in America. The discussion between Fulbright, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the commission chairman, Frank Stanton, then the president of CBS, and until the week before the hearing, the president of RAND Corporation, was lively. Honestly, Fulbright’s arguments are weak and not persuasive, in my opinion.

Fulbright declared VOA, RFE, and RL as instigators against an otherwise peaceful Russia. In 1972, he said these radios “should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” He changed USIA’s authorization to one year and successfully amended the Smith-Mundt Act to limit public and Congressional access to USIA material, an amendment that led to the modern belief the Smith-Mundt Act is an anti-propaganda law. This followed his charge that a fellow Senator’s use of VOA material on public access tv program violated the Smith-Mundt Act, an argument the acting Attorney General of the US disagreed with. The AG was right. Fulbright focused on the language that Smith-Mundt’s materials would be available “by request” as something it was not. The “by request” was intentionally inserted to prevent blanket requests of materials that would incur substantial expenses on the State Department for translating, filing, and fulfillment to requestors everyone agreed would not read the requested material. By placing a higher burden on the request, the inquiry would be more focused and worthwhile. Stanton’s argument around oversight was directly inline with this “by request” structure: without it, awareness and oversight would be severely diminished. Fulbright, for his part, amended the language to severely limit the access and use of the material. Fulbright’s amended Section 501 of the Smith-Mundt Act (22 USC 1461) that the material “shall not be disseminated” and to limit requests for material “for examination only,” substantially changing the original intent of the law and the built-in oversight mechanism.

(Many, if not most, law and academic reviews of the Smith-Mundt Act erroneously start with the Fulbright amendment as the natural state of the Smith-Mundt Act. This is just poor scholarship and worse research, but that is a separate conversation. I am writing on article discussing how one of the commonly cited law review articles on the Smith-Mundt Act, by Palmer and Carter, starts with 1972 version of the Smith-Mundt Act in their discussion of the intent of the legislation.)

“Can’t you just tell the Africans not to drive on Route 40?”

I recommend Mary Dudziak’s book, Cold War Civil Rights, to see the “public diplomacy” of Route 40 and how the State Department intervened domestically, including incidents involving Route 40.

“His achievements were his alone.”

No, not really. He relied on others but hid their participation as he took the glory. Fulbright’s headstrong, ego-driven approach breaks down on scrutiny, at least in the informational space where I focus. He took the ideas of others and ran with them as his own. In the space of exchanges and education, he did this more than once with Mundt. “Senator Karl Mundt was a school teacher and school superintendent in Bryant, South Dakota,” wrote one pundit at the time. “Senator William Fulbright was an instructor in law at George Washington University and President of the University of Arkansas. Fulbright founded one student exchange program, and Mundt cofounded another. Fulbright, a Rhodes’ scholar and a world figure, has achieved glamour. Mundt although he shares the some Interests and has an equal capacity in international affairs, has little sparkle and strives for none.”


While I like this article and am glad it was written, it does not do enough to correct the image. But it is a good start. I’d like to have seen King work in my favorite quote describing Fulbright views on race, but I suspect King hasn’t seen it. The question was asked by a British scholar testifying in a Senate hearing shortly after Fulbright’s comment about VOA, RFE, and RL: “In Looking at the voting record of the junior Senator from Arkansas on the Negro rights, I wonder why nobody refers to him as a ‘relic of the Second Zulu War.’”

It is undeniable that Fulbright was a long-serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who wielded substantial power. He shut down serving military officers participating in, if not helping to convene, community meetings in which John Birch Society literature was used or handed out by design by simply sending a letter to the Secretary of Defense. He was a successful political creature who relished in his headlines.

I have argued the ironic linguistic twist that though the employment of the strange, segregationist term “public diplomacy” predated Fulbright’s most serious attacks on USIA were institutionalized because of these attacks. That term segregates rather than integrates programs, objectives, means, and staff. Fulbright did considerable, long-lasting damage to the non-military part of foreign policy, including national security, through his ardent objection to the informational element of foreign policy and his amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act which further ostracized and marginalized the very concepts let alone the programs. In short, if I had to point to a single person who helped militarize US foreign policy by handicapping non-military options in the 1960s onward, I would point to Fulbright. When you properly peel the onion, it is no longer a paradox.

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