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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 876

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This is the grave of William Fulbright.

Born in 1905 in Sumner, Missouri, Fulbright grew up wealthy. His father had a number of businesses and his mother proved to be an excellent manager of those businesses. In fact, Roberta Fulbright became an influential newspaper publisher in her own right after her husband died in 1923. They raised William and his siblings in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he would also go to college, graduating with a degree in history in 1925. He also was a star on the Razorbacks football team. A very smart and ambitious young man, Fulbright won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford and graduated with another degree from there in 1928. After playing around in France for awhile, he came back to the U.S., got a law degree from George Washington University, and then got a job with the Justice Department after he passed the bar.

Ultimately though, Fulbright wanted to come back to Arkansas. After his time in the Antitrust Division, he took a job as a lecturer in the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1936. And then, only 34 years old, he because president of the school in 1939. This was not going to be where Fulbright’s ambitions remained. Instead, he started speaking on national issues, especially promoting interventionism in World War II. That was not necessarily popular in Arkansas, but as the war approached, Fulbright gained greater publicity and support and this led him to be elected to Congress in 1942. His isolationist enemies nicknamed him “British Billy” and this was not entirely inaccurate. After one term, he ran for the Senate and stayed there for 30 years.

Now, Fulbright was not that influential as a senator for the first, well, really two decades. He had to make his compromises on race to be elected from the South, but ultimately was a southern liberal. He also was a big ideas guy and did not like the old boys club of the world’s worst deliberative body. This meant that he was happy to talk to the media and promote his own ideas, but had no interest in becoming a leader in the Senate. That also meant, for instance, that he could push tirelessly for his creation of the American version of the Rhodes–the Fulbright Scholars–without worrying about things that bored him. This is of course Fulbright’s greatest legacy today. Thousands of people have studied overseas and then later taught overseas as well in what is now a huge program of soft power–showing America at its best and often funding scholars who are highly critical of American foreign policy. Always the internationalist, Fulbright became a leading Cold War liberal on foreign policy through this program, initially established in 1946.

Although Fulbright thought Harry Truman was a dunce, he generally supported Truman’s foreign policy, especially the Marshall Plan. In fact, Fulbright told Truman he should resign for the good of the party. Truman called him, behind his back I think, “Senator Halfbright,” which honestly is the kind of moniker Trump would have come up with. While Fulbright was not convinced that Korea was worth the fight (he was a confirmed Europhile and really didn’t get why Asia was important), he also backed Truman when the president fired that quasi-fascist Douglas MacArthur.

Fulbright also hated the anti-communist extremists. That meant he hated Joe McCarthy and that meant he hated Richard Nixon. He saw them as dim opportunists who would destroy the country. He at first held off from openly criticizing McCarthy because Lyndon Johnson, who could always read the political winds well, told him it was bad politics. But it grated. And when McCarthy started going after the Fulbright program in 1953, the senator told Johnson to stuff it and went all-in to protect his baby. Fulbright stood up to him, demanded proof that the Fulbright recipients were communists, told him he’d offer all sorts of evidence that Fulbright recipients had praised the American government, and the bully backed down. Nixon though, well, that would have to wait.

Kennedy wanted to name Fulbright Secretary of State, but he was too controversial for his other foreign policy advisors, so Dean Rusk got the nod instead. Still, he was a hugely important figure on foreign policy. He told Kennedy that the Bay of Pigs was a stupid idea and Castro was no threat to the U.S. He also said that East Germany had the right to stop its citizens from fleeing to the West, which was certainly an interesting take the year the Berlin Wall went up. But Kennedy backed him up on it, hoping that the wall would actually defuse the crisis in Germany. It’s possible that Fulbright was even taking the heat for a policy Kennedy wanted but couldn’t say publicly. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fulbright also wanted a policy of peace with the Soviets. Overall, he was always very good on these issues, much better than the average Cold War senator.

Of course, all of this came at a price–racism. Was Fulbright as racist as his segregationist record suggests? Yes. In a 1994 article in the Journal of Southern History, Randall Bennett Woods explored this question in depth. Domestically, he basically was a heir to the white Populists. He hated the far right. He supported programs to help poor whites. But he did not think Black people were at all equal. He signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956 out of principle, not expediency, though he was up for reelection. He fought for the poll tax. He was one of the most involved people in the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act. He used the same arguments Republican use today against voting–that universal suffrage isn’t in the Constitution and this is a Republic, not a Democracy, amrite!?

Was Fulbright Richard Russell or John Rankin? No. He publicly condemned the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in 1963, for instance. He had even quietly supported the principle of desegregating the law school at the University of Arkansas, back in the day. On civil rights, he preferred the paternalist mindset rather than the rabble-rousing of George Wallace. He sort of knew that racism was bad but figured there was nothing you could really do about it except wait for some day in a mythical distant future where maybe education would change minds. So the difference between Fulbright and Wallace was a stylistic question, not a substantive one. So there’s no way around his racial beliefs. He was a man of his time and place. Fulbright was one of the finest senators in American history–except that he did more than his part to ensure the nation was for whites only. Later he did begin to shift a bit, voting to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1970 after strongly opposing it in 1965. Of course, by then he had to court Black votes.

It gets even harder to evaluate Fulbright’s overall legacy in context of racism when you think about his brave stance against the Vietnam War. Johnson convinced him to support the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He later massively regretted this. By 1965, before almost everyone else in Washington, Fulbright opposed expanding the war. It was about then that he really paid any attention to Vietnam at all, still being a Europe guy. To his credit, Fulbright really started studying Vietnamese history, which was a hell of a lot more than the architects of the war such as Rusk and Robert McNamara had done. He questioned the U.S. view of Ho Chi Minh as a puppet of Moscow and Beijing. He compared the U.S. choices in Vietnam to the terrible decisions the previous empires had made centuries earlier and believed this war was taking the U.S. down. He thought the U.S. imposing its will on Vietnam was like Athens imposing its will on the other Greek cities. It wasn’t just principled opposition. It was historically situated opposition, for whatever previous empires can really tell us about the present. He also started holding hearings about what the U.S. was doing there. In the hearings, which got national attention, he attacked the bombing of North Vietnam as killing children for no purpose. Johnson was very upset at his former ally. When Fulbright told Johnson to stop the war, LBJ started screaming at him. Fulbright went on to publish The Arrogance of Power in 1966, his book attacking the war. This was one of several books he wrote on foreign policy over the years. He was very upset he could not convince Johnson of his mistakes. But he started winning other senators over, especially after Tet. This made Fulbright one of the most powerful senators as the war went on.

Nixon hated Fulbright and Fulbright hated Nixon. So Fulbright had no illusions about changing Nixon’s mind, but he was also not hamstrung by believing Nixon was anything but a scumbag. When Ron Ridenhour wrote to powerful officials about what had happened at My Lai, it was Fulbright who received the letter and acted in horror about what he read. Soon after, Fulbright gave a speech at the Army War College demanding American withdrawal from Vietnam. He spoke at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. He sassed back to anti-protestor reporters who wanted to discredit them. Despite his deep and enduring racism, he became the political voice in Washington. Nixon gave his Silent Majority speech as a rebuttal to Fulbright, trying to change the narrative. Fulbright also led the fight against Nixon’s racist Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth and Harold Carswell. He would work with the administration when they agreed with him, such as in the Middle East, as neither Fulbright nor Kissinger was a particular friend of Israel. But for the most part, they were outright enemies.

By 1974 though, Arkansas was changing. Fulbright’s liberalism was increasingly too much for the electorate. His speaking out on Vietnam was the biggest issue, as the war was popular with the state’s whites. That Fulbright was leading the charge on Watergate too contributed to his growing unpopularity. Dale Bumpers saw a path to defeating Fulbright in the primary and did so, by quite a margin. So Fulbright just resigned rather than serve out his term.

Fulbright went to the classic post-electoral career of the politician: he got a sweet gig at a Washington law firm and served as a lobbyist, all the way until 1993. That year, Bill Clinton gave his fellow Arkansan the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his 88th birthday. Of course, Clinton had received a Fulbright as well and so was personally grateful on a number of levels. Fulbright died in 1995. He was 89 years old. A stroke did him in.

William Fulbright is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

This is the 2nd of the 64 graves I visited on my recent trip to the south central part of the country. If you would like this series to visit other senators who signed the Southern Manifesto, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Eastland is in Forest, Mississippi and W. Kerr Scott is in Mebane, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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