The Fulbright Paradox

Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism

It was an act of political bravery heard around Washington, if not around the world. By January 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had upended lives and destroyed careers, all in an effort to expose a fantastic conspiracy inside American government and society. That month, the committee was up for reauthorization. When senators’ names were called to approve a motion to keep it going, only one nay came from the floor: that of the junior Democratic senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright. “I realized that there was just no limit to what he’d say and insinuate,” Fulbright later said of McCarthy. “As the hearings proceeded, it suddenly occurred to me that this fellow would do anything to deceive you to get his way.” Within a year, Fulbright had helped persuade 66 other senators to join him in censuring McCarthy and ending his demagogic run. By the spring of 1957, McCarthy was gone for good, dead of hepatitis exacerbated by drink.

President Harry Truman once called Fulbright “an overeducated Oxford S.O.B.,” and the senator might have felt that was about right. As a Rhodes scholar, promoter of the United Nations, enemy of McCarthyism, chair of the hearings that helped expose the horrors of the Vietnam War, and founder of the academic exchange program that bears his name—now in its 75th year—he had a good claim to being the most broadly influential American internationalist of the twentieth century. From his first run for federal office, in 1942, until his death, in 1995, he cast himself as a political tinker wandering in a divided America: a salvage man trying to pull what he could from a country that was, for much of his career, riven by race, class, and geography.

Fulbright’s ideas were shaped at a time of party polarization and chin-jutting demagoguery unmatched until the rise of Donald Trump. His life is therefore an object lesson about global-mindedness in an age of political rancor and distrust—but not exactly in the ways one might think.

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