President Harry Truman, Senator J. William Fulbright and Assistant Secretary of State William Benton. Photo source: University of Arkansas Library Special Collections
On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. The bill authorised the sale of war surplus property overseas to be administered by the State Department and for the proceeds to be used for educational exchanges.
Now in its eighth decade of exchanges, the Fulbright Program has become a globally prestigious academic brand. It operates in more than 160 countries and over 380,000 people have participated.
It’s hard to sum up my thoughts on the program that I’ve been studying for so many years now. It is generally beloved by its administrators and alumni, rarely criticised and quite widely respected around the world. Senator Fulbright himself has a fascinating, somewhat mixed legacy–a Southern Democrat, he voted against desegregation in the 50’s, claiming it was what his constituents wanted and, he argued, was the only way he could stay in Congress to do progressive things like founding the exchange program and opposing the Vietnam War–the two things he’s best known-for today.
In 2015, I attended and presented my work at an excellent conference about the man and the program. The organisers are publishing papers from that conference in an edited volume, “The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Ideology, Power, and Policy.” I’ll be posting more details when it’s officially published–hopefully soon!
My article in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies looks at three major bureaucratic shifts in the program’s history–from the State Department to USICA, then to USIA and back to State–and examines the role of educational exchange in US public diplomacy.