Fulbright was a Southern Democrat and a staunch multilateralist, supported the creation of the United Nations and opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee. He is remembered for his efforts to establish an international exchange program, which thereafter bore his name, the Fulbright Fellowships. Fulbright was the longest serving chairman in the history of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Fulbright later studied at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College graduating in 1928, and received his law degree from George Washington University in 1934. In 1934, he was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C. and became an attorney in the anti-trust division of the US Department of Justice.
Fulbright was a lecturer in law at the University of Arkansas from 1936 until 1939. He was appointed president of the school in 1939, making him the youngest university president in the country. He held this post until 1941. The School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas is named in his honor.
Fulbright's great-nephew is the conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, who is a grandson of Fulbright's sister, Roberta; she married Gilbert C. Carlson, the head of the Swanson frozen-foods conglomerate.
He promoted the passage of legislation establishing the Fulbright Program in 1946, a program of educational grants (Fulbright Fellowships and Fulbright Scholarships), sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State, governments in other countries, and the private sector. The program was established to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. It is considered one of the most prestigious award programs and it operates in 144 countries.
Fulbright became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1949, and served as chairman from 1959 to 1974 — he was the longest-serving chair in that committee's history.
He was the only senator to vote against an appropriation for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1954, which was chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy in turn, repeatedly called him "Senator Halfbright."
Fulbright signed The Southern Manifesto opposing the Supreme Court's historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. He subsequently joined with the Dixiecrats in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as voting against the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, during the Nixon administration Fulbright voted for a civil rights bill and led the charge against confirming Nixon's conservative Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth and Harold Carswell.
Fulbright raised serious objections to President John F. Kennedy about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. On 30 July, 1961, two weeks before the erection of the Berlin Wall, Fulbright said in a television interview, "I don't understand why the East Germans don't just close their border, because I think they have the right to close it." It has been suggested that President Kennedy asked Fulbright to make this statement as a way of signaling to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the building of a wall would be viewed by the United States as an acceptable way of defusing the Berlin Crisis.
Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1963, Fulbright claimed five million tax-deductible dollars from philanthropic Americans was sent to Israel and then recycled back to the US for distribution to organizations seeking to influence public opinion in favor of Israel. This statement led to friction with organized pro-Israeli groups in the U.S.
Perhaps his most notable case of dissent was his public condemnation of foreign and domestic policies, in particular, his concern that right-wing radicalism, as espoused by the John Birch Society and wealthy oil-man H.L. Hunt, had infected the United States military. He was, in turn, denounced by conservative Senators J. Strom Thurmond and Barry M. Goldwater. Goldwater and Texas Senator John Tower announced that they were going to Arkansas to campaign against Fulbright, but Arkansas voters reelected him.
Many Senators who accepted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution without question might well not have done so had they foreseen that it would subsequently be interpreted as a sweeping Congressional endorsement for the conduct of a large-scale war in Asia.As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Fulbright held several series of hearings on the Vietnam War. Many of the earlier hearings, in 1966, were televised to the nation in their entirety (a rarity in the pre-C-Span era); the 1971 hearings included the notable testimony of Vietnam veteran and future-Senator John Kerry.
In 1966, Fulbright published The Arrogance of Power, in which he attacked the justification of the Vietnam War, Congress's failure to set limits on it, and the impulses which gave rise to it. Fulbright's scathing critique undermined the elite consensus that U.S. military intervention in Indochina was necessitated by Cold War geopolitics. Some critics of U.S. foreign policy argue that U.S. policy has changed little since Fulbright wrote his book, and find his words apply today.
In his book, Fulbright offered an analysis of American foreign policy:
Throughout our history two strands have coexisted uneasily; a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But... when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry moralism.
Fulbright also related his opposition to any American tendencies to intervene in the affairs of other nations:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations — to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work.
He was also a strong believer in international law:
Law is the essential foundation of stability and order both within societies and in international relations. As a conservative power, the United States has a vital interest in upholding and expanding the reign of law in international relations. Insofar as international law is observed, it provides us with stability and order and with a means of predicting the behavior of those with whom we have reciprocal legal obligations. When we violate the law ourselves, whatever short-term advantage may be gained, we are obviously encouraging others to violate the law; we thus encourage disorder and instability and thereby do incalculable damage to our own long-term interests.
Fulbright retired from the Senate in 1974, after being defeated in the Democratic primary by then-Governor Dale Bumpers. Previously the same year Anti-Defamation League, the leading Jewish defense organization, claimed that Fulbright was "consistently unkind to Israel and our supporters in this country". In response to this Bumpers received considerable financial support from the pro-Israel community, but it is unclear to what extent this affected the outcome of the election. At the time that he left the Senate, Fulbright had spent his entire 30 years in the Senate as the Junior senator from Arkansas, behind John Little McClellan who entered the Senate two years before him. After his retirement, Fulbright practiced law in the Washington, DC office of Hogan & Hartson.
Fulbright died of a stroke in 1995 at the age of 89 in Washington, D.C. A year later, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary dinner of the Fulbright Program held June 5, 1996 at the White House, President Clinton said, "Hillary and I have looked forward for sometime to celebrating this 50th anniversary of the Fulbright Program, to honor the dream and legacy of a great American, a citizen of the world, a native of my home state and my mentor and friend, Senator Fulbright."
In 1996, The George Washington University renamed a residence hall in his honor, J. William Fulbright Hall resides at the corner of 23rd and H Streets, NW.
On October 21, 2002, in a speech at the dedication of the Fulbright Sculpture at the University of Arkansas, Bill Clinton said, "I admired him. I liked him. On the occasions when we disagreed, I loved arguing with him. I never loved getting in an argument with anybody as much in my entire life as I loved fighting with Bill Fulbright".
Approximately 279,500 "Fulbrighters," 105,400 from the United States and 174,100 from other countries, have participated in the Program since its inception over sixty years ago. The Fulbright Program awards approximately 6,000 new grants annually.
Currently, the Fulbright Program operates in over 150 countries worldwide.