Senator Fulbright: Portrait of a Public Philosopher
The first biography of Senator Fulbright is panegyric almost to the point of caricature. Within the first few pages, Tris Coffin calls him “a modern Prometheus…a public philosopher…an investigator to rank with Pecora and Walsh…a social critic of the American scene to compare with de Tocqueville and Mark Twain.” This is advertising copy, not serious writing. It is difficult to appraise Fulbright justly because he does not fit the easy stereotypes of American politics. He is not a rebel, a dissenter, a crusader, or a fighting liberal. He is not a liberal at all. In Britain this young heir of Fayetteville, Arkansas’s First Family would have been easily placed. There he would have been recognized at once as a well-educated young country squire of minor but inherited and ample wealth, with a taste not so much for politics as for public life. There he would naturally have joined the Conservative party, and soon found himself on its rebel wing among those who wanted a more thoughtful foreign policy. He would also have been allied with those Tories who have a feeling for social reform as long as it is neither too sweeping nor too hasty. This is the landed civilized gentleman type, not unknown even today in New England and the South but foreign to the American egalitarian tradition. We are willing to extend equal treatment in politics even to Rockefellers—after all they are only trying to make a bigger bang with a bigger buck—but the country gentleman is as alien to our tastes as hereditary monarchy. (We prefer elected Caesars.) In England Fulbright might conveniently be described as an American Anthony Eden. Here the average American would be puzzled by the comparison. None of us finds it easy to place J. William Fulbright in our rather rough-and-ready political categories.
Now that Fulbright has become a hero on the left and to the peaceniks, a saga has grown up around him. One of its best known episodes is the lone vote he cast in the Senate in February, 1954, against a $214,000 appropriation to continue the work of Joe McCarthy’s investigations subcommittee. One would therefore expect to find a passion for civil liberties in Fulbright’s record. But he is not a passionate man, even when it comes to the First Amendment. One would never guess it from this biography, but Fulbright’s voting record on the basic political freedoms in those terrifying years of McCarthyism was a poor one, not so different from that of his fellow Senator from Arkansas, McClellan, who also helped to do McCarthy in. As one Veteran Arkansas politician told me, “Bill [Fulbright] always sounds more liberal than he is while McClellan is less reactionary than he sounds.” Both voted in 1950 to override Truman’s veto of the Mundt-Nixon Internal Security Act, which, for the first time in American history, set up a regulatory body, the Subversive Activities Control Board, to determine and label dangerous ideas and associations, on the model of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Both voted two years later to override Truman’s veto of the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act, which was framed in the same repressive spirit. Those veto messages were eloquently in the Jeffersonian tradition, but Fulbright did not respond.
THOUGH FULBRIGHT once taught constitutional law, it never seems to have permeated his marrow. In 1954, when John Sherman Cooper and the late Estes Kefauver had the honor to be lone Senate voices against the Anti-Communist Control Act, another panicky product of the McCarthy era, Fulbright, like McClellan, voted for it. In one key vote during the same period Fulbright turned up on the right of McClellan. That was the vote in 1953 on McCarran’s Compulsory Testimony Act, designed to circumvent the Fifth Amendment and “make Communists talk.” Such conservatives as George of Georgia and Hoey of North Carolina attacked it as a breach in the Bill of Rights. Among the ten Senators who had the pluck to go on record against this bill in that dangerous time was Stennis of Mississippi and McClellan of Arkansas. Fulbright was not among them. Even in 1958, four years after McCarthy had been destroyed by censure, Fulbright was with McClellan and the right-wingers in backing a bill to overrule the Supreme Court’s decision reversing the State sedition conviction of the Communist Steve Nelson. Many conservative lawyers opposed the bill as disruptive of State-Federal relations in many fields of the law; liberals opposed it as giving free rein to backwoods inquisitors. Fortunately the Senate managed by a one-vote liberal majority to bury it. This was another example of Fulbright’s queasy reluctance to appear ready for co-existence with Communists at home much as he might advocate co-existence with them abroad. It was McCarthy’s disruptive effect on foreign relations rather than the pall he cast at home which seems to have moved Fulbright into active opposition. Yet in March, 1954, he had the nerve to challenge a witch-hunter more powerful and enduring than McCarthy—J. Edgar Hoover, the No. 1 Sacred Cow of American politics. Fulbright told the Associated Press he would no longer give security information to the FBI because McCarthy was getting any information he wanted from FBI files “whether authenticated or not.” Hoover’s effusive admiration for McCarthy is a subject few have dared mention, then or since.
Fulbright’s attitude toward the snoopers after subversion often seems more a matter of aristocratic disdain than libertarian fire. In a speech on The Higher Patriotism last April, he said with his characteristic dry wit, “In the abstract we celebrate freedom of opinion as a vital part of our patriotic liturgy. It is only when some Americans exercise the right that other Americans are shocked.” He often seems more the Whig than the liberal. Fulbright felt so little like a liberal during the witch hunt years that he was exempt from the panic that several times swept them into proving they were not Communists by sponsoring some of the worst legislation of that period, much of it still available on the statute books for use in our next period of hysteria. One example is the detention camp section they added to the Internal Security Act in 1950 and the Communist outlawry provisions they added to the Communist Control Act in 1954, provisions so loosely drawn that their frightened liberal sponsors (Humphrey, Morse, Douglas, and Kennedy) could have been proscribed as Communists by their own definitions. Fulbright never felt it necessary to prove his political purity by such self-defeating antics. These shadings are absent from Coffin’s portrait, as is Fulbright’s greatest single contribution to American freedoms—the 1957 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings at which he so exposed the State Department’s bill to restrict foreign travel in all its bureaucratic and totalitarian nakedness that the Department has not ventured actively to push another such measure since.
FULBRIGHT IS THE MOST CIVILIZED and urbane man in the US Senate and can easily survive an honest and realistic portrait. Coffin’s biography is conspicuous for its protective lacunae. You would never gather from it that in domestic matters—except Federal aid to education, public housing, and generally (but not always) rural electrification—Fulbright’s record is not so different from any other Senator from a gas and oil state. Coffin does not mention Fulbright’s position in two scandalous episodes of the 1950s. He was for the Dixon-Yates contract by which the power interests hoped to get a hold on the TVA, and he sponsored the bill by which natural gas producers hoped to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in the Phillips Petroleum case and free themselves from Federal regulation. Eisenhower regretfully vetoed the bill after a Republican Senator created a national uproar by revealing that a lawyer-lobbyist for the bill had left a $2500 “campaign contribution” with one of that Senator’s friends.
Not the slightest whisper of any such transaction attaches to Fulbright. He is a man jealous of his personal integrity. Old friends engaged in the most above-board and honorable lobbying complain of his inaccessibility even for those harmless favors which are the coin of normal politics. His record reflects political necessities and expediencies. Some of his intimates say he was more liberal in the Thirties when he was a young lawyer in the Justice Department.
Fulbright’s evolution toward a more conservative position since may be said to follow the topography of Arkansas, a state divided between the Populistic and poor hill country of the north and west, and the “deep South” plantation country of its rich Mississippi delta lands in the south and east. The division is much like that which separates aristocratic tidewater from the poor white uplands in the Eastern seaboard South where the conflict of classes since colonial times has also been a function of geographic maldistribution. In Arkansas the hill country has rarely produced its Governors and Senators but when it does they move to the right in order to placate their wealthier constituents in the plantation country. The Populistic Faubus, a man from the hills, wooed the Delta country with highways and swung it behind him by a racism not native to his own and Fulbright’s “country” in the north and west, where Negroes are few and men wear the Stetsons and boots of the cow country. Fulbright found his own common denominator with the “Southerners” by virtue of wealth, education, family, and breeding. He was a Rhodes Scholar who became the youngest college president in the country as head of the University of Arkansas. No one could be more different from the rednecks whom the real or pseudo aristocrats of the South despise. Faubus, by comparison, is a poor white radical, like Wallace of Alabama. But to preserve these gentlemanly ties with the delta, Fulbright’s record on labor, as on race, has been as irreproachably correct as that of any conventional Southern Democrat, however liberal he might be on issues affecting distant heathen lands and continents. Fulbright voted, for example, in favor of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act and against minimum wage legislation. On Negro issues over the years—whether the poll tax, the Fair Employment Practices Commission, anti-lynch legislation, or civil rights bills—he has been as Southern as mint julep. His record in defense of the filibuster is also without stain. Nor was he with the tiny handful of Southern Congressmen who risked the political wilderness by refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto. In August 1958 he took the unusual step of filing a brief amicus curiae with the Supreme Court as a token of regional loyalty in the Little Rock case. This brief, characteristically, was no racist document, but the distinguished exposition of a pessimistic view of human nature like that expressed by disillusioned anti-democratic thinkers in the years after the terrible storms of the French Revolution had subsided. To read it is to see why Fulbright is best described as a highly literate if not always enlightened conservative, that is in the true and British use of the term, and not as it has come to be applied in this country as a euphemism for crypto-Fascists or Texas oil men with a screw loose.
TRIS COFFIN’S HERO-WORSHIPPING portrait achieves its highest level of unrecognizability in calling Fulbright a modern Prometheus. Fulbright would never have had done anything so irregular as stealing fire for Man. He would have sent Zeus a carefully prepared but private memorandum suggesting that it would be better to give man fire than risk the tumultuous uprisings sure to be provoked by cold meats on a rumbling stomach. Fulbright’s favorite mode of procedure is to operate within official privacy by sending the President a memorandum. His famous investigation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1950, when he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, came only after President Truman had failed to heed his private remonstrances for a cleanup. Fulbright so little likes the role of party maverick that he is sensitive to this day about the charge that the “mink coat and deep freeze” revelations of that inquiry helped the Republicans defeat the Democrats when they ran his friend Adlai Stevenson in 1952. His next exploit of renown, his attack on the “strategy for survival” conferences under US military auspices, was accomplished entirely intra-murally, in a 1961 memorandum for President Kennedy and Secretary McNamara. This was only made public on the angry insistence of Senator Strom Thurmond, himself a Major General in the US Army Reserves. Senator Thurmond may not have meant it that way, but he thereby performed a public service. He wanted, of course, to expose Fulbright but only succeeded in exposing the military by forcing its publication. The issues Fulbright raised were fundamental and the danger to which he called the incoming Kennedy Administration’s attention real and continuous—the danger of a military-rightist effort to brainwash the country. The widest possible publicity was called for. To settle the matter privately, “between gentlemen,” as it were, saved Fulbright from appearing to be picking a fight with his own party’s incoming Administration. But it overlooked the need for making the public aware of the danger.
This must also be said of his third major attempt at reform by private memorandum—his effort in 1961 to head off the projected Cuban invasion. The Bay of Pigs affair illustrated the weaknesses of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It tends to lag behind the press and to be less well-informed than the better newspapers. The fact that Cuban exiles were being trained by the CIA in a secret hideout in Guatemala for an invasion of Cuba was first exposed by the newspaper La Hora in Guatemala City October 31, 1960. The story was published in this country by Ronald Hilton in the November, 1960, issue of his now defunct Hispanic American Review at Stanford, picked up thence by The Nation, and independently verified by The New York Times in January, 1961. A vigilant Foreign Relations Committee, prepared to play a watchdog role could have sent its own investigators down there, held public hearings, and alerted the country to the danger. Fulbright’s intervention was a case of belated happenstance. The fullest account, by Sidney Hyman in The New Republic a year later, said Fulbright happened to speak with the President late in March. Mr. Kennedy heard the Senator was planning to leave for Florida on the 30th. Since the President himself was preparing to fly down to Palm Beach the same day, he invited Fulbright to join him on the plane. Fulbright saw in this a chance to discuss the invasion reports appearing in the press. He asked Pat Holt, a Foreign Relations Committee staff member, to draft a memorandum outlining Fulbright’s reasons for judging any such invasion plans unsound. The memorandum itself did not become public until after the decision was made and the Bay of Pigs invasion attempted. It was printed two years later in 1963 in the volume of Fulbright papers edited by Karl Meyer: Fulbright of Arkansas: The Public Positions of A Private Thinker. The circumstances make the subtitle seem pretentious. For the Cuban memorandum was the private position of a Senator, and Senators are supposed to do their thinking in public. How can the Senate fulfil its constitutional duties in foreign affairs if the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expresses his opposition on so grave a matter only in camera? Fulbright’s influence at that now famous but then secret White House conference, when he was the only opponent of the plan to invade Cuba, would have been stronger if there had been an aroused and informed public opinion behind him. To create it should have been the job of the Foreign Relations Committee; but such militancy was not then Fulbright’s style.
THE MEMORANDUM itself shows how belated and limited was Fulbright’s own awakening on Latin American policies. In suggesting constructive alternatives to US military intervention below the border, Fulbright proposed that we offer the Central American countries “tax incentives for real land reform.” This overlooked the fact that the main obstacle to land reform in Central America, as in the Caribbean and parts of northern South America, has been the United States. Castro’s insistence on land reform at the expense of the American sugar and cattle companies ended his chances of peaceful co-existence with the United States. The precedent for the CIA’S plot to overthrow him was its successful overthrow seven years earlier of the Arbenz regime in Guatemala after it dared take some of United Fruit Company’s idle acreage for land reform. Lyndon Johnson as majority leader then backstopped that CIA operation with a hard-line “Monroe Doctrine” resolution which Fulbright and every other Senator except Langer supported. The naive unawareness of these realities in the Cuban Memorandum must make Latin Americans despair. It is true that the attack on Guatemala was excused as an effort to prevent the establishment of “a Communist bridgehead in the Americas” but once Arbenz had been driven out, not only the land reform but Guatemela’s first income tax—another supposed goal of enlightened North American policy—was repealed without a word of protest from Fulbright, or even from Morse and Lehman, then the chief critics of the Dulles foreign policy elsewhere in the world.
There was another reason why Fulbright kept his opposition private in the Bay of Pigs affair. It is only recently that Fulbright has begun appealing to public opinion as a means of marshalling opposition in foreign policy. His views on the proper relationship between the Senate and the White House have changed considerably in the last year or so, though you would hardly guess it from the Coffin biography. Five years ago Fulbright favored Senatorial acquiescence in Presidential leadership in making foreign policy. In a speech at Charlottesville in April 1961 he defended Lyndon Johnson’s support as Majority Leader of the Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy because “failure to support the President…could easily have led to political warfare between the parties over foreign policy.” This is the conventional view, and its acceptance tends to free the military, intelligence, and State Department bureaucracies from criticism, and to withdraw from political debate the basic issues of war and peace. Fulbright would be even less likely to agree today to another passage in that same speech in which he said the Senate could not “substitute its judgment” for that of the President “without confusing the image and purpose of this country in the eyes of others.” Something close to Senatorial abdication was the burden of a speech a month later at Cornell when Fulbright wondered “whether the time has not arrived, or indeed already passed, when we must give the executive a measure of power in the conduct of our foreign affairs that we have hitherto jealously withheld.” In those first months of Kennedy’s Presidency, Fulbright saw the Senate’s function as a subordinate member of the Administration team. Its function as he then saw it was not to appeal to the people over the head of the President but to win their support for the policies the White House initiated. “As the fate of the nation depends upon the people,” Fulbright said in concluding his Charlottesville speech,
it is obviously dependent upon their understanding of the reasons for their burdens and their tolerance to bear them. It is in this role that I see the primary obligations of the Senate. That is, constantly to explain and rationalize the burden which the people bear, to help them to that degree of understanding which will compel their agreement.
This assumes that our Presidential Caesars know best, and that it is the Senate’s duty to be their loyal advocate.
IF THE BAY OF PIGS affair began to give Kennedy a healthy skepticism about the reliability of his military, intelligence, and foreign policy apparatus, it may also have begun to wean Fulbright away from his readiness to rely on the leadership of the White House. A diamatrically opposite view of the Senatorial function was expressed by Fulbright in his John Hopkins speech on The Higher Patriotism last April. There he urged the Senate “to revive and strengthen the deliberative function which it has permitted to atrophy in the course of twenty-five years of crisis.” He wanted the Senate to act “on the premise that dissent is not disloyalty, that a true consensus is shaped by airing our differences rather than suppressing them.” He wanted the Senate to “become, as it used to be, an institution in which the great issues of American politics are contested with thoroughness, energy and candor.” He called on the Senate no longer to be swayed “by executive pleas for urgency and unanimity, or by allegations of aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States” and warned that such appeals may be “made by officials whose concern is heightened by a distaste for criticism.”
This about-face in Fulbright’s conception of the Senate’s function was the result of an about-face on concrete questions of foreign policy, above all on the war in Vietnam, which Fulbright had hitherto supported, even to the point—as few people realize—of being ready to go along with an expansion of the war to the north. But this evolution of J. William Fulbright from party regular to rebel, and the break to which it brought him with Lyndon Johnson, is a story by itself and must be left to the next issue.