A Gent of Dissent

If I am remembered, I suppose it will be as a dissenter,” J. William Fulbright begins his graceful book, part memoir, part critical study of the politics of the republic he served with such distinction as legislator. One supposes that he is right, for during a period of about a dozen years, beginning in the early 1960s, Fulbright used his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate, to question and unveil, and ultimately to resist an interventionist foreign policy that he tellingly described in a 1966 book as epitomizing the “arrogance of power.”

He was a leading dissenter from the intellectual assumptions of an American establishment to which he unquestionably belonged, yet which was ultimately torn apart by the war it had self-confidently embarked upon in Vietnam. His writings and speeches, and perhaps above all the public hearings held by what was unofficially known as the Fulbright Committee, both reflected and helped to concentrate the nation’s growing disenchantment with the costs of an imperial diplomacy.

Fulbright’s break with the conventional assumptions of the cold war was carried on in public, mostly in the eloquent and increasingly disaffected speeches written with the assistance of his longtime aide and collaborator on this volume, Seth P. Tillman, who is now research professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University. Those speeches were collected in books whose very titles reflect Fulbright’s intellectual history: from the Kennedy-era self-confidence of Prospects for the West (1963), to the skepticism of Old Myths and New Realities (1964), to the angry accusations of The Arrogance of Power (1966), and to the disaffection of The Pentagon Propaganda Machine (1970) and The Crippled Giant (1972). The education of J.W. Fulbright and his increasing estrangement from the pieties of the cold war were public events of consequence, for they influenced the way we have thought about our place in the world.

Yet if Fulbright is remembered as a dissenter, it is so because his early years in Congress were eclipsed by his later ones. For until 1965, when he was shocked by the Johnson administration’s decisions to invade the Dominican Republic and to escalate US involvement in the Vietnam War, he was a rather conventional, if unusually intelligent and articulate, exponent of the conventional wisdom, whether it favored US involvement in the Korean War or the containment of China.

Because of his later reputation for dissent he is usually described as a liberal. But the label is misleading. He is, in fact, deeply conservative, conservative that is, in the British rather than the current American sense: he is not a right-wing ideologue, but rather, like George Kennan or the late Walter Lippmann, drawn to tradition and moderation, with a greater faith in a responsible, privileged elite than in an unruly popular majority. Had he been born in Britain, whose parliamentary system he much admires, he would have probably been a public figure like Harold Macmillan: reasonable, receptive to moderate change, skeptical of the reformability of …

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