“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 human nature, with a conventional manner masking a rebellious spirit, and idiosyncratic enough not quite to fit into the mainstream. Fulbright is, in effect, a renegade Tory who has served in a legislative body and lives in a society, neither of which is sure what to make of him.
Fulbright’s many admirers in the nation’s cities and universities sometimes marvel that a man so cultivated and “liberal” could represent such a “backward” state as Arkansas. Which is to say that they do not know much about Arkansas in general or the provincial gentry in particular. As the son of a rich businessman, Fulbright grew up and went to school in Fayetteville, a university town in the rolling hills of the northwest part of the state, a region culturally more akin to Oklahoma and the Middle West than to Dixie and the Delta. On graduating from the University of Arkansas he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, an honor he attributes as much to his prowess as a quarterback as to his academic accomplishments.
This exceedingly courtly man, with his soft voice, directness, and good manners, was a gentleman before he went to Oxford. But Oxford gave him a greater skill in debate and in the use of language, educated him in the classics, and solidified his sense of the responsibilities of the governing class, inspiring in him a deep respect for the British parliamentary system.
One of the more provocative recommendations in his new book is that the United States scrap its Constitution and adopt the British method of strictly controlled parties and a head of state chosen by the legislature rather than by direct popular vote. This would, he argues, do away with the televised circus of US presidential elections, prevent movie stars and obscure governors from seizing the White House, and most importantly end the impasse between an executive who cannot speak authoritatively for the country and a legislature that cannot reach a decision. It is this inability of Congress to end debate, he maintains, that has resulted in “the worst of two worlds: an isolated and arbitrary presidency and a quarrelsome, irrelevant Congress.”
Under a parliamentary system by which legislators can keep their seats when they enter the Cabinet, Fulbright says he would have been more inclined to pursue Kennedy’s interest in naming him secretary of state in 1960. It would have been a logical appointment and might have saved the country considerable grief, since Fulbright did not share Dean Rusk’s phobia toward China or his passivity toward the White House. But Kennedy wanted a compliant secretary of state, not an independent thinker, and in any case he feared that Fulbright’s prosegregationist voting record as a southern congressman would upset his civil rights backers.
Although Fulbright makes an ardent case for the parliamentary system, one wonders where a maverick like himself would have fit. No back-bencher could have exercised the power he did as chairman of a powerful Senate committee who could be neither disciplined nor removed by the President. He says that the British system would have prevented such presidential adventures as the Bay of Pigs, the Tonkin Gulf incident, the invasion of Grenada, and the intervention in the Persian Gulf. But Parliament did not stop Margaret Thatcher from her adventure in the Falklands. Moreover, the US Constitution gives us a Bill of Rights that no president can ignore, as Thatcher has been accused of doing with freedom of the press.
Fulbright, after having served for two years in Fayetteville as the nation’s youngest university president, won election to Congress in 1942. There he sponsored the resolution that pledged the US to membership in the future United Nations. After only a single term he successfully ran for the Senate and remained there for the next thirty years, presiding as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for a longer period than any other senator in American history. One of his first, and perhaps his most important, pieces of legislation was enacted in 1946 when in a skillful exercise of parliamentary maneuvering he slipped through Congress the legislation setting up the international education exchange program. Fulbright grants have made his name known throughout the world and are arguably the most intelligent and useful foreign policy action undertaken by the United States in the postwar decades. They are almost certainly the most successful.
Although Fulbright supported most early cold war policy, he realized sooner than most the sharp distinction between communism and nationalism, and as early as the 1950s argued eloquently against an American diplomacy that mindlessly supported the status quo throughout the world. He drew a sharp line between Marxist ideology, which did not greatly trouble him, and Soviet power, which he believed had to be countered. For this reason he viewed with contempt the anticommunist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and in 1954 he was the only senator brave enough to oppose congressional funding of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigating committee. As he reveals in this book, it was he who wrote the resolution censuring McCarthy sponsored by Republican Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont.
While he urged Kennedy not to invade Cuba in 1961—“the Castro regime is a thorn in the flesh; but it is not a dagger in the heart” in the much-quoted phrase of his memo to the President—he favored an invasion the following year to counter the Soviet missile threat. But after the crisis was resolved, he adroitly steered through the Senate the partial nuclear test-ban treaty of 1963 and called for the diplomatic recognition of China and negotiations with the Khrushchev regime to resolve the cold war. From the beginning he has been a realist, never an ideologue. While he supported efforts to contain Soviet power, he believed that the notion of an international communist conspiracy was the product of paranoid minds, and more than twenty years ago, in the Arrogance of Power (1966), was describing the Soviet Union as “a conservative power…whose stake in the status quo is a far more important determinant of her international behavior than her philosophical commitment to world revolution.”
Fulbright worked within cold war assumptions until 1965, when Lyndon Johnson sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic to prevent the threatened overthrow of the ruling junta by supporters of the elected president Juan Bosch. Troubled by what he saw as a blatant intervention “to prevent the local people from changing a status quo they thought was quite unsatisfactory,” he decided to hold hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee. These hearings “had a deep effect on my thinking,” he writes, and in September he openly spoke out in the Senate against the invasion, arguing that US interests could best be served by working with rather than against the forces of social change. An enraged Lyndon Johnson broke off relations with the renegade senator. Instead of backing down, Fulbright pressed the Johnson administration further, and in the winter of 1966 he began a series of hearings on the Vietnam War itself.
These hearings put him irrevocably at odds with what he describes as “the prevailing antipathy toward China—a vision that Rusk and others were using to justify our role in Vietnam” and with the entire rationale of what he now perceived as a war against Asian nationalism. This was not an easy role for Fulbright to play. It forced him to admit that he had been deceived by Johnson when in 1964 he had taken responsibility for steering through the Senate the Tonkin Gulf resolution, giving the White House carte blanche for operations in Vietnam (“I have had little confidence in what the government says since then,” he writes here). His opposition put him in the politically vulnerable position of being the adversary of a president of his own party.
Fulbright’s skepticism about the war had begun even earlier. He had voted for military aid to South Vietnam on the premise that the South Vietnamese were willing to defend themselves and capable of doing so; but in April 1965 he had told Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara that the US would be better off with a strong, independent communist country under Ho Chi Minh than with a weak democratic one that could not survive. The 1966 hearings were widely publicized in the press, and confirmed and broadened Fulbright’s conviction that “our anticommunist obsession…had distorted our perceptions and impaired the judgment of our leaders.”
If these hearings strengthened Fulbright’s own dissidence, they were critical in enlightening and shaping public attitudes toward the war. The Foreign Relations Committee became a focal point of debate and dissent, and, as he justifiably notes, “removed the stigma of disloyalty from the raising of questions about the war and from efforts to end war and the advocacy of peace.” These hearings legitimized opposition on the streets and campuses by taking it into the very heart of government. Fulbright not only revealed the power of the committee to educate, a power it has not demonstrated since his departure, but probably more than any other person made opposition to the war patriotic and responsible.
Whether or not the Vietnam War turned Fulbright into a radical dissenter, it made him skeptical about both the actions of his own government and the validity of American institutions for the rest of the world. “Neither we nor anybody else to my knowledge have the kind of wisdom that would enable us to intervene forcibly and shape the policies of others,” he argues. Not exempting his own country from the proclivity of the powerful to “exploit whomever they can exploit,” he deplores our tendency to align ourselves “on the side of the traditional elites and the militarists who have kept their people in line,” and concludes that “we and some of our friends have initiated some of the worst aspects of modern terrorism.”
Fulbright’s strictures on treating the Russians as human beings and our own complicity in encouraging them to believe that “our aim is to destroy their form of government” now seem to have been overtaken by the changes in American attitudes brought about by Gorbachev. Yet they do raise the deeper issue of the psychological foundations of foreign policy, one which he explored in the little-reported but fascinating Vietnam follow-up hearings in 1966 and 1969. His objective in those hearings, in which a number of prominent psychiatrists testified, was to force a kind of national self-examination of attitudes toward adversaries. “If we could understand the forces and factors that shape our beliefs, we might learn how to alter our conduct,” he writes.
If we could focus on the passions engendered by our belief in abstractions associated with the nationstate, we might better understand the limits of our own ideological view of the world, and learn the necessity for understanding how much we need to view others through their perceptions, assumptions, beliefs.
He also speculates that it may not have been entirely accidental that whenever there seemed a prospect of improvement of US–Soviet relations, something unusual often happened to block it: the U-2 incident in 1960, Kennedy’s death, the downing of the Korean airliner, Watergate. As for Nixon’s downfall in 1974, he deplores the “preoccupation with Watergate” for “incapacitating the nation’s leadership…and providing an opportunity for the ever-eager enemies of détente.”
If Fulbright has been a hero for many because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and because he saw the Soviets as fellow victims of the cold war, he has also been sharply criticized both for his civil rights record while in the Senate (his argument was that he could not defy his white constituents on a matter they cared about so deeply) and his views on the Middle East. He has long argued for a Palestinian state, along with US-guaranteed borders for Israel. But he has also denounced AIPAC and the other organizations making up the pro-Israel lobby for dictating American policy toward the Middle East and attempting to defeat any congressman who goes against its wishes. “They are,” he writes, “the really important power to negotiate with in the Middle East if you want an agreement.”
The Price of Empire is a book designed to provoke, and like the senator himself it conceals a bluntness of thought beneath a courtliness of manner. Some of it covers the ground of his previous books, and much of it is drawn from speeches. Like the memoir it in part is, it draws the reader into its themes conversationally. As someone who worked briefly for Senator Fulbright in the early 1960s, I can almost hear his soft, deep drawl deploring the human tendency to folly but never becoming disheartened by it. Here, after all, is a man, now eighty-four, who still thinks it is important to warn us that “we, as a nation, are no more immune than the great powers of the past from the arrogance of power” and that “we are much more likely to lose our democratic system through printing money, radical deficits, inflation, and the distortion of our economic and political life here at home, than we are through any external aggression by the Russians.” While this view would now meet with fairly wide agreement, it was heresy when Fulbright first proposed it.
The Price of Empire is an eloquent and useful book. Yet it is not the work on Fulbright one hopes for, whether it be biography or autobiography, one that would focus on that critical moment in our national history between 1959 and 1974 when, under his guidance, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explored and elucidated the anxieties of a nation and its place in the world. They are still known in the Senate as the Fulbright years, so deeply did he impose his stamp, his intellect, and his courage upon them. The story of those years is still to be written.
It is a scandal that there is no institutional place in our public life for a person of Fulbright’s experience and wisdom. He is too modest to say so, but one justification for a parliamentary system is that it would provide a place where distinguished elder statesmen could be heard—not only Fulbright, but Kennan, Kissinger, and our living former presidents as well. As his passionate book once again reminds us, J. William Fulbright is the best possible argument for a House of Lords.
June 29, 1989