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Fulbright, Vietnam and the Problem of Purity in US Politics

Is it still possible for influential voices to break through and shape moral vision in politics?
William Fulbright, William Fulbright news, Charles King, Fulbright scholarship, Vietnam conflict, Vietnam War, US news, US history, American news, Peter Isackson

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June 23, 2021 13:04 EDT

Though few millennials recognize his name other than as the title of a scholarship fund, Senator J. William Fulbright (1905-1995) stands as one of the most important and influential US politicians of his time. For the generation of young Americans appalled by the knee-jerk militarism coupled with an incomprehensible domino theory that culminated in the nation’s catastrophic engagement in Vietnam in the 1960s, the senator from Arkansas emerged as their champion of tolerance, rectitude and moral probity. Fulbright had demonstrated it initially in his courageous opposition to the paranoid anti-communism of Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. But the message really came home with his sedulous opposition to the aggressive foreign policy of a fellow Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson, in the 1960s in Southeast Asia.

Foreign Affairs has published an enlightening article by Charles King, a Georgetown professor of international affairs and government, bearing the title, “The Fulbright Paradox, Race and the Road to American Internationalism.” The article serves as a reminder of how different congressional politics is today in the age of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer from what it was 60 years ago. It also reminds us how the two major issues that still preoccupy Americans — the role of the US as a global policeman and racial inequality — remain in the headlines as the source of serious division, despite a deep historical shift in political culture.

France’s Electoral Abyss


The paradox King points to seems obvious today but was hardly shocking at the time. Fulbright “was a figure who committed his life to global understanding yet found it impossible to apply the same ideals to his homeland,” King writes. In short, the anti-militarist was a racist. For a generation ready to demonstrate in the streets and occasionally to join radical groups or even terrorist cells, Fulbright became the one politician within the halls of power to champion moral opposition to Johnson’s war. He valiantly organized Senate hearings on the origins and the conduct of a war Johnson was continually escalating. This was nearly two years before two senators, Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy, emerged as challengers to the incumbent president in the coming 1968 presidential election.

Most people today remember the 1960s as the era of Martin Luther King’s powerful civil rights movement. But the two parallel dramas provoking massive protest against a neocolonial war abroad and endemic racial injustice at home shared the stage. King’s article highlights the fact that the enlightened, forward-looking liberal, William Fulbright, could at the same time think and act as a traditional Southern racist. He both opposed Johnson’s war and voted against the Texan president’s history-shifting civil rights act that abolished Jim Crow.

It strains belief today to imagine that anyone at that time could have been both morally opposed to the Vietnam War and convinced that, as Fulbright’s biographer Randall Woods claims, “the blacks he knew were not equal to whites nor could they be made so by legislative decree.” 

By the end of the 1960s, Fulbright began to adapt to the changing culture, embracing the lessons of the civil rights movement. “Later in life,” King writes, “he would claim his stance was tactical. Electoral viability in his home state of Arkansas depended on defending states’ rights and a gradualist approach to equality for Black Americans, he said.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Electoral viability:

The strategic principle according to which all principles may be abandoned or silenced in the interest of achieving the ultimate goal: the obtention of political power that will permit the achievement of other goals not necessarily mentioned during the election campaign

Contextual Note

Fulbright’s influence on US culture in the 1960s was monumental. He defined a moral position that continues to inspire opponents of American overreach in its often doubtful claim to enforce the “rule of law” by aggressive measures against foreign populations, whether in the form of invasion and military occupation, debilitating sanctions or simply by propping up sanguinary dictators. His analysis of the folly of the Vietnam War holds today: “The cause of our difficulties in southeast Asia is not a deficiency of power but an excess of the wrong kind of power which results in a feeling of impotence when it fails to achieve its desired ends.”

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Fulbright spent nearly 30 years in the Senate. To be reelected so many times required reassuring his electorate that he represented their interests and deepest beliefs. Arkansans clung to the old order. The majority opposed integration. In 1956, following the Supreme Court’s decision to end segregation in schools (Brown v. Board of Education), Fulbright helped to author and signed the “Southern Manifesto” that contested the constitutionality of the court’s decision. He clearly shared the majority’s basic racist view of the order of society. His political opposition to integration and not his anti-militarism made him electable.

His position on race was more a result of lazy conformity than deep-seated racism. It evolved quickly during Richard Nixon’s presidency, to the point that The New York Times, covering the Arkansas primary contest between Fulbright and Dale Bumpers in 1974, wrote that “both are considered friendly to blacks.” In other words, like many politicians, Fulbright could follow the ineluctable trends. His intelligence permitted him to understand that Jim Crow was dead.

Fulbright’s case illustrates a problem that has reemerged in contemporary US political culture. It takes the form of McCarthyist obsession with purity or political correctness. Politicians are judged on the basis of their absolute adhesion to a set of predefined positions by those who see themselves as guardians of the order. No deviation is tolerated. An individual who fails on any count will be rejected, shamed, exiled or excommunicated. Had this been true in the 1960s, the protesters who felt empowered by Fulbright’s resistance would have scorned him as a hypocrite.

One example is the drama currently taking place in the Catholic hierarchy in the US. The Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted by a large majority to allow denying communion to anyone who publicly endorses a pro-choice position on abortion. Their specific target is President Joe Biden. The bishops appear more interested in taking a stance in the “more general culture war against ‘liberals,’ against Democrats, or even against Pope Francis” than they are with theological coherence. This ridiculous skirmish indicates one obvious truth: that partisan politics has overtaken religion as the dominant system of belief in the US.

Another example is the left-wing comedian, Jimmy Dore, who in his popular podcast routinely vilifies politicians on the left who show compromise on any negotiation with the establishment. He has notably disparaged and insulted two public heroes of the progressives — Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — for refusing to revolt against the party’s mainstream leadership. Dore’s disappointment with their apparent pusillanimity is real. His own tactical position has its merits. But his refusal to acknowledge what may be called “electoral viability” could prevent the emergence of a politician capable of having the impact of a William Fulbright.

Historical Note

Charles King accurately describes William Fulbright as “the most broadly influential American internationalist of the twentieth century.” He credits him with the capacity to “stage-manage some of the most deeply civic moments of the era,” moments that helped define a moral stance regarding war and imperial reach that have left deep traces in US culture. Fulbright’s contribution was immense.

King reminds readers of a quote by the young John Kerry, at home just after serving in Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Some 40 years later, Kerry became President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. His role was to defend military operations that were initiated under George W. Bush and continued and even amplified under Obama. Soldiers are still dying for that particular foreign policy mistake. Once fully ensconced in the establishment, Kerry managed to forget Fulbright’s lessons.

Fulbright once said: “We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to do, and we seem to do it about every 10 minutes.” That includes everything that is being done today, especially by Republicans, to restrict voting rights, clearly seeking a return to Jim Crow. Were Fulbright alive today, his principles would probably guide him to oppose such initiatives with the same vehemence he demonstrated against Joe McCarthy.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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