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The Fulbright, history’s greatest war-surplus program

Why a great educational exchange was invented, and what it accomplished instead

Senator William Fulbright.

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Senator William Fulbright.

A Fulbright scholarship is one of the few academic honors with a reputation well beyond academia, its name carrying a strong tinge of global idealism along with its scholarly prestige. Since its creation in 1946, the Fulbright program has become the flagship international educational exchange program of the US government. Over the past 67 years, it has sponsored international travel for almost 320,000 students, scholars, and teachers—either leaving the United States to pursue projects abroad, or coming here from their home nations to do the same.

Given the profound effect these experiences have had on the lives of grant recipients, the Fulbright is often seen as among the most civic-minded international programs of the US government—a vast effort to improve mutual understanding between nations and foster the exchange of ideas. Historian Arnold Toynbee spoke for many when he praised the program as “one of the really generous and imaginative things that have been done in the world since World War II.” Senator J. William Fulbright, the program’s sponsor and namesake, often boasted that the program was paving the road to world peace.

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But the origins of the Fulbright program suggest it was actually established for quite different reasons—ones that are less heart-warming, but more interesting. Whatever the program became, it was first conceived as a budget-priced megaphone to transmit American ideas to the world, rather than as a genuine international dialogue. The early history of the Fulbright program offers a window into America’s towering self-confidence in its new role as global superpower in the 1940s. That the program’s effects were ultimately more complicated—and that we have come to see it so differently today—suggests both the hubris of that moment and the impossibility of predicting or controlling what international educational exchanges really do for the world.

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Strange as it sounds today, the Fulbright program started as a scheme for the United States to clean up from World War II on the cheap. When the war came to an end, US military supply lines crisscrossed the world, and a huge array of leftover military material was scattered across the globe—trucks, tanks, food, tents, uniforms, radios.

The government considered much of this material worthless, certainly not meriting the cost and trouble of bringing it home. It was difficult to transport and guard, it was deteriorating in the elements, and war-ravaged foreign nations couldn’t afford to purchase it. But rather than abandon this surplus where it lay, government administrators decided they could trade it to foreign nations in exchange for what they called “intangible benefits”—treaty concessions, embassy lands, and, importantly, the establishment of educational exchange programs.

What we think of as the “Fulbright bill” was actually an amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944, allowing the State Department to make these kinds of trades. So the funding of the Fulbright program was less an act of American generosity than what 1940s newspaper columnist Peter Edson called “an ingenious piece of higher mathematics…[that] found a way to finance out of the sale of war junk a world wide system of American scholarships.” The United States didn’t have to pay for the early Fulbright exchanges: Instead, foreign nations footed the bill. As one congressman noted approvingly in 1946, the Fulbright program “does not cost us a cent.”

If the economics of the Fulbright served American interests, early administrators of the program assumed that educational exchange itself would do much the same. The experience of studying in America was expected to convert foreigners to the American way of life, advancing US interests by inculcating future world leaders with American ideals. Senator J. William Fulbright imagined “what a fine thing it would be if Mr. Stalin or Mr Molotov could have gone…to Columbia in their youth.”

The program’s administrators thought that the experience of living and studying in America would have such a profound impact on foreigners, in fact, that they restricted Fulbright grants to graduate students. According to minutes of their first meeting in 1947, the Fulbright board members worried that younger students, presumably less mature and level headed, might become so enamored of America that they would return home as “misfits unable to readjust to their native cultures.”

There was little worry, on the other hand, that American students and scholars going abroad would become seduced by foreign ways of life. Rather, upon their return home American Fulbrighters were expected to become a national asset, familiar with foreign nations and peoples. And they would return, as one administrator put it, “with a deeper appreciation of our own institutions and our way of life.” Like Dorothy, Americans would travel far only to find that there truly was no place like home.

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The Fulbright program, in short, was underpinned by two entirely contradictory understandings about the way in which ideas and culture travel: While foreigners in the United States would
absorb American values, Americans abroad would do no such thing, and would instead spread American culture wherever they went. Beneath the rhetoric of “mutual exchange and understanding,” the cultural exchanges of the Fulbright program were expected to be one-way streets. The plan was very much a creature of its time: It reflected Americans’ unspoken faith in the power of American culture to transform the world without itself being transformed.

Of course, educational exchange wouldn’t end up working quite as these administrators imagined. In the years that followed, individual students, scholars, and teachers would have a multitude of different experiences while funded by the program—experiences that were far more complex and varied than the board had imagined. Many Americans in the program didn’t just broadcast their national values, but fell in love with foreign cultures, foreign ideas, and foreign people—two Fulbrighters, one French and one American, married in France in 1953, among the first of many international families created through the program. Other unforeseen experiences were less idyllic. Students from India, Africa, and Asia who visited the United States in the 1950s and 1960s often suffered the indignities of American racism—experiences that hardly sold them on the American way of life. Countless other students and scholars felt homesick, lost, or alienated.

Quickly, too, the Fulbright became more expensive than its founders expected. As the Cold War produced an international propaganda struggle with the Soviet Union, the American government began to fund an expanded Fulbright program directly. In 1961 the funding and operation of the program were reorganized by the Fulbright-Hays Act. As the program became more expensive, and appreciated more as an open-ended exchange of ideas than a straight channel for American values, it came under attack, particularly from the political right. In the 1950s, Joe McCarthy sought to defund educational exchanges that he feared were bringing Communists into the country. In 1981, Ronald Reagan tried unsuccessfully to halve the Fulbright budget.

Today, the Fulbright offers 8,000 grants each year and conducts exchanges with 155 countries—many more than the handful that purchased surplus material after World War II. In 2012, foreign governments contributed $89 million to fund exchanges. The United States, meanwhile, provided close to $240 million. Though that’s a tiny drop in the bucket of America’s national budget, the Fulbright program can no longer be seen, as it originally was, as a way to get something for nothing.

There is little research to support the actual effects of the Fulbright on the world. But to the extent that the program has facilitated the growth of genuine cultural exchange—and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, at least, that it has—we shouldn’t be too quick to give credit to the foresight of its first, surprisingly parochial administrators. Better to credit the individual scholars, students, and teachers who have traveled overseas with open minds, both to the United States and away from it, and the countless individuals who have welcomed them. They created the Fulbright program as we know it. In a way, that is one testament to the power of educational exchange: It was far easier to create than it is to control.

Sam Lebovic, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, is the author of “From War Junk to Educational Exchange,” in the April 2013 issue of Diplomatic History. This article was adapted from a post on the Oxford University Press blog.
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