Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 30, 1984, Page 8
J. William Fulbright
In August, 1945, two atom bombs dropped on Japan brought an end to World War II. A month later, a freshman U.S. Senator from Arkansas introduced a bill to set up a program for the international exchange of professors and students. As vastly different as the two events were, they were not unconnected.
The proposal for the exchange program—which would eventually make William Fulbright's last name a household word for millions—was in fact a direct reaction to the dropping of the bombs and the consequent,horrifying prospect of a nuclear war some time down the road.
"It seemed to me," says Senator Fulbright—who in his eightieth year appears to have lost none of the fire of his convictions—"that a major reason why people were willing to wage war against another people is that they didn't understand the other culture or even think of the others as real human beings. It is easy for people to fight if they think all the Chinese are 'cruel,' or all the Russians are 'evil,' and so forth. I thought an opportunity for scholars to spend time living in other countries could help dispel some of this prejudice."
Within a relatively short time Senator Fulbright had obtained a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—becoming its chairman in 1959—and developed strong views on the inadmissibility of the use of force to gain political ends, the "folly" of the arms race; and the need for the United States and the Soviet Union to bring it to a halt by dealing with each other in an atmosphere of detente. It was perhaps inevitable that these views would influence his attitudes towards the policies of Israel—and during the sixties and early seventies he was the Senate's leading critic of Israel's policies. To those Americans who agreed with him, he came across as one of the very few courageous voices in U.S. public life calling for a sane and even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli issue. To Israel and its supporters, he was viewed as an enemy.
Implementing the Policy
Looking back on this period today, as he sits in his office at the Washington, D.C. law firm he joined after losing his Senate seat in 1974, Senator Fulbright says that an American policy favoring a settlement based on Israel's pre-1967 borders has always been in existence officially —"but we have never been willing to implement it." The 1950 Tripartite Declaration issued by the United States, Britain and France called for maintenance of the pre-1967 borders, and American-backed U.N. Resolution 242 called for a return to them. Even the withdrawals proposed by the Camp David accords and by the Reagan plan have been premised on a return to those same borders. "Yet we have given Israel the funds and the arms to keep on expanding," Senator Fulbright says. "This will eventually do Israel in."
A Disturbing Pattern
He sees the U.S.'s relations with Israel and with the Soviet Union as being, in some ways, part of the same cloth, and finds the pattern disturbing.
"Israel and its supporters are among the principal obstacles to the normalization of our relations with the Russians," he says. "Since the very early days they have been telling us that Israel is the bulwark against the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East, and this has fitted in well with our paranoia about the Russians. Now they feel that if there is any relaxation of our attitude towards the Russians, their ability to obtain money and arms from the U.S. would diminish. That's true. If you really had detente it would be much more difficult to get money out of Congress for Israel than it is now."
When asked about the extent to which pro-Israel opposition may have been a factor in the loss of his seat, Senator Fulbright declines to pin the tail on any particular group. "Some say my opposition to the Vietnam war did it, and others say it was my advocacy of detente. But it could be," he adds with a twinkle, "that I had been in the Senate for quite a while, was getting old, and just didn't look good on television."
Since leaving the Senate, Senator Fulbright has kept up with Middle East affairs through reading and travel and through his involvement with such organizations as Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (on the advisory committee) and AMIDEAST (emiritus member of the board). He also gives speeches on the subject. But he has been slackening the pace in recent months to devote more time to family matters and to his association with the exchange program—"my main interest for nearly 40 years." Since his original bill was enacted in August, 1946, 150,000 individuals have participated in the program.
Senator Fulbright was brought up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas and went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He received a law degree at George Washington University, was named president of the University of Arkansas at the age of 34, and in 1942 was elected to Congress. He was elected to the Senate two years later.