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.
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.
S trange 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.Continued...