The Early Years


An Informal History of the Fulbright Program

The Fulbright-Hays legislation was enacted by the 87th U.S. Congress on September 21, 1961. Here, President John F. Kennedy signs the bill into law while Sen. Fulbright (left) and others look on.An early history of the Fulbright Program, excerpted from career senior foreign service officer Donald B. Cook's history of the program, written for the 1971 J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board's annual report, which coincided with the program's 25th anniversary. Some edits have been made for clarity and to update facts and figures.



More than sixty years ago, an action by the Congress of the United States led to one of the most enlightened initiatives undertaken by this country in its relations with the other nations of the world.

In September 1945, the freshman senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that called for the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the "promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science."

On August 1, 1946, legislation best known as the Fulbright Act was passed and signed by President Harry S. Truman into law.

The bill was adopted in the closing days of the last session of the 79th Congress. Few people in 1946 perceived the potential of this program or foresaw the achievements that were to result.

The Act's title was disarmingly simple: " amend the Surplus Property Act of 1944 to designate the Department of State as the disposal agency for surplus property outside the United States, its Territories and possessions, and for other purposes." The "other purposes" consisted of an ingenious marriage of necessity and idealism. There was the necessity of divesting ourselves by the sale abroad of surplus war properties for nonconvertible currencies rather than scarce dollars. The idealism involved using a portion of the proceeds to enable Americans to learn and understand more about other countries, and the citizens of those countries to learn and understand more about us.

Early Problems

It was one thing to have the Act on the books, quite another to put it on the rails. There were delays in negotiating executive agreements with other governments to set aside funds for the exchanges. It was more than a year before the first agreement, with China, was concluded, and after two years only four (with Burma, the Philippines, and Greece added) had been negotiated.

These delays seemed excessive at the time to Senator Fulbright and to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who sent a memorandum to his major officers in April 1947, urging them to "devote all the resources at your command to the speediest possible initiation of operations." There were technical and bureaucratic problems involving the U.S. Department of Treasury, the Bureau of Budget, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the General Accounting Office-as well as rival claimants within the State Department, who wished to use the funds for building and renovating embassies abroad. But funds were found to implement the Act, whose focus was on people of quality rather than buildings or things in quantity.

But it was another year before a concrete program developed that satisfied the Secretary's injunction "to take the fullest advantage of the opportunity offered by the Fulbright Act to improve common understanding among the peoples of the world." The most serious problem was lack of dollars. The Act allowed only for utilizing nonconvertible foreign currencies. It authorized payment of all expenses for Americans going overseas and for foreign nationals attending American institutions of higher learning abroad or traveling to America. But to insure full two-way exchanges, dollars had to be found to pay their stateside costs as well as those of the selection process within America. At that time, Congressional appropriations could be sought only for exchanges within Latin America under a program of educational exchanges begun in 1939, which provided some useful lessons for the Fulbright Program but no prospects then for a program funded by surplus property sales.(1)

The answer temporarily was found by turning to the private sector. American universities were asked to award fellowships, assistantships, and visiting lectureships to selected foreign applicants. Meanwhile, the Carnegie Corporation and Rockefeller Foundation agreed to defray the costs of the cooperating agencies for the first six months so that the program could get underway. There thus was initiated the symbiotic relationship between private American institutions and agencies and the U.S. government that has characterized the program up to the present day.

Added Legislation

A solution to the dollar problem came, however, with the passage in 1948 of the next landmark legislation, the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act. This law extended to the rest of the world the broad authority (including appropriating funds) for conducting educational exchanges previously granted only for Latin America. (2)

The State Department could now seek appropriations to pay contractual costs and some dollar expenses of foreign grantees, as well as carry out exchanges in countries with minimal surplus property sales.

The academic exchange program was in business. The first participants-47 Americans and 36 foreign nationals in exchanges with China, Burma, and the Philippines-started their travel in the fall of 1948. The pace of binational negotiations soon quickened. Within a year, agreements had been signed with New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Belgium (including Luxembourg), France, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. Participants, now 823 Americans and 967 from abroad, were selected from and to these countries as well in 1949-50. The momentum continued, and 17 additional countries signed agreements before December 1952. For the academic year 1952-53 the number of Americans had grown to 1,253 and foreign nationals to 2,210 under binational programs.

The formula, then precedent-setting but now widely acclaimed, of using funds owed the United States for these constructive purposes was applied again and again. Senator H. Alexander Smith and 10 other Senators, including Senator Fulbright, sponsored the Finnish Educational Exchange Act, passed in August 1949, which set aside Finnish payments of their war debts (principal and interest) for educational purposes. In June 1952, Congress accepted an amendment to the Mutual Security Act, proposed by Senator Fulbright, that made accessible for educational exchange counterpart funds resulting from the Economic Cooperation Act (Marshall Plan) as proceeds accruing from the settlement of World War II lend-lease agreements. The most important source of foreign currencies for continuing and broadening academic exchanges, however, resulted from a provision in 1954 for using funds from the sale of surplus agricultural commodities abroad. This resource proved a veritable windfall for the program, permitting it to continue in some countries where surplus property proceeds were exhausted, and to be extended to additional countries, including eight in an area where heretofore there had been no binational agreements -- Latin America. (3)

Fulbright-Hays Act

The final legislative underpinnings of academic exchange came with the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. Also known as the Fulbright-Hays Act (Senator Fulbright introduced it in the Senate and Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio, in the House), this law remains the basic charter for all U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchanges. It is the most comprehensive of all the Congressional actions, consolidating all previous laws and adding new features that strengthened the program's authorization for supporting American studies abroad and promoting modern foreign language and area studies schools and colleges in the United States.

Under the Fulbright-Hays Act, the exchanges under the supervision of the Fulbright Scholarship Board were further extended geographically. By 1971, there was some form of academic exchange with 100 countries.

Today, Fulbright operates in over 155 countries in all world regions.



The binational approach is the hallmark that distinguishes this academic exchange program from most others, either public or private.

Like other elements of the program, the binational approach developed partly by design, partly fortuitously. It began with two provisions of the original Fulbright Act: one authorizing the Secretary of State "to enter into an executive agreement or agreements with any foreign government" for the use of currencies derived from sales for educational exchanges, the other prescribing financing of these exchanges "by the formation and foundations or otherwise."

An executive agreement was necessary because the sales of surplus property in general were normally made to other governments and the terms of the sales-for example, payment in nondollar currencies at agreed rates-had to be agreed upon.

The effect was "binational"-- the launching of a program with the formal blessing of a local government as well as the United States.

The origin of what became known as "binational foundations" or "binational commissions" was more complex. (4) "Foundations or otherwise" was sufficiently vague to allow the State Department flexibility in determining the means for carrying out the program. Some institution or agency obviously had to receive and disburse the nonconvertible foreign currencies and also provide a local base with the country concerned for the two-way exchange.

The decision to organize such an agency along binational lines stemmed largely from American experiments with binationalism in its prior program in Latin America. Under the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs the concept had been developed of a jointly planned, financed, and administered service, usually for health, education, or agriculture; and of a semiautonomous status within the appropriate ministry of the host government. Cultural centers or institutes, established largely for the purpose of teaching English, were operated under binational boards of directors. "Selection committees," composed mainly of nationals of the particular country, conducted the competitions for awards for study in the United States. Latin America had thus been a proving ground for the binational approach, and it was reasoned that the concept should be extended to the new academic exchange program. (5)

Binational Commission Organization and Responsibilities

The new binational commissions came to consist of six to 14 members, half American and half citizens of the other country. The U.S. Ambassador was designated "honorary chairman" and empowered to cast a deciding vote on any matter on which the members were evenly divided. In some later agreements, especially where other governments agreed to join in financing the program, a high local government official, usually the Minister of Education, was designated as a second honorary chairman.

The staff was headed by an executive secretary (now called an executive director) and functioned as the secretariat and administrator for the commission board. Its responsibilities were defined over time to include, inter alia: receipt and disbursement, on allotment from the U.S. embassy, of foreign currencies acquired through surplus property sales or, later, other sources; submission of an annual program plan; conducting annual local competitions and recommending candidates for awards; certifying the acceptability of Americans nominated, arranging institutional affiliations and local hospitality for them; sponsoring seminars and workshops in such fields as American Studies; arranging orientation courses for foreign and American participants; and preparing reports on program progress.

The United States thus decided that it would carry out the program with, to adapt the phrase from one of our great historical documents, "a decent respect" for the opinion of others. The program would best serve the mutual interests of the United States and other countries by giving them an important voice in program plans, decisions and administration. Thus, although the U.S. government was the official source of funds, and might have operated the program unilaterally, control was shared from the beginning. Largely as a result, the program received an almost immediate acceptability and recognition abroad that it has never lost.

The binational commission in Germany has pointed out that the Fulbright Program "was unique in that it offered German participation in various stages of planning and implementation; therefore the exchange program was the first signal of German acceptance as partners in academic cooperation. The political ramifications of this binationality cannot be overestimated."

The binational commissions have come to be known in their own countries as guarantors not only of high quality in the program, but also of its continuing dedication to long-range goals reflecting broad mutual interests rather than any short-term foreign policy objectives. This is perhaps the greatest contribution the binational approach has made to the academic exchange program.

Particularly important to each commission is the work of the Executive Director, who is most closely identified with the day-to-day relationships with scholars, university administrators, and government officials within the country. The holder of that position is also often a person of recognized distinction in the local society who plays an important role in shaping as well as administering the program.

Partnership in Financing the Program

The most significant result of the binational approach has undoubtedly been the willingness of many governments to join with the United States in financing the academic exchange program. The opportunity for such participation was opened by the Fulbright-Hays Act in 1961, which authorized the President "to seek the agreement of the other governments concerned to cooperate and assist, including making use of funds placed in special accounts ... in furtherance of the purposes of this Act..."

To be sure, other countries had previously "cooperated financially with the Fulbright program to an extent that has generally been overlooked." They had "helped finance seminars and conferences...supplemented travel grants to their citizens ... [and] continued the salaries of senior grantees while in the United States." (6) To this list might also be added such help to American participants as provision of housing, educational allowances, and in some instances international travel for dependents, and perhaps part of the grantees' allowances.

Yet all these important contributions differ in kind as well as degree from the cost-sharing arrangements agreed to in the past 50 years. In fiscal year 2009, foreign governments contributed approximately $68.5 million directly to the Fulbright Program, more than 20 percent of the program's approximately $300 million budget for the year.



Though the program has operated within the milieu of one nation's foreign relations, it has at all times been truly "academic," with respect for the freedom and integrity that should characterize scholarly and intellectual discourse within and across national boundaries.

In the original drafts of the legislation, Senator Fulbright made no provision for a Foreign Scholarship Board. As the bill progressed through hearings to final passage, however, two points were made about political dangers that undoubtedly impressed its sponsor: 1) that domestic politics might influence the selection especially of American participants; and 2) that short-term foreign policy goals might come to determine the character of the program. When the Senator testified for his proposal before the House Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments, he was ready with an amendment providing for a 10-member, Presidentially appointed, Board of Foreign Scholarships "for the purpose of selecting students and educational institutions qualified to participate in (the) program, and to supervise the exchange program authorized..."

Senator Fulbright later said that "the creation of a Board of Foreign Scholarships ... was the first step in insulating the program from current political interests." From the beginning the Board shared this view of its role. At one of the early meetings, it affirmed that "while the Fulbright program should certainly implement the general aims of United States foreign policy, it should not be utilized as an instrument to effectuate short term policies directed toward particular countries and ... care should be taken to avoid all appearances of cultural imperialism." It has held to this view consistently. Former Chairman James Roach put it even more unequivocally: "Before all else ... we want all of these activities to be regarded as educational, rather than primarily as political or public relations enterprises, and for this reason both legislators and administrators must regard them in a somewhat different light than they may regard other instruments of foreign policy." (7)

The Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, known colloquially as the FSB, is truly a unique institution. When first created, it was largely unprecedented for a group of distinguished representatives from the professions (still serving in full-time jobs elsewhere) to be appointed by the President of the United States and empowered by law with final responsibility not merely to recommend but to select persons and institutions to participate in the program authorized.

A number of public groups are now responsible for government programs and a profusion of "advisory" committees and commissions are now scattered throughout government, but at the time there was no other part-time group of persons largely from private life who were endowed with supervisory authority over a public program in the international sphere. The FSB's close continuing links with the semi-autonomous Fulbright commissions further enhance this unique aspect of the Board's role.

Key Early Decisions of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board

The membership of the first appointed Board deserves special attention, since theirs was the obligation to make prompt decisions on a number of knotty problems for which there were few precedents. Their elected chairman was Francis Spaulding, dynamic Commissioner of Education of the State of New York. Other members were General Omar Bradley, Administrator of Veteran's Affairs; Sarah Blanding and Charles Johnson, Presidents of, respectively, Vassar University and Fisk University; Martin R. P. McGuire, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Catholic University in Washington, DC; John W. Studebaker, U.S. Commissioner of Education; Lawrence Duggan, Director of the Institute of International Education; and three noted scholars: E.O. Lawrence of the University of California, Nobel Prize winner in physics; Walter Johnson, historian from the University of Chicago; and Helen C. White, English professor and writer from the University of Wisconsin.

Facing the urgent need to determine how the Board's responsibility for selection should be carried out, the Board pledged at its first meeting in July 1947 that "in all aspects of the program the highest standards be developed and maintained ... the individuals to benefit will be of the highest caliber, persons who demonstrate outstanding scholastic and professional ability and whose personalities and characters will contribute to the furtherance of the objectives of the program."

This emphasis on excellence was not narrowly construed. The Fulbright Act was to be "interpreted broadly to include persons in all kinds of educational activities, for example, librarians, museum personnel, and agricultural extension consultants." At its second meeting three months later, the Board elaborated on this list to specify "artists, musicians ... writers, journalists, and similar professional people ... as well as such fields as adult education, labor and workers' education."

At the same time the Board specified that all persons receiving grants "must be acceptable to the host country and institution in connection with which they propose their projects." This precaution was necessary "so that we would not seem to be imposing individuals on any one country"; and "consideration should be given to a candidate is temperamentally suited" to promote international understanding as well. On the difficult problem of proficiency in another language, the Board no doubt recognized the relative lack of attention then given to foreign languages in American education, and required only that "applicants should demonstrate a proficiency in the language of the host country which is commensurate to the project which they have chosen to pursue."

In other early rulings, the Board disposed of such questions as the weight to be given financial need in selection (it "should be a secondary consideration," at no time a requirement); the educational level at which students might apply (graduate status for Americans and for most foreign students); the criteria to govern the selection of participating institutions ("as broad an interpretation as possible"); and the importance of trying to assure a geographical distribution of participants (it would be "a factor" ... but secondary to choice of the best qualified candidates").

In most of these decisions, the emphasis was on the individual rather than to institutions or scholarly associations as such. With this emphasis on the individual in competition, the Board accepted responsibility it knew it could not fulfill without considerable outside help. Thus the necessity of turning to "cooperating agencies," which would channel information to the prospective American applicant, receive and analyze submitted applications, and bring qualified experts to evaluate credentials and make their recommendations to the Board. The Institute of International Education agreed to perform these screening functions for U.S. Student grants; the United States Office of Education (precursor to the U.S. Department of Education, which was established by President Carter in 1979) for grants to U.S. teachers and administrators in secondary education; and the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils (now the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars) for U.S. senior scholars applying for lecturing or research assignments abroad. Grants to American schools abroad were similarly handled by the Inter-American Schools Service of the American Council of Education. This responsibility was later absorbed by other agencies.

To carry out its responsibility for selection the Board thus had to hammer out a number of difficult decisions over a considerable period of time. The more unusual authority "to supervise the program" was disposed of in short order. Before the members of the first Board met, there had been some in the Department of State disposed to interpret "supervise" as "advise." They reasoned that since there was no apparent precedent for vesting supervisory responsibility in a part-time board, however distinguished, Congress must have really intended only a limited, ceremonial function. But the wording of the legislation was undeniable; and the Board at its first meeting clearly accepted the authority it had been given:

"The Board assumes the responsibility for policies and general directives to govern the program and determine qualifications of individuals and participating institutions. The Board's responsibility includes such functions as (a) [participation in] the determination of the types of programs and projects which are to be carried out under the Act, (b) the final selection of all grantees, both foreign and American, (c) review of reports of program operations, (d) statements of policy regarding the objectives and direction of the Fulbright Program."

The early rulings of the first Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board pay tribute to the vision of its members, for they charted a course that has been steered with only minor alterations to this day.

In such a complex operation, where different constituencies do not always share the same motivations or expectations, there has to be a balance wheel. The main interest of the academic community is the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge where this goal can best be reached through the exchange experience. The binational commissions are especially concerned with educational needs in the countries in which they are located. The Department of State and the overseas diplomatic missions are concerned that exchanges make a contribution to our foreign relations. Each aim is legitimate when pursued with a proper sense of moderation, and in fact each must be realized in some degree if continued cooperation from all three is to be forthcoming. Each constituency tends to look to the independent authority of the Board for guidance and leadership.

Concrete recognition that it has been able to fulfill this role with some success came when the Fulbright-Hays Act appreciably increased its responsibilities. Its membership was increased from 10 to 12; its selection and supervisory authority was extended to cover all academic exchanges. (Previously it had been limited to those carried out under binational agreements.) Moreover, the Board was called upon to supervise all activities "supporting American studies in foreign countries" or "promoting modern foreign language training and area studies in United States schools, colleges and universities." The Board then acquired unprecedented supervisory authority over programs in two government departments when, by Executive order, responsibility within the executive branch for language training and area studies was delegated to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (U.S. Office of Education).



The U.S. Department of State carries responsibility for management of the Fulbright Program. Among its task have been:

  • Assuring that policies and programs are not at variance with U.S. foreign relations objectives.
  • The annual appearance of the leaders of its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs before official of the executive branch and the appropriations committees of the U.S. Congress to defend the program's budget, attempting to assure U.S. government financial support at least minimally commensurate with existing needs and opportunities.
  • Providing day-to-day management over the Fulbright Program and other important international educational and cultural activities under the Department's responsibility, primarily through six geographic area offices organized by country. Overseeing of operations include assuring that plans for the program in each country are developed and adhered to; deadlines are met; applications are processed; selected persons notified and prepared for their experience through some form of orientation; and dealing promptly with problems.
  • Guiding our diplomatic missions in the negotiation or renegotiation of executive agreements, and instructing them on when and how to pursue possibilities for joint financing with other governments; discovering new sources of funds, particularly foreign currencies, that might become available for academic exchanges under various laws and moving decisively to earmark them for these programs.
  • Providing on a day-to-day basis interested members of the general public, and particularly of the American educational community with information, and arranging for joint-sponsorship of worthwhile projects.
  • Promoting coordination with other activities under public or private auspices to avoid duplication or overlapping.
  • Providing the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board with the permanent executive staff and other services to help carry out Board decisions on selection and program policy.
  • Transmitting official communications and suggestions to the commissions, while respecting their binational character and autonomous identity.
  • Negotiating and funding annual contracts for the services performed by the American coorperating agencies and providing guidance and direction.

Overseas, Foreign Service personnel of the U.S. Department of State (and formerly, the U.S. Information Agency) in the American missions-some responsible for various program operations-have also had an important role to play. A number have served with distinction as members or chairs of binational commissions; some U.S. Ambassadors have been keenly interested and have given significant support. Cultural Affairs Officers, especially identified with academic exchanges, work closely with the Executive Directors of the commissions. In countries without a commission, they provide some of the supporting services given by a commission staff.

The relationship between the Department and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board has been mutually supportive with the Board and the entire exchange enterprise depending on the Department for staff services and for the greater part of the information needed by the Board on which to base policy judgments.

Francis A. Young, a long-time worker on these programs from the private sector has summarized the way in which the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the American academic community and the binational commissions view the program in its foreign relations context:

"The basic functions of educational exchange form a foreign policy standpoint are to broaden the base of relationships with other countries, reduce tensions, lessen misunderstandings, and demonstrate the possibilities and values of cooperative action. In short, educational exchanges pave the way for closer and more fruitful political relations. Rather than following political diplomacy, educational diplomacy normally precedes or keeps step with it, opening up and nourishing new possibilities for international cooperation. Perhaps one reason we have not supported international exchange programs more generously is that we have expected the wrong things of it, have assigned it a short-range, foreign policy back-up role, and then wondered why it did not produce the hoped for results. Were we to see educational exchanges in their proper relationship to foreign policy -- as extending the range of diplomacy, improving the climate in which it functions, and placing it on a firmer information base -- we would recognize the importance of the [Fulbright] program more fully, use it to better advantage, and support it more generally." (8)



The American educational community has been not only a principal beneficiary, but also a major contributor to the success of the program. Its best minds have been associated with efforts to maintain high quality in the selection of American participants, and it has been generous in its supporting foreign participants.

The cooperating agencies have been both catalysts generating cooperation and the channels through which it has usually been expressed. The largest academic exchange program in the world obviously depends on the work of many hands, especially in the selection process. All the agencies have been able to enlist the voluntary help of leaders in the professions and scholarly disciplines, including former participants especially sensitive to the problems of a particular country.

In addition, cooperation from the educational community includes the large-scale donated services of many university campuses. As early as 1948, the Institute of International Education and the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils (now Council for International Exchange of Scholars) jointly requested college and university presidents to appoint individuals from their faculties as "Fulbright Program Advisers" to serve as focal points for disseminating program information and to counsel students and faculty on application procedures. These duties were soon broadened to include providing staff services to institutional faculty committees that interviewed and screened student candidates. Thousands of academic institutions have designated such Fulbright Program adviser and campus representatives.

Schools and academic institutions have played an even more central role in receiving foreign participants; giving them full access to libraries and laboratories; and, through designated foreign student advisers on campus, and voluntary community groups off campus, helping them adjust to new surroundings. Of special importance to the program, American institutions have been generous in providing scholarships, visiting professorships, and other forms of financial assistance without which the bulk of foreign participants would never have been able to take advantage of the opportunity to study in the United States. Dating from the early days when the program had to rely so heavily on nonconvertible foreign currencies, the stateside expenses of the foreign participant have been largely defrayed by American educational organizations and institutions.

1. The Act for Cooperation with the Other American Republics, Public Law 76-355 (1939)

2. Also known as the Smith-Mundt Act (for Senator H. Alexander Smith of New Jersey and Representative Karl Mundt of South Dakota, who joined in sponsoring it).

3. For a detailed discussion of this and other legislation and their effects, see Walter Johnson and Francis J. Colligan, The Fulbright Program: A History (University of Chicago Press, 1965).

4. In the first countries with which agreements were concluded, these agencies were usually titled "United States Educational Foundation in (name of country)." With the passage of time, the title in some countries came to reflect the binational character of the agency (e.g. Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange).

5. Charles A Thompson and Walter H. C. Laves, Cultural Relations and U.S. Foreign Policy (Indiana University Press, 1963), 50-51, 61.

6. Johnson and Colligan, The Fulbright Program, 319

7. Continuing the Commitment, 8th Annual Report, Board of Foreign Scholarships, October 1970.

8. Francis A. Young, "Educational Exchanges and the National Interest," in The ACLS Newsletter, Vol. XX, No. 2 (1969), 17.

Approximate number of Fulbright participants since program began