In Memoriam – Dr. James H. Billington

November 30, 2018

In commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fulbright Program in 1971, the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board began selecting outstanding American and foreign leaders to lecture abroad and in the United States under the “Lincoln Lecturer Program.” Pictured left to right: Dr. James H. Billington, Chairman of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board; American author John Updike who received the Lincoln Lectureship to Africa in 1973, and John Richardson, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Department of State Photograph

The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs note with sadness the passing of Dr. James H. Billington.

Dr. Billington was the Librarian of Congress from 1987-2015, a Chair of the Fulbright Board from 1971-1973, and an alumnus of the Fulbright program in Finland.

The current Chair of the Fulbright Board, Ambassador (ret.) Jeffrey L. Bleich noted of the esteemed scholar’s life and legacy:

“Dr. Billington reflected the very best effects of international exchange. He was both a Fulbright Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar, a member of our Board, and a lifelong seeker of wisdom from across the world. Throughout his life he brought lessons that he took from those experiences to increase international understanding and advance human progress. His exhibits reconnected Americans with our international roots, whether it was securing Lafayette's papers from France, preserving the very first map of America from Germany, or gathering records of the diasporas that brought people around the world to our shores. He brought the Library into the 21st Century with a massive commitment to digitizing the Library’s collection, and he reminded all of us of America’s common roots with all nations and generations committed to the rule of law — commemorating the global 800th anniversary celebration of the Magna Carta. He was a scholar, a patriot, and a visionary. In short, he was a Fulbrighter in every sense.”

As a proponent and beneficiary of international education, Dr. Billington stressed that the Fulbright Program was a “sensible act of enlightened self-interest” because it gave America a central role in the postwar development of international scholarship, and welcomed to America influential members of the international community who sought higher education opportunities beyond their home countries.

Dr. Billington was always a charismatic and passionate proponent for educational exchanges as a means to solve our toughest global problems,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce. “The Fulbright Program is accessible to more people and continues to have a lasting legacy because of the pillars he put in places as Board Chair. We are honored to continue his great work.

Dr. Billington was a strong advocate for the Fulbright program. As Chair of the Fulbright Board, Dr. Billington wrote in the Board’s 1972 Annual Report, “There is no substitute for the deeper relationships that develop over time in the shared experience of higher learning. The exercise of man’s creative and analytic powers is still an arena for human freedom and rational hope on our troubled and overcrowded planet. The pursuit of truth tends to free us from the pursuit of each other. The (Fulbright) program has identified America with that pursuit.”

A renowned authority on Russian and Soviet history, Dr. Billington authored several books on the topic. The Fulbright Finland Foundation noted that as a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki from 1960-1961, Dr. Billington conducted the research that led to his single most important scholarly work, “The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture.