Looking Back on 75 Years of the Fulbright Program

This article first appeared in ACCN community guide. A PDF of just the fulbright article can be found here:

Happy Independence Day!

This year we celebrate not only the 245th birthday of the United States, and the 36th ACCN Independence Day celebration in Frogner Park, but also the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Fulbright Act and the creation of the United States’ flagship educational and cultural exchange program. Since 1949, when Norway became the 11th of currently more than 160 nations to enroll in this program, more than 4000 Norwegians and 1600 Americans have made their way across the Atlantic to pursue studies and research, and to promote mutual understanding by immersing themselves in the culture of the partner nation.

When President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law on August 1, 1946, it was the culmination of an ingenious bit of political craftmanship by J. William Fulbright. The Senator, inspired by his years as a young Rhodes scholar at Oxford twenty years earlier, had great ambitions for what appeared to be a very modest piece of legislation; indeed, it contained almost nothing that would alert an isolationist Congress to its lofty, internationalist objectives. The bill was simply presented as “Amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944,” and its ostensible purpose was to designate the U.S. Department of State as the disposal agency for surplus property outside the continental United States. But more importantly, Fulbright sought to convert credit from unsaleable military materiel, ranging from obsolete army vehicles to field rations of rancid nuts and candy, into a fund for educational exchange. Fulbright’s inspired notion was about how to capitalize on that credit, and present it to Congress as a “getting something for nothing” proposition; rather than try to collect non-convertible foreign currencies, or repossess useless war junk, he was quietly laying the groundwork for a grand international and cultural exchange program. After his bill was approved in Congress, Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee had told Fulbright that had he known the implications of the legislation, he would have voted against it: “Young man, that’s a very dangerous piece of legislation. You’re going to take our young boys and girls over there and expose them to those foreign’isms.” Which is exactly what Fulbright had in mind.

Once President Truman had signed the legislation into law, a great deal of work had to be done to prepare and arrange for the participation of partner governments around the world in this ambitious binational program. As part of those preparations, the Norwegian Ministry of Education circulated a letter to institutions of higher education in Norway in November of 1948, announcing the impending agreement and allocation of funds for scholarly exchange with the United States, and requesting input on how the funds might best be used.

The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic; Norwegian universities and research institutions in 1949 clearly understood the enormous value of exchanging students and scholars between Norway and the United States, which then as now was home to the finest higher education and research institutions in the world. And although it was acknowledged even then that the U.S. enjoyed a “sellers market” in the realm of higher education and research, Norwegians were not bashful about having something to offer in return; for example, the distinguished botanist Knut Fægri at the University of Bergen wrote, “American pollen analysis has developed without much contact with Europe, and remains for the most part at a relatively primitive level – which is all the more regrettable as the challenges of pollen analysis in America, because of the country’s rich flora, are considerably more difficult than in Europe.” Fægri went on to propose some specific exchange opportunities for U.S. students to come to Norway, which he hoped might help raise the level of American understanding in this area.

On May 25, 1949, Norway’s Foreign Minister Halvard Lange, and the U.S. Chargé d’affaires in Norway, Henry S. Villard, established the Norwegian Fulbright program by signing an “Agreement between the government of the United States of America and the Royal Norwegian Government for the use of funds made available in accordance with the letter credit agreement dated June 18, 1946, accepted by the Royal Norwegian government on July 29, 1946.” Participating at the signing ceremony in addition to Lange and Villard were Margaret Hicks-Williams, director of the Northern Europe bureau of the U.S. State Department’s Information Service, and Norwegian Minister of Church and Education, Lars Magnus Moen. The overarching objective of the program, as stated in the agreement that Lange and Villard signed, was to “promote further mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and Norway.” That surely is as relevant today as it was seventy-five years ago when the program was created; although global travel, social media and the internet have vastly increased our superficial familiarity with other countries and cultures, there is nothing to suggest that promoting mutual understanding, or “turning nations into people”, as Fulbright described it, is less important in the world today than it was in 1946. Three years later Norway became the 11th country to sign a Fulbright agreement with the United States. Today, more than 160 countries participate in the program, which has more than 400,000 alumni around the world.

Reading assorted testimony from among the more than 4000 Norwegian and 1600 U.S. students and scholars who have traveled between Norway and the United States during the program’s history leaves no doubt about the scholarly rewards of the program, both for individuals and institutions, and those are as relevant today as they were in 1949. What most Fulbrighters talk about however is the personally enriching and enlightening experience of an extended study or research stay in another country.

While fond memories and the deeply personal dividends of stays abroad are not the most compelling arguments for lobbying the Norwegian Storting or the U.S. Congress for program funding, they are nonetheless immensely important, transformative even, for all who have had the privilege of a Fulbright grant, and that “mutual understanding” dimension of Fulbright has been an essential part of the program from its very beginnings.

In an editorial in Arbeiderbladet on May 27, 1949, welcoming the agreement signed two days earlier, and acknowledging the need for such a cultural exchange program, the editor wrote about Americans: “they still have a tendency to be a little too sure of themselves and to fail to understand other countries’ mentality and problems.” And about Norwegians: the general Norwegian understanding [of the U.S.] is patched together of worn clichés, prejudices, and slogans. No one expounds on the United States with more self-assurance and contempt than those who have never been there.” How true this rings, even today.

Yet the reputation and renown of the Fulbright program over seven decades owes at least as much to its scholarly merits as to its impact as an agent of cross-cultural understanding. Contributing to peace and understanding between nations is one vital goal of the program, but adding quality and innovation to the academic and research communities is another; it is likely that Church and Education Minister Lars Magnus Moen, while standing beside Foreign Minister Lange and witnessing the signing, was thinking as much about the Fulbright agreement’s potential to raise the quality of Norwegian research and higher education, as about its possible contributions to world peace.

The very first year of Fulbright exchanges in 1949 gave some inkling of how this program could have an impact and be of value to Norway; during their Fulbright stay in the U.S. that year, Arne Korsmo, who would become one of Norway’s leading architects, and his wife Grete Prytz Kittelsen, who would become an internationally known designer, met and received inspiration from such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.

The Norwegian chemist Otto Bastiansen also went over on a Fulbright that year, to Caltech, where he worked with and became friends with Linus Pauling, the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize. And on Pauling’s recommendation, the Guggenheim prize winning American chemist Kenneth Hedberg would subsequently get a Fulbright to go to Norway and work in Bastiansen’s lab in Oslo.

Bastiansen would later play a significant role in the work that led to a Norwegian Nobel prize in chemistry for Odd Hassel in 1969, and would also become a seminal figure in shaping Norwegian higher education and research policy, both as rector at the University of Oslo and as Chair of the Norwegian Research Council. And that very first crop of Norwegian Fulbrighters to the U.S. also included the historian Magne Skodvin and the geologist Christoffer Oftedal, both of whom would become distinguished figures in the history of Norwegian letters and science. To this day the roster of Norwegian Fulbright alumni who distinguish themselves in virtually all areas of intellectual pursuit continues to grow; modesty prevents us from naming names, but hardly a day passes when we at the Fulbright office do not recognize “one of ours” sharing expertise and insights in a newspaper, journal or debate program, and making a difference.

For the American grantees arriving in Norway from the nation which at that time had the world’s greatest universities, and still does, the national interest factor was a bit different. In a story in Aftenposten in November of 1949, the first U.S. Fulbrighters to Norway were interviewed and asked “why did you come to Norway?” In 1949 the answers were almost exclusively of a Norway-specific nature; that first cohort of Americans had come to Norway to learn about Henrik Ibsen, about Norwegian folk music, Norwegian foreign trade, Norwegian immigration to the United States, Norwegian mining, and the Norwegian welfare system. And of course, many of the newly arrived American Fulbrighters in 1949 were eager to tell the journalist about their Norwegian heritage.

Alfred Griffin, the first African American Fulbright grantee to Norway, had come for a comparative study Norwegian religious folk songs and American sprituals. Before beginning his Fulbright grant he had been a student and choir director at the International Summer School. During the two years he spent in Norway Griffin made quite a name for himself conducting choirs and singing and lecturing all over the country; a search in the Norwegian National Library’s newspaper database during these years yields nearly 60 ads and articles in papers ranging geographically from Agderposten in the south to Addresseavisen in the north. And in 1948 and 1949 he contributed to the July 4 festivities in front of the Lincoln statue here in Frognerparken by conducting a choir of American students singing Deilig er Jorden and Ja Vi Elsker, as well as Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Star Spangled Banner.

Today there is still, understandably, an interest in uniquely Norwegian topics, but the research interests of the American grantees are far more diverse, which reflects the fact that Norwegian higher education and the research community, in an international context, has perhaps more to offer than it did more than 70 years ago. American students and scholars come here to take advantage of unique Norwegian biobanks and datasets, to learn laboratory techniques and ethical practices for human subject research, to explore various dimensions of Norwegian education, public health services and the Norwegian welfare state, and to immerse themselves in peace and conflict studies, environmental stewardship, ocean and arctic sciences, and other fields in which Norway excels. And it is gratifying to note that the program is yielding more joint publications and sustained research partnerships across the Atlantic, which of course is in the national interest of both countries.

Thankfully, the community of scientific collaboration spans all nations, and is not limited to Norway and the United States; that is a circumstance which benefits not only science, but also international understanding. Yet ironically, given the outspoken animosity towards U.S. propaganda efforts Senator Fulbright had expressed in his book “The Arrogance of Power,” and given his relentless cautioning against the Fulbright program being used in such efforts, the inauguration of the program in Norway in 1949 did not serve to defuse but rather fuel international mistrust; a few weeks after the signing of the agreement in May of that year the Norwegian embassy in Moscow alerted the Foreign Ministry in Oslo to an op-ed that had appeared in the Soviet magazine Novoje Vremja.

Entitled “The Reckless Margarita,” it appeared a few days later in translation in Norway in Friheten a newspaper published by the Norwegian Communist Party, under the title “Mrs. Margaret’s Mission.” The op-ed sarcastically sows doubts about the motives of Mrs. Margaret Hicks Williams’s “propaganda” mission to the Nordic countries and her efforts on behalf of the dubious Fulbright program, which, it gleefully points out, is being foisted upon the unwitting partner countries at their own expense – as repayment for “obsolete armaments, dented old cans of meat, egg powder, indeed, whatever American businessmen have been able to dump on the Marshall-countries” (indeed that part is not so far from the truth, as Sam Lebovic demonstrated in his 2013 article “From War Junk to Educational Exchange”). In retrospect, the article makes for interesting reading because it is at once so understandable and plausible in the context of its time, yet also so dead wrong; perhaps the Fulbright program’s proudest achievement during these 75 years is that it has not succumbed to being an instrument of propaganda, or a deliberate foreign policy tool, of either the United States or any of the partner countries. Fulbright’s mission, which distinguishes the Fulbright program from other public diplomacy programs, of the United States or any other country, is that it is equally concerned with “seeing the world as others see it” as with “getting others to see things our way.”

The scientific and educational collaboration promoted by the Fulbright program can and should be a powerful antidote to mistrust between nations. A few years ago, when tensions between Norway and Russia dominated the front pages, as they still do today, the Director of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research celebrated in Aftenposten 60 years of fruitful collaboration between Norwegian and Russian ocean scientists, extending through the iciest depths of the Cold War; a collaboration, she wrote, that in its disregard for political animosities reflected in both countries a “conviction that research is more lasting than politics.”

It is these days encouraging to be reminded of that other realm, of letters and science, in which the Fulbright program operates, and which transcends political differences and boundaries. It is a resilient realm, and one which has endured since Tom Paine wrote these eloquent words about letters and science in 1791, 230 years ago.

Letters, the tongue of the world, have in some measure brought all mankind acquainted, and, by an extension of their uses, are every day promoting some new friendship. Through them distant nations became capable of conversation, and losing by degrees the awkwardness of strangers, and the moroseness of suspicion, they learn to know and understand each other. Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.