My new journal article in Place Branding and Public Diplomacyis now available online! It discusses the theory and practice of exchange diplomacy and analyses the results of a survey of Fulbright Program administrators around the world that I conducted for the 70th anniversary of the program, in 2016. I presented the study at the ICA Conference in Prague last year, and wrote and re-wrote this paper a few times between now and then. I’m much happier with it now that I was with its earlier versions, and it’s great to see it finally getting published.
This has been my first properly “independent” publication–my other 3 have all been published alongside other conference papers in special issues of journals/an edited book. I’m working on a couple of other independent things, so hopefully there will be more publication announcements in the near future!
Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. We spend so much time in school learning about WWII, but very little attention is paid to China and the Pacific Theater in the years that followed–the history curriculum, at least in the US, seems to jump from WWII to the Vietnam War. Beyond knowing who Chairman Mao was, I really didn’t know much about the 1949 revolution before reading a book for my thesis research, Wilma Fairbank’s America’s Cultural Experiment in China, 1942-1949 (Washington: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, 1976).
Histories of US exchange diplomacy often make the Fulbright Program sound like a higher ed version of the Marshall Plan, suggesting it was a post-war effort to rebuild Europe that ultimately turned into a Cold War tool, as well. But although Europe is home to some of the largest exchange programs, the first Fulbright Program was actually with China.
It took about 7 months of negotiations between the US and China to finally reach an exchange agreement that would establish this first Fulbright Program. Part of the delay was due to disagreements over control (the US insisted on a directing board made up entirely of Americans) and the question of how the new program would differ from existing educational exchanges under the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program. Established in 1908, the program created scholarships for Chinese students to study in the US out of funds that had been paid by China to the US (indemnity for the Boxer Rebellion). The Chinese government had control over that exchange scheme, while Fulbright would be a US-administered activity, with completely different funding arrangements, but the Foreign Minister expressed concerns “that it will be impossible to explain these distinctions to Chinese public opinion.” (p. 156). Economic instability was another challenge–inflation and exchange rates fluctuated and it was difficult for administrators to predict exactly how much a grantee would need for a year’s stay.
Even after the agreement was reached in November 1947, it wasn’t until March 1948 that the program was established enough to actually launch exchanges. The first grantee, Derk Bodde, a Professor of Chinese Studies at University of Pennsylvania, was contacted by Washington officials, who asked if he would be prepared to go to China as a Fulbright Fellow. “We would like an immediate decision, if possible, so that we can make a press release today to say that the Fulbright Program has been started.” (p. 174). It had been 18 months since the Fulbright Act had been signed, so they were keen to start it and Professor Bodde was, in his words, “tremendously happy to go.” (p. 175)
A total of 27 Americans were able to take up their Fulbright grants to China in that initial cohort, with 18 of them based in Peking by the end of October 1948. 14 other American grantees’ awards were “suspended due to conditions in China” as the conflict developed (p. 178). For those in the country, questions of safety soon arose and it wasn’t clear what should be done to address it.
On November 1, 1948, Mukden fell to the Communists, marking the final defeat of the Nationalist forces in Manchuria. The imminence of the southward advance on Peking was obvious.
This developing crisis demanded some prompt action by the Foundation. Order the Fulbright fellows out of Peking? Send a rescue plane to move them and their few dependents to safety? Perhaps even send them home in view of the increasing hopelessness of the military outlook for the Nationalists? The Fulbright program was, after all, financed by Chinese Government currency which was not only plunging rapidly to new lows but would certainly not be accepted in areas controlled by the Communists.”
Fairbank, 1976, p. 179
The Foundation decided not to terminate the program, and ultimately managed to support all of the grantees who wished to stay in China for the year. This small group of American Fulbrighters was lucky to have the experience, despite the uncertainty and challenges they faced, because China had been largely off-limits for American scholars from 1937 to 1945 (due to the Sino-Japanese war and WWII), and would be again for many years to come. The 1948-49 academic year was, therefore, a unique moment in US-Chinese relations and exchange diplomacy.
American officials maintained some hope for the continuation of the program well into the summer of 1949, despite Communist advances and funding challenges due to the devaluation of the yuan–for example, “the final telegraphic transfer of funds to grantees in Canton had involved losing the equivalent of 87 cents on the dollar” (p. 196)! Cultural Attache George Harris asked the department to “undertake to assure the availability of funds for continued educational exchange activities in China should events render a program possible.” (p. 197).
By August 31st, however, the program was suspended. Funds were exhausted and “Communist policy showed no hope for continuation of the program on the China mainland.” (p. 198). The Fulbright Program in China was resumed with the normalization of US-Chinese relations in 1979, and has continued and grown ever since (apart from a suspension in the 1989-90 academic year, in response to US criticism of China’s violent crackdown of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square)
Several interesting lessons can be taken away from America’s Cultural Experiment in China, and this first Fulbright Program highlights some key points about the nature of exchange diplomacy.
There have been attempts to politicise the program from its very beginnings.
W. Bradley Connors, Acting Director of USIS in China, suggested that Fulbright professors should “explain our democracy and way of life to their Chinese students, who will take an important interest in explaining to students the fallacies of their anti-American sentiments, making this phase of their work as important as their own courses and lectures. Only in this way can we obtain full value from such exchanges.” (p. 204)
Those attempts have been consistently resisted, and academic integrity has been prioritised from the beginning.
“Fortunately, the Board of Foreign Scholarships had been established for the express purpose of selecting grantees on their scholarly qualifications, not their usefulness for political ends.” (p. 204)
“And in Nanking the personnel of the Board and of the Foundation were wholly devoted to furthering the scholarly aims of the grantees, which could be attained in the circumstances only by their remaining aloof from political involvement.” (p. 204)
There’s a discrepancy between what Washington might think happens and what actually happens in the field.
“The U.S. Government expenditures for cultural relations programs were justified in Washington for various nationalistic and public relations ends–to make friends abroad, to enhance the American image, to counter Axis propaganda and, in the case of China, to give educational and technical assistance to a wartime ally.” (p. 205)
“But in the field, public relations was never the primary aim, and the enhancement of the American image in China occurred only as a byproduct of a job well done. What was actually taking place at the Point of Contact was a transference of ideas, skills, knowledge, understanding, and human feeling from persons of one culture to those of another, directly or through various media.” (p. 205)
Further reading on US-China exchanges:
Fu, M. and Zhao, X. 2017. “Utilizing the Effects of the Fulbright Program in Contemporary China: Motivational Elements in Chinese Scholars’ Post-Fulbright Life” Cambridge Journal of China Studies, 12(3), pp. 1-26.
Li, H. 2008. U.S.-China Educational Exchange: State, Society, and Intercultural Relations, 1905-1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Xu, G. 1999. The Ideological and Political Impact of U.S. Fulbrighters on Chinese Students: 1979–1989. Asian Affairs, 26 (3), pp. 139–157.
On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.
Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.
Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?
Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.
Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.
When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)
May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.
The edited volume with my book chapter is now officially published! It’s listed on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, Google Books, Jstor, and sometimes I’m even listed as a contributing author! I’m so excited to see it in print! I love the cover, too–it has a definite 1960s, retro feel to it, and the ’60’s were the Senator’s prime years.
This book came out of a fantastic conference I took part in at the University of Arkansas, 1-2 September 2015.
My chapter is much improved after being rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s not the only thing that’s changed:
I’m so proud of the editors and contributors for all of their hard work, and so grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this project. It covers a great mix of biography, history, sociology and public diplomacy. All academic books try to emphasise their originality, but it really does add some new perspectives and insights on the Senator and on his namesake exchange program. My chapter and Alice Garner & Diane Kirkby’s chapter bring a discussion of gender to the collection that, until now, has been ignored in studies of the Fulbright Program. Well done everybody!
Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.
My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.
“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”
Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296
This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.
On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. The bill authorised the sale of war surplus property overseas to be administered by the State Department and for the proceeds to be used for educational exchanges.
Now in its eighth decade of exchanges, the Fulbright Program has become a globally prestigious academic brand. It operates in more than 160 countries and over 380,000 people have participated.
It’s hard to sum up my thoughts on the program that I’ve been studying for so many years now. It is generally beloved by its administrators and alumni, rarely criticised and quite widely respected around the world. Senator Fulbright himself has a fascinating, somewhat mixed legacy–a Southern Democrat, he voted against desegregation in the 50’s, claiming it was what his constituents wanted and, he argued, was the only way he could stay in Congress to do progressive things like founding the exchange program and opposing the Vietnam War–the two things he’s best known-for today.
In 2015, I attended and presented my work at an excellent conference about the man and the program. The organisers are publishing papers from that conference in an edited volume, “The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Ideology, Power, and Policy.” I’ll be posting more details when it’s officially published–hopefully soon!
My article in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies looks at three major bureaucratic shifts in the program’s history–from the State Department to USICA, then to USIA and back to State–and examines the role of educational exchange in US public diplomacy.