The Price of Empire by J. William Fulbright, with Seth P. Tillman. (Pantheon Books, 1989. xi, 243 pages. $17.95)

The Price of Empire by J. William Fulbright, with Seth P. Tillman. (Pantheon Books, 1989. xi, 243 pages. $17.95)

By Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 11, No. 4, 1989, pp. 27-28, 30

Radicals would do well to read this book by the Arkansas aristocrat; it could teach them not to be so restrained.

Americans generally, and Southerners in particular, ought to read this gently worded but unsparing “J’accuse,” for the American political mind which Fulbright depicts menaces our nation’s future, and the world’s, too.

Fulbright says: Since World War II our “obsession” (a word he repeatedly uses) with Communism and the Soviet Union has sustained an arms race; that it can almost not be turned off because of the economic and political interests now built into it; that every advance in arms has subtracted from our security; that in these years since 1945 we have been as provocative as have the Russians; that there is no alternative to detente; and that he cannot still his “suspicions” that whenever in the past better relationships between the Russians and us seemed in prospect “something unusual happened,” and not by pure coincidence.

I think all except the suspicion is right, and it may be that if I knew more, about the U-2 overflight and the shooting down of the Korean airliner, I’d agree with that also.

He says: Our political processes have become diseased, our mode of nominating presidential candidates and then electing one of them is both uniquely American and without sense–when we “get a president with intellect and character–it is something of an accident”–and that the dominating role of television is a principal cause, requiring enormous funds and inevitably demeaning and debasing campaigning. I think all that is incontestably right.

He says: Attitudes must change, before there can be sound progress. Southerners above all must know how hard that is. Once–and for long, long years–it was established principle in the South to ground political policies explicitly on race. No longer. Yet so deeply embedded are the advantages of being white that the South without open admission usually follows political directions that protect those advantages. Perhaps we are ascending from that, but it is a long climb, and millions are injured along the way. If we by similar resolve eliminated anti-Communism as a declared policy touchstone, we would still have to deal with all those who have advantage in its survival, the profit takers, the workers, the Pentagon careerists, the Congressmen who have tasted influence under its shadow.

The South has, now as in the past, a plenty of political figures who have served the cause of anti-Communism and the arms race assiduously. Why has the South traditionally been so war-minded? Why must it stay that way? Leave aside the economic stake, in plants and bases. Is there from being reared in the South a destiny that leads its political sons and daughters to become, in truth, the go-fers of the Pentagon and the CIA and the National Security Council?

Well, it may be so. It would be interesting to have responses to Fulbright’s book from such current senators as Nunn, Gore, Robb, from all those who tell us so regularly that we–you and I–will support only presidential candidates who are “strong” on defense.” Well, again, maybe. If so, there loom dark questions asked in starkest form in Fulbright’s chapter on “Our Militarized Economy”: “We have become a militarized

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economy…Millions of Americans have acquired a vested interest in these expensive weapons systems; they provide profit for large corporations and livelihoods for working people. The same people acquire, indirectly, a vested interest in the foreign policy that has committed us to a spiraling arms race with the Soviet Union, made us the world’s largest arms seller…Violence has become the nation’s leading industry…Yet this militarization of the economy is undermining us internally…” Again, I think Fulbright is right, and am grateful to him for saying these truths well and forcefully.

If people care to change this, they might think back on that earlier great attitudinal challenge which confronted the South. Difficult and slow and unfinished as that has been, it nevertheless was set in motion, and it still moves. It had three prime movers, none of whom were political leaders: tenacious courtroom lawyers; victims speaking and acting in clear and mounting protest; and the legitimizers of dissent. A movement for sane military and foreign policies cannot now have the first–the “law” is probably on the other side and with the present Supreme Court undoubtedly is; but surely there is the potential for effective protest, and Fulbright’s book can be for that a warming light and ignition.

The entire book is a plea for rational discussion, for the opening of minds and discarding of myths, for the legitimizing of dissent. There is little of that in the United States, not at any rate within Mr. Bush’s “mainstream.” When did we last hear among its masses a vigorous debate on the merits of NATO and whether it should be kept alive; or on “forward defense”; or on the Monroe Doctrine, for that matter? We go on year after year, assuming the necessity of such policies as political–and indeed, moral–givers. Without that wall of dogma being breached, and policies brought out for debate, there is no progress. Some celebrate the role of Southern businessmen in uprooting old-fashioned white supremacy but in fact they were neuters, until liberals across the South, mainly women, made secure the right within Southern public life to dissent; the acceptable right to talk, debate, question.

Senator Fulbright of Arkansas was of no help in those days. Some have said, would say, that he played an ignoble role. To his present honor, he makes no fancy defense. He simply wanted to be–he is clear about this–re-elected, and Arkansas voters exacted a price in racial conformity for his freedom to work at those issues which really interested him. (He had signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956, filed an amicus brief supportive of resistance in the 1958 case, Cooper v. Aaron, had avoided as far as he was able any contact with the school crisis which had wracked Little Rock. He had also been the only senator in 1954 to vote to cut off appropriations for Joseph McCarthy’s witchhunting committee.) Brooks Hays, for the mildest of acts, had been driven out of the House by a write-in candidate, and thereafter could, we read, play “no significant or interesting role in Arkansas affairs.” Fulbright did not want that fate. He, as it were, rests his case on the mercies of his liberal countrymen–not since he opposed McCarthy has he had friends among conservatives, nor among cold-war Democrats since he opposed the Dominican invasion of 1965 and gradually moved into opposition on Vietnam–his case being that what else he stood for and accomplished made his continuance in office a benefit.

We can all ponder that with some profit. Consider: It is not inconceivable, far from it, in fact, that there are members of Congress today who would largely agree with the need to rise above anti-Communism and a militarized society, and yet hold their tongues and vote to the contrary because they have decided that their own re-election is important to some other good cause; combatting poverty or extending civil rights, for example, or befriending nation-building in Africa (a continent which, incidentally, Fulbright never mentions). Politics is always made of choices. Fulbright would believe and say that some things are of first importance, and of course that is right. I think human dignity yields place to no other. Fulbright might, too, in principle, but is aristocratic in his valuations. To him, both great or bad actions and policies occur in virtually every situation because of what some few leaders do. I think he is wrong about that. I think he never before now, never during his long Congressional career, had a realistic chance of stamping his values on American foreign policies. The nice irony is that he may now have, as millions of new people, unencumbered by the interests which have supported the dogmas of post-World War II foreign policies, come into civic participation through the civil rights revolt he stepped aside from.

Those voters, in the South and Southwest, may go, however, in any of several ways. Lord help us if they follow the “mainstream” of Southern politics. It is an appalling mess. On virtually every one of the great contemporary issues–interventionist foreign policies, covert actions abroad, the Pentagon’s budget, environmental protection, abortion, the treatment of the poor–the trends of

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Southern politics are opposed to the common good. The prospect of new Southern seats in Congress after the 1990 census is, as of now, a dreary, scarifying one, promising more Republicans–and the Republican party and especially its Southern branch have become the first monolithically ideological major party in American history–and possibly a couple of Democrats of near likeness.

There is much more in this book than I have been able to suggest. There are delightful vignettes about past Arkansas elections. There are many and candid reflections on personalities with whom he shared Washington’s power. There are deeply interesting passages on some notable events, such as the Kennedy’s assault on Cuba (he was less opposed than one might believe) and Watergate (the worst side of which he says was that it derailed detente).

There is serious discussion of governmental structure; he is fundamentally critical of the separation of powers, though he narrows his criticism to executive-legislative relationships, never discussing how his favored parliamentary system (as in Britain) would co-exist with an independent judiciary and the power of judicial review, nor how it would adapt to our federal system.

His own pessimism is strong, and made stronger yet by this country’s relationship with Israel, which he calls a “garrison state,” and also a “client state” of the United States, that paradoxically through the great influence of the American Jewish community is enabled to dictate our Middle East policies. The worst of this, in Fulbright’s estimation, is that Israel perceives continued animosity between the United States and the U.S.S.R. to be in its interest, in its struggle with Arab states and factions, and works to keep that alive. Here too, there is at the very least’ an urgent need to establish free, robust debate.

Finally, that need is what The Price of Empire is about: the necessity of unfettered and thoughtful debate. Never mind that he attained his own dearest legislative victory–the “Fulbright scholarships”–by avoiding debate, getting it through, he notes, “as quietly as possible.” A necessary tactic. His faith for the future embraces two courses: international organization–with all its shortcomings, “I still believe in the United Nations”–and education, especially that which brings Americans and other nationals into closer knowledge of each other.

Such hopes as he permits himself depend, he writes, on the possibility of “strong and intelligent leadership.” Fulbright is living proof that liberal aristocrats, or aristocratic liberals, may still survive. Would that they might abound!

“Everything therefore comes back to the way in which we find and then choose our leaders.” Plato would have agreed with him. So might Thomas Jefferson. So may we all, once we build a true democracy from which to choose.

The degree or nature of Mr. Tillman’s role is never described; all opinions, one assumes, are those of both men.

Leslie Dunbar is the book editor of Southern Changes.