Almost a century ago, in 1925, a young J. William Fulbright traveled from Arkansas outside the U.S. for the first time to study on a Rhodes Scholarship. His overseas experience was transformational. Both his heart and mind were opened to foreign cultures, people, values, and ideas, and he also gained valuable new perspectives on the U.S. Thus, In 1946, as a U.S. Senator, Fulbright pioneered the international exchange legislation bearing his name.
Twenty years later, in 1966, I had a similar life-changing experience thanks to a Fulbright grant to study in Venezuela. My highly rewarding time abroad inspired me to devote my career to contributing to a more informed, just, and peaceful world. I have done my best to further internationally more knowledge, mutual understanding, cooperation, human rights, and the free flow of information and ideas across borders.
Now after retirement, I continue to engage in part-time consulting, and travel overseas when possible. I forever will remain grateful for my Fulbright grant given its profound effect on my entire life.
Frankly, my education in Venezuela during 1966-1967 resulted more from immersion in the culture rather than from attendance at classes at the Central University in Caracas. In fact, all classes were suspended for months because the Venezuelan army closed the university with tanks after student activists had shot a senior army official. Consequently, I attended a class at the private Catholic University, traveled within the country and region, socialized and discussed many topics with fellow students and others, joined a basketball team, and read many books while sitting outdoors in beautiful Caracas, “the city of eternal springtime.” I soaked it all in like a sponge.
Living in Venezuela at that time also revealed to me some of the root causes of the severe unrest and hardships that exist today. There was an enormous gap between the wealthy few and the many poor. Furthermore, U.S. companies profiting from Venezuela’s vast oil reserves were perceived by some as contributing to the local poverty. University students were being openly recruited to fight with guerrillas in the hills to overthrow the government and nationalize industries. Moreover, only weeks after arriving, I was held at gun point by plainclothes policemen searching for guerrilla fighters.
Yet, even then, I saw the value of international exchanges. Many Venezuelan students and other citizens warmly welcomed me as someone genuinely interested in them who spoke their language. We enjoyed learning from each other. Visiting U.S. musical groups transcended political and linguistic differences and fostered constructive dialogue. Also, a popular U.S. binational center and library attracted many Venezuelans eager for an education and cultural programs especially about the U.S. Like Fulbright many years before, I returned home having a much more nuanced understanding of a foreign country and region, and I had new perspectives on the U.S. too.
When back in the U.S., I got a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University and a law degree from George Washington University while working as an intern in international organizations such as the World Bank and A.I.D. Also, in the summer of 1968, I took twenty-five U.S. university students to Arequipa, Peru to live with families and help with local community service projects. I also worked part-time in New York City in a hospitality and assistance center for foreign students and diplomats while living in the International House designed to bring foreign and U.S. graduate students together.
In 1973, fortunately I was able to join the legal staff of the U.S. Information Agency. USIA administered U.S. international information, cultural, and educational exchange programs such as the Fulbright Program and the Voice of America (VOA). The agency was a perfect match for my interests and background.
In 1977 an opportunity arose that I couldn’t refuse. I toured for several weeks with the Yale Russian Chorus as an alumnus to perform in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Regardless of any political differences, the audiences enthusiastically responded to our singing their folk and liturgical songs in their language, and the music opened the door to the sharing of ideas and friendship. Music indeed is the international language of the heart and soul. Our successful tour supported Nelson Mandela’s view that, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Another very special opportunity was presented In 1989. I was honored to meet alone with then retired Senator Fulbright for more than an hour, and I thanked him profusely for everything he had done for so many people worldwide. He in turn encouraged me and my generation to pick up the torch and carry on in his name. I have done my best to do so for over four decades.
My many years at USIA and subsequent employment at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the National Gallery of Art, and elsewhere were helpful in furthering Fulbright’s worthy goals. For example, I was fortunate to help draft and monitor various laws ensuring the integrity and nonpartisan nature of U.S. international educational, cultural, and information programs. I also travelled abroad as a member of U.S. delegations to participate in negotiations and drafting of agreements supporting Fulbright, VOA, and RFE/RL activities in Israel, Spain, Portugal, Thailand, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, the Czech Republic, Belize, and elsewhere. In 1987, the agreement with Israel for RFE/RL and VOA was signed at the White House with President Reagan.
Recently I was asked what one thing had surprised me most during my international travels. I replied that notwithstanding significant political, linguistic, cultural, and other differences, the people of the world share much in common. For example, most people desire economic opportunity and prosperity, good health, security, fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, education, justice, artistic and creative freedom, and peace. Mutual understanding and cooperation can be built on a foundation of such common goals.
Looking ahead, the Fulbright Exchange Program is more necessary than ever. Ironically, in a world awash in information due to modern technology, in some ways there has been a decline in real communication and understanding among people. All too often we divide into warring ideological and tribalistic camps and remain in our own narrow high-tech information bubbles and echo-chambers. Senator Fulbright believed, as do I, that mutual understanding is enhanced enormously by spending quality time sharing experiences with other persons in their countries while listening, learning, and talking patiently with each other. There really is no substitute for face-to-face relationships especially to bridge a cultural divide. They help understanding of another’s values and point of view. Such meaningful contact also can significantly diminish harmful and dangerous stereotypes and fear of “the other.”
How we communicate with one another at home and abroad especially in a nuclear age will set the future course for humanity. There is far too much at stake not to take the time to listen and talk to our fellow travelers on this increasingly shrinking and delicate planet. Former Senator Richard Lugar told the Fulbright Association in 2016 that “In this century, the ability of nations to communicate and work with each other across borders will determine the fate of billions of people. The effectiveness of our response to pandemics, nuclear proliferation, environmental disasters, energy and food insecurity, and threats of conflict will depend foremost on the investments we have made in knowledge, relationships, and communication.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated it another way in 1947 when testifying before Congress in favor of America’s international information, cultural, and educational exchange programs: “There will be disappointments, but if we stick to the truth and use every possible means of exchanging truths with other people, we cannot help but add advantage to ourselves… There can be no absolute security for the United States until every nation enjoys a comparable feeling of security. All that arms can do is give you a relative feeling of security, and I do not care how many guns and planes and ships you pool up, but only as we get a common basis in believing in each other, then you have security. Then I can go fishing.”
John A. Lindburg
Assistant General Counsel, USIA (1973-1988)
General Counsel, Board for International Broadcasting (1988-1995)
Legal Counsel and Acting Chief of Staff, Broadcasting Board of Governors (1995-2000)
Deputy General Counsel and Deputy Secretary, National Gallery of Art (2000-2003)
General Counsel and Secretary, RFE/RL, Inc. (2003-2012)
Consultant to RFE/RL, Inc. (2013-present).