70 Years of Australian-American Relations – It Began with Fulbright

September 21, 1961 JFK signs Fulbright-Hays Act, Washington, D.C.

November 26, 2019 marks 70 years since the signing of the first treaty between Australia and the United States – the Fulbright Treaty.

Born in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Fulbright Program was created by Senator J. William Fulbright (D.-Arkansas) with the ethos of turning ‘swords into ploughshares’ by repurposing capital from the sale of surplus war materiel into an international educational and cultural exchange program between United States and its allies.

Senator Fulbright saw the initiative as a “modest program with an immodest aim” – to improve international relations and reduce the chance of future global conflict by exposing the U.S. and its citizenry to the ideas, cultures, and peoples of foreign nations, and vice versa, through short term academic exchanges.

Senator J. William Fulbright

“The Program further aims to make the benefits of American culture and technology available to the world and to enrich American life by exposing it to the science and art of many societies.

“…the Program aims, through these means, to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” – J.W. Fulbright, The Fulbright Program: A History.

Discussions between the Australian and U.S. governments began in 1946 to establish the terms of the agreement, the scope of the program, and how it was to be administered. After several years of negotiations, the Fulbright Agreement was signed in Canberra 1949 by then-U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Pete Jarman, and Australian Government Minister for External Affairs, Dr H. V. Evatt.

The first cohort of Australian Fulbright Scholars travelled across the Pacific the following year, ushering in “a new era of cultural-educational relationships” per an Embassy spokesperson at the time.

Retrospective testimonials from grantees in the first cohort suggest the Fulbright experience had an immediate and profound impact:

Professor Bruce Holloway, one of the first Australian Fulbright Scholars“The contacts I was able to make in the U.S. as a result of my Fulbright grant now provide invaluable assistance in the exchange of research information. From an academic point of view, I was most impressed with the American system of formal teaching—courses, seminars, written and practical examinations.

“This system ensured a high standard of learning and promoted a greater exchange of ideas and views between students and educators.” – Bruce Holloway, 1950 Fulbright Scholar to California Institute of Technology

The Fulbright Program in Australia has grown and evolved dramatically over the seven decades since, becoming the largest bilateral exchange program in the country with over 5,100 grantees having travelled between the two countries for study and research exchange in every conceivable academic discipline.

Thanks to Australian Government and U.S. Department of State funding, alongside a growing number of generous institutional supporters and donors, 2019 saw the largest cohort of Australian-American Fulbright Scholars awarded, with 90 grantees in total. 2020 is set to eclipse this again, with approximately 140 grantees expected to be inducted into the program. This number will include three commemorative 70th Anniversary Fulbright Scholarships, created to celebrate the 70-year milestone.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr, reflected on the Fulbright Program’s prominent place in the bilateral alliance:

“The Fulbright Treaty embodies the best of the deep friendship between the United States and Australia. To this day, it is an essential component of what makes our alliance unbreakable. On this anniversary, we look ahead to the next generation of Fulbrighters who will develop the partnerships and research collaborations that will help our two countries to confront the challenges of tomorrow together.” He Said.

Fulbright exchange experiences have evolved dramatically since 1949. What were once simply one-off travel reimbursements are now structured programs with comprehensive financial and administrative support. Yet despite the changes, the central ethos of Fulbright remains as it was at the birth of the program – promoting mutual understanding, empathy, and peace among nations. Fulbright Scholars to this day are assessed and selected as cultural ambassadors, tasked with sharing kindness and goodwill, alongside their academic pursuits.

At the fortieth anniversary of the eponymous program, the late Senator Fulbright articulated his hopes for the future of international exchange:

“Perhaps the greatest power of such intellectual exchange is to convert nations into peoples and to translate ideologies into human aspirations. … The most sensible way to do that is to engage the parties in joint ventures for mutually constructive and beneficial purposes, such as trade, medical research, and development of cheaper energy sources. … To this purpose the Fulbright Program is dedicated.”

Seventy years since the original Treaty was signed in Canberra, Fulbright Australia continues to live up to the Senator’s ‘immodest aims’, as ever-growing cohorts of grantees translate their cultural ideologies into individual aspirations through ongoing academic and professional collaborations across the Pacific.