IN 1946, a freshman senator from Arkansas proposed a novel idea to exchange war for peace and cultural understanding: to use funds from the sale of surplus World War II equipment overseas to establish an international student exchange program.
The Fulbright Scholarship Program was created, and it continues today as the lasting legacy of a life dedicated to international peace. J. William Fulbright, who died late last week, oft#en said his most prized accomplishment was creating this educational exchange program.
''The senator was very much influenced by his own experience as a Rhodes scholar,'' says Ralph Vogel, staff director of the Fulbright Scholarship Board, which oversees the program. ''There were very few other international student exchange programs in place at that time.''
The Fulbright Scholarships had a simple goal: ''to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.''
Today, more than 100 countries participate in the exchange program, which is now funded by the US government and about 30 other contributing nations. In 1993-94, other countries paid $46 million of the $167 million cost.
In its nearly 50-year history, the scholarship program has sponsored about 200,000 students for a year of study abroad. About 128,000 are foreign grantees who studied in the United States, and another 71,000 Americans have studied abroad as Fulbright scholars.
''These people are of greater significance to our future than is another aircraft carrier that costs three times as much as this exchange program has cost in 40 years,'' Senator Fulbright wrote in 1985.
A congressman from 1942 to '45 and a senator from 1945 to '74, he became a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and a harsh critic of ''the arrogance of power.''
Because of the scholarship program bearing his name, Fulbright is one of the few contemporary American politicians who is well-known internationally. He is revered for opening the doors of American #universities to the world, even including students from recent enemy countries.
Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama visited Fulbright just last month to thank him for the ''tremendous opportunity'' Fulbright Scholarships are providing Japanese students to study in the US.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was visiting the US at the time of Fulbright's death, praised the exchange program as a welcome signal of reconciliation at the end of World War II. Chancellor Kohl called himself ''a member of a generation who wanted nothing more than to obtain a Fulbright Scholarship.''
Kohl is not a past recipient of the award, but the alumni list includes United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, economist Milton Friedman, composer Philip Glass, actor Stacy Keach, and writers Maya Angelou, Joseph Heller, and John Updike. Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Columbia University in Ne#w York in 1954-55, says the late senator's name is ''synonymous with international understanding.''
About 4,800 Fulbright Scholarships are awarded each year. The grants are available to Americans and foreigners interested in graduate study, postdoctoral research, teaching in elementary and secondary schools, or lecturing in universities.
Grants usually cover transportation costs, books, and tuition, plus a year's stipend.