World Travelers for Peace

I NEVER met the late Sen. J. William Fulbright. But in the past 49 years he built up a worldwide constituency that will never forget him.

I am part of it. Nearly 250,000 of us have participated in the scholarship program he launched after World War II. There aren't enough of us to make much of a voting bloc, even if we all lived in the same place.

Yet Fulbright, for 15 years the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ranked the scholarship program that bears his name among his finest achievements. Because of it, these few thousand -- not all of us United States citizens -- have been given tax dollars, about $121 million in 1993-94, to study and teach in more than 120 countries.

Fulbright proposed the legislation just weeks after the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. He understood that it would be harder to make war on those places you have journeyed to and tried to understand.

But that was then. With the Republican Party threatening to swing its roving blade at President Clinton's Americorps, it is timely to consider the Fulbright grants, which cost far less but do not have the advantage Americorps has of paying people to help others. The program is more like giving people a plane ticket to talk to others.

Many Americans see Mr. Clinton himself as an unimpressive product of international study, since he avoided the Vietnam draft soon after returning from a Rhodes Scholarship in Britain -- with the help of fellow Arkansan and mentor Fulbright himself.

The Fulbright budget was threatened in 1981, when the International Communication Agency proposed slashing the number of participating countries from 120 to 59, hitting developing nations hardest.

Yet this move was largely an administrative oversight that was quickly reversed amid the uproar raised by defenders of the program. Today the threat lies more in apathy than anything else. With a huge turnover just last year on Capitol Hill, fewer legislators remember Fulbright or the point of his program. And the budget is excruciatingly tight.

The benefits of a Fulbright grant are easy to see, though, if one checks back a few years after the money is spent. Writers, scientists, prime ministers, and ambassadors have been given Fulbright grants and later returned the investment many times over for the US and the world.

The US isn't likely to declare war on Austria soon, so I can't say my spell in Vienna warded off disaster. But there is lingering distrust among Americans and Austrians, some of which is linked to US wariness of anti-Semitism and Austrian wariness of US heavy-handedness in politics and pop culture.

And so I remember well a final oral exam with an Austrian history professor, in which I was rebuked for suggesting that it would have been hard for Austria to resist fascism on its own. In trying to be understanding, I had implied Austrians were incapable of acting independently.

It's impossible to pinpoint just what has happened in the world as a result of people spending a year abroad. But the unofficial ambassadors who trot overseas with Fulbright grants are a clear preemptive strike against intolerance and prejudice.

Now that the US is less willing to intervene militarily in small but brutal regional conflicts, it makes sense to take easy steps to avoid them. With his growing crew of students and teachers, Fulbright made it a little less likely that nations would go to war. That is what all of us can thank him for.

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