In September 1945, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas introduced a bill in Congress (Public Law 584 known as the Fulbright Act) to redistribute the profit from selling surplus U.S. government war property into financing an international exchange education and cultural program. With the approval of the 79th Congress, President Harry Truman signed the bill into law on August 1, 1946. In the isolationist period of U.S. history, the Fulbright Act was an important step to establish a precedent where U.S. government commits globally to long-term programs.
China, Burma, the Philippines and Greece were the first countries to join the Program. The first round of fellowship participants: 47 Americans and 36 citizens of aforementioned countries embarked on their journey as exchange scholars in the Fall of 1948. In the next twelve months, the Program has grown to include many countries of Western Europe and their colonial possessions (i.e. Great Britain, New Zealand, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Norway), and the number of participants has reached 823 on the United States’ side and 967 on the other countries’ side.
Subsequent acts of Congress, including the Fulbright-Hays Act (Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act) of 1961, extended the initial law by broadening the scope of the programs, and authorized the Fulbright Commission’s financing from additional sources. They also introduced J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FFSB), a 12-member council mandated by Congress to oversee the working of the Program worldwide together with independent boards of directors appointed in respective participating countries. The excellence of the Fulbright Program has largely depended on the high standards set by the Board, such as the quality and merit selection, open competition, peer review and binational agreements.
By the twenty-first century, multiple participating governments, and non-governmental agencies and organizations have contributed to the development of the Program. As of today, the Fulbright Program has been recognized in over 160 countries worldwide, with approximately 380.000 “Fulbrighters” to receive grants since the Program’s inception. Among its alumni, 59 have been awarded the Nobel Prize, 84 have received the Pulitzer Prize, 72 have been MacArthur Fellows, and 37 have served as heads of state or government. As such, the Fulbright Program is one of the most prestigious educational exchange programs in the world.