Born in Sumner, Missouri, he obtained a BA from the University of Arkansas in 1925. He later studied at Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and George Washington University. In 1934, Fulbright was admitted to the bar in Washington, DC and became an attorney in the anti-trust division of the United States Department of Justice.
From 1936 until 1939, Fulbright was a lecturer in law at the University of Arkansas. In 1939 he was appointed president, making him the youngest university president in the country. He held this post until 1941.
In 1942, Fulbright was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served one term. During this period, he became a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In September 1942, the House adopted the Fulbright Resolution which supported international peace-keeping initiatives and encouraged United States to participate in what became the United Nations. This brought Fulbright to national attention. In 1944, was elected to the Senate, where he served five six-year terms.
In 1949 Fulbright became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 1959-1974 he served as chairman, the longest serving chairman of that committee in history.
His Senate career was marked by some notable cases of dissent. In 1954 he was the only senator to vote against an appropriation for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1961, he also raised serious objections to President John F. Kennedy about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion.
Many Senators who accepted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution without question might well not have done so had they foreseen that it would subsequently be interpreted as a sweeping Congressional endorsement for the conduct of a large-scale war in Asia.
In 1964, Fulbright published The Arrogance of Power (ISBN 0812992628) in which he attacked the justification of the Vietnam War, Congress's failure to set limits on it, and impulses which gave rise to it. Fulbright's scathing critique undermined the elite consensus that U.S. military intervention in Indochina was necessitated by Cold War geopolitics. Some critics of U.S. foreign policy argue that U.S. policy has changed little since Fulbright wrote his book and find his words applicable today.
In his book, Fulbright offered an analysis of American foreign policy:
Throughout our history two strands have coexisted uneasily; a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But... when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry moralism.
Fulbright also related his opposition to any American tendencies to intervene in the affairs of other nations:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations — to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work.
He was also a strong believer in international law:
Law is the essential foundation of stability and order both within societies and in international relations. As a conservative power, the United States has a vital interest in upholding and expanding the reign of law in international relations. Insofar as international law is observed, it provides us with stability and order and with a means of predicting the behavior of those with whom we have reciprocal legal obligations. When we violate the law ourselves, whatever short-term advantage may be gained, we are obviously encouraging others to violate the law; we thus encourage disorder and instability and thereby do incalculable damage to our own long-term interests.
Fulbright retired from the Senate in 1974. He died in 1995 at the age of 89 in Washington, DC.