Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat from Arkansas, was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966 when The Arrogance of Power was published. The Arrogance of Power is a valuable defense of dissent in a democratic society, especially against the 1960s backdrop of profound national security issues created by the threat of nuclear war. Fulbright defends the right to dissent even though alternative solutions may not yet be known based on a belief that critique precedes discovery in the sense that a problem must first be identified before a search for its solutions can be initiated.
The occasion for Fulbright's writing The Arrogance of Power was the escalation of the US military commitment in Vietnam, specifically the intensification of bombing in North Vietnam and the rapid buildup of US combat forces as documented in The Pentagon Papers. In response to the imminence of a quagmire situation in Vietnam, Fulbright proposes that the US either (1) bring the war to an end with a cease-fire between South Vietnam and the Viet Cong, end the US bombing campaign, stabilize US force levels, neutralize Vietnam (and all of Indochina if possible) along the Swiss model, recognize South Vietnam's right to self-determination and allow for possible reunification of Vietnam or (2) failing to bring an end to the war, maintain US forces in defensible holding positions for the long run, i.e., until a permanent, i.e., indefinitely sustainable, US military presence in Vietnam forces a stalemate result like (1).
Fulbright was critical of US interference with the 1954 Geneva accords (especially the joint South Vietnamese and US opposition to the 1956 unification elections), US support for the corrupt and undemocratic Diem regime (and its unpromising successors following the 1963 coup) and the US failure to recognize Vietnam's right to self-determination. He argues that US foreign policy towards revolutions (such as the nationalist and anti-colonial movements emerging from the 2nd World War) is reactionary and that in the nearly two centuries since the American Revolution, America has become unrevolutionary. Referring to Crane Brinton's 'Anatomy of a Revolution' (1965) with respect to the stages of revolution, Fulbright suggests that the anti-democratic and often violent stages of Soviet, Chinese and other communist revolutions will eventually give way to a return to normalcy and that US foreign policy ought to be designed accordingly (less confrontational and more accommodative).
Thus, Fulbright was essentially voicing opposition to the Cold War as well as the 'hot war' in Vietnam.
Fulbright's principal thesis is that US political, economic and military power since World War II (notwithstanding, but perhaps in part because of, Soviet power) has too often been exercised unilaterally and with hubris. Fulbright cites the Asian Doctrine, the US foreign policy that wrongly assumed the monolithic nature of communism, the relative unimportance of nationalism in Cold War strategy and the inevitability of the domino theory despite the contradictory facts of the anti-communist counter-coup in Indonesia in 1966, the persistence of tensions from the Sino-Soviet rift of the early 1960s and the uncommon combination of nationalism and communism in Vietnam dating back to post-World War II French Indochina. He also points to the examples provided by US foreign policy vis-a-vis Latin America (e.g., Marines sent to Dominican Republic to put down a revolution), East-West relations (ideological rigidity preventing compromise on commerce and immigration), the developing world (US aid linked to Cold War geopolitics) and the Western alliance (US unilateralist action).
Forty years after it was first published, The Arrogance of Power continues to be of contemporary relevance, particularly because of the multilateralist-unilateralist foreign policy debate. Fulbright was clearly an advocate of multilateralism, constructive competition, cooperation ontation and leadership by example rather than by dictate. Against the foreign policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, those of Fulbright would appear to be idealism at best and appeasement at worst. This raises the counterfactual question which future historians should debate: would Fulbright's approach to the communist world have achieved a better result than that achieved by the aggressive containment and military competition foreign policy of the Reagan Administration?