Bunche, Ralph J. 1904–1971

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Ralph J. Bunche 19041971

Political scientist, diplomat, United Nations official

At a Glance

Studied Colonialism, U.S. Race Relations

Became Leading United Nations Official

Won Nobel Peace Prize

Criticized by Militant Blacks and Right Wing Conservatives

Selected writings


With quiet dignity and a deep-rooted commitment to world peace, the late Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche ascended the ladder of government service to become the highest ranking black and American in the United Nations (UN), an international organization of more than 150 member nations that serves to monitor political activity and mediate disputes throughout the world. Bunche is credited with having used his disarming diplomatic skills to broker peace among warring factions that many observers believed would never even negotiate with each other.

Although he began his career as a scholar, garnering a string of notable academic firsts, Bunches principal contribution to history lies in his pacifying heated political tempers in the Middle East, the Congo, Greece, and other hot spots around the world. In his later years, Bunche was criticized by some elements of the conservative right wing in the United States, and, more scathingly, by members of the militant wing of the black civil rights movement, who charged that he was an Uncle Tom more interested in serving his white superiors and resolving international conflicts than in addressing the plight of blacks in his own segregated backyard. He graciously answered this criticism by pointing to his history of commitment to civil rights and, on a broader level, by arguing that efforts made toward world peace would help the United States maintain peace at home as well.

Ralph Johnson Bunches life was, in the eyes of many, the stuff of legend. He was born August 7, 1904, in Detroit, Michigan, the only son of Fred Bunche, an itinerant barber, and the former Olive Agnes Johnson, an amateur pianist. He was not, as has often been said, the grandson of a slave, but Bunche did grow up in a ghetto racked by poverty, a condition that he would rise above by virtue of his sharp mind.

In 1914, in the hope that dryer air and a warmer climate would improve Olives tuberculosis, the Bunches moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The ride to the southwestern United States provided young Ralphs first exposure to a Jim Crow train in which blacks were relegated to the cars carrying luggage.

Disease claimed his parents lives when he was 12, and Bunche, along with his sister, moved to Los Angeles, California, where they were taken in and reared by their maternal grandmother, Lucy Johnson. She taught the importance of self-respect, integrity, and hard work, and Bunche excelled in his studies, emerging as the class valedictorian at Jefferson

At a Glance

Born Ralph Johnson Bunche, August 7, 1904, in Detroit, Ml; died December 9,1971, in New York City; son of Fred (a barber) and Olive Agnes (a pianist; maiden name, Johnson) Bunche; married Ruth Ethel Harris, June 23, 1930; children: Joan Harris, Jane (deceased), Ralph Johnson. Education: University of California at Los Angeles, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1927; Harvard University, M.A., 1928, Ph.D., 1934; postdoctoral work, Northwestern University, London School of Economics, and University of Capetown, 193638.

Howard University, Washington, DC, instructor, 192829, assistant professor, 192933, associate professor of political science, 193338; founder of National Negro Congress, 1936; codirector of Institute of Race Relations, Swarthmore College, 1936; assistant to sociologist Gunnar Myrdal for preparation of race treatise An American Dilemma, 193840; Office of the Coordinator of Information (later Office of Strategic Services), Washington, DC, senior social science analyst in charge of research on Africa and the Far East, 194144, chief of Africa section, 194344; U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, area specialist on Africa for Division of Political Studies, 194447; assistant secretary, U.S. delegation to Dumbarton Oaks conference, United Nations (UN) Conference on International Organization, 1945; adviser, U.S. delegation to UN General Assembly, 1946; director of UN Trusteeship Department, 194854; UN undersecretary, 1955, undersecretary for special political affairs, 195867, and undersecretary-general, 196771; UN mediator on Palestine, 194849, Egypt, 1956, the Congo, 1960, and Yemen, 1963.

Selected awards: Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1949; Nobel Peace Prize, 1950; Theodore Roosevelt Association Medal of Honor, 1954; Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award and Presidential Medal of Freedom, both 1963; inducted into African American Hall of Fame, 1991.

High School. He worked for a time as a carpet layer, and his boss offered to send him to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study the chemistry of dyes. But his grandmother, wary of his being beholden to anybody, advised against the offer, and Bunche, with the help of an athletic scholarship, enrolled instead at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Studied Colonialism, U.S. Race Relations

Studying for a degree in international relations, Bunche refined the worldview that his grandmother first had instilled in him, a perspective that was manifested in the optimism and goodwill with which he carried out his life. The New Yorker quoted a 1925 academic paper in which Bunche rejected the theory of philosopher Thomas Hobbes that human beings are naturally brutish, self-serving, egotistic animals. It is true that man has these qualities in him, but I contend that these base characteristics are in part counteracted by good ones. I have a deep-set conviction that man must have an inherent notion of right and wrong, a fundamental moral structure and a simple sense of individual obligation, whether he be in a natural state or in society.

In 1927 Bunche graduated at the head of his class and in his commencement address urged his fellow graduates to dedicate their lives to human fellowship and peace. He earned a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University in Massachusetts, and, lacking train fare and money for expenses, was given $1000 by a black womens social club convinced of his talent and potential. He received his masters degree in 1928 and traveled to western Africa to complete his dissertation on French colonial rule in Togoland (now Togo and Ghana) and Dahomey (now Benin). In 1934 Bunche became the first black American to receive a doctorate in political science.

Bunche helped establish the political science department at the all-black Howard University, became codirector of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College, and from 1936 to 1938, engaged in postdoctoral work in anthropology at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Capetown in South Africa. From 1938 to 1940, armed with an expertise in colonialism and field research, Bunche collaborated with the eminent Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on An American Dilemma, a monumental study of race relations and prejudice in the United States. In one incident, while trying to gather comprehensive information on black-white relations in the deep South, Bunche and Myrdal were chased through Alabama by a mob of whites angered by questions about interracial sex.

Became Leading United Nations Official

During World War II, in which he could not serve because of a sports injury, Bunche launched his career of public service by joining the National Defense Programs Office of the Coordinator of Information (which later became the Office of Strategic Services). As senior analyst of Africa and the Far East, he studied colonial areas of possible strategic importance to the United States. He went on to become chief of the offices Africa section and subsequently worked at the U.S. State Department, where he participated in the initial conferences that laid the groundwork for the United Nations and wrote a section of the UN charter dealing with the administration of former colonies of countries defeated in the war. In 1946 Bunche was the only African American to serve on the U.S. delegation to the first General Assembly of the United Nations, and a little more than a year later he was hired by then-UN secretary-general Trygve Lie to serve as director of the Trusteeship Department. He rose to the position of undersecretary-generalthe highest U.S. official at the United Nationsand would become the valued right-hand man of Lie, as well as of future UN heads Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant.

It was at the United Nations that Bunche found the perfect fit of his commitment to world peace, his belief that the good qualities of people can triumph over the bad, and his optimism that conflict, no matter how entrenched and bitter, can be resolved. I have a number of very strong biases, a 1972 Ebony article quoted Bunche as having once said. I have a deepseated bias against hate and intolerance. I have a bias against racial and religious bigotry. I have a bias against war, a bias for peace. I have a bias which leads me to believe in the essential goodness of my fellow man, which leads me to believe that no problem in human relations is ever insoluble. And I have a strong bias in favor of the United Nations and its ability to maintain a peaceful world.

Won Nobel Peace Prize

Bunches first major diplomatic challenge validated the hopes he had pinned on the United Nations. In 1948 Lie asked him to accompany United Nations-appointed mediator Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden to the Middle East in an effort to peacefully resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict over the birth of a Jewish state and the partitioning of Palestine. The UN mission in the Holy Land was perilous, as the conflict touched not only on political states and geographic borders, but on fundamental and divisive religious animosities. The cars in which the UN negotiators rode were often fired on by snipers, and one of the chauffeurs driving Bunche was killed.

When Bernadotte was assassinated by Israeli terrorists in late 1948, the UN Security Council entrusted Bunche with the task of brokering a peace. Recognizing that the factions refused to sit face to face at the negotiating table, Bunche worked night and day organizing and leading small committees that discussed particular points, lest they be distracted by the enormity of the problem as a whole. Marshaling a strong personality and an objectivity that demonstrated his fairness, Bunche earned the trust of both the Israelis and the Arabs and succeeded in negotiating a truce, then an armistice, and, in 1949, the end of the conflict.

Bunche was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, the first black to be so honored, and brought new respect to the organization that he had long championed. A UN colleague was quoted as telling the New Yorker, Ive known him and worked with him since 1946, and his devotion to the UNI must say, greatly to his own costhas been single-minded. Hes usually the first into a dangerous situation and the last out. He regards life with the calm and compassion of a selfless man devoted to a great task.

While most famous for the 1949 agreement, Bunche is said to have considered his proudest accomplishment his 1956 role in directing the 6000-man UN Emergency Forces that helped sustain peace for 11 years in Egypt when the Suez crisis seemed on the brink of a catastrophic war. For the first time we have found a way to use military men for peace instead of war, Bunche was quoted in Time as having said.

Bunches most difficult assignment, by his own admission, was keeping the peace in the Congo (now Zaire) in 1960, when Belgium granted independence to the African country and pulled out, leaving a vacuum of political leadership and skilled personnel. Bunche was called in to lead a 20,000-man UN force to prevent the collision of a leaderless military and a province threatening to secede. After two months of negotiations, Bunche successfully shaped a political environment in which the fledgling country of Zaire was afforded a promising, peaceful opportunity to survive.

Because of his commitment to peace and his successes in the art of diplomacy, Bunche was offered the position of assistant secretary of state in the administration of Harry Truman, then the highest U.S. post ever offered an African American. However, Bunche declined the offer, saying, according to Time, It is well known that there is Jim Crow in Washington. It is equally well known that no Negro finds Jim Crow congenial. I am a Negro.

Criticized by Militant Blacks and Right Wing Conservatives

Ironically, Bunche was accused by some factions of trying to escape his race. As many whites proclaimed Bunche the quintessential successful black man, some militant civil rights activists charged that, in trotting around the globe to foster world peace, he had turned his back on the bitter struggle blacks were waging for equality in a segregated United States. But Bunche, who understood the personal and cultural impact of bigotry, answered that he had not only studied prejudice against blacks; more importantly, he had lived it. He walked his first picket for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1937, demonstrated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963, and took part in the civil rights marches on Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, two years later.

Furthermore, Bunche argued during the Vietnam War that if the United States were serious about combating and eliminating racism, the government would take the funds and energy it was investing in Southeast Asia and channel them into a domestic war against the black ghettos. As a citizen of the world, he also saw for the troubled United States an educational example in the way former European colonies in Africa were beginning to stand on their own two feet. They sit in the international councils on an equal basis with their former mother countries and rulers, he noted in Newsweek. I have come to believe that what is good for the world is good for my country.

A more predictable source of criticism was the far right. For instance, the National Review, a conservative mouthpiece, editorialized in 1962 that Bunche was an unapologetic Marxist [advocate of the social and economic doctrine of nineteenth-century German intellectual Karl Marx, centering on the establishment of a classless society and common ownership of production] and had told bald lies concerning the United Nations involvement in the Congo. It had been our intention to leave Dr. Bunche alone, having dismissed him as, essentially, a UN mercenary, a man with an undistinguished mind and rather bad personal manners, the magazine said. It becomes necessary under the circumstances to go on just a little bit further, and say that Mr. Bunches judgment is very poor indeed, and that this should be kept in mind in evaluating his assessments of the tangled affairs of our disintegrating world.

Bunche, whom President Lyndon Johnson had beseeched not to resign from the UN in 1966, remained undersecretary-general until just before his death in 1971. He always maintained that his diplomatic successes were a testimony to the vision behind the United Nations and argued that persisting, seemingly insoluble crises, such as that in the Middle East, would be more productively addressed by negotiation rather than by war.

Echoing the thoughts of many world leaders, former British UN ambassador Lord Caradon was quoted as saying in Newsweek, Of all the people I have worked with in my life, there is no one I respect more. He has always been my great hero. He represents everything I admire in international affairs and public life. Of all his great qualitiesand he had so manythe one that I would choose is that of determined optimism. Never did he give up. Never did he despair. He is certainly one the great Americans.

Selected writings

A World View of Race, Association of Negro Folk Education, 1936.

Peace and the United Nations, Leeds University, 1952.

The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR (interviews), University of Chicago Press, 1973.

An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche, 28 September 19371 January 1938, edited by Robert R. Edgar, Swallow, 1992.



Cornell, Jean G., Ralph Bunche: Champion of Peace, Garrard, 1976.

Jakoubek, Robert, Ralph Bunche, Chelsea House, 1989.

Kugelmass, J. Alvin, Ralph J. Bunche: Fighter for Peace, Messner, 1962.

Mann, Peggy, Ralph Bunche: UN Peacemaker, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975.


Christian Century, December 29, 1971.

Ebony, February 1972; September 1992.

Holiday, April 1970.

Nation, December 17, 1971.

National Review, May 22, 1962.

Newsweek, October 11, 1971; December 20, 1971.

New Yorker, January 1, 1972.

New York Times, December 10, 1971.

Time, December 20, 1971.

Isaac Rosen

Bunche, Ralph Johnson

views updated May 09 2018

Bunche, Ralph Johnson c. 1904-1971


Ralph Johnson Bunche was an American social scientist and statesman. Two weeks after the State of Israel was established in May 1948, the United Nations Security Council sent a delegation to restore peace between the Arabs and Israelis. Under the leadership of Bunche, the delegation would be singularly successfully in achieving direct negotiations between the two groups over territory, an armistice, and a UN peacekeeping force. Yet, fate would have to intervene to put Bunche in the Nobel Prizewinning position when the original head of the delegation, the Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte (18951948), was assassinated, along with everyone in his car, on an Israeli road. Fortunately for Bunche, he was delayed by the police on his way to meet Bernadotte in their efforts to strengthen the UN role in the region.

Long before going to the Middle East, Bunche had built an academic foundation for his influential career in political science and international relations. That foundation is illustrated by his involvement with a diverse group of Howard University colleagues in a 1935 national conference on race in New York. In concert with sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (18941962), economist Abram Harris (18991963), and philosopher Alain Locke (18861954), among others, Bunche gave definition to the second (professorial) phase of his scholarly leadership. For much of his life he would engage in an evolving struggle to balance race-conscious and class-conscious approaches to political and economic analysis. At the same time, he could never easily abandon political engagement for scholarly detachment. He wanted to change the world enough to join leftist labor union protests as a young professor and to participate in civil rights demonstrations even after retirement. Yet, he often withdrew to Howard University social science conferences or immersed himself in African- or African Americanoriented research. By 1953, however, when he returned to campus for the inaugural Phi Beta Kappa lecture, he had already reached the pinnacle of the third and defining phase of his career: he was a celebrated United Nations diplomat.

Somewhere between his work as a U.S. delegate in the formative weeks of the United Nations in the 1945 talks in San Francisco, and his mediation of the 1949 negotiations leading to an agreement on the Palestinian issues and a foundation for the State of Israel, Bunche left academics to become a renowned international peacemaker. However fragile the peace resolutions he helped fashion in Israel and Africa, they were as solid as any that followed. For example, he labored under hopeless circumstances with limited success in the former Belgian Congo to bring Patrice Lumumba (19251961) into reconciliation with military and separatist Congolese factions.

Although his indefatigable pursuit of international conflict resolution earned him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, he repeatedly expressed skepticism about the primacy of peace in the foreign policies of UN member states. In addition to cautions about nuclear war in his speeches, he warned in his Nobel lecture that some in the world are prematurely resigned to the inevitability of war. He added: among them are the advocates of the so-called preventive war, who wish merely to select their own time for initiating it (Bunche 1950).

Returning to the United States, the discomfort he had long felt with American racism had become more difficult to tolerate. The optimism of his successful schooldays in Los Angeles had long since faded. He had gone from valedictorian at UCLA (1927) to become the first black PhD (1934) in political science, graduating from Harvard University. Although it had not been easy, raised largely by his grandmother in Los Angeles after his early years in Detroit, he worked his way through the universities with some critical scholarship assistance. While supporting his wife, Ruth, with whom he would later have three children, he began working at Howard before he completed his doctorate. Yet the global demands of his career would continually place strains on his family life.

Once settled in the Political Science Department chairmanship at Howard, the black experience and the international exposure came together for him when he worked on the 1940s publication of the groundbreaking study of race relations with the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal (18981987). Although Bunche is not credited as an author of Myrdals An American Dilemma (1944), the 3,000-plus pages of research he contributed to the Carnegie report attest to his indispensable role. Better suited to his earlier years than to the second phase of his life, when he saw class conflict as a pivotal issue, the study was optimistic about race relations. The country was increasingly coming to recognize the contradiction for the democratic creed that racial discrimination entailed, according to Myrdal, and a positive resolution of this moral dilemma could soon be expected. As for Bunches views, they were less reflected in this conclusion than they were in his own short book, A World View of Race (1936), which suggests a more deeply rooted material basis for racial inequality (Henry 1995).

While Bunche continued to break racial barriersfor example, becoming the first black president of the American Political Science Association in 1954he grew more race conscious. He shared the stage with Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) in the 1963 March on Washington, and he shared Kings reservations about the progress made and to be expected in American race relations. Ironically, the complexity of his thought and beliefs on this and many social issues was largely obscured by his success in world affairs. Still, given the breadth of his political views, he could not escape the intrusive attention of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Internal Security in the heat of Washingtons anticommunist hysteria. He was interrogated in 1953 about his presumed association with black communists and communist sympathizers. In particular, his 1930s organizing role in the National Negro Congress was targeted. An FBI initiative to charge him with perjury for denying membership in the Communist Party fell through because it was built on a misunderstanding of his civil rights politics.

In 1904, when Bunche was born, the United States was an isolationist country internationally that further isolated African Americans internally from access to societys resources. When he died in 1971, the United States was internationally engaged and interracially progressing, and he, far more than most leaders, had helped to make the changes possible.

SEE ALSO Myrdal, Gunnar; Nobel Peace Prize


Bunche, Ralph J. 1950. Nobel Lecture: Some Reflections on Peace in Our Time.


Henry, Charles P., ed. 1995. Ralph J. Bunche: Selected Speeches and Writings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Henry, Charles P. 1999. Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? New York: New York University Press.

Holloway, Jonathan Scott. 2002. Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 19191941. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Morris, Lorenzo. 2006. Ralph J. Bunche and His Intellectual Offspring. Government & Politics 3: 89.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper.

Urquhart, Brian. 1993. Ralph Bunche: An American Life. New York: Norton.

Walton, Hanes. 2004. The Political Science Educational Philosophy of Ralph Bunche. Journal of Negro Education 73 (2): 147158.

Lorenzo Morris

Bunche, Ralph

views updated May 29 2018

Bunche, Ralph

August 7, 1904
December 9, 1971

Ralph Johnson Bunche, a scholar, diplomat, and international civil servant, was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Fred and Olive Johnson Bunch. His father, a barber, abandoned the family when his son was young. Bunche moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his mother, who died there in 1917. He then went to Los Angeles to be raised by his maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Jackson. During his teen years, he added a final "e" to his name to make it more distinguished. Bunche lived in a neighborhood with relatively few blacks, and he was one of only two blacks in his class at Jefferson High School, where he graduated first in his class, although Los Angeles school authorities barred him from the all-city honor roll because of his race. Bunche's valedictory address was his first public speech. Bunche entered the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on a scholarship, majoring in political science

and philosophy. He was active on the debating team, wrestled, played football and baseball, and was a standout basketball player. In 1927 he graduated summa cum laude and, again, first in his class.

Assisted by a tuition fellowship and a $1,000 scholarship provided by a group of African-American women in Los Angeles, Bunche enrolled at Harvard University in 1927 to pursue graduate study in political science. He received a master's degree in 1928 and then accepted an invitation to join the faculty of Howard University. Bunche was only twenty-five when he created and chaired Howard's political science department. His association with Howard continued until 1941, although he also pursued graduate work at Harvard during this period.

Bunche's graduate work combined his interest in government with a developing interest in Africa. He conducted field research in western Africa in 1932 and 1933, and he wrote a dissertation on the contrast between European colonial and mandatory governments in Africa. The dissertation, completed in 1934, won a Harvard award as the best political science dissertation of the year, and Bunche was awarded the first Ph.D. in political science ever granted to an African American by an American university. Bunche undertook postdoctoral studies in 1936 and 1937, first at Northwestern University, then at the London School of Economics and at South Africa's University of Cape Town. In 1936 he published a pamphlet, A World View of Race. His notes, taken during fieldwork in South Africa and detailing the political and racial situation, were published in 1992 under the title An African American in South Africa.

During Bunche's time at Howard in the 1930s, he was deeply involved in civil rights questions. He believed that black people's principal concerns were economic, and that race, though significant, was secondary. While he participated in civil rights actionsnotably a protest he organized against segregation in Washington's National Theater in 1931Bunche, a principled integrationist, warned that civil rights efforts founded on race would collapse over economic issues. He felt that the best hope for black progress lay in interracial working-class economic improvement, and he criticized Franklin Roosevelt both for his inattention to the needs of black people and for the New Deal's failure to attack existing political and economic structures. In 1936 Bunche and others founded the National Negro Congress, a broad-based coalition he later termed "the first sincere effort to bring together on an equal plane Negro leaders [and] professional and white-collar workers with the Negro manual workers and their leaders and organizers." The Congress was eventually taken over by Communist Party workers. Bunche, disillusioned, resigned in 1938.

In 1939, Bunche was hired by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal to work on what would become the classic study of race relations in the United States, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Over the next two years Bunche wrote four long research memos for the project (one was published in 1973, after Bunche's death, as The Negro in the Age of FDR ). The final report incorporated much of Bunche's research and thought. The unpublished memos, written for the Carnegie Corporation, have remained an important scholarly resource for researchers on black America, both for their exhaustive data and for Bunche's incisive conclusions.

In 1941, after the United States entered World War II, Bunche left Howard to work for the Office of the Coordinator of Information for the Armed Service, and he later joined the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the chief American intelligence organization during World War II and a precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Bunche headed the Africa section of the Research and Analysis Branch. In 1944 Bunche joined the U.S. State Department's Postwar Planning Unit to deal with the future of colonial territories.

From this point forward, Bunche operated in the arena of international political affairs with an everincreasing degree of policymaking power. In 1945 he was appointed to the Division of Dependent Area Affairs in the Office of Special Political Affairs, becoming in the process the first African American to head a State Department "desk."

In 1944 Bunche was a member of the U.S. delegation at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C., which laid the foundation for the United Nations. Appointed to the U.S. delegation in San Francisco in 1945 and in London in 1946, Bunche helped set up the UN Trusteeship system to prepare colonies for independence. His draft declaration of principles governing all dependent territories was the basis of Chapter XI, "Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories," of the United Nations Charter.

Bunche went to work in the United Nations Secretariat in 1946 as head of the Trusteeship Department. In 1947 he was assigned to the UN Special Commission on Palestine which was a United Nations Trusteeship. The out-break of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948, and the assassination of UN mediator Folke Bernadotte by Jewish militants, propelled Bunche, Bernadotte's assistant, into the position of acting mediator. Bunche brought the two sides together, negotiating with each in turn, and succeeded in arranging an armistice. Bunche's actions earned him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. He was the first United Nations figure, as well as the first African American, to win a Nobel Prize. Bunche also won the NAACP's Spingarn Medal (1950), and other honors. In 1953 the American Political Science Association elected him its president, the first time an African American was so honored. In 1950, President Truman offered him the post of assistant secretary of state. Bunche declined it, and in a rare personal statement on racism, explained that he did not wish to raise his family in Washington, a segregated city.

Bunche remained at the United Nations until shortly before his death in 1971. In 1954 he was appointed United Nations Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs, and served as a roving specialist in UN work. Bunche's most significant contribution at the United Nations was his role in designing and setting up UN peacekeeping forces, which supervise and enforce truces and armistices and have arguably been the UN's most important contribution to global peace. Building on the truce supervising operation he put into place after the 1949 Middle East armistice, Bunche created a United Nations Emergency Force in 1956, after the Suez crisis. UN peacekeepers played a major role in Lebanon and Yemen, and later in the Congo (now Zaire), in India and Pakistan, and in Cyprus. Sir Brian Urquhart, Bunche's assistant and successor as UN Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs, said: "Bunche was unquestionably the original principal architect of [what] is now called peacekeeping and he remained the principal architect, coordinator, and director of United Nations peacekeeping operations until the end of his career at the UN."

While Bunche remained primarily involved as an international civil servant with the United Nations, promoting international peace and aiding developing countries, he also remained interested in the civil rights struggle in America. Indeed, Bunche demanded and received special dispensation from the United Nations to speak out on racial issues in the United States. Bunche served on the board of the NAACP for many years, and he served as an informal adviser to civil rights leaders. In 1963 he attended the March on Washington, and two years later, despite poor health, he traveled to Alabama and walked with the Reverend. Martin Luther King Jr. in the front row of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March.

See also King, Martin Luther, Jr.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Negro Congress


Bunche, Ralph. "A Critical Analysis of the Tactics and Programs of Minority Groups." In Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by August Meier, Elliot Rudwick, and Francis L. Broderick. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. (Originally published in the Journal of Negro Education in July 1935.)

Bunche, Ralph. An African-American in South Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992.

Mann, Peggy. Ralph Bunche, UN Peacemaker. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1975.

Rivlin, Benjamin, ed. Ralph Bunche: The Man and His Times. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988.

c. gerald fraser (1996)

Bunche, Ralph

views updated Jun 27 2018

Ralph Bunche

Born: August 7, 1904
Detroit, Michigan
Died: December 9, 1971
New York, New York

African American diplomat and professor

Ralph Bunche was the highest American official in the United Nations. In 1950 he became the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the negotiations that led to a truce in the First Arab-Israeli War (194849).

Childhood and early career

Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. (His given last name was Bunch, but as a teenager he added the "e" because he thought it looked better.) Bunche's father was a barber, and his parents were very poor. In time they also became very ill and both died when he was thirteen years old. After his parents' deaths Bunche and his young sister went to live with his maternal grandmother in Los Angeles. While going to school he helped support the family by working as a janitor, a carpet-layer, and a seaman. His grandmother's strong will and her wisdom had a lasting influence on him.

Bunche attended the University of California at Los Angeles on scholarships and graduated in 1927. He earned a master's degree at Harvard University in 1928 and a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in government and international relations at Harvard in 1934.

In 1928 Bunche began teaching in the Department of Political Science at Howard University. He was department chairman from 1937 to 1942. In 1930 he married Ruth Harris, one of his students. The couple had three children. In 1950 he was appointed to the faculty of Harvard University, but after two leaves of absence he resigned in 1952, without having taught there.

United Nations

Bunche was an expert on colonialism. The term colonialism refers to a nation's possession or control over a colony. (For example, both the United States and Nigeria were once colonies ruled by Great Britain.) During World War II (193945), Bunche worked in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services as an expert on African and Far Eastern affairs. In 1944 he moved to the U.S. State Department. From 1944 to 1946 Bunche was active as an expert on trusteeship in the planning and establishment of the United Nations (UN). (Trusteeship is the overseeing of a colony or territory by a country or countries given the authority to do so by the UN.) In 1947 Bunche was asked to join the UN Secretariat by the UN's Secretary General, Trygve Lie (18961968). Bunche served as director of the Trusteeship Division.

At the UN Bunche was given some difficult assignments. In 1947 he was a member of the UN Special Committee on Palestine that recommended Palestine's division into Jewish and Arab states. The Arabs refused to accept the UN plan. This led to the first Arab-Israeli War. When the UN's chief negotiator in that conflict was assassinated in 1948, Bunche took his place. From January to June 1949 he led the difficult negotiations between Arab and Israeli groups on the Greek island of Rhodes. The negotiations eventually led to an agreement to end the fighting. Both sides praised his achievement, and in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

From 1955 to 1971 Bunche held important positions at the UN. He directed UN peacekeeping operations in the Suez area of the Middle East (1956), in the Congo (1960), and on the island of Cyprus (1964). He was also responsible for the UN's program involving the peaceful uses of atomic energy. In June 1971 he retired while suffering from a fatal illness.

Concern with race relations

Bunche was the grandson of a slave. His personal experience of prejudice (making judgments about a person solely based on his or her race) and his concern about race relations led him to become a teacher and an expert in the problems of colonialism. In 1936 he was codirector of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College. From 1938 to 1940 he assisted the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal (18981987) in his investigation of racial problems in the United States. Their research led to Myrdal's book An American Dilemma.

For twenty-two years Bunche was a member of the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1965 he participated in marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Led by Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968), the marches protested racial discrimination.

Bunche received many honorary degrees and awards. President John F. Kennedy (19171963) presented him with the Medal of Freedom in 1963. Bunche died in New York City on December 9, 1971.

For More Information

Henry, Charles P. Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Schraff, Anne E. Ralph Bunche: Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1999.

Urquhart, Brian. Ralph Bunche: An American Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Ralph Johnson Bunche

views updated May 23 2018

Ralph Johnson Bunche

Ralph Johnson Bunche (1904-1971) was the highest American official in the United Nations. For his conduct of negotiations leading to an armistice in the First Arab-Israeli War, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, the first African American to do so.

Abarber's son, Ralph Bunche was born in Detroit, Mich., on Aug. 7, 1904. His parents died when he was 13, and his maternal grandmother took Ralph and his young sister to live in Los Angeles. While going to school Ralph helped support the family by working as a janitor, carpet-layer, and seaman. His grandmother's indomitable will and her wisdom had a lasting influence on him.

Bunche attended the University of California at Los Angeles on scholarships and graduated in 1927. He earned a master's degree at Harvard University in 1928 and a doctorate in government and international relations at Harvard in 1934. His doctoral dissertation won the Tappan Prize as the best one in the social sciences that year. Later he did advanced work in anthropology at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Cape Town.

From 1928 to 1942 Bunche was a member (and chairman from 1937) of the department of political science at Howard University. He married Ruth Harris, one of his students, in 1930; the couple had three children. In 1950 he was appointed to the faculty of Harvard University, but after two successive leaves of absence he resigned in 1952 without having taught there.

An expert on colonialism, Bunche worked during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services as an analyst of African and Far Eastern affairs, moving in 1944 to the State Department, where he became head of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs. At Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, San Francisco in 1945, and London in 1946, he was active as an authority on trusteeship in the planning and establishment of the United Nations (UN). In 1947, at the invitation of Secretary General Trygve Lie, Bunche joined the UN Secretariat as director of the Trusteeship Division.

Lie and his successors, Dag Hammarskjöld and U Thant, gave special troubleshooting assignments to Bunche. In 1947 he was a member of the UN Special Committee on Palestine that recommended partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states. Arab refusal to accept the UN plan resulted in the First Arab-Israeli War. When the UN's chief mediator in that conflict, Count Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated in 1948, Bunche took his place. From January to June 1949 he presided over the difficult negotiations between Arab and Israeli delegations on the island of Rhodes that led eventually to an armistice. Both sides praised his achievement, and in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

In 1955 Bunche was named undersecretary without portfolio in the UN Secretariat and in 1957 undersecretary for special political affairs (in 1969 this title was changed to undersecretary general). He directed UN peace-keeping operations in the Suez area (1956), in the Congo (1960), and on the island of Cyprus (1964) and was also responsible for the UN's program in the peaceful uses of atomic energy. He became U Thant's most influential political adviser. In June 1971, fatally ill, Bunche retired from his post. He died in New York City on December 9.

The grandson of a slave, Bunche bore with great reserve the indignities of racial prejudice that he experienced. His lifelong concern about race relations was the source of his early desire to be a teacher and his later specialization in colonial problems. In 1936 he was codirector of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College. From 1938 to 1940, as a staff member of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he served as chief aide to Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in his investigation of the race problem in the United States that led to Myrdal's influential book An American Dilemma. Bunche wrote or supervised 13 of the 81 volumes of manuscripts and memoranda submitted to Myrdal for the book. For 22 years Bunche was a member of the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1965 he participated in marches in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., led by Martin Luther King, Jr., to protest racial discrimination.

Bunche received many honorary degrees and awards, and President John F. Kennedy presented him with the Medal of Freedom in 1963. Bunche was president of the American Political Science Association and a member of the Harvard University board of overseers.

Further Reading

Bunche wrote A World View of Race (1936; repr. 1968). Howard P. Linton compiled Ralph Johnson Bunche: Writings by and about Him from 1928 to 1966 (1967). A biography is J. Alvin Kugelmass, Ralph J. Bunche: Fighter for Peace (1962). There is a short biography of him in Wilhelmina S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968). For examinations of the UN Secretariat and the UN's peace-keeping efforts see Sydney D. Bailey, The Secretariat of the United Nations (1962; rev. ed. 1964), and James M. Boyd, United Nations Peace-keeping Operations: A Military and Political Appraisal (1971). □

Bunche, Ralph

views updated May 11 2018


Ralph Bunche (August 7, 1904–December 9, 1971) was the first black to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He received the honor in 1950 for his efforts on behalf of the United Nations (UN) in negotiating a truce between Egypt and Israel. He eventually became undersecretary-general of the UN. In the late 1960s, radical activists accused Bunche of ignoring domestic civil rights concerns, but in the 1930s Bunche had been a leading intellectual radical who attempted to steer civil rights groups in a new, activist direction that directly addressed black and white working class needs.

Bunche received his B.A. degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before he had completed his doctorate, Howard University hired Bunche as an instructor, and he organized and chaired the school's political science department. In 1934, when Bunche completed his dissertation on colonial governance in Africa, he became the first black American to earn the Ph.D. in political science.

When Bunche started working at Howard University his liberal political views became more radical and pronounced. He called upon the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to abandon its legalistic civil rights reform strategy for one that was dedicated to building an interracial workers' alliance. He argued that supporting class politics and instituting dramatic economic reform were the keys to solving blacks' second-class status. He publicly claimed the New Deal was a "raw deal" for blacks, and he openly worked with communists and socialists in organizing the National Negro Congress (NNC). The NNC, established in 1936, sought to build a coalition of organizations dedicated to solving the "Negro problem" through a new class politics. The same year, Bunche published A World View of Race, an aggressive critique of the imperialist and capitalist roots of racism.

Bunche's public political stances began to soften as fascism spread across Europe and as the United States became increasingly involved in the Allied war effort. He broke from the NNC when he concluded that it had become a tool of the Soviet Union. Due to his expertise in African affairs, the federal government hired Bunche as an African and Far East affairs analyst for what would become the Office of Strategic Services. He would later work for the State Department and then the UN.

Before he moved into the government, however, Bunche played a central role in the production of one of the most important social science surveys of black life in the United States: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy(1944). This study, directed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, became the cornerstone of liberal ideology on race issues for much of the civil rights era. As Myrdal's assistant, Bunche supervised numerous other researchers and produced several thousand pages (collected in four long "memos") of analysis of black political development in the South, black betterment organizations, and black leadership. One of these memoranda, The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR, was published posthumously in 1973.



Henry, Charles P. Ralph J. Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? 1999.

Holloway, Jonathan Scott. Confronting the Veil: AbramHarris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1941. 2002.

Urquhart, Brian. Ralph Bunche: An American Life. 1993.

Jonathan Scott Holloway

Bunche, Ralph Johnson

views updated May 21 2018

Bunche, Ralph Johnson (1904–71) US diplomat. Bunche joined the staff of the United Nations in 1947, and helped negotiate a cease-fire in the Arab-Israeli conflict (1949), for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize (1950). He directed UN peacekeeping forces in Suez (1956), the Congo (1960) and Cyprus (1964) and was UN under secretary general (1967–71).