Ralph Bunche was a man of many firsts. The first Black valedictorian at UCLA. The first Black American to earn a Ph.D. in political science. And the first Black recipient of the Nobel Prize.
While impressive, the accolades of the man known as the “Father of Peacekeeping” pale in comparison to the impact he had on the world. As an architect of the United Nations and a titan in international affairs, Bunche defied every limitation imposed on Blackness in the early 20th century.
Bunche also encapsulates the many contradictions that comprise the Black experience. At the same time he was serving as U.N. Undersecretary General, his Black brothers and sisters were suffering under the oppression of Jim Crow. And while Bunche was casting votes at the U.N., his people were being denied the right to do so across the American South.
How could these realities coexist? How could Bunche be one of the world’s most distinguished diplomats while still facing racism at home? Grappling with these questions is what makes Bunche such an interesting case study. Against all odds, he managed to carve a niche for himself and ascend to the highest levels of international leadership.
It’s a travesty that Bunche is largely unknown by the American public. His story is one of many instances of the systemic erasure of Black people’s contributions in advanced career fields. Black excellence exists in every industry, not just athletics and entertainment, and Bunche is a prime example. This article aims to provide much-deserved background on the life and legacy of this fascinating and influential figure.
Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit on August 7th, 1904. When Bunche was ten years old, his family moved to New Mexico in hopes that the warm climate would alleviate his parents’ chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, his mother and father died from tuberculosis two years later. Bunche’s maternal grandmother adopted Ralph and his younger sister and moved the family to Los Angeles.
In school, Bunche was initially relegated to vocational courses for Negro children on the assumption that he would not reach university, but his grandmother insisted he’d be enrolled in collegiate classes. Despite his tumultuous childhood, Bunche excelled in both academics and athletics, graduated valedictorian of his high school class, and earned a full scholarship to UCLA. Four years later, in 1927, Bunche received his bachelor’s in political science and philosophy.
Harvard and Howard
Bunche pursued graduate studies at Harvard and completed his master’s in political science in 1928 and Ph.D. in international relations in 1934. Shortly after earning his master’s, Bunche was hired as an assistant professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s preeminent Black universities. During his tenure, Bunche established and chaired Howard’s first political science department, and became a leading expert on colonialism across Africa.
Bunche wrote extensively on issues of race, contrasting his research abroad with his lived experience of overt and institutional racism in the United States. His academic interests gradually morphed into activism, and in 1936 Bunche founded the National Negro Congress, which elevated the work of A. Philip Randolph and other Black labor activists.
Bunche also contributed substantial research to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, a seminal 1944 work that exposed the contradictions between America’s liberal ideations and the continued subjugation of its Black citizens.
Founding of the United Nations
Ralph Bunche transitioned from academia to public service in 1941, when he became an analyst with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the first American intelligence agency and precursor to the CIA. Bunche was sought out for his expertise in African nations and provided crucial intelligence to American soldiers deployed in the region during World War II.
In 1943, the U.S. Department of State requested that Bunche be transferred to their payroll. There he became an influential member of the team tasked with planning the summit where the United Nations would be founded: the San Francisco Conference. During the April 1945 conference, Bunche served on the Committee on Trusteeship. Trusteeship was a most contentious topic, as European powers sought to preserve their colonial empires despite their inability to govern following the destruction of WWII.
Bunche was a staunch supporter of self-determination and left his stamp by drafting the three chapters of the U.N. Charter focused on trusteeship. The U.N. Charter singlehandedly reshaped the geopolitical map of the world, and not only was Ralph Bunche present for its creation, but he was also one of its chief architects.
Bunche left the State Department to become Director of the U.N. Trusteeship and Decolonization Division in 1946. Although Bunche enjoyed his work at State, Washington D.C. was still segregated at the time, so the U.N. headquarters in New York City was far more appealing. Bunche recognized that trusteeship alone was an incomplete system, and in his new role, he worked to provide economic and technical assistance programs to newly-independent nations.
Mediation of the First Arab-Israeli War
From 1947 to 1949, Bunche tackled the most difficult assignment of his career: the confrontation between Arab and Jewish forces in Palestine. Following a failed partition plan and the proclamation of Israel’s independence in May 1948, soldiers from Egypt and several other Arab states launched an offensive against Israeli forces.
After the fighting began, Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, was appointed the U.N. Mediator in Palestine. Bunche served as his deputy, and the two managed to secure a ceasefire in early June. However, on September 17th, while riding through West Jerusalem, Count Bernadotte was assassinated by members of an Israeli extremist group. Despite the clear danger to his safety, Ralph Bunche assumed the role of mediator following the tragedy.
Bunche faced the difficult task of securing an armistice between Israel and the Arab states despite the bitter animosities fueling both sides. With no precedent to consult, Bunche improvised much of his strategy going into the negotiation but sought to remain in control throughout the process. He exercised his diplomatic acumen by choosing to conduct one-on-one mediations between Israel and each of the Arab states to minimize hostilities.
Meetings between Israeli and Egyptian representatives began in January 1949, and within a month, Bunche had secured a truce between the two. By April, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria had all signed the Island of Rhodes Armistice Agreements. Ralph Bunche had officially done the unthinkable: presided over successful negotiations between Israel and the Arab States, and brought peace, albeit temporarily, to the region.
Bunche’s decision to host the negotiations on the island of Rhodes also paid off: for his herculean efforts, Bunche was heralded as the “new colossus of Rhodes.” And a year later, Bunche received even greater recognition in the form of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.
Starting in 1955, Bunche served as U.N. Undersecretary-General for Special Political Affairs. When civil war broke out in the Congo in 1960, he oversaw the U.N. peacekeeping forces deployed there. Bunche was also a master of preventive diplomacy, and successfully averted hostilities in such varied places as Yemen, Kashmir, Cyprus, and Bahrain. Bunche served at the U.N. until his resignation in 1971 due to illness.
It’s impossible to overstate the accomplishments of Ralph Bunche. A forebear of American diplomacy, Bunche accelerated the pace of decolonization, invented the concept of peacekeeping, and highlighted the hypocrisy between ostensible U.S. support for human rights abroad and enduring racism at home.
Although Bunche is a singular figure, the path he forged has since been trodden by many Black diplomats, and notably, several Black women. Susan Rice, Linda-Thomas Greenfield, and other Black trailblazers in international affairs have all expanded upon Bunche’s legacy. Contemporary decision-makers would benefit from emulating Bunche’s calm, cool, and pragmatic approach to geopolitics.
It’s important to note that Bunche did not relegate his activism to international affairs. He was a staunch advocate of civil rights, and frequently corresponded with Martin Luther King Jr. Bunche demonstrated alongside King at the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. Bunche was also an active board member of the NAACP from 1949 until his death in 1971.
As the fight for racial justice continues, the anti-racist and anti-colonial values that Ralph Bunche personified beginning in the 1930s continue to inspire present-day decisions. One of the more recent milestones in the pursuit of Black liberation is the creation of the U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. The forum exists as “a platform for improving the safety and quality of life and livelihoods of people of African descent.” Whether consciously or not, every delegate at the forum is an embodiment of Bunche and the progress he wished to see in the world.
Bunche’s legacy lives on through several channels; most notably, the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center at Howard University. Among its many programs, the Bunche Center administers the State Department’s Diplomatic Fellowships, which enable students from underprivileged communities to pursue careers in international affairs. In the process, these programs honor Bunche’s legacy by diversifying the U.S. diplomatic core.
As an aspiring diplomat, Bunche is an inspiration to me, but the way he shattered every stereotype of Blackness makes him a true American hero. Bunche’s writing reflects the wisdom he accrued during a lifetime of travel. One of his most prescient, and a lesson that all public servants should heed: “Our hearts are strongest when they beat in response to noble ideals.”