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 on Ralph Johnson Bunche
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).