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A Hero of Diplomacy


In one of the early adventures of his remarkable but little-remembered life, Ralph Bunche collaborated with the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. He quickly discovered that Myrdal could be a perilous colleague. Bunche was already an accomplished social scientist. At Harvard he had written his prize-winning doctoral thesis on French colonialism in West Africa and was a professor at Howard University, the “black Athens” where he organized the political science department. Myrdal’s study, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, was the most comprehensive examination of American race relations ever attempted, and Bunche believed its findings would assist the struggle of African Americans for equality and justice.

In 1939 he and Myrdal went together on a research trip through the South. During the trip when white strangers were around, Myrdal was apt to begin loudly discussing race problems, while Bunche, who had relatively light skin, was for the sake of convenience briefly “passing” for white. Once an Atlanta magazine editor brought a defamation charge after Myrdal indignantly inquired, in response to a crude remark by the white woman concerning the sexual appetites of black men, whether she herself didn’t in fact have a concealed desire to sleep with them. Bunche and Myrdal had to flee across the Georgia border to avoid going to court.

Bunche was good-natured about Myrdal’s foolish remarks. “I was always on the verge of being lynched because of his playful pranks,” he wrote to a friend at the time. After working hours, however, he drew the line. In segregated New Orleans, where Bunche had to spend the night in separate quarters, Myrdal asked him to come around to his hotel for drinks. Because Myrdal’s guest was a Negro, the hotel manager advised him, Bunche would have to use the service entrance and elevator. Bunche told Myrdal that he would not subject himself to Jim Crow for social purposes.

After finishing his work for Myrdal, he was hired as the Africa specialist in the Office of Strategic Services. Subsequently he joined the State Department and was a member of the American delegation in San Francisco which helped draft the United Nations Charter. In 1948, President Truman asked Bunche, then forty-five years old, to be an assistant secretary of state. However, he refused to live again in Washington, citing, among other racial grievances, an incident from his OSS years. When the family dog died and his children wanted to bury it in a local pet cemetery, he found separate sections for the animals of whites and blacks. In 1946, Bunche left the State Department for a temporary assignment as acting head of the trusteeship department in the United Nations Secretariat. He never returned to work in Washington.

Bunche had spent much of his life preparing to deal with the problems of decolonialization facing the UN in the postwar years, and he never seemed to regret having passed up a career in the American foreign service. While he was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize (the first black man to be so honored) for his part in negotiating the armistices between Israel and the Arab nations in 1949, what he accomplished went far beyond his work in the Middle East. During his twenty-five years as an international civil servant he was the right-hand man of Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld, and U Thant. During the years of the cold war, few did more to strengthen the UN as a forum for handling international conflicts.

Although Bunche is clearly one of the century’s most impressive black Americans, his own modesty, the secretive nature of diplomatic work, and, perhaps, racial prejudice have conspired to obscure his legacy. Brian Urquhart’s excellent biography makes clear that had he been white, Bunche would have been one of the most skillful US diplomats of his generation. Urquhart, a colleague of Bunche’s at the UN, has reconstructed the story of how Bunche, during a period of implacable racial discrimination, combined intelligence, dignity, and a sense of humor to become one of the leading diplomats on the international scene. Now the scholar in residence at the Ford Foundation, Urquhart was Bunche’s assistant from 1954 to 1971 and succeeded him as undersecretary-general for special political affairs. In addition, Bunche was a prolific diarist and note taker, and Urquhart has drawn heavily on Bunche’s own words and ideas.

Bunche was born in Detroit in 1903. Urquhart describes an imaginative, rather romantic young man who idealized Ty Cobb, was fascinated by the circus, thought of being a musician, and made pocket money hawking newspapers. Bunche’s father was a peripatetic barber. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was thirteen, and he was brought up poor but was much loved by his mother’s clan, the Johnsons, and particularly his grandmother, Lucy Johnson. His grandfather was a weekly newspaper editor and teacher who held classes for the children of former slaves.

Lucy Johnson moved the family to Los Angeles. Her mother had been a house slave in Missouri and her father an Irish landowner. Her own complexion was very light. Her brother “passed over” into white society, but she was herself intensely proud of her African heritage and passed on that pride to Ralph. “Let them, especially white folks, know that you can do anything they can do,” she would say. She took her grandson out of the vocational classes where most Negro students were put and insisted he be given an academic education. Bunche wound up class valedictorian; at his graduation the well-meaning principal of the school remarked to his grandmother, “We have never thought of Ralph as a Negro.” Why not? she retorted. “He is a Negro, and he is proud of it.”

Bunche went on to achieve high honors at UCLA and Harvard, and his doctoral thesis propelled him into a career in international politics. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Urquhart argues, Bunche gradually worked out his own view of history which enabled him to see the plight of African Americans in the setting not only of the American Depression but of global colonial exploitation as well. To him, the great issue was justice for oppressed peoples everywhere, not only in America.

When during the Thirties he went to Togo and Dahomey to observe colonial rule, Bunche was troubled by the social conditions tolerated by French administrators and even more dismayed by their blinkered attitudes. “Sooner or later as the educated class of natives increases in numbers,” he wrote of Dahomey in his dissertation,

the French will be confronted with the difficult problem of the colonial administration of backward peoples:that there is no apparent peaceful means of transition to full self control.

This prophetic view anticipated the later political disasters that occurred throughout the continent, and it remained central to Bunche’s thinking about public life.

In 1936, Bunche received a grant for post-doctoral research on the impact of colonial rule as seen by Africans themselves. The experience further broadened his views. In London, he met and became close friends with several students who were to become African leaders, notably Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya; he saw much of Paul Robeson, who was in Britain to make a film. On the same trip abroad Bunche spent seven months traveling through South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo, eventually returning to the United States after a quick tour of East Asia.

Frequently in his career Bunche was criticized for his supposed detachment from the American civil rights struggle. Urquhart discusses such criticism in detail and shows it to be unfair. Bunche generally had high regard for America’s democratic system and values when compared with those of other countries in which there were large numbers of blacks, and he believed that African Americans should demand full American citizenship and make the most of it. Moreover, Bunche’s private papers confirm what should have been clear from his countless public comments over the years, that despite his intense involvement in international matters, he was deeply concerned about the problems of racial injustice in his own country.

Urquhart also discusses some of the issues on which Bunche disagreed with some of his black contemporaries. For one thing, Urquhart writes, Bunche in his early years was much influenced by Marxist ideas and tended to view the condition of African Americans as more a matter of class domination than of racial bias. Bunche therefore came to strongly disagree with radical pan-Africanists like his former idol, W.E.B. Du Bois: he argued that black separatism in America would only lead to continued political and economic inferiority and not to increased self-respect. At the same time, Bunche’s radical views during the 1930s led him to dismiss as too tame the established organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, although he later supported their work.

Bunche was active in African-American affairs throughout his career. He was a co-founder of the National Negro Congress, an unsuccessful attempt to address racial inequality through working-class unity. He eventually spent twenty-two years as an NAACP board member and greatly admired Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins. While a high UNofficial, he publicly expressed his admiration, as he put it in a lecture, for

the heroic actions of Negro youth—and white youth too—in the sit-down, bus boycott, freedom ride, campus strikes and demonstrations and other protest activities of recent years—activities in which I have rejoiced because they mark a new awakening for the Negro and courage in support of bold action.

He was one of the speakers who appeared with Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial after the march on Washington and he took part in the march on Selma. (“Your presence,” King told him, “gives a new dimension to our effort.”)

This kind of outspoken but essentially moderate position came under attack during the 1960s with the emergence of the black power movement. Bunche had less respect for Malcolm X than he had for W.E.B. Du Bois, and he deplored Malcolm X’s language. In 1962, after Malcolm described a plane crash that killed 120 whites as a “beautiful thing,” Bunche told an NAACP gathering that such a statement could only come from a depraved mind. He prided himself on never having stooped to demagoguery. “We do not have to become racists to win our struggle,” he said. At the very end of his life, particularly after Martin Luther King’s assassination, his optimism showed signs of diminishing. He began to doubt whether African Americans would ever be genuinely accepted in a white-dominated society, and he lamented the increasing polarization between whites and non-whites throughout the world. Perhaps because his own personal difficulties with discrimination were relatively minor, Bunche, Urquhart suggests, tended to underestimate the huge obstacles in the way of racial reconciliation.


All of Bunche’s training had prepared him for his life’s work at the UN. His main task, as he saw it, was to help guide the former colonies and mandated territories to full and productive independence. At the San Francisco conference in 1945, he largely wrote the chapters of the founding United Nations Charter dealing with trusteeship, the process by which the dependent territories were to be transformed into self-governing nations. Bunche’s permanent appointment as trusteeship director in the UN secretariat came at the end of 1946. He had only a few months to deal with the problems of the first eight trust territories before one of the major challenges of his life arose in Palestine.

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