Ralph Bunche
Ralph Bunche; drawing by David Levine


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.

In 1947, Britain gave notice of its intention to give up the League of Nations’ mandate for Palestine. The General Assembly then established the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to review the problem of Palestine and make recommendations. Bunche’s notes from the period reveal an astonishing ignorance and confusion on the part of the eleven-member panel, which included representatives from Canada, Uruguay, Guatemala, Poland, and Peru. When it convened, it was, he said, “just about the worst group I have ever had to work with.” Bunche joined the committee as Trygve Lie’s special representative and, according to his notes, in the absence of any coherent view on the part of its members, and an Arab boycott of its field investigations, he took on much of the responsibility for formulating its conclusions. The majority report advocated the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, a proposal, in the form of Resolution 181, that was formally adopted by the General Assembly.

The charge made by some Arabs that Bunche was secretly pro-Zionist and was part of a conspiracy against them dates from his UNSCOP involvement. Urquhart quotes from his private papers to show that, to the contrary, he was an astute and compassionate analyst of the situation of the Palestinians and that he tried to achieve compromises that would be realistic and fair to all sides. Just two weeks after setting foot in Palestine for the first time, he grasped the central point: “This problem can’t be solved on the basis of abstract justice,” he wrote. “Reality is that both Arabs and Jew are here and intend to stay.”

While Bunche had largely drafted UNSCOP’s majority report, he also wrote the minority report, which opposed partition in favor of a federation. He seems to have had no clear preference himself. “I have written two solutions,” he wrote to his wife, “Whatever the solution decided upon…the basic paper will have been mine. I’m not at all satisfied with my scheme [the partition plan], but this is the sort of problem for which no really satisfactory solution is possible. The best that can be done is a reasonable and workable compromise, and I worked out my proposal on that basis.”

Any student of Palestine’s history, in fact, must be struck by Bunche’s sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs, a group largely ignored then and for many years afterward by the other parties to the conflict. Before the state of Israel was established Bunche wrote privately about the threat to the Palestinians from “crafty Abdullah,” the king of Transjordan, who saw “the possibility of enlarging his domain by partition.” Bunche also observed that a number of UNSCOP’s members were anti-Semitic and therefore supported the Zionists “as a means of dumping world Jewry on the Arabs.” In a letter to Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, Bunche acknowledged he had some sympathy for the Zionists, but stressed, “as long as I am on the job, Ishall continue to call each play just as I see it.”

In 1948, a week after Israel declared independence and neighboring Arab armies rushed to Palestine’s defense, the Security Council appointed a UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden. Trygve Lie asked Bunche to accompany Bernadotte as chief representative of the secretary-general in Palestine. Bernadotte, after reviewing the situation, suggested that Jerusalem be placed within Arab borders rather than become a divided city like Berlin, a position later amended by calling for UN control of the city. He also proposed that the Negev Desert, though awarded to the Zionists in the partition plan, be granted to the Arabs as a quid pro quo for the Israeli capture of Galilee in 1948.

In response to these positions, Bernadotte was assassinated by the Stern Gang on the outskirts of Jerusalem while on his way to inspect a prospective new UN headquarters. Bunche had planned to accompany him but he had been held up at Israeli military checkpoints, and Bernadotte had gone ahead without him. The Security Council appointed Bunche to take on Bernadotte’s almost impossible task. Not only was the new State of Israel at war with all of its neighbors, but none of the combatants, Israel included, was willing to accept the borders set by the partition plan. The fighting continued. Bunche’s great achievement was to seize the one moment when a truce seemed possible. Within weeks of his appointment, he perceived that an Israeli attack deep into the Negev Desert had opened the way for negotiations. An Egyptian division, whose officers included Gamal Abdul Nasser, were surrounded and trapped by Israeli forces. Bunche immediately sought to take advantage of the shifting balance of forces. After the Security Council adopted a resolution calling for Israel and Egypt to accept a cease-fire, both countries accepted Bunche’s proposal to begin truce negotiations.

With the Egyptian division isolated in al-Faluja, military leaders in Cairo were more open to such a suggestion. In January 1949, Bunche convened armistice talks on the island of Rhodes. He never intended that the Rhodes talks would amount to a full-scale peace conference, and said so at the time. He believed that in view of the military confusion and intensity of political feeling, nothing could begin to be settled until a permanent truce could be agreed on. As the weeks of bargaining dragged on, Bunche, Urquhart writes, was privately impatient and miserable, and longed to go home to his family. But his mood was not always visible to the delegates. By using his diplomatic skills, patience, and good humor he painstakingly held the volatile talks together, drawing up a compromise and convincing both sides that they could live with it. Not the least of the reasons for Bunche’s success here and elsewhere was his extraordinary skill in drafting diplomatic agreements.

Bunche’s main tasks during the negotiations were to convince the Israelis to make territorial and strategic concessions at a time when they were enjoying victories on the battlefield, and to convince the Egyptians that, in accepting those concessions, they could honorably agree to a truce. Bunche could be both flattering and tough with the Israelis when he had to. He took aside Yigael Yadin, the Israeli army chief of staff, and put it to him that the test of a leader’s greatness was the ability to accept victory gracefully. At another point he scolded Yadin for Israeli complaints that the Egyptians were building fortifications at al-Faluja. The Israelis, he said, were themselves ignoring the provisions of the UN truce resolution asking that Egyptian soldiers be allowed to leave.

Evidently at Bunche’s initiative, the State Department cabled David Ben-Gurion to urge his government to accept Bunche’s proposals. The last sticking point was Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the Negev town of Beersheba, in effect the gateway to the Negev. Bunche, with Trygve Lie’s help, persuaded the Egyptians that the gains they would make from the armistice were not worth risking for the sake of Beersheba.

Bunche’s initiative in breaking the deadlock, as Urquhart puts it, was “immensely ambitious.” Besides handling the immediate problem of al-Faluja, Bunche outlined fair cease-fire lines, made suggestions on the withdrawal and balance of forces, and proposed a joint armistice commission under UN auspices. The agreements he arrived at became a model for the armistices he later negotiated between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. These kept the peace until the Suez crisis in 1956 and remained the only Israeli peace agreements to be made until the Camp David accords thirty years later. After the signing ceremony at the Hotel des Roses, Bunche gave a party for both sides in which, for the first time since the conflict began—and the last time for some years—the Israelis and Egyptians met informally in public.

The low point in the armistice talks on Rhodes occurred during the Israeli-Transjordanian talks. As they got underway, Israeli forces launched a new offensive in the Negev, seizing territory all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba and securing an outlet on the Red Sea. The move jeopardized Bunche’s credibility, coming, as it did, so swiftly after his negotiations to remove the Egyptians from the Negev. His conference on Rhodes had become a cover for the secret negotiations King Abdullah was having with the Israelis at his winter house in Shuneh near the Jordan River. Abdullah, it turned out, was willing to let the Israelis have the Negev if the Israelis in turn accepted his control over the Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank (“Another deal, and as usual the Palestinian Arabs lose,” Bunche commented when news arrived of the Shuneh agreements. It is they, he added, who “by and large have been the innocent victims of the dispute.”)

Bunche himself seems to have regarded his later work in organizing the first UN peace-keeping operations as more important than his achievement at Rhodes. With Bernadotte in Palestine, he had been responsible for recruiting and directing the UN’s first truce observers. The idea of a lightly armed international peace brigade was first put forward by Lester Pearson, the Canadian foreign minister, in response to the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France in 1956. The attack could have achieved the military aim of destroying Palestinian guerrilla bases in Egypt and taking back international control of the Suez Canal. But politically the Suez invasion was folly, based on a secret deal with Israel to invade Egypt. When it became apparent that Washington, Moscow, the UN, and even British public opinion would not stand for it, a UN peace-keeping force of six thousand troops was created to bring about the withdrawal of the invading forces.

Dag Hammarskjöld assigned Bunche the difficult job of organizing and then directing the multinational force, which included contingents from eight countries. Here there was none of the diplomatic drama of negotiating the historic armistice agreements, only a thousand details to be looked after: arranging accommodations for the troops, keeping them sober, defining their relations with their Egyptian hosts. Bunche insisted that the troops be deployed under the UN flag rather than their own various national banners as a way of emphasizing the force’s neutral position.

By all accounts Bunche handled the task brilliantly, and the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) became the example for later UN peace-keeping missions to follow. Bunche’s careful administration of UNEF made it acceptable to Nasser and tolerated by the Israelis. The Egyptian-Israeli armistice lines were remarkably quiet and free of cross-border guerrilla raids for the next ten years.

The Congo crisis a few years later proved even more complicated. Bunche was in Léopoldville representing Dag Hammarskjöld at independence celebrations in 1960 when he saw that the transition from Belgian colonial rule was collapsing into chaos. During the next two months, amid great confusion, Bunche directed a major emergency UN peace-keeping operation, Organisation des Nations Unies Au Congo (ONUC), intended to restore calm, take over from interfering Belgian troops, and secure the Congo with its pre-independence borders. The UN, Urquhart writes, was “split…down the middle,” with the US supporting President Joseph Kasavubu and the Soviet Union backing the radical prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Bunche resisted demands that ONUC be used to advance the political fortunes of one side or the other. The result was far from satisfactory, but it saved the Congo from becoming the kind of cold war battleground that later destroyed newly independent Angola and Mozambique. Bunche, Urquhart writes,

had to defend, and to maintain in action, the basic principle of UN peacekeeping—maintaining peace without using force or taking sides. He had done this in the face of opposition from his own military and from Western representatives, including the United States, knowing very well that any other course would certainly have landed the UN in a bloody debacle which would have quickly put an end to the whole operation.

But Bunche took a lot of heat. Some of the Congolese politicians and the Soviet Union attacked him for not using UN forces to crush the Belgians and to end the Katanga secession led by Moise Tshombe, and Khrushchev accused Hammarskjöld of doing colonialism’s dirty work in the Congo. Hammarskjöld was killed in an air crash in September while trying to mediate the Katangan conflict. ONUC’s military pressure finally put an end to Tshombe’s resistance in early 1963. No doubt the UN intervention had the effect of keeping the Soviets out of the Congo, as the United States wished. But in Léopoldville Bunche was hardly taking orders from Washington. Bunche for example had a running battle with the American ambassador over his continued refusal to use UNforces to disarm the Congolese army.

The murder of Patrice Lumumba in February 1961 after a coup by Mobutu Sese Seko appalled Bunche* but he refused to join those who eulogized Lumumba as a great African hero of anticolonialism. He saw him as an intransigent and deeply unstable man whose recklessness threatened to destroy his country. Urquhart describes in detail how he irrationally denounced Bunche, demanded that the white soldiers in the UN forces be withdrawn, and had Bunche’s security assistants arrested and threatened with death. Bunche’s position hurt his relations with some pro-Lumumba African-American intellectuals just as the civil rights movement was about to enter its most active phase.

Perhaps another reason for Bunche’s drift into relative obscurity today even among African Americans is that his most dramatic achievements came so early in his career. By 1967, when the Six Day War broke the peace in the Middle East, UNEF was among its casualties. In May 1967 Nasser asked the UN to “redeploy” troops in the event that Egypt came into conflict with Israel. Bunche refused, saying that UNEF was a peace-keeping force and it could not stand aside and allow battles to break out in one part of Egypt—the Sinai Desert—while standing firm to prevent them in another part, the Gaza Strip, then under Egyptian rule. Nasser’s response was to request UNEF’s complete withdrawal, which U Thant quickly agreed to.

The UN’s acceptance of Egypt’s requests to remove UNEF increased the momentum toward war. It is true that the original agreement gave Egypt the right to have troops withdrawn. But U Thant and Bunche, it can be argued, would have better served the cause of peace if they had taken a less legalistic position and tried to find excuses to delay a response, hoping that Nasser would have second thoughts and that other nations would try to cool down his aggressiveness. Indeed, Urquhart interprets as precisely such an attempt Bunche’s instructions that UNEF’s withdrawal take place “in an orderly way” which “would be worked out and would take time.” However, Bunche’s efforts came to nothing. UNEF remained on Egyptian territory but, as Urquhart sums up Bunche’s account, “it could not function once Egyptian troops had moved up to the line”; and the Israelis refused to have UNEF within its borders. The UN was blamed by the Israelis for not standing up to Nasser and later, by Nasser’s apologists, for somehow drawing Egypt into a military disaster by quickly acceding to Egypt’s request. The latter claim is particularly hollow in view of the repetitive and reckless Egyptian threats during the weeks preceding the war.

It was nonetheless a blow to UN peace-keeping, and there have been others since. The 1967 war, Urquhart writes, undid an important part of Bunche’s life’s work. To his credit, however, Bunche was never under any illusions about the UN’s capacities. As he told Abba Eban in 1956, “The real importance of UNEF is that it does buy time…in which political developments can take place and progress on fundamental issues can be made.” As Bunche well knew, whether these fundamental issues will be seriously addressed by the UN is still largely up to its members, especially the more powerful ones. But Brian Urquhart’s finely written book also makes it clear that the UN is much more than a vehicle for great power maneuvers. Whatever effectiveness it has also depends on whether an international civil service, with its own integrity, can build up a repertory of workable procedures for peace-keeping and other functions. If it is to do so, Urquhart’s book suggests, it will have to draw on Bunche’s work and the example of fairness and dedication he set.

This Issue

September 22, 1994