Ralph Bunche: a life of timeless lessons

January 30, 1994|By Ronald Walters

Title: "Ralph Bunche: An American Life"

Author: Brian Urquhart

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Length, price: 496 pages, $27.50 Brian Urquhart has written the most comprehensive and significant account of the life of Ralph Johnson Bunche to date. He was an assistant to Bunche for more than 15 years, and his personal observations and access to information enable him to shed much light on the shaping of Bunche's formidable intellect, his character and his career.

Bunche (1904-1971) was chairman of the political science department at Howard University from 1928 to 1944, but he was away for most of that time. He was otherwise engaged, for example, in research projects in South Africa, travels in Asia, research with Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal on the race relations project that became "An American Dilemma," and employment in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services beginning in 1941.

Obviously, he preferred the excitement of international travel and the attendant issues to what he called "the Howard mess . . . " in part because of the comparatively mundane life of a professor running an academic department. But there was another reason: The racism and segregation in Washington he experienced were detestable compared with the relative racial tolerance he found in London, Paris or other exotic places in the world.

Mr. Urquhart overcomes one tendency of some Bunche scholars to soft-pedal Bunche's early affinity for Marxist thought, although he does not address directly how he made the transition from radical thought to work for the American intelligence service in 1941.

The answer that emerges is that Bunche, like W. E. B. DuBois, was never part of the Communist Party cadre in the United States. Rather, early on he was attracted to the intellectual analysis of the economic basis of political and social progress. But the opposition of Bunche and other black leaders to Nazi racism and Hitler's attack on the Allies became a powerful underlying basis for black patriotism.

This biography reflects the weight of Bunche's career in the United Nations, and it is a telling commentary that his impact on the development of that institution finds the two stories utterly inseparable.

For example, Bunche was part of the State Department team that helped shape the United Nations. He virtually established the Trusteeship Committee, first, as the U.S. representative to the U.N. Executive Committee in 1945, and later as assistant director of the U.N. Trusteeship Department in 1946.

However, the saga that would result in his receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1950 began when the General Assembly, at the request of the British, established the Special Committee on Palestine in May 1947. Bunche was named special assistant to the representative of the secretary-general.

Mr. Urquhart provides meticulous details of the lengthy, challenging and exhaustive negotiations conducted by Bunche, who worked closely with the Swedish chief mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, until his assassination by the Jewish underground organization, the Stern Gang, in September 1948.

Upon Bernadotte's assassination, Bunche assumed the role of chief mediator and negotiated agreements between Israel and the Arab states, achieving international recognition of temporary boundaries among Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt and armistice agreements among these warring parties, and between Israel and the Palestinians.

Abba Eban later suggested that these agreements provided the only framework of stability in the area for 18 years. Nevertheless, Bunche was to admit, prophetically, that the Palestinian Arabs, slowly filling up refugee camps, were the losers. In effect, the agreement ratified the political status quo won by the Israelis on the ground through war with the tacit and sometimes direct support of Britain and the United States.

Mr. Urquhart provides strong testimony that the acclaim attributed to Bunche by the Nobel Prize and other awards was in effect a recognition of his mastery of the tools of international diplomacy, an accomplishment for which he has yet to be given the recognition he deserves by serious students of international relations.

Several U.S. presidents recognized this at the time: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all offered Ralph Bunche high positions in the U.S. diplomatic service. He always demurred, explaining that he did not want his family to live in "Jim Crow" Washington.

However, it was equally clear that he found much more freedom and flexibility to create on a grand scale, given his status as undersecretary for political affairs in a global organization. Indeed, such heads of the United Nations as Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant had come to rely on Bunche's considerable talents and gave him responsibilities he would never achieve as a representative of the United States.

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