A forgotten voice in world affairs Peacemaker: Ralph J. Bunche deserves major recognition for Israel's existence.

May 17, 1998|By Stephen Zunes

During the media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Israel, there has been scant mention of the African-American who won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating a truce in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. This overlooked figure is Ralph J. Bunche, the United Nations diplomat who prodded the Arab states into implicitly recognizing Israel and helped to legitimize the Jewish state in the international community.

Bunche's legacy goes well beyond the truce that earned him numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Indeed, those familiar with his work consider him to be one of the great figures of the century.

Bunche was actually born in Detroit in 1903, although many biographical accounts based on poor records say he was born in 1904. His parents died when he was a child, and Bunche was reared by his grandmother in Los Angeles. Bunche's intellectual brilliance became apparent in high school. He received an athletic scholarship to UCLA, where he excelled at basketball and graduated with honors in 1927 with a degree in international relations.

When Bunche received his doctoral degree in political science at Harvard University in 1934, he became the first African-American to hold a doctorate in that field. While completing his dissertation, he organized and chaired the political science department at Howard University. During the 1930s, Bunche was noted for his research on colonialism, race relations and anthropology. In 1941, he joined the U.S. State Department, where he held a succession of influential jobs.

With the notable exceptions of Bunche, Andrew Young and Donald McHenry, few African-Americans have played major roles U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, at the time when Bunche was gaining recognition for his knowledge of foreign affairs, he was not allowed to live in certain racially segregated neighborhoods in Washington, and he could not eat in downtown restaurants. He also suffered racist snubs from congressional leaders.

In addition to his interest in international affairs, Bunche was involved in the civil rights struggle in the United States, serving for 22 years on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and marching alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery march. He recognized the links between colonialism abroad and racism at home, arguing that "segregation and democracy are incompatible."

Bunche's skills as an international mediator, however, were unsurpassed. "The great thing about Bunche was that everybody who dealt with him, even those who disagreed with him, knew he was absolutely fair and honest. He never would tell anyone something that wasn't true," said the British statesman Sir Brian Urquhart.

Bunche was not a sentimental idealist. He entered negotiations with the presumption that governments were primarily motivated self-interest. But he also believed that peace was possible if governments could be persuaded to consider their long-term interests. It was his ability to appeal to enlightened self-interest that made Bunche such a successful negotiator. Said Urquhart, "He understood, better than anybody I've ever seen, the concerns and fears and worries that are on the minds of people in conflicts. The result was that he enjoyed the complete confidence of the people he dealt with."

Bunche's words say much about him: "In this dangerous international age, notions of exalted and exaggerated nationalism, national egocentrism and isolationism, of chauvinism or group superiority and master race, of group exclusiveness, of national self-righteousness, of special privileges, are in interest of neither the world nor of any particular group in it."

His insightful world view also made him a sometimes lonely voice in U.S. foreign policy circles, as when he became an early critic of the Vietnam War, a supporter for a stronger United Nations and an advocate for a more consistent U.S. stance in support of human rights and international law.

At the United Nations, he served as director of the trusteeship division and later as undersecretary-general for special political affairs. During the 1950s and 1960s, Bunche played a major role as a U.N. envoy to many of the world's trouble spots, including Cyprus, Kashmir and the Congo, as well as the Middle East.

He was never particularly eager to be a globe-trotting diplomat. A committed family man, he was greatly pained by the enormous amount of time he spent away from his wife and children. Bunche also suffered from diabetes and other health problems, which were exacerbated by his travels. Yet he was repeatedly solicited by leading U.S. and U.N. officials to take on sensitive assignments because he was recognized as the best choice for the job. Recognizing the high stakes involved, Bunche nearly always accepted the call, working for the United Nations until just before his death in 1971, at age 67. It was this deep sense of social responsibility that set him apart from so many other diplomats.

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