Skip to main content


Pioneer for Peace

Ralph Bunche

By Susan Clark | HUMANITIES, January/February 2001 | Volume 22, Number 1

He invented the peacekeeping force. He engineered the dismantling of the worlds great colonial empires. He planned the first march on Washington for civil rights. He founded the political science department at Howard University. There is a monument to him across from the United Nations building in New York City, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan keeps his picture on the office wall.

And yet, most Americans cannot tell you anything about him. They may know his name: Ralph Bunche. Some may know that he was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. For most, however, his image is far from vivid, and very few people have any idea of the scope of his contributions.

That may change with the airing on PBS of Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey. The film is based on the biography bearing the same title, written by Bunche's longtime colleague at the UN, Sir Brian Urquhart. Urquhart says one reason for Bunche's surprising obscurity is his own attitude toward his accomplishments: "Bunche had the attitude that a public servant was a public servant, and that the whole point was not to get a lot of recognition or acclaim but to get the job done." He adds, "He's the only person I've ever heard of who tried to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize, because he felt he was simply doing a job and he wasn't out for prizes." In the end, Ralph Bunche did accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for negotiating the Armistice Agreements between the Arab nations and Israel.

The film traces Bunche's life from his birth in Detroit to parents who were fairly well-educated and accomplished, but who spent a number of years in poverty and battling ill health. Young Ralph's mother died when he was thirteen, shortly after his father deserted the family; his grandmother moved the family to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Ralph became a star student and athlete, and although he was denied admission to a city-wide honor society because of his race, he graduated first in his class and went to UCLA on an athletic scholarship. He earned his master's from Harvard, and was invited to establish a political science department at Howard University. At Howard, he became part of an elite group of scholars who sought answers to the problems afflicting people of color in the United States and in the rest of the world.

He returned to Harvard on a fellowship, becoming the "first Negro" in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in political science. His dissertation examined French colonial administration and was based on field work in Togo and Dahomey.

Doing this work showed him the devastating consequences of colonialism, and brought into sharp focus the relationship of colonialism and racism. His findings were published in 1936 as A World View of Race, in which he showed how the two institutions supported each other, and denounced the growing influence of fascism and Nazism.

He returned to Howard, where he continued his civil rights work, and was one of the founders of the National Negro Congress. Along with A. Philip Randolph, he organized a march on Washington to protest job discrimination in the defense industry in 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt's administration was so disturbed by the prospect of such a march that he issued an executive order on fair employment in the defense industries--and the march was canceled.

During World War II, Bunche's expertise on Africa made him an attractive recruit for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); he came to the attention of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who wanted him to head the Department's Africa Section. There was some resistance to his joining the exclusive "white- man's club" that the State Department was at the time. Hull said: "I don't care whether his skin is white, blue, black, green, or pink ... ... The only thing I care about is having the best possible man for the job. . . I want him hired!"

It was through his position at the State Department that Bunche was involved in the drafting of the United Nations Charter after World War II. He drafted the chapters which dealt with non-self-governing countries and with the trusteeship system, which have since served as blueprints for dismantling colonial empires. The great European powers resisted; at the time, theirs was the prevailing world-view--colonial empires were still vast and their philosophy widely accepted. A little over a half-century later, there are very few colonies left, and most of those are on their way to independence. Self-determination has become the rule rather than the exception among the world's nations, and the film makes clear that Bunche was the architect of much of that change. William Greaves, the filmmaker who produced An American Odyssey, says it was the sweep of Bunche's influence that inspired him: "He was so profound and pervasive in his impact on the history, the biography of America and the world that few people could grasp because it was so enormous--his analysis and his strategy for bringing this thing to an end as far as his resources could allow."

Bunche stayed on at the UN, serving as Under Secretary-General for almost twenty years. During that time he won-- and tried to refuse-- the Nobel Peace Prize, and invented the concept of armed forces as peacekeepers, a concept still evolving on the international scene today.

Urquhart says that before his death in 1971, Bunche became somewhat disillusioned with the results of some of his work, that the decolonization of Africa, in particular, did not go as he had hoped. He tried to be philosophical about it, saying that no country, not even the United States, has managed to build the institutions to sustain independence until independence has become a fact.

Urquhart also says that for Bunche's epitaph he would hark back to that of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice--"If you would see his monument, look around you." If you look around and see a world where peacekeeping is a widely accepted role for armed forces, a world where few people accept anymore the right of one people to rule another, you see the monument to Ralph Bunche.