Today in History

Today in History: December 9

Ralph Bunche

Portrait of Ralph Bunche
Ralph Bunche, May 16, 1951.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten,1932-1964

U.S. diplomat Ralph Bunche, a key member of the United Nations (UN) for more than two decades, and winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his successful negotiation of a truce between Arabs and Jews in Palestine the previous year, died on December 9, 1971, in New York City.

1902 M, New York Skyline
1902 M, New York Skyline,
1902.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. He attended the southern branch of the University of California—which later became UCLA—graduating summa cum laude, as class valedictorian in 1927. He earned his master’s degree in government at Harvard University in 1928 and then became an instructor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  Bunche established Howard’s first department of political science in 1929. In 1934, he was the first African American awarded a PhD from Harvard. He earned his doctorate in government and international relations while he was teaching at Howard.

Later, he collaborated with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on the monumental study of U.S. race relations published as An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). The study is famous for presenting the theory that poverty breeds poverty.

During World War II, Bunche worked for the Office of Strategic Services and the State Department. Toward the end of the war, he played an important role in preliminary planning for the United Nations, the organization that he served for the rest of his career.

United Nations Headquarters in New York
United Nations Headquarters in New York,
1952.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

In 1947, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie appointed Bunche as his personal representative to the UN Special Commission on Palestine. He also served as an aide to Count Folke Bernadotte, the chief UN mediator between the Arabs and Jews in the 1948-49 Israeli-Arab War. After Bernadotte was assassinated on September 17, 1948, Bunche became acting mediator. His successful negotiation of armistice agreements between the new state of Israel and the neighboring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria earned him the Nobel Peace Prize (external link) in 1950.

Bunche later oversaw UN peacekeeping missions to the Suez Canal in 1956, the Congo in 1960, and Cyprus in 1964. He also set up the UN Observation Mission to Yemen in 1963-64 and supervised the ceasefire that followed the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War.

Bunche served as a board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for twenty-two years; he also received that organization’s Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement. After attracting some criticism for seeming to neglect the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, Bunche began to speak out more directly on U.S. racial discrimination.
In the last decade of his life, he became an increasingly vocal supporter of the civil rights movement in the United States, participating in the 1965 civil rights marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

Search Library of Congress resources for more information on African Americans.

Visit Library sites for information on the countries that Ralph Bunche was involved in during his career at the United Nations.

Visit the United Nations (external link)Web site to learn more about its history and its current role in the world.
There also are several informative external sites on Ralph Bunche.

The Online Archive of California has a Finding Aid for the Ralph J. Bunche Papers, 1927-1971 (external link) which consists of correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, articles, publications, and photographs related to his life and career; some items in the collection are online.

  • The Nobel Prize links to a biography, Bunche’s acceptance speech, his lecture, and more.
  • Ralph Bunche An American Odyssey (external link) from the Public Broadcasting Service includes a time line, reading list, and information on various phases of his life.