Political scientist, educator, civil rights activist, anthropologist, intelligence officer, humanitarian and diplomat Ralph J. Bunche (August 7, 1904-December 9, 1971) was not a lawyer, but he worked on many treaties that directly affected U.S. and foreign laws. As a result of his mediation work, on December 10, 1950, Dr. Bunche became the first African American man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of the United Nations (U.N.) to broker peace between Israel and Egypt in 1949. His successful work on Middle East diplomacy was also recognized by the United States when President John F. Kennedy awarded Dr. Bunche the Medal of Freedom in 1963, and the State Department named its library in his honor as well.
Dr. Bunche earned his doctorate in 1936 from Harvard University; his dissertation was awarded the Toppan Prize for an outstanding dissertation on political science. He had a distinguished career teaching at various institutions (Howard and Harvard among them) until the war. In 1941, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the predecessor of the CIA – recruited Bunche to work for them. While at OSS, he was valued as a specialist in African affairs, and he realized his talents could be put to good use at the Department of State, where he transferred in 1944 to become their first African-American desk officer. When the U.N. was established, the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, co-opted Dr. Bunche to work there. Dr. Bunche worked as chief aide to Count Folke Bernadotte, and both travelled to Rhodes to begin the negotiations, but Bernadotte was assassinated in September 1948. Dr. Bunche took over the negotiations as the U.N. Mediator. He successfully negotiated four armistice agreements which established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between Israel and Egypt, ceded a territory to Egypt that is known as the Gaza Strip, allowed surrounded Egyptian soldiers to leave Fallujah with their weapons, and established an Armistice Demarcation Line. One contemporary story recorded that Dr. Bunche was so optimistic about the success of the mediations and the parties’ need for peace that he arranged for a local artisan to make commemorative plates before the mediations were completed. Moshe Dayan reportedly asked him what he would have done if the negotiations had failed, and Dr. Bunche said, “I’d have broken the plates over your damn heads.”
After the work that earned Dr. Bunche the Nobel, he continued his work with the U.N. and State Department, mediating agreements in Palestine, Yemen, Kashmir, Cyprus, Suez, the Congo, and Bahrain. He retired from the U.N. as undersecretary-general in June 1971. He was also active in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, participating in the March on Washington in August 1963 and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and served on the board of the NAACP from 1949 until he died in 1971.Dr. Bunche said during his Nobel Prize lecture, “There are some in the world who are prematurely resigned to the inevitability of war. Among them are the advocates of ‘preventive war’, who in their resignation to war, wish merely to select their own time initiating it. To suggest that war can prevent war is a base play on words and a despicable form of warmongering. The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honourable recourse in the effort to save the peace.”
To read our other posts about Nobel laureates, see: