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by Renee M. Earle

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first Nobel Peace Prize presented for efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East between Israel and Arab nations in Palestine. The recipient was Ralph Bunche, an American academic and diplomat with the U.N., who received the Peace Prize in 1950 for brokering the Israeli-Arab armistice agreements in 1949. The agreements ended the official hostilities of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and established armistice lines between Israeli and Arab nation forces that held until the 1967 Six-Day War. (This same seemingly intractable confrontation yielded two later Peace Prizes: to Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978 and to Yassar Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.)

Ralph J. Bunche
Photo from the Nobel Foundation archive

My introduction to Ralph Bunche came thanks to the State Department library, named for Ralph J. Bunche in 1997  in recognition of his political and humanitarian contributions to the Department of State and the United Nations, and to the world of learning.

I became an ardent admirer of Ralph Bunche for his dedication to thoughtful, patient, and persistent diplomacy – which ultimately is also effective diplomacy. Bunche was a perceptive observer of human nature and his studies in social science and colonial policy certainly stood him in good stead in his exhaustive and exhausting efforts to bring peace to Palestine in the late 1940’s and in his subsequent work during 25 years with the U.N.

A rigorous academic, Bunche studied and taught political science, colonialism, and international relations at today’s UCLA (summa cum laude 1927), Harvard (Ph.D. 1934), Howard, and the London School of Economics. He began his career in public service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the organization formed during WWII to deal with domestic public information and defense information on countries where U.S. troops might serve. Subsequently the State Department requested that Bunche participate in postwar planning for colonial and dependent territories. This was followed in 1945 by a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt and the invitation to join the U.S. delegation to the San Francisco Conference that developed the United Nations Charter. Thereafter, Bunche was part of the U.S. delegation to the meeting of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations in London.

In 1946, the Department of State reluctantly agreed to lend Bunche to the U.N. at the request of Secretary-General Trygve Lie. Lie put him in charge of the Department of Trusteeship, which had been established to deal with the status of non-self-governing nations at the end of the colonial era. Recognizing Bunche’s unique abilities, the State Department and U.N. competed to retain Bunche, but Bunche, profoundly dedicated to the belief that global “peace and the United Nations have become inseparable,” never returned to the Department of State.

At the U.N. Bunche was charged with setting up the U.N. Trusteeship Council to administer eight Trust Territories in Africa and the Pacific. Soon, however, he was diverted to matters in a League of Nations mandate territory that had not become a Trust Territory, the British Mandate in Palestine. Increasingly severe fighting between Arabs and Jews accompanied the abandoning in early 1948 of the Palestine partition plan approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1947, which all Arab and Muslim states had voted against. The U.N. subsequently appointed Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator for Palestine. Ralph Bunche was appointed his chief aide. When four months later Count Bernadotte was assassinated by Israeli extremists, Bunche was named acting U.N. mediator on Palestine. In deference to Count Bernadotte, Bunche never assumed the title of “Mediator.”

As “Acting Mediator,” from his base on the island of Rhodes, at great cost to comfort, health, and family, Bunche carried out unrelenting shuttle diplomacy among the many actors with a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation: Israel, Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria — and no less Great Britain, the U.S., and France as well as the U.N. secretariat, Security Council, and General Assembly. The tumultuous diplomatic and armed skirmishes between Israel and Arab states often brought negotiations to a halt, only to be rekindled through Bunche’s determined efforts.

Bunche persevered through eleven months of virtually ceaseless negotiating, with each side jockeying for position while believing the other side was getting unfair advantage. In the end, he obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the individual Arab States – another of Bunche’s informed ideas that led to success. His success contrasted sharply with the later failure of the Palestine Conciliation Commission negotiations, which lumped the Arab states together rather than working with them as individual nations.

Bunche’s efforts are a case-study in tireless and even-handed diplomacy in a search for just solutions for all sides.   And he dealt not only with issues of the belligerents themselves. Domestic political considerations of U.N. member countries, including the U.S. and other Western nations, made his job that much harder. Hostility and petty jealousies abounded within U.N. offices. He was frequently the scapegoat for politicians and nations trying to justify unpopular positions, alternately criticized by every side, which he ironically referred to as evidence of his objectivity.

Not least, Bunche worked against a backdrop of racism in the U.S. and elsewhere. He summarized his personal experiences in a 1936 book, A World View of Race, and remained engaged throughout his life in elucidating and bringing solutions to equality among races. To take the measure of what it meant to work (and live) in this environment, we should remember that African nation envoys to the U.S at the time considered the U.S. a hardship post rather than a plum assignment. Even pet cemeteries were segregated in Washington, D.C.! Bunche endured, overcame, and succeeded, often thanks to an unfailing sense of humor.

There were many “firsts” for Ralph Bunche that included mention of his race, the “first Negro” to earn a Harvard political science doctorate, the “first Negro” to be awarded the Nobel, and countless others. Beyond the significant, daily, and lifelong challenges that he faced because of his race, however, Ralph Bunche’s accomplishments stand for themselves outside the prism of race as unique contributions to global peace and equality.

The arduous negotiations of 1949 were not Bunche’s only diplomatic success.   He brought his knowledge and determination to other seemingly intractable problems: in Congo, Cyprus, Kashmir, Vietnam, Yemen, and Suez. He returned to the Palestine portfolio in 1967 when persistent skirmishes – amid misunderstandings and provocations — turned again into all-out war, the “Six-Day War,” ending the armistice that had lasted 18 years as the official framework for managing the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Bunche eventually became a U.N. under-secretary-general for special political affairs and his personal story is inextricably entwined with the creation and development of the United Nations as it elaborated its authorities and procedures. In many ways, the conflict in Palestine was the U.N.’s first test. Many of Bunche’s proposed U.N actions in the crisis became standard U.N. practice and remain so today, such as the guidelines for U.N. peacekeeping.

After the first armistice agreement, that of Israel and Egypt, Time magazine wrote:

“The armistice agreement was in large part due to the immense ability, patience, tact, and unflagging good humor of Ralph Bunche…Several times during the seven weeks of negotiations, agreement had seemed hopeless. Each time, Dr. Bunche had thought of something to keep the talks alive. By the last week, the negotiators on both sides had come to regard him as the new Colossus of Rhodes…”

There is so much more to say about the accomplishments and life of this brilliant diplomat and remarkable man. For a full and detailed accounting, I highly recommend two resources, on which this article is broadly based: Brian Urquhart’s excellent biography, Ralph Bunche: an American Odyssey, which traces Bunche’s life and work through the lens of a U.N. diplomat colleague and the executor of his papers; and Bunche’s speech, “Review and Appraisal of Israeli-Arab Relations,” delivered at the National War College in 1951, the year after he received the Nobel.

Bunche died in 1971 at the early age of 67.   A reporter wrote: “… when all the world praises a man, there seems little left to say. He left this earth too soon – but a better place for (his) having been here… “End.


Renee M.Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services.

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