The Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy initiative tells the stories of the U.S. Department of State’s modern-day heroes among us and heroes from throughout our rich history. The following historical figures were nominated by the Department of State’s Office of the Historian and selected by a Steering Committee comprised of senior Department officials.
Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (1904-1971) was an academic and diplomat who shaped some of the most remarkable moments in 20th century history. The grandson of a freed slave, Bunche spent his life engaged as a civil rights activist in the United States while working for peace in troubled regions around the world. In recognition of his diplomatic contributions to the U.S. Department of State, the United Nations, and the international community, Bunche is honored as a Hero of U.S. Diplomacy.
With U.S. entry into World War II, Bunche served in the Office of Strategic Services before joining the U.S. Department of State (1944-1946), becoming the first African American Desk Officer. He was soon promoted to Chief of Dependent Area Affairs and played a major role in formulating the groundwork for the United Nations Charter. He joined the UN staff in 1946 and attended the first UN General Assembly that year in London. In 1948, Bunche worked to mediate the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although the UN originally chose Sweden’s Count Folke Bernadotte to mediate the conflict, with Bunche assigned as his chief aide, Bernadotte was assassinated in September, propelling Bunche to be lead negotiator. He negotiated the armistice while playing pool with the Israeli and Arab representatives, and eventually convinced both parties to accept the 1949 agreement. By 1955, Bunche became Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs and focused on decolonization and human rights. He traveled to many conflicted areas such as Cyprus, Kashmir, Congo, and the Middle East.
In 1950, Bunche was the first African American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating a cease-fire between the new state of Israel and Arab nations in the region. President Kennedy awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 for his UN work in Middle East peace.
Equally important to his diplomatic work, Bunche supported the civil rights movement. In 1936, Bunche helped establish the National Negro Congress, an organization committed to labor and civil rights for African Americans. By the 1960s, Bunche marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. and in Selma, AL.
Learn more about Ralph J. Bunche’s contributions to U.S. and international diplomacy:
- U.S. Department of State’s DipNote blog post: “Negotiating for Peace at Home and Abroad – Hero of U.S. Diplomacy Ralph J. Bunche”
- CIA’s 2010 Featured Story Archive: “Dr. Ralph J. Bunche: An African-American Leader in the Intelligence Community”
- United Nations Photo Archive
- Audio interview of Bunche from January 1962 as he discusses his early career, educational experiences, race, and work at the UN
- National Park Service’s “Quick Facts” on Bunche and list of properties associated with him on the National Register of Historic Place
- The National Museum of American Diplomacy: “A Hero of U.S. Diplomacy”
As representatives of the most powerful neutral state during World War I from 1914 to 1917, a small group of U.S. Department of State officials and their (volunteer) spouses engaged in an unprecedented array of humanitarian and consular services. They assisted over 100,000 American citizens in their return home; facilitated U.S. efforts to care for wounded soldiers; looked after Prisoners of War, and oversaw massive relief initiatives to help civilians. These crucial activities required innovation, flexibility, resilience, and creativity to accomplish new missions borne out of the biggest ongoing crisis in modern history. The process of responding to these novel challenges shaped the modern Department of State. Additionally, the wartime experience later led to the creation of the Foreign Service, highlighted the need for professionalization and specialist expertise, and regularized activities that now comprise much of the work of the Department’s functional bureaus.
Learn more about the diplomatic work of Department of State officials during World War I:
- The Office of the Historian’s Department History: World War I and the Department
- ShareAmerica article: “The unsung, heroic U.S. diplomats of World War I”
- The Office of the Historian’s Foreign Relations of the U.S., 1914 World War I Supplement
- U.S. Embassy France’s World War I Centenary page: “The Role of the U.S. Diplomatic Community and American Citizens in France”
- The National Archives blog post: “William H. Hunt, American Pioneer”
Video Archive – “In the Diplomatic Trenches: Department Heroes Alleviate Suffering During World War I” (10/29/19):