This week we recognized an icon and pioneer from our Department’s rich history – Dr. Ralph J. Bunche – as part of our ongoing Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy initiative. This series of online and in-person programs shines a light on the U.S. Department of State professionals from our past and present, who have exhibited sound policy judgment as well as intellectual, physical and even moral courage in their service, thereby advancing the mission of the Department and elevating U.S. diplomacy.
Dr. Bunche worked at the Department of State as the first African American Desk Officer, before helping to establish the United Nations and joining its staff in 1946. This year marks the 70th anniversary of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating a cease-fire between the new state of Israel and Arab nations in the region.
I first encountered the name of Ralph J. Bunche as an undergraduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), when I took Political Sciences courses in Bunche Hall. Years later, when I worked in the Harry S. Truman building of the Department of State, my office was, coincidentally, located next to the Ralph J. Bunche Library. Despite these connections, my previous knowledge of Dr. Bunche’s contributions to U.S. society, politics and diplomacy was superficial. After hearing this week’s panel discussion featuring Dr. Bunche’s grandson and academic experts on his life and visiting the new exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy featuring artifacts from his work, I have a much greater understanding of his heroic contributions to U.S. and international diplomacy.
Dr. Bunche had a distinguished academic career. He was valedictorian of UCLA’s class of 1927 and went on to earn his Master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He taught at Howard University, where he founded the Political Science Department. At the panel discussion, current Howard Political Science Chair Dr. Ravi Perry said, “Bunche always thought that political science needed to have academic rigor, but it also needed to solve the issues of humanity. He carried that with him throughout his global career.”
During World War II, Dr. Bunche served in the Office of Strategic Services, then transferred to the Department of State in 1944 as a specialist in African and colonial affairs. He was quickly promoted and played a major role in the formation of the United Nations, joining its staff in 1946. In 1948, he joined the team mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict as the chief aide to lead negotiator Count Folke Bernadotte. When Bernadotte was assassinated, Bunche took on the lead negotiator role. He negotiated the armistice while playing pool with the Israeli and Arab representatives, and eventually convinced both parties to accept the 1949 agreement.
In 1950, Dr. Bunche was the first African American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating the cease-fire and securing peace between the new state of Israel and Arab nations in the region.
As panelist Dr. Kal Raustiala explained, Dr. Bunche was a peacemaker and that defined much of his career and his role in the public consciousness.
By 1955, Dr. Bunche became UN Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs and focused on decolonization and human rights. He organized the emergency force after the Suez crisis, major peacekeeping efforts in the Congo, and the international force in Cyprus. President Kennedy awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 for his work on Middle East peace.
Beyond his diplomatic work, Dr. Bunche was active in 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, Alabama.
As Dr. Bunche’s grandson Ralph Bunche III explained, “He [Dr. Bunche] was working on the issue that was in front of him and mattered to him – the situation of African Americans in the United States. That led him to look into the state of subjugated peoples around the world…which then led him to looking at the Civil Rights movement in the United States with an internationalist outlook. He didn’t intend for any of this – it was all kind of accidental. He was an accidental diplomat.”
The Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy initiative is about building a shared history and understanding for U.S. foreign affairs professionals of the courageous and often watershed contributions of our contemporary counterparts, as well as our historic predecessors. Highlighting these stories reminds us of the models we must strive to emulate and why we’re honored to serve in the State Department. The next time I pass by the Department’s Ralph J. Bunche Library, I’ll reflect on the many accomplishments of this ‘accidental diplomat’ who became a true Hero of U.S. Diplomacy.
About the Author: Leila Kamgar is the Director of Public Affairs at the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, one of the partners working on the Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy initiative, thanks to the generous support of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. She would like to recognize Caroline Agsten, the Office of the Historian, and the National Museum of American Diplomacy for their contributions to the historic synopsis about Dr. Ralph J. Bunche.