From the Archives: Dr. Bunche, Given Nobel Peace Prize for Work in U.N., Dies

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President Truman after presenting Ralph Bunche with the Outstanding Citizenship Award in 1949.
(Associated Press)
Times Staff Writer

Former U.N.-secretary General Ralph Bunche, who retired from his United Nations post earlier this year because of ill health, died early Thursday in New York Hospital. He was 67.

Funeral services were scheduled for noon Saturday at Manhattan’s Riverside Church.

The winner of the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his part in peace negotiations following the 1948 Arab-Israel war, Dr. Bunche was the highest ranking American in the U.N. headquarters.

His post as undersecretary general for special political affairs had been left vacant in the hope that he might be able to return despite diabetes, a heart condition and kidney malfunction. An American is expected to be appointed now, although no candidate’s name has yet gained prominence.


Secretary General U Thant praised Dr. Bunche as an “International institution of his own right, transcending both nationality and race in a way that is achieved by very few.”

Dr. Bunche was sometimes described as the grandson of a slave, but Mrs. Bunche said Thursday that this was untrue. Her husband’s grandfather, she said, was a teacher in Indian territory in Illinois. Dr. Bunche himself was born in Detroit and was graduated from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles and from UCLA in 1927.

He later entered the State Department and served on loan to the United Nations in its beginning. He became a permanent member of the U.N. staff in 1947.

Speaking at the opening of Thursday’s General Assembly session, Thant said Dr. Bunche had done more than anyone else to promote the peace-keeping role of the United Nations. He organized the emergency force after the Suez crisis, the major effort in the Congo and the continuing international force in Cyprus.


“Great thought his many achievements were,” Thant said, “I remember particularly his qualities of mind and character—his unshakeable integrity, his indefatigable and selfless sense of responsibility, his extraordinary ability as a negotiator and adviser, his unfailing insight into the tangle affairs of mankind.

“Without any illusions as to the difficulties, he believed passionately in the necessity of making the United Nations work and in all the noble aims which the organization stands.”

U.S. Ambassador George Bush, in a statement of regret, said:

“Though we take pride in the fact that he was an American, he was truly a citizen of the world.”

President Nixon said:

“America is deeply proud of this distinguished man and profoundly saddened by his death . . . for the credit he brought to our nation and for the service he gave to all mankind. Let each of us pause in tribute to this great man.

In Los Angeles, Vice Chancellor David Saxon of UCLA, speaking for Chancellor Charles E. Young who was out of town, said: “Sorrow over the death of Ralph Bunche is deeply felt by all members of the UCLA family.

“The highest building on the UCLA campus is named in his honor and he will forever stand tall among men of goodwill throughout the world.”


Dr. Bunche was honored by the Los Angeles City Council, which adjourned in his memory and ordered flags flown at half staff until the day after the funeral. County flags were also ordered lowered by Supervisor Chairman Warren Dorn.


Bunche Learned Early to Challenge Adversity

By Richard Dougherty, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK – Ralph Johnson Bunche, born black in an era of near-monolithic prejudice against black and orphaned at 13, learned early in life the art of countering adversity with an amazing arsenal of pride, humor, patience, optimism, intelligence and dauntless courage.

These qualities carried him through a youth that was almost Dickensian in its mixture of tragedy and triumph, and into a maturity that was unmatched for its unrelenting dedication to the cause of world peace and just dealings among men.

His labors as a member of the United Nation’s secretariat specializing in mediation, specifically the skill he displayed in bringing about the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and her Arab neighbors, won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

Cooler of Passions


But that achievement, brought off against great odds, was only one instance on which this scholar turned international civil servant built his extraordinary reputation for ability to cool the passions of antagonists and bring good sense to bear on the most complicated and angry human problems.

Mr. Bunche, as he was always first to admit, was no paragon. He did not suffer fools easily; he disliked pretentiousness and his sharp tongue was quick to deflate the pompous; he loathed hypocrisy and was intolerant of cant. He had a fierce temper. He was stubborn. An indefatigable worker, he drove his subordinates as hard as he drove himself.

Yet in balance with these characteristics was a natural kindness, an honesty, openness of mind and magnanimity of spirit which was readily apparent in his handsome but rather sorrowful countenance and which made other men listen to, trust and respect him.

Eulogizing him in an obituary in the Times of London, his U.M. colleague and closest associate, Brian Urquhart, has written: “Bunche was, above all, devoted to the principles of the United Nations and believed that his most important achievement was the building up of the U.N.’s peace-keeping capacity.

“He had no illusions about the shortcomings of the world organization, but he was utterly convinced that it must, and could, be made to work and was therefore undismayed by the interminable frustrations of its political work. To work at the U.N., he used to say, one had to be an optimist.”

Prospects for a life of such distinction and accomplishment would have appeared more than remote on Aug. 7, 1904, when he was born to Olive and Fred Bunche in a poor working-class neighborhood in Detroit.

Parents’ Health Poor

The father was a barber and the mother an amateur pianist. Neither parent was in good health and the little family — including young Ralph Bunche and his younger sister Grace — lived in the house of Bunche’s maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson.

In later years, Mr. Bunche credited this small but strong-willed woman with having been the major influence of his life. It was she who — when it became clear that both Ralph’s parents were victims of tuberculosis of the lungs — packed the family off to Albuquerque, N.M., in the hope restoring their health.

It was she who, after consumption claimed the lives of the young couple, moved again, in 1917, to Los Angeles. A strong motive behind the move was the conviction of this remarkable woman — herself of limited schooling — that California’s free system of higher education offered the best hope for the advancement of a grandson whom she already knew to be gifted.

Race prejudice, from which Ralph had been more or less spared in Detroit and Albuquerque — greeted them immediately on their arrival at a bungalow on Griffith Ave.

The real estate man who had rented the house to Mrs. Johnson’s brother, Tom Taylor — who was also light of skin — put a lock on the door when he discovered the new tenants were Negroes.

Mixed Neighborhood

This failed to faze Mrs. Johnson. “We’ve paid the rent.” She said to her brother. “Put your shoulder to the door and break it down.” The brother did so and they lived in the house for a period they had paid for — subsequently moving to a house on 37th Street in South-Central Los Angeles, a mixed area that later became all-black.

Despite a superior showing in high school, the young Bunche had no great desire to go to college. But he enrolled at UCLA because, as he put it, “Nana (as his grandmother was called) wouldn’t hear of anything else.”

Forty-six years later, in May of 1969, at the dedication of Ralph Bunche Hall, the social sciences building, he returned to his alma mater and spoke movingly of the earlier time.

“UCLA,” he said, “was where it all began for me; where, in a sense I began. College was for me the genesis and the catalyst . . .”

Mrs. Johnson died in November of 1928, by which time Mr. Bunche, having graduated with honors from UCLA, had gone on to Harvard — on scholarship — earned his M.A. and was working toward a Ph.D. She died secure in the knowledge — it comforted Bunche to think — that, in his words, “her great ambition” had been realized.

Mr. Bunche took his doctorate in government and international relations at Harvard, He then went on to do post-doctoral work at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University; the London School of Economics, and — extraordinarily enough — at the University of Capetown in South Africa.

Traveled Widely

There was shock and dismay among South African authorities when they discovered on his arrival that this impressively credentialed academician was black. But Mr. Bunche brushed off all attempts to dissuade his from working at the university and he  used the period for traveling widely both in Africa and in Asia.

In the course of these travels—as well as in teaching at various universities—Mr. Bunche came to know and be friends with a host of black men who would in, future years, emerge as leaders—and friends—of the new nations of the post-colonial era.

Returning to the United States, Mr. Bunche was named head of the department of political sciences at Howard University in Washington. In 1930, he married one of his students, Ruth Ethel Harris.

In the late 1930s Mr. Bunche worked intimately with Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish social scientist, in the historic survey of the Negro in America which was published in 1944 as “An American Dilemma,” and remains one of the classic works of social literature.

With the advent of the World War II, Mr. Bunche entered government service as a specialist of Africa. Initially he was in the Office of Strategic Service but in 1944 moved to the State Department—again as a specialist in African and colonial affairs.

He was one of the nucleus of men who worked toward the creation of the United Nations following the end of the war, serving as a member of the United States delegation to the 1945 San Francisco conference which drafted the U.N. charter, and to the preparatory meetings of the United Nations in London as well as the first General Assembly in 1946.

Key Figure in U.N.

His scholarship and experience in colonial affairs helped make him a key figure in establishment of the U.N. trusteeship system and in preparing the world organization for the rapid process of decolonization which occurred in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

A special assignment sent him to Palestine in 1947 as head of a United Nations mission; and in 1948 he accompanied the United Nations’ mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, to the troubled Middle East.

In September of that year Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem — a tragedy in which Mr. Bunche himself might have died had he not been held up at an Israeli checkpoint as he was on his way to join the Swedish diplomat. The French colonel who took Mr. Bunche’s place in Bernadotte’s car was killed.

The Security Council appointed Mr. Bunche acting mediator in Bernadotte’s place and, as such, he directed the negotiations on the island of Rhodes, Talks between the Arab states and the new Israeli nation went on for seven months; and a three-man U.N. conciliation commission which was supposed to arrive on Rhode never showed up in the apparent belief that the task was hopeless.

Thus Mr. Bunche brought off an agreement virtually by himself through sheer stamina and skillful negotiations—the feat which brought him the Nobel Peace prize a year later.

In January of 1955, Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold promoted him to undersecretary with responsibility for special assignments. More and more of these assignments involved Bunche’ serving as the secretary general’s chief deputy and troubleshooter in dealing with international crises—a function which has since come to be called the U.N. peace-keeping operation.

In this capacity Mr. Bunche directed U.N. activities in the Middle East during and following the Suez crisis in 1956 — overseeing operation of the U.N. Emergency of force which constituted a pioneering effort in peace-making.

In 1958 he was in Lebanon. In 1960, it was the Congo.

Although his unique position as an international civil servant kept Mr. Bunche outwardly aloof from the civil rights revolution in America, he was privately outspoken in his contempt for prejudice and his impatience with the slowness of progress toward a more just society.

Still, Mr. Bunche never quite gave up on the belief, passed on to him by his grandmother, “in the essential decency and goodness of the human race.”

Hopefulness, he once said, was always a “major element” in his makeup: “For more than a quarter of a century, I have been engage in work in which hopefulness is an imperative qualification.

“One must believe that man can be saved — or salvaged — from his inevitable follies, that all problems of human relations are soluble . . . that conflict situations, however deep-seated, bitter and prolonged, can be resolved; that the world at peace is, in fact, attainable.

“Otherwise one’s work, all diplomacy, the United Nations itself, become a fateful travesty and all mankind would be doomed.”

That humanity has managed to elude that doom so far in this dawning age of potential nuclear holocaust must be attributed in no small measure to the life and work of this indomitable man.

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