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From South Central LA to Architect of Mideast Peace:The Remarkable Dr. Ralph Bunche

To Close Out Black History Month, Something a Bit Different from our Firm


 

By B. Allen Bradford, Esq.

Feb. 29, 2024


On September 17, 1948, a motorcade carrying Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations envoy charged with negotiating an end to the first Arab-Israeli war, was heading to a critical meeting in Jerusalem.  They were stopped at a city gate by armed men, who turned out to be Jewish militants. One of those men suddenly sprayed Bernadotte and a fellow passenger with some 24 machine gun shots, killing them both.* The militants, as well as the Palestinians they were combatting, were opposed to a ceasefire plan designed chiefly by Bernadotte’s top aide, the African-American Dr. Ralph Bunche. In fact, quite likely they had believed that Dr. Bunche himself would be in the car. Instead, by a fortuitous series of delays, he arrived a half hour late for the intended meeting and so his life was spared.

 

But by no means was he out of the woods.  Not just Mideast peace, but the very credibility of the infant UN, only 3 years old, was at stake.  In those days, much of the world believed that failures of the League of Nations had helped usher in the horrors of World War II, and many wondered if the UN would be any more successful.  But UN Secretary General Trygve Lie wasted no time in asking Bunche himself to assume the lead role in the fraught ceasefire negotiations.  Lie regarded Bunche highly, aware that he was deeply steeped in the aspirations of colonized peoples, having participated in the U.S. State Department’s postwar plans for vast areas of the world still subject to European imperialism; had years of direct experience in Palestine; and was a skilled, determined negotiator.  At the same time, Bunche had to be aware of the personal and reputational risks of assuming the role. Not only would he be dealing with the new Israeli state and 7 Arab belligerents, he would be subject to pressure from the Truman Administration, the British government (which had until recently controlled Palestine) and various factions within the UN itself.  And while President Truman expressed confidence in Bunche (and would later attempt to appoint him Assistant Secretary of State), Bunche himself was keenly aware that many others in his still largely segregated home country quite likely viewed him with suspicion and even ill will. Surely his colleague’s murder also weighed heavily on the veteran diplomat’s mind. But notwithstanding the obvious risks, he took on the challenge.

 

Despite renewed fighting between Israel and Egypt, Bunch worked persistently and determinedly for the next year to secure a truce, engaging in “shuttle diplomacy” years before Henry Kissinger popularized the term. As per the Nobel Prize website (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1950/bunche/article/), “Through discretion, patience and humour Bunche won the confidence of the negotiating parties. He formulated compromise proposals and was willing to work for months to come to an agreement. … Hard negotiations led to the signing of a truce by both parties by the end of February 1949. As Egypt was the leading Arab nation, it paved the way for later agreements between Israel and Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.”  Palestinian rights were still largely unaddressed, but Israel’s national status was recognized by the greater international community barely a year after having declared its independence, and an uneasy peace settled over the region. Furthermore, the young UN’s credibility as an instrument for effective international problem-solving was immeasurably reinforced.

 

Bunche’s success was recognized worldwide (and the ceasefire would mostly hold for 18 years). The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts. This made him the first Black American—indeed, the first non-white person--to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which may surprise those who may have assumed the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first to do so. That December, New York City threw him a ticker tape parade. In 1951, he even presented the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards ceremony!

 

The postwar World War II period was packed with creative and skillful American diplomats such as George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Hoffman and Averill Harriman. But only 2 of them were recognized by the Nobel Committee—General Marshall and Dr. Bunche, and Bunche was recognized first, notwithstanding that as Secretary of State Marshall was the primary architect of the Marshall Plan. (Ironically, however, he unsuccessfully opposed President Truman’s plan to recognize the new state of Israel.)

 

As I follow the current terrible events in the Middle East, I keep thinking of this remarkable man’s achievements. There’s no way I can do his dramatic, productive and compelling life justice in a few blog post pages; his story could fill several seasons of a great series on Netflix or Amazon. But perhaps I can raise some readers’ awareness of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th Century, by sharing a bit more of his story.

 

Ralph Johnson Burch was born in Detroit in 1904; after his father essentially abandoned the family, his mother moved to various locations, dying when Ralph was 13; and then his strong grandmother moved the family to South Central Los Angeles where Ralph became pretty much all-everything at Jefferson High School. He went on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA, where he was valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa. He then earned a political science doctorate from Harvard (becoming the first Black person to earn such a PhD), established the department of political science at Howard University, and continued his studies at Northwestern, the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He studied, researched and traveled in then-colonized Africa, befriending such important future leaders as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, co-wrote a major study on U.S. race relations with famed Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, served in the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) during World War II and became the first high-ranking Black official in the State Department.

 

After World War II ended in 1945, Dr. Bunch (at this time just 40 years old) joined the United Nations staff at the invitation of Mr. Lie, its first Secretary-General. Within a couple of years, he was deeply involved with efforts to address the looming crisis regarding potential partition of Palestine into new Israeli and Palestinian states. But after Israel declared an independent Jewish state in May, 1948 and 7 Arab countries declared war, no mutually agreeable partition was possible. The UN appointed the experienced and respected Count Bernadotte to mediate peace, and Bunche was asked to accompany him as chief aide. The two men traveled between Arab capitals and Israel, seeking agreement to a ceasefire and the revised partition plan designed largely by Bunche. But when details of the plan leaked, both Israel and Palestinians objected strongly, resulting in Count Bernadotte’s tragic murder, which itself lent impetus to Dr. Bunche’s success.

 

Mideast Peace was by no means Dr. Bunche’s diplomatic swan song. After turning down Truman’s request to serve as Assistant Secretary of State--among his reasons for doing so was his past experience living in Washington, D.C., which he described to a friend, per Time magazine as “a Jim Crow town and I wouldn't relish exposing my family to it again”--he continued to serve in the UN, where he "brought his knowledge and determination to other seemingly intractable problems: in Congo, Cyprus, Kashmir, Vietnam, Yemen, and Suez" (per https://americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2020/02/ralph-j-bunche-u-n-mediator-and-nobel-peace-prize-laureate/) becoming the UN's highest ranking American as Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs.

 

He also became one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from JFK, who reportedly considered asking Bunche to serve as Secretary of State. And he was an active Civil Rights pioneer who participated in the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech March on Washington even while serving in the UN, and later joined Dr. King again in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march that led to the Voting Rights Act. He then once again played a role in negotiating Mideast Peace, following the1967 Six Day War between Israel and 3 Arab combatants.


Ralph Bunche was not a lawyer, so this article and its subject may seem unlikely for a law firm blog. But as a lawyer and frequent contract negotiator, as well as a history buff, I have long admired him, and did not want to miss a chance to provide at least a high-level overview of a life that, in my opinion, should be studied and appreciated by all Americans. His skills would certainly be valuable in helping to address the current crisis in Gaza. I invite you to learn more about Ralph Bunche via the below links.

 

*(The Israeli government condemned the attack and arrested members of the extremist group, but its overall leader, Yitzhak Shamir, became an Israeli prime minister 35 years later.)

 

 

 

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