Courtesy Reuters

Ralph Bunche: A Man of the World, but Never at Home

In This Review

Ralph Bunche: An American Life

By Brian Urquhart
W.W. Norton and Company, 1993
480 pp. $27.50

Brian Urquhart, who was Ralph Bunche's chief assistant from 1954 until Bunche's death in 1971, succeeded him as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Special Political affairs -- a position created for Bunche by U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1953. Some years ago, Urquhart published a fine and rich biography of Hammarskjöld. He has now given us a sensitive, informative, comprehensive, and often heartbreaking biography of Bunche: a great book about a great man. There are three main topics in it: race, the role of the United Nations in world politics, and that of Bunche in the United Nations.

He was the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher and freemason. Orphaned at the age of 11, he was raised by his grandmother, Lucy, the daughter of a house slave. Bunche later said that she instilled in him "a desire to do my best in anything I tried to do . . . she taught me the value of self-respect and dignity." He went to college at UCLA, majoring in political science; thanks to a fellowship, he went to Harvard's Department of Government for graduate study, earning money by working in a bookshop. After receiving a master's degree, he was invited to become an instructor at Howard University and to set up its political science department.


Bunche met his future wife, Ruth Harris, while at Howard; she was the daughter of the chief mailing clerk in Montgomery, Alabama. He began working for his doctorate at Harvard in 1929 and married her in 1930; their first child was born in 1931. Soon thereafter he left for Africa to research his thesis: a comparison of French administration in the colony of Dahomey and in Togoland, a League of Nations mandate. The thesis, according to Urquhart, prefigured Bunche's later work on decolonization and trusteeships. His views on race at that time had a strong streak of Marxist economic determinism: imperialism was the product of capitalism; racial discrimination resulted from economic competition. He wrote and published a great deal in the 1930s and

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