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 disagreed with both W.E.B. du Bois' idea of a "Negro nation within the nation" and the NAACP, which he deemed "incorrigibly middle class and elitist." He thought that racism could be cured only by improving the living conditions of the working classes. On a grant to study the crises of modern imperialism, he traveled to London, South Africa, Singapore, Batavia (now Jakarta), and Hong Kong. After his return to the United States, he worked part-time for Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal on the project that resulted in Myrdal's famous study of race, An American Dilemma. The two men became close despite substantial disagreements -- Myrdal "considered Marxism to be a fatalistic dogma and disagreed with Bunche's view that working class solidarity was the best basis for ending racial division," Urquhart writes.


In June 1941, F.D.R. created the Office of the Coordinator of Information -- later to become the Office of Strategic Services -- which needed an African specialist. The Harvard history department, consulted, recommended Bunche; Professor C. H. McIlwain called him "the best graduate student of his race at Harvard in my time." Urquhart comments that "even Harvard seems to have been unable to judge Bunche on his ability without reference to his race." Bunche joined the organization, but continued to suffer from Washington's racism: when the family dog died, he found that there was one section of the pet cemetery for white people's pets, another for blacks'. Bunche moved to the State Department to work on the colonial aspects of postwar planning. After having been "loaned" in April 1946 to the new U.N. Secretariat as acting head of the trusteeship division, the secretary-general, Trygve Lie, offered him a permanent position as director of his division. He accepted, partly because of his dislike of the segregation in Washington.

When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his role in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict the previous year, he was irritated by the frequent references in the American press to his race: he hated being described (falsely) as the grandson of a slave or as the first American Negro to have done this or that. By the 1950s, his own view of race had evolved from an emphasis on economics to one on racism as a matter of "our thinking and concepts." But he still believed that the only proper way for American blacks to advance was to join the civil rights movement and fight for racial integration and full equality. He was critical of black extremists and their "fantasy of separation" and supportive of the Reverend Martin Luther King, whom he joined in 1965 for a march from Selma to Montgomery. The Watts riots of August 1965 revived his conviction that the black ghetto was at the root of racial tension and that the ideal of integration required "the dispersal of every black ghetto in the land." But his "call to arms" against ghettos, written for Look magazine, was never published, and he failed to persuade the trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation to support his proposals. One of his last speeches denounced worldwide polarization between whites and nonwhites, and one of the reasons for his hostility to the Vietnam War -- in which his son served -- was the plight of blacks "who were in Vietnam to fight for the rights and freedoms of seventeen million South Vietnamese" but did not enjoy full constitutional rights at home. He himself suffered racial slurs and slights all his life.


Concern for victims of racism that had fueled his scholarly work in the 1930s inspired his career as an international public servant. Here, the list of his accomplishments is astonishing. In the State Department's International Security Organization section in 1944, he worked on the idea of trusteeships for areas under colonial rule -- a subject intra-agency wrangling had kept out of the Dumbarton Oaks proposals for the future United Nations. Bunche wanted the colonial system to become self-liquidating. At the historic 1945 conference in San Francisco, where the U.N. Charter was formally adopted by 50 states, he played a key role as secretary of the U.S. group on trusteeships, drafting the declaration regarding non-self-governing territories. When he joined the U.N. Secretariat, he became an activist head of its Trusteeship Council, which was set up to help some 14 million people living in trust territories make the transition from colonial dependency to self-sufficient nationhood.

Lie appointed him special assistant to his representative on the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, established in May 1947. Bunche wrote its reports -- including all of the crucial final report, in which a majority endorsed the partition of Palestine.

When Israel proclaimed its independence and the Arabs invaded, the Security Council's permanent members chose Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte as U.N. mediator, and Lie appointed Bunche to be the secretary-general's chief representative in Palestine. Bunche was in charge of the first U.N. peacekeeping operation, set up after the parties' acceptance of a cease-fire. He thus drafted the principles that have governed these operations ever since -- truce observers had to be strictly impartial and unarmed. When the four-week truce was running out, Bernadotte and Bunche were summoned by Jordanian King Abdallah to Amman. He pleaded with them to have the United Nations "force" the Arabs to prolong the truce. Bunche drafted the report in which Bernadotte asked the Security Council to order a cease-fire and the demilitarization of Jerusalem. The Security Council did so, and the resolution is still in force. After the assassination of Bernadotte by Jewish extremists, Bunche became acting mediator; he got the General Assembly to create the Palestinian Conciliation Commission. This was an especially trying period, given Israel's hostility and the pro-Israeli sentiments of Lie as well as Herbert Evatt, the Australian foreign minister and president of the General Assembly, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who attacked Bunche in a speech to the American Jewish Congress. Nevertheless, in protracted negotiations in Rhodes, he obtained an Israeli-Egyptian armistice. He skillfully proceeded in such a way that the Israelis were able to assert that they had had direct dealings with their foes and the Egyptians that all contacts had occurred through the mediator. His achievements in the Middle East earned him the Nobel Prize.

Next he served as midwife to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But he was drawn back into the Arab-Israeli conflict during the Suez crisis. Once again, he created a precedent in setting up the U.N. Emergency Force, which was made of armed troops instead of unarmed observers. Aware of UNEF's importance as a model, Hammarskjöld and Bunche defined the legal status of the force. Bunche, who was in charge of obtaining the troops, decided they could fly only the U.N. flag. He dealt successfully -- despite acrimonious negotiations with Israeli diplomat Abba Eban -- with the problem of Egypt's return to the Gaza Strip, but failed to get the Egyptians to reopen the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping.


Bunche's biggest crisis was the Congo drama of 1960, when the country fractured amid its transition from colony to independent nation. Urquhart titles his chapter on the conflict "First Aid to a Wounded Rattlesnake." Another precedent was being set here: what the United Nations had to do was neither collective security nor the kind of peacekeeping by observers or armed personnel that occurs after an agreement. The Congo crisis, largely forgotten today, was a hellish forerunner of the troubles the United Nations has been engulfed in recently in Somalia and in Yugoslavia. Although the U.N. operation in the Congo was set up by the Security Council at Hammarskjöld's initiative after a call from independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the complexities of the case soon became overwhelming. Once again, Bunche was put in charge. He had to deal with the Belgians, whose troops (sent in after rebellious Congolese forces had attacked Europeans) he wanted out of the country; with Lumumba's "irrationality and instability" and his veering "wildly between requests for assistance and advice, and ultimatums about the Belgian troops"; with rebel leader Moïse Tshombe's secession in Katanga and his refusal to allow U.N. forces into his domain; with the latent split between Lumumba and his president, Joseph Kasavubu; and "with the Cold War, which divided the United Nations and was beginning to make the Congo a battleground between East and West, with [the U.N.] in the middle." Hammarskjöld and Bunche laid down the principle that the United Nations would not try to influence the outcome of domestic conflicts. Bunche, criticized by the British chief of staff of Ghana, which had contributed a large contingent to the Congo, for refusing to disarm the Congolese soldiers, pointed out that U.N. forces were not supposed to be fighters, but peacekeepers. Accused by the Soviets of being partial to the United States and colonialism, Bunche and his boss were also in trouble with U.S. diplomats and other Western representatives, who would have preferred more energetic moves. Actually, in conformity with a Security Council resolution, U.N. forces began to round up foreign mercenaries, the backbone of Tshombe's forces. Ultimately, when Tshombe's forces attacked U.N. troops after the failure of a reconciliation plan, U.N. forces drove Tshombe out of Katanga despite a restraining order by Bunche that failed to reach them in time. Bunche himself, carrying a letter from an angry Secretary-General U Thant to the U.N. commander, sought to smooth over the dispute by delivering the letter -- along with another containing his own suggestions for a politic reply to U Thant.

The Congo crisis proved the extraordinary difficulty for the United Nations of stepping into the manifolds of a civil war, avoiding the use of force, and preserving a consensus of its key members. But it was not Bunche's last attempt at U.N. diplomacy. Over the next few years, he helped set up a U.N. observer mission in Yemen; helped defuse a threatening crisis in Cyprus where the Security Council established a U.N. force twice the size of the U.N. observer group in Kashmir; and defused a crisis between Iran and Bahrain. U Thant called the latter "the perfect good offices operation . . . one which is not heard of until it is successfully concluded, or even heard of at all."


This record shows at least two things. One is the diversity of missions the United Nations actually undertook, despite the Cold War -- something that fascination with the East-West conflict, and with the frequent paralysis of the Security Council that the Cold War engendered, has led many observers, scholars, and practitioners to underestimate or forget. Bunche's era was one in which principles and precedents were set, and practically every case the United Nations has dealt with in recent years has an antecedent in this earlier period. Thus the usefulness of the United Nations, despite the limitations imposed by power politics, cannot be denied. Secondly, Bunche's unique qualities contributed enormously to this record: patience, impartiality, skill in managing conflicting as well as converging interests, a gift for clear and specific drafts, an apparently inexhaustible supply of goodwill, and the art of finding fulfillment in his task rather than in displays of vanity.

Yet this admirable book is also a sad one. Bunche's great achievements were not sufficiently recognized in his country, partly because of race, partly because he chose not to serve the U.S. government. One particularly lamentable episode was the witch-hunt of U.S. employees of international organizations ordered by Truman in 1953. The International Employees Loyalty Board charged Bunche with having attended a "fraction" meeting of the Communist Party in May 1935; "thus began a painful and Kafkaesque period in Bunche's life." He replied with a document of over 100 pages. The Loyalty Board's investigation occurred, ironically, just as the cia was asking Bunche for advice. The White House, meanwhile, was asking him to go on a goodwill tour for the United States in Europe -- something he could not do anyway because of his running of the Trusteeship Council and helping Hammarskjöld reorganize the U.N. Secretariat. The board unanimously cleared Bunche, but far-right fanatics continued to attack him.

Equally sad was the destruction of one of Bunche's greatest achievements -- the U.N. Emergency Force -- by Nasser's reckless decision to ask for its removal from the Sinai in May 1967 and by the Six Day War that followed. U Thant has often been criticized for having bowed to Nasser, and perhaps bowing deeper and faster than Nasser had expected. But Urquhart does a convincing job of showing that U Thant had, legally, no leeway. Even though Bunche would have preferred a protracted withdrawal, Urquhart argues, there were practically no options: nobody called for a General Assembly or Security Council meeting, and had such meetings been called they probably would have failed. In this disaster, Bunche still made a contribution in saving U Thant from accepting an Egyptian request to link a call to Nasser not to interfere with Israel-bound shipping through the Straits of Tiran with an appeal to all countries not to send oil or strategic materials to Israel through the straits.


By that time -- 1967 -- Bunche's private life had also taken a depressing turn. His marriage had been marked by acrimony and reproach from his wife, who complained that he was sacrificing his family life to his career. She felt abandoned, with three children to bring up. Already in 1945, he replied that he was "obsessed with a burning desire to excel in everything I undertake," and moved by "a calculated and deliberate interest to prove to (whites) that I am, despite their race, their equal if not their superior in intellect, ability, knowledge, and general savoir-faire." In October 1966, one of his two daughters, who had earlier been under psychiatric care, committed suicide -- a tragedy that heightened his wife's bitterness. Moreover, he had never enjoyed perfect health. In the mid-1960s, his health deteriorated drastically; diabetes led to steadily diminishing eyesight. He could no longer drive, but insisted on taking notes himself. In early 1967, he tried to resign, but U Thant insisted that he stay. His kidneys began to fail, and he spent much of 1971 in New York Hospital, where he died on December 9.

If this review seems more like a summary than a critique, it is because I hope this sketch will incite readers to read this thought-provoking and admirable tribute to an extraordinary man. The strongest feeling created by this remarkable biography, itself so full of restrained passion and narrative skill, is admiration for both Bunche and Urquhart. We hear a great deal about great national statesmen and about the mediocrity of international civil servants. But here are two splendid international officials, whose performance is as inspiring as their discretion in office was exemplary. It is fortunate that Urquhart's gifts as a writer should have not only reminded us of his own continuing wisdom but brought back to life an important and neglected personality.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Stanley Hoffmann is Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Chairman of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.
  • More By Stanley Hoffmann