The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations and the Fight to End Empire 
by Kal Raustiala.
Oxford, 661 pp., £26.99, March, 978 0 19 760223 2
Show More
Show More

Ralph Bunche​ died aged 67 because he chain-smoked, slept too little, was diabetic and worked too much. It didn’t help that he spent decades yoked successively to four demanding Scandinavians. Bunche was a brilliant young professor at Howard University, making his name as an Africanist, when Gunnar Myrdal hired him to work on his Carnegie-funded study of race in America. Myrdal soon learned that his new collaborator would work hours no one else would and proceeded to extract from him some three thousand pages of material for memoranda – Bunche called him the ‘Swedish Simon Legree’. Myrdal also liked baiting Southern sheriffs and mayors by appearing with Bunche in tow, afterwards going on to the best hotel in town while his assistant sought hospitality from whichever Black minister or schoolmaster would put him up. More than once Bunche thought himself lucky to get out alive.

Ralph Bunche at a meeting of the UN Security Council in 1946.

A half dozen years later Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, appeared in Bunche’s life. Bunche was running the trusteeship division at the UN, proving himself capable, imaginative and cool in a crisis; in 1948 Lie made him deputy in a two-man team charged with mediating the war being fought for control of Palestine. A few months into the posting, Bunche missed a travel connection and so wasn’t in the car next to his partner (and third Scandinavian), the Swedish former Red Cross official Count Folke Bernadotte, when it was ambushed by the Stern Gang. Bernadotte and the man who had taken Bunche’s seat were shot at point-blank range. ‘I know we killed the wrong man,’ the assassin, Yehoshua Cohen, said years later. ‘The black man was the right man. He was the man with the ideas.’

At Lie’s insistence, Bunche carried on solo, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his mediation – the first Black man to win a Nobel and, suddenly, the most famous Black public figure in America. Lie’s successor as secretary-general, the Swedish diplomat and economist Dag Hammarskjöld, continued sending his indispensable civil servant to one trouble spot after another. In 1961 Hammarskjöld was killed when his plane was shot down on a peacekeeping mission to Katanga, the breakaway region of Congo. In another eerie brush with fate, Bunche was meant to be on board; at the last minute it had been decided that he should hold the fort in New York. For almost another decade Hammarskjöld’s successor, U Thant, kept Bunche hard at it even as his physical ailments – phlebitis, heart disease, kidney trouble – worsened. When he lost his sight, Thant got him a driver. When he was hospitalised, aides worked round his bed. Bunche died in 1971.

He hasn’t been forgotten exactly. There is a Ralph Bunche Centre at UCLA, a Ralph J Bunche Award given by the American Political Science Association, a Ralph Bunche Park near the UN building and Ralph Bunche public schools dotted across the land – including one just north of Manhattan’s Morningside Park, four blocks from my office. But Bunche is no longer a household name, and while the children entering that school can surely tell you something about Martin Luther King Jr, and probably about Malcolm X too, I wonder what they know of the man for whom their school is named. The Columbia undergraduates up the street, who read W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk in the Plato-to-Arendt ‘great books’ course mandatory for all sophomores, have probably never heard of the man who was, in the 1930s, one of Du Bois’s crucial collaborators as well as one of his sharpest critics.

Scholars have been only marginally more attentive. Two good biographies of Bunche appeared in the 1990s: a vivid and affectionate portrait by his UN colleague Brian Urquhart, and a perceptive study by the Berkeley historian Charles Henry that treats Bunche both as a significant figure in his own right and as a prism through which to examine America’s racial preoccupations. But no one has yet given Bunche the kind of magisterial treatment David Levering Lewis gave Du Bois. In his new book, Kal Raustiala, who concentrates on Bunche’s work at the UN, admits that he hasn’t done it either. (Writing this essay, I have drawn on all three biographies and on Henry’s edition of Bunche’s writings.) Bunche is a complex subject, someone who chose administration over advocacy and international service over national politics, but who, because of his race, but more precisely because of white America’s racial obsessions, could never fully control the use that was made of his life. Half a century after his death, we still can’t see him whole.

Born in 1903, Bunche didn’t like being described as the ‘grandson of slaves’, less because he was a stickler for accuracy (he was the great-grandson) than because he felt it exaggerated his personal hardships. True, his father, a barber, drifted early out of the picture, and his mother contracted tuberculosis and died when Bunche was thirteen. But his tiny, indomitable and deeply religious grandmother moved the family to Los Angeles and kept them together. Lucy Johnson’s family were so light-skinned that her brother managed to slip the traces of the racial order (and his family) to ‘pass’ as white, but she was fiercely proud of her race and heritage, and absolutely committed to her grandson’s progress. Handsome, athletic, articulate and competitive, Bunche did her proud. He was valedictorian of his (otherwise white) high school class and a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA: his graduation photo was printed in Du Bois’s magazine The Crisis. He was awarded a scholarship for graduate study at Harvard in 1927. One year later, aged 25 and armed only with an MA, Bunche joined the faculty at Howard University, part of the exceptionally brilliant group of African American and African diaspora intellectuals and scholars (Alain Locke, Rayford Logan, Merze Tate, E. Franklin Frazier, Eric Williams) who together would subject the global racial order to excoriating analysis.

Bunche spent a dozen years at Howard, finding his wife, Ruth, among his students; the school also proved a springboard for an astonishingly forward-looking research agenda. At a time when white scholars of Africa wrote mostly from imperial records, Bunche went to see for himself. For a dissertation on the impact of League of Nations oversight on colonial administration, he chose as his case studies two neighbouring territories under French rule – one under League oversight (Togoland) and the other not (Dahomey). In 1932 he spent four months reading records in Geneva and Paris (where Ruth and their young daughter joined him), and then headed to West Africa. To some extent, he was following in the footsteps of Raymond Leslie Buell, a young American political scientist who had barnstormed across Africa a few years earlier, exposing imperial corruption and seriously irritating imperial governors. But if Bunche took advantage of Buell’s introductions, he rewrote his conclusions. Buell argued that League oversight had improved colonial rule, but Bunche found little evidence for this. The French ran Togoland and Dahomey much the same way, because the League had no right of independent investigation and was easily bamboozled. Anyhow, the fundamental problem wasn’t a lack of international oversight. It was that France, whether supervised by the League or not, was doing nothing to move these territories towards independence.

Bunche submitted his dissertation in February 1934 but was soon travelling again. A few months in French West Africa wasn’t enough to understand the changes sweeping the continent: he needed to study anthropology. Awarded two years of funding by the Social Science Research Council, Bunche spent the autumn of 1936 with Melville Herskovits at Northwestern and then sailed with his family to London, still the centre of a global empire but also one node in a growing Pan-African and anti-imperialist movement. We know too little about this crucial period in Bunche’s life, but what we do know is tantalising. We know that he went to Bronislaw Malinowski’s seminar, very much the place to be for anyone interested in studying cultural change in Africa. We know he befriended African students and studied Swahili with Jomo Kenyatta, who was writing a landmark study of Kikuyu culture under Malinowski’s direction. We know he met many of the British leftists and radicals – Ellen Wilkinson, Harold Laski – galvanised by the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War. We know he and Ruth socialised with the singer and radical Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda, and with a brilliant former student, the Pan-Africanist and communist George Padmore. We know British intelligence kept an eye on his movements.

In September, Bunche’s family went home. He went to South Africa to figure out how ‘this handful of whites keep these millions of blacks down.’ In exchange for his visa he promised not to give speeches or otherwise cause trouble, but once there kept up a punishing schedule of conventions, meetings and travel. As a distinguished visitor who was perplexingly not white, he was a ‘classification problem’, often given his own first-class cabin on trains so officials didn’t have to figure out what shade of person could share his berth. In January 1938 he went north to Kenya, where Kenyatta had secured him access to various political and cultural events – including, astonishingly, a female initiation (and genital mutilation) ceremony for a cohort of Kikuyu girls. In an article Bunche called this ‘the most gruesome, bloody spectacle I’ve ever seen’, but, anticipating historians’ analyses some fifty years later, he also insisted that the ceremony had gained in significance as Africans fell back on culture to compensate for lost political and economic power.

Around these trips, he was teaching – African politics, American government, international relations – and trying to think through a strategy for Black progress in the US. Raustiala pays too little attention to Bunche’s thinking about American race relations, which was shaped by his upbringing but further leavened by his time in Europe and his exposure to an exceptionally wide range of African countries and cultures in the 1930s. While he was still in his twenties, he had concluded that ‘the status of the Negro in the United States is in a very real sense specific to this country.’ Blacks in the US were neither ‘a colonial people under the heel of American imperialism’ nor a ‘national minority’ in need of separate self-determination. His travels had moderated those views, but if he now recognised that racial oppression was endemic and transnational, he was still certain that it was shaped by local conditions and cultures, in ways that would dictate different strategies. Africans, in other words, might rightly pursue national self-determination but Black Americans needed full and equal rights within the polity itself.

How, though, might these rights be won? In the 1930s, Bunche was one of a number of young radicals critical of Du Bois and the NAACP’s reliance on a ‘talented tenth’ to do the work of uplift. Since racial divisions were ‘arbitrary, subjective and devoid of scientific meaning’ (as Bunche put it in A World View of Race in 1936), it would be better to organise as workers across racial lines. Bunche’s travels in the South only deepened his conviction that – as he argued in memoranda for Myrdal and in two articles published in the Journal of Negro Education – Black organisations should stop analysing everything along the ‘narrow axis’ of race and recognise that on economic questions Black and white unity might be possible.

By the end of the decade, Bunche was the best-travelled and most knowledgeable Black scholar of Africa in the US; it’s our loss that, as other commitments crowded in, he wrote up so little of his research. Unsurprisingly, since he had concluded that Black advancement in America could only come as a result of expanding social-democratic practices and reforms, Bunche was immediately supportive of the Allied cause in the Second World War. In September 1941, worn out by the Myrdal project and with his own research foundering, he joined the Office of Strategic Services to advise on colonial questions. Bunche probably thought of it as a temporary step, but he stayed in government and international service for the rest of his life.

Bunche’s pathbreaking African research and his critical interrogation of race needs more scholarly attention, but Raustiala devotes more than 500 pages of a 600-page book to the (better-known) later years, during which Bunche showed, again and again, what an alert and strategically minded bureaucrat might accomplish. Transferred to the State Department in 1944, he was involved at every stage in the planning for a new postwar order – at the Dumbarton Oaks conference in the autumn of 1944, at the San Francisco founding of the UN in April 1945 and at the organisation’s opening meetings in London in January 1946. Analytical, prodigiously industrious and often the only non-white person in the room, Bunche became influential by becoming indispensable, someone who always knew his brief and would stay up all night to get the wording right. He had learned in West Africa that international oversight of colonial administration was essentially toothless without rights of direct petition, international inspection and an explicit endorsement of the aim of independence. Now he wrote these safeguards into the UN Charter.

When the UN relocated to New York, Bunche moved with it, initially on secondment from the State Department but then as a member of the Secretariat. His main job was to run the Trusteeship Council, which oversaw former mandated territories now under UN trust. In other words, he was in charge of the successor to the League body he had studied and criticised. The trust territories were small fry, however, compared to the huge tracts of Africa and South-East Asia still under imperial rule, and so Bunche did what he could to build pressure for independence in these places as well. Aware that the US would not take the lead, he worked behind the scenes with the Chinese delegation to establish the Ad Hoc Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories – a body that would become a gadfly and goad to the imperial powers as the UN expanded.

Bunche was put to other uses, too – including, in 1947, that wretched job of dealing with Palestine. Since Britain was determined to withdraw and threw the problem at the UN, Lie established a Special Committee on Palestine, staffed by Bunche. The majority of the committee recommended partition, endorsed by the General Assembly that November, but fighting broke out immediately and worsened in May 1948, when the mandate ended. It was at this point that Lie sent Bernadotte and Bunche to force an agreement. When Bernadotte was murdered Bunche was ‘trapped’, as he told Ruth. No one wanted responsibility but everyone had a view. That November, speaking to the American Jewish Congress, Du Bois chose to ‘apologise in the name of the American Negro for the apparent apostasy of Ralph Bunche’, who, as ‘the descendant of an American slave’, should have been firm on the Jewish side. Bunche never forgave him.

How does one get two warring parties, neither much interested in compromise, to come to terms? Bunche’s mediation in the wake of the 1948 war offered a masterclass in diplomacy. He decided, first, that only bilateral agreements were possible: he would get the Egyptians and the Israelis to agree before tackling any of the other belligerents. He chose a cold and isolated venue – the Hotel des Roses on the Greek island of Rhodes in winter – so that the two delegations would have no contact except with each other. The delegations were given the same food and identical rooms, and Bunche made them play billiards to pass the time. Knowing they wouldn’t talk to each other, he held separate negotiations about a trivial matter – at first, just the agenda – to get them in the habit of signing something, anything. He wore himself (and them) out, but on 24 February 1949, Israel and Egypt signed an armistice.

In retrospect, Bunche has been seen as a ‘weak mediator’, not because he didn’t manage the negotiations beautifully – Richard Holbrooke, locking up his Bosnian, Serb and Croatian delegations in an airbase outside Dayton, Ohio, followed the same script – but because he was repeatedly undermined. As the historian Hilde Hendriksen Waage has shown, Harry Truman and Lie both favoured the Israelis; both leaked confidential memoranda to Israeli confidantes; both had trouble imagining that there were any legitimate Arab or Palestinian interests. By contrast, Bunche knew that the real problem was the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled warzones and were going to get nothing but UN aid. ‘Another deal, and as usual the Palestine Arabs lose,’ Bunche said privately as the states – not the peoples – came to terms.

It was a flawed peace, but also one the antagonists hadn’t wanted and some statesmen had thought impossible. Bunche proved the UN could be an actor and not just an arena, able to bring recalcitrant states to heel. In one interview he said that his race had been an advantage. ‘Like every Negro in America, I’ve been buffeted about a great deal.’ This had given him a ‘coolness of temper, an attitude of objectivity’ that was invaluable. The State Department tried to get him back, offering him the Near East, South Asian and African Affairs desk, but Bunche said frankly he would not live under segregation again: ‘It’s extremely difficult for a Negro to maintain even a semblance of human dignity in Washington.’ Then, in September 1950, he learned that he had beaten Churchill, Truman, Nehru and George Marshall to the Nobel Peace Prize. He wrote a letter turning it down – he was a servant of the UN, not a solitary agent – but Lie insisted he accept.

His life changed utterly. There were thousands of letters, hundreds of speaking invitations, offers of professorships, some seventy honorary degrees. He was on the cover of magazines; in 1951, he presented the Academy Award for Best Picture. Bunche would hardly have been human if he hadn’t found the attention flattering, but he was being used too. The US, Raustiala rightly says, was ‘hungry for an uplifting and uncontroversial symbol of Black accomplishment’ and Bunche – like Jackie Robinson, like Sidney Poitier – was fit for purpose. Bunche never stopped speaking for racial equality. Who is a better American, he asked in 1949, echoing Du Bois – ‘a better protector of the American heritage, of the American way, than he who demands the fullest measure of respect for those cardinal principles which are the pillars of our society?’ It was ‘good, very good indeed, to be a Negro’, he said in 1954, ‘because the Negro knows that his cause is right, and that logic and justice and decency are altogether on his side.’ Bunche thought he could force his country to live up to its principles, but even his eminence didn’t prevent a loyalty investigation (prompted in part by his Marxist-influenced writings on race from the 1930s), though the hearing had to be postponed on the grounds that he was dining at the White House. By 1955, when ABC aired an inspirational and anodyne biopic of him, he had lost control of his story.

He was probably too busy to notice. According to Urquhart, who would know, Bunche was the only official Hammarskjöld considered his intellectual equal, and the two men became very close. On becoming under-secretary-general, Bunche was the UN’s top-ranking American, expanding its remit and shaping its practices in lasting ways. Sent to deal with the aftermath of the 1956 Suez crisis, he built up an armed UN Emergency Force (UNEF) to patrol the Canal zone and separate the two sides, establishing the framework for modern UN peacekeeping. The white jeeps and blue helmets deployed around the world are his legacy.

A life of constant travel was hard on Bunche and harder still on Ruth, left to raise the children in the handsome Forest Hills house bought with the Nobel money. ‘I yearn also for loving companionship and I hope I’ll get it in 1960,’ Ruth wrote to him that year, but Bunche spent much of 1960 and 1961 and 1963 away from home and often in the Congo. Raustiala devotes much space to the dreadful story of the Belgian, CIA and Soviet scheming, and the internal factionalism and secession, that tore apart the newly independent state, cost the charismatic president Patrice Lumumba and a further 100,000 Congolese their lives, and ultimately brought the kleptocrat Joseph Mobutu to power. Bunche’s thankless task was to try to get Belgian soldiers back into their barracks, the Katanga secessionists placated and UN peacekeepers deployed, but there was no script for using peacekeepers in what was in effect a civil war. Not long after the UN agreed to this deployment, Lumumba was dead, and Hammarskjöld soon afterwards (the plane crash has never been explained).

Over the 1960s, Bunche’s job got steadily harder. Top UN officials toe a fine line, expected to promote international objectives but also to maintain back channels with their home governments. Bunche had long been a deft practitioner of these arts but, with Cold War tensions worsening, the UN became formally anti-colonial and US administrations grew mistrustful. The Great Powers now kept major crises – the Six Day War, the Soviet intervention in Prague – out of the Security Council; they began to choose which UN missions to support, withholding dues for the rest. Bunche knew Hammarskjöld, more imperious than Thant, would have resisted these trends, but he also knew that international organisations inevitably reflect global antagonisms.

Vietnam epitomised the problem. The conflict was, Bunche thought, ‘utterly senseless’ and ‘useless’, a war that ‘no one could possibly win,’ but lifelong patriotism and the habit of institutional loyalty kept him from speaking out. When his youngest child, Ralph Jr, was sent to Vietnam in 1969, Bunche would not pull strings to keep him from the firing line. By then his domestic life was in tatters. Ruth had long complained of her husband’s neglect, and in 1966, when the couple’s second daughter Jane, a young wife and mother, fell to her death from her apartment building’s roof, Ruth blamed him. Bunche blamed himself too. The reserves of energy and drive that had kept him going dried up; his diabetes was now serious and he started losing his balance because he simply couldn’t feel his feet. He broached the idea of retirement, but Thant wouldn’t hear of it.

What may have hurt Bunche most, however, was that his standing among Black Americans plummeted – abruptly, and in ways he struggled to understand. In the 1940s and 1950s Bunche had been a symbol of Black achievement, his accomplishments cited as grounds for race pride. But after two decades more often away from his country than not, he was a remote figure, and a new generation of Black leaders had little patience for his integrationist and melioristic stance. Imagining himself a respected elder statesman, he denounced ‘racialism’ wherever he saw it – including in postcolonial African leaders like Nkrumah or the new American ‘Black Power’ movement. Adam Clayton Powell, he told Vassar students in 1963, was ‘anti-white and anti-Jewish’; ‘a racialist approach by any Negro’, he said at Howard a year later, was ‘contemptible’. Powell retorted that Bunche was ‘the white man’s favourite black man’. Malcolm X called him ‘a black man who didn’t know his history’.

This is not quite fair. Bunche told young people at an NAACP event in 1962 that, just because he wanted to be ‘as free as the whitest citizen’, to ‘exercise, and in full, the same rights as the white American’, that didn’t mean he wanted to be white: ‘I am as proud of my origin, ancestors and race as anyone could be.’ Bunche made time in his schedule for civil rights rallies and marches: he was on stage at the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963; he was arm in arm with King on the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. Ebony carried a photo of that march on its cover, but they identified by name everyone in the front row save Bunche. One could not address the systemic oppression of a whole people, King said in 1964, by means of ‘tokenism’. When people, including King, referred to ‘tokenism’, they had Bunche in mind. Once a symbol of promise, he had become an alibi for white indifference.

The Watts riots of 1965, and those in Detroit and Chicago soon after, shook Bunche deeply. In 1965 he denounced the lawlessness and was denounced by Black Power militants in turn, but in 1967 – in failing health and in the wake of his daughter’s death – he began rethinking his stance. In private writings that recalled his analysis of the brutal Kikuyu initiation rites in the 1930s, he posited that, however destructive the riots, for the participants they were an experience ‘of throwing off shackles, of getting out from under white domination’, of saying to ‘white bosses and the power structure and white people generally … for once you are going to know who the hell we are.’ Remarkably, having long opposed all politics based on racial identification, he began to express sympathy – although, again, only in private writings – for what he called ‘Blackism’. Bunche had always disliked the elitism of the ‘talented tenth’. Perhaps ‘Blackism’ could reach across that class divide to foster pride in the mass of Black people.

From childhood, Bunche had been the smartest person in a room full of whites, and he grew up having little contact with the segregated clubs and churches that sustained Black life. Small wonder he had striven to prove himself equal, and more than equal, in the world he knew, but now he found the praise showered on him by white America unbearable. There was, he wrote privately in 1968, a big difference between being accepted as an equal and being ‘tolerated for some reason’, whether that reason was individual ability or white guilt. On the plane home from Lie’s funeral in 1969, told too many times how ‘inspiring’ his ‘example’ was, Bunche responded bitterly. He had ‘been the token Negro at too many parties for too many years’; if he was an example, it was only because his lonely presence exposed how little had been achieved. I find it hard to think about Bunche’s pessimism and self-doubt in the last years of his life, since, whatever his missteps, no one could have worked harder for the principles he held dear. Perhaps he stayed at the UN for so long, Scandinavians notwithstanding, because the polyglot Secretariat was the closest thing he could find to a world he no longer thought achievable.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences